Family history – how to start on your family tree

A victorian photograph showing five people in historical clothing sat on chairs outside a home. Meet the ancestors. Second from left is Susanna Whitley (Layfield) (1843 -1920). From Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Have you been watching too much Who Do You Think You Are? on TV? 

Want to reconnect with your roots? Or has one of those ancestry kit advertisements finally caught your eye? There are so many seeds of inspiration which may lead you to start looking for your family tree. 

Family history is always something which has intrigued me. Coming from a dual nationality household has always allowed for interesting developments to appear. The twisted branches lead to the uprooting of family secrets, maybe you have a mysterious great aunt? You will never know until you start your family tree.  

So how do you start your family tree? 

Victorianwoman sat in a large wooden chair, wearing a dress with frills. The image is in black and white.

Adelaide Augusta Clark (Layfield) (1876-1972). She was the daughter of a sea captain from Hartlepool, and is one of my great-great grandparents.

Talk to family 

One of the best places to start is by talking to your surrounding family members. Which will, I’m sure, lead to stories as you start to gather names, dates, and places.  

Online ancestry websites 

Using online tools such as the Ancestry DNA website will aid you remarkably, even with a hefty price tag. Having these resources make it easier to gather documents, certificates etc, granting you access to what is effectively a historical online archive. If you don’t want to make researching your family tree a costly endeavor, census records are a great place to start, and can be accessed via The National Archives 

Online communities 

There are communities online of genealogy forums, filled with people in the same position as you. Through speaking to others in the ‘family tree’ community you could unravel a plethora of tips and tricks to aid you in your own research. 

Groups include Ancestry DNA, Ancestry for All and DNA Help for Genealogy UK  

In-person resources 

You do not have to do all your research online. Local libraries are a fantastic starting point, as they contain historical information on the local area, along with photograph and microfilm collections. National Archives are also brilliant resources, containing thousands of comprehensive records and collections of photographs and letters. 

Why should you work on your very own family tree?

Sense of duty and passion 

Pouring hours into ‘watering’ your tree provides a profound sense of duty and passion, not only is it a fun hobby to keep you preoccupied on a rainy day, but your work is something which can be kept for generations to come. It’s your own family archive to pass forward generationally. They pass on memories of loved ones, but also protect and unearth the hidden lives of everyone before you. This forever growing tree will continue long after you’re gone. Just as it did for every ancestor before you. Weirdly I think that’s pretty beautiful.  

Wider historical understanding 

Gazing back at history allows you to place your family’s history within the broader context of historical events. In turn, enhancing historical understanding and highlighting the impacts historical events had on your relatives.  

Two men and two women in 1920's clothing stood side by side. The women are wearing hats and holding roses, and the men are in suits.

The pair on the left are my great grandparents Wilfred Furness Layfield (1901-1946) and Freda Hinchcliffe (1902- 1969) at 1920s wedding. Wilfred served in the WW2 Royal Ordinance Corps.

Self-reflection and identity

Growing your family tree from something so small to one vast and magnificant allows for self-reflection. It has the potential to impact your sense of personal identity, and even your social class and ethnicity. 

Recognition of comfort  

 Looking back at historical struggles, and obstacles faced by relatives provides a sense of comfort. Life continues, and ultimately history is there for us to learn from. I think this has genuinely helped me recognise my current privileges and the comfort which surrounds me. 

Family closure 

Closure may be another reason why people choose to work on their family tree, whilst this may not apply to all, healing family drama and settling potentially distressing information can truly lead to peace of mind.  

Health and preventions 

Continuing on a serious note, family trees can lead to vital information regarding health and genetics coming to the forefront. This crucial information has the potential to provide insight into genetic conditions, allowing for better health management and preventative measures to best protect you and your loved ones.  

Family trees can lead to potentially vital information regarding health and genetics coming to the forefront

My personal experience

Portrait drawing of a 16th century man in a circular frame, he is wearing armour and a collar.

Luigi Poderico (1608-1675) Naples, Italy. My very great grandfather, who was a Knight of the Military Order of Calatrava,  and a governor and captain general of Galicia. He commanded the Spanish troops against the Portuguese as part of the Portuguese Restoration War . There is a square dedicated to him in Naples, Italy.

One Christmas my grandma waltzed into the living room, declaring that for the past six weeks she had been tirelessly laboring on to create a family tree for the British side of my family. Somehow tracing my family tree’s roots back to the 9th century, an impressive feat.  

In a folder now lies hundreds of documents, birth, marriage, and death certificates, each one telling a small piece of someone’s story. I think it’s fascinating to imagine the lives of those who lived several hundred years before us. Their struggles, love, hopes and dreams all condensed to names on a tree.

young victorian boy leaning against a table with a large plant on it. the photo is in black and white.

Thomas Furness Layfield (1872-1937) North Yorkshire, England, another great-great-grandparent

Another article you may enjoy: Brace, brace! Preparing for your grandchildren coming

I am one of those people who the DNA testing kit adverts did indeed get to, and for my birthday several years ago I ended up treating myself to one. My results were exactly what I was expecting, 50 percent both Italian and English, so this told me nothing new. However, one of the main features of the DNA kits is that it automatically connects you to ancestors and relatives who are still alive and have also taken the test.

According to this 23 and Me DNA kit, I have 1500 currently alive relatives who have taken the test, including a second cousin whose existence I was not aware of until forking out £100 for the kit.

This immediately expanded my family tree drastically, showing me family members (although extremely distant), who now live in America, Brazil, and Australia. Although this method of researching your family lineage doesn’t really help you uproot and uncover historical secrets, it still provides further excitement as you watch your family tree branch out to unimaginable heights.

Something else surprisingly fun regarding these DNA kits is that it tells you how ‘Neanderthal’ you are. I am less than 2 percent Neanderthal which apparently, is low. So I’ll take that. 

Now off you go! Get to work on your very own family tree, or cut to the chase quickly, and purchase a DNA testing kit… if you haven’t already. 


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About Isabella Poderico
Overly enthusiastic and obsessed with everything a little nerdy, Isabella has written about everything from movie premieres to politics. She can often be found, as many writers often are, sitting in front of her laptop typing away obsessively in an extortionately priced independent coffee shop.

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