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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > September 2019 > Tracing your ancestors in the early 20th century

Tracing your ancestors in the early 20th century

Chris Paton explores the key resources to help with early 20th century family history research

Your guide to essential family history records!

A family walk along the sea front in the 1930s. You may fi nd your family in this period in electoral records, BT phone books and, later, on the 1939 Register

When starting our family history research, many of us will have an enormous advantage in that our living relatives, particularly our most elderly, will be able to recall a great detail about our recent past. They are living witnesses, packed with oral history waiting to be corroborated. There comes a point, however, at the earliest extremes of this remembered experience, where we reach a potential barrier – the moment when we need to solely rely on surviving earlier documentation.

For most of us, that point will arrive somewhere within the first half of the 20th century, but when it comes to such documents, and stories to remember, we could not ask for a better starting point for entry into this unknown ancestral world. This was the era when documentation evolved beyond paper and pen to the moving image and recorded sound, an era of mass news reportage and worlddefining events that would change the course of many families for decades to come. Everyone was involved, and somewhere along the line, they will have been recorded.

Back to basics

So let’s get the basics out of the way. At the start of the 20th century, we were well into the civil registration period when it comes to records for births, marriages and deaths. Indexes for such records in England and Wales can be found at FreeBMD (, Ancestry (, Findmypast (, TheGenealogist (www.thegenealogist. and MyHeritage (www. Once located, a full certificate can then be ordered from with an option now to purchase cheaper digital copies of births from 1837-1918 and deaths from 1837- 1957. For Scotland, equivalent records can be purchased at ScotlandsPeople (, and for Northern Ireland from https:// with pre-1922 records freely available at www. (currently pre-1919 for births).

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About Family Tree

It’s time to dig for victory, see what clues your delving can unearth! Turn the clock back to 1939 with our special issue and discover your family’s story. This month we’re commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of World War 2, and are researching and celebrating our ancestors’ lives from the time. To help you trace your family tree we’ve got: a packed guide to the essential family history records all you need to know about researching family in Second World War and first half of the 20th century and a bumper crop of tips to help you create your own family history home archive – filled with carefully stored photos, stories, notes and treasures. Beginner or expert, there’s plenty to discover and do as your learn more about your family’s story. Enjoy!