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How to journey back in time with Ancestry’s records

We’ve already looked at how to take the first steps to discover your past. After chatting to any living relatives to get some initial insider knowledge, you simply sign up to Ancestry to start filling out your family tree and enriching it with tantalising details about your ancestors. There’s a lot to explore on the site, including birth certificates, immigration files, census records and electoral rolls, and we’ve previously touched on how you can go way beyond dates and addresses to uncover physical descriptions and intimate personal accounts of relations from generations past.

Our previous articles will have equipped you with the basic information you need to start building your family tree on Ancestry. It’s now time to look more closely at how you can best use the records on Ancestry to add depth and complexity to your research. As Ancestry’s Content Acquisition Manager Kristian Lafferty tells us, these are sourced from a wide range of individual record offices and government archives around the world. He and his colleagues work with archivists ‘to discover the historical record collections that we think would be beneficial to genealogists and family historians’. These are then scanned to create immaculate, top-quality digital copies that are then indexed on Ancestry, ready to be incorporated into your family tree. Since Ancestry officially covers 80 countries, and literally millions of records are discovered and added every year, it all adds up to an ever-expanding ocean of information for you to dive into time and time again.

It doesn’t have to be daunting, though. Check out the green leaf icons that appear alongside names on your family tree. As we’ve discussed before, these are Ancestry Hints, which automatically tell you when there may be records relating to your family. There are also some key historical reference points that genealogists recommend you consult right off the bat – a prime example being the 1939 England and Wales Register. Sophie Hirt, Senior Content Project Manager at Ancestry, describes this register as ‘absolutely key’ for gleaning information on grandparents or great-grandparents, and it’s updated every year as more records are made publicly available. This register and the other, older census collections held on Ancestry are considered ‘top-tier records’, the ideal starting point from which you can then move onto more specific collections like military and medical records, immigration passenger lists and criminal records. These can all be browsed via the Card Catalogue – a comprehensive, searchable listing for all the record collections on Ancestry.

‘So, say you find in the census that your ancestor was a doctor,’ Sophie says. ‘Then you can search for medical records in the Card Catalogue by inputting keywords into the search. That’s when the Card Catalogue comes into play because you can use it to find specific collections to look through.’ Following trails of breadcrumbs into different collections is all part of the enjoyable detective work that is genealogy. If say, you find an ancestor in the 1901 census, only to find no trace of them in the 1911 census, that might be your cue to delve into immigration records and passenger lists to see if they moved abroad. It’s not just about charting people’s movements, either. As Sophie Hirt tells us, records can enrich your understanding of the daily lives of your relative, and truly bring history to life. ‘Things like criminal records and Poor Laws – Poor Law being relief if someone was destitute – add the context to your ancestor’s life. What were they actually like? What did they go through?’

The register of Victorian-era criminals is a particularly engrossing treasure trove if you find out about any black sheep in the family, with its photos of convicts and detailed descriptions of scars and tattoos. But, for Kristian Lafferty, it was Royal Navy records that shone fascinating light on one distant relative. ‘There’s someone in my tree I found in the Royal Navy Seaman’s Services and it has his description in it,’ Kristian tells us. ‘He’s five foot six, hazel eyes, light complexion and he’s pitted with smallpox scars.’ Sophie, meanwhile, achieved a deeper understanding of grandfather’s life using Ancestry. ‘We knew that he was a Holocaust survivor, but we didn’t know what had happened to him during the war because he was of that generation that didn’t want to talk about it,’ she says. ‘We’ve added collections from the International Tracing Service, which records what happened to people during the war, and I found loads of information about what happened to him.’