Researching your ancestors from Great Britain and Ireland

A guide to researching your ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, using resources at State Library Victoria.

Key research steps

The following steps outline an effective strategy for researching your family history.

As you begin your research we suggest that you consider your approach as finding information on a person, performing a particular activity in a specific place and time. This is a very useful way of thinking that will help you to focus on your task and research more efficiently.

  1. Start with yourself
  2. Obtain a blank pedigree chart
  3. Talk to your relatives
  4. Pay attention to the migrant generation
  5. Use resources available in Australia
  6. Analyse the documents you have gathered
  7. Research the land of your ancestors
  8. Use collection in the British Isles
  9. Get organised


Start with yourself

Before you begin researching your overseas ancestors we recommend that you complete the Australian part of your family tree first. This means starting with yourself and working backwards systematically one generation at a time to your parents, grandparents and so on.

Be sure to write down everything you already know including details of marriages, births, deaths, occupations etc. To find out more about accessing Australian resources take a look at our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide. It provides detailed information on the main genealogy resources available at the State Library Victoria and at other Australian agencies.

Obtain a blank pedigree chart

Use a pedigree chart to document your findings in the appropriate place and to show relationships between family members. Fill in what you know about your ancestors including key dates, events, relationships etc. Or consider using a drop-line chart to show the descendants of a given person or couple.
You can download or print a simple pedigree and drop-line chart below.

Talk to your relatives

Talk to as many relatives as possible and ask them questions about their lives, their ancestors and other relations. It's a good idea to compile a list of questions beforehand - to keep you on track. Your relatives may all have different stories to tell so write down or record everything they say and be sure to always verify the facts by using official sources.

For information on how to record and preserve your family interviews take a look at some of the oral history titles held here in the Library.

We also suggest that you make copies of any relevant family items they may own including family photographs, diaries, letters, wills, bibles and birth, marriage and death certificates.

Pay attention to the migrant generation

As you research your family we recommend that you pay particular attention to the generation of ancestors who migrated to Australia. Use immigration, naturalisation and Australian marriage and death certificates to identify such important information as names, date and place of birth, country of origin and names of parents.

Once you know their place of birth you can identify regional archive collections relevant to the area they once lived. By knowing the names of parents you can go back a generation and reseach an earlier branch of your family tree.

We also suggest you compile a list of any other relatives who emigrated to Australia - your ancestors siblings, cousins etc. If you have no luck finding your immediate ancestor you might be able to find information on one of the other family members. You should also make a note of any other relevant information about your ancestor, such as their religion and occupation - anything that provides another avenue to research.

Go to the Immigration, emigration & naturalisation section of this guide for further information on how to find immigration records. Information on how to locate Australian birth, death and marriage certificates can be found in the Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide.

Use resources available in Australia

Begin by exploring the many resources available in Australian libraries, archives and family history societies. Then investigate the range of international resources that you can access online through the internet. You may be surprised at how much information you can now access here in Australia.

State Library Victoria

The State Library Victoria is the major reference and research library for the State of Victoria. First established in 1853, its collections now include over two million books, hundreds of thousands of pictures, newspapers, maps and manuscripts. Many items are now available online and can be accessed freely from home.
In the Library you will find many vast collections of material that can be used to research your family history. Here are some of the main collections:

  • Family History
    The State Library Victoria has one of the largest genealogy collections in the country, with the Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms being dedicated to the study and research of family history. In this room you will find an extensive range of specialised books, indexes, journals and newspapers relating to each of the countries that make up the British Isles. We also subscribe to a number of British and Irish genealogy databases, which you can access here in the Library.
  • Maps
    Over 25,000 maps and plans have been digitised and made available online through our catalogue, including the majority of our historical Victorian county and parish maps, MMBW, auction, and fire insurance plans.
  • Newspapers
    The Library’s newspaper collection comprises of Victorian, Australian and overseas publications. Many titles can be accessed online from home by registered library users. Newspapers are a gold mine for family historians containing information about events in people’s lives, shipping intelligence columns, house auctions, descriptions of local events and sporting activities
  • Pictures
    The Library's Pictures Collection documents Victoria’s history visually, through artworks, objects and photographs. Works include paintings, drawings, prints, cartoons, photographs, sculpture, architectural drawings and postcards. It also includes a substantial collection of ship photographs, portraits and. You could try searching for the ship your ancestor arrived on or the town, suburb or street where they lived.
    Many of the photographs have been digitised and can be enlarged for immediate viewing online
  • Manuscripts
    In this collection you will find unpublished records of individuals, groups, businesses and organisations. Material includes letters, diaries, journals; notebooks and some photographs. The collection is particularly strong in such areas as - the diaries and letters of immigrants to Victoria, especially shipboard diaries; life on the Victorian goldfields; company records, the papers of notable political figures in Victoria and diaries, letters and photographs from World War I and World War II.
  • Australian History
    Since 1869, the Library has collected all books published in Victoria and we actively collected everything to do with Australia and its history. Collections include published local histories; histories of Victorian schools, businesses, services, institutions and clubs and biographical information.

Other Australian collections

Explore the collections in such organisations as the National Archives of Australia, Public Record Office Victoria, the Genealogical Society of Victoria and the Family History Connections (formerly AIGS). You will find a vast range of  resources including genealogy indexes, service records, wills and probate documents, passenger lists, immigration records, occupation records and other specialised collections.
The National Archives of Australia and the Public Record Office Victoria have digitised a number of their key collections, allowing you to access many valuable resources from home.

From home

From home you can access a huge range of online international genealogy resources. You can search online indexes, read blogs, join discussion lists, watch online lectures and access online images, maps, plans, photographs etc. You can find a list of major genealogy websites and gateways here.

From home you can access FamilySearch, one of the worlds largest genealogy databases. It provides access to millions of records from the British Isles including birth, death and marriage indexes, census data, cemetery records, gazetteers and parish records. Many digitised records can be freely accessed from home. Other records can be viewed through one of the Australian LDS Family History Centres.

Many libraries and archives have digitised important resources and have published online guides to their collections. You will find information on how to locate these resources by going to the Archives & Libraries page of this guide.

Click on the tabs at the top of this guide to find further information on the many collections you can access here in Australia.

Analyse the documents you have gathered

When gathering documents it's important to continually evaluate what you find to ensure the relevance and accuracy of the item.

Begin by asking yourself if it a primary or secondary source.

  • A primary source is a first-hand record of the past, usually created by witnesses close to an event. Primary sources can include certificates, diaries, letters, photographs, and audio and video recordings.
  • A secondary source is a second-hand account of the past created after the event has occurred. They often interpret and comment on primary sources. Secondary sources can include histories, biographies and newspapers.

Of the two types of sources, primary sources are generally considered to be more reliable, as the information they contain is less likely to be mis-transcribed, or muddied by inaccuracies of memory.

It's also important to check and cross-reference your sources, as it's disappointing to have invested time and money on researching someone who turns out not to be related to you.  You can find tips on how to evaluate your sources in many of the genealogy books in our collection, or by going to the Evaluate the evidence page on the FamilySearch wiki.

As you analyse your documents you will start to notice how certain types of records can be particularly useful for opening up new avenues of investigation. For instance official birth, death and marriage certificates contain a wealth of information -  from your birth certificate you may learn your parents’ marriage and birth details; from your parents’ marriage and birth certificates you may obtain information about your grandparents’ marriage and births and so on.

Other documents that are also valuable include wills, letters. diaries and photographs. Wills include the names and relationships of beneficiaries, names of witnesses and details of finances, land and possessions. Letters, journals and diaries provide amazing details on an individual's life and photographs are wonderful time capsules that help put a face to a name and place a person in a social, historical and geographical context.

Research the land of your ancestors

Your next step is to find out more about the area where your ancestors came from.

Once you have identified the town where your ancestors lived, use historical maps and gazetteers to identify the location of the town, city or parish at the time your ancestor lived there. Then use current maps to see if the place still exists. It's important that you know the accurate location and name of the area as this will help you locate the relevant county or parish archives for that area. On the map page of this guide you will find a list of useful print and online maps, gazetteers and atlases.

To gain a better understanding of your ancestral history it's worth taking the time to research the history of the town or country your family originated from. Explore the social, political, religious and cultural history of their region and think about how your ancestors may have lived their lives. How might wars, economic changes, famine, political or religious turmoil have impacted on their lives and perhaps influenced decisions they made.

Use collections in the British Isles

Once you have exhausted Australian collections you may decide to do further research by accessing record collections held in the country your ancestors came from.

Here in the Library you will find an excellent range of genealogy guide books that look at the numerous archive collections available in Britain and Ireland. There are also many excellent websites that provide information on how to do genealogical research within the British Isles. Use these resources to see what type of records exist at a national and county level and then look at the specific collections available in regional archive offices, parish collections, local history societies etc. Many of these agencies provide guides to their holdings and often include information on whether they provide a research service.

You may decide to commission a geneaologist to carry out research on your behalf. On the Genealogy & Family History Societies page you will find a list of the major genealogy societies operating in the British Isles. Many of these societies provide details of professional genealogists or research agents who can perform research on your behalf for a fee.

Get organised

Throughout this entire research process we recommend that you keep a record of all the information you have gathered - birth dates, places, baptism dates, addresses etc. Include the source of the information and make sure it's very specific so you can locate it again if required.

Start a file for each person and each family that you research and be sure to include copies of charts, certificates and documents that you find. Some researchers use family history software to store their records and there are many online products now available. For futher information on genealogy software please go to the Victorian GUM website.