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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 19:47 GMT
Tracing your lineage online
Computer terminal, BBC
The web is the place to start digging up a family tree
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The net is built to make it easy to search for and read information any time of the day or night.

It lets people scattered around the world share information simultaneously and it allows anyone to consult the vast repository of skill and knowledge held by all those regular web users.


Most people are descended from the labouring classes rather than the nobility or landed gentry

Federation of Family History Societies archive liaison officer, Richard Ratcliffe
Everything in fact that anyone researching their family tree could wish for.

But looking for your roots involves more than just typing your name and date of birth into a search engine.

"The net's a very good starting point," said Richard Ratcliffe, archive liaison officer for the Federation of Family History Societies and a member of the advisory council that worked on the 1901 England and Wales census, which went online earlier this week.

He said: "Once you find people on the census, then you can start getting certificates of birth, marriage and death and work from those."

But he said there were still far more paper genealogical records in county record offices, libraries and government archives than could be found online.

Mr Ratcliffe said: "There're a lot of people who think that the internet is the answer to their prayers and aren't prepared to do the leg work themselves.

"There's still no substitute for looking at the original records."

Charlie Chaplin, PA
Charlie Chaplin is listed as a "music hall artiste" in the 1901 census
He said the one big difference the internet had made was to make it possible to consult the work done by others already.

Before the internet was invented anyone researching their background could have consulted one of the many family history societies dotted up and down the country which bring together genealogical researchers and research.

Often these societies have amassed a wealth of information. For instance, the Oxfordshire Family History Society has transcribed the contents of every parish register in the county.

Through a combination of net research and leg work, Mr Ratcliffe believes most people should be able to trace their line back to around 1750.

'Sons of labourers'

"Most people are descended from the labouring classes rather than the nobility or landed gentry and therefore their chances of going back any further are not great," he said.

The number of net-based starting points for those keen to trace their lineage is growing.

The 1901 census is only the first of many to be placed online.


There is in all of us... a desire to know who we are and where we come from; to know about our ancestors, where they came from and their way of life

Brian Grant
UK Mormons spokesman

By 2003, the 1891 census should also be browseable via the web.

A digital copy of the 1881 census has already been made available thanks to a 10-year project co-ordinated by the UK's Family History Societies and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.

Alongside this wealth of information stands an equally impressive database called the International Genealogical Index, which was also put together by the Mormons.

This index lists more than 35 million family names and histories who trace their ancestry from the UK, North America and Finland.

The database - free to access and available via the Family Search website - regularly records millions of hits per month.

Brian Grant, spokesman for the Mormons in the UK, said: "Family is central to everything the church is and does.

"We humans could not be human if we were separate; family relationships are the things that enrich life here and into eternity."

'Soul hunger'

Mr Grant said Mormons were not alone in wanting to research their family history.

He said: "There is in all of us a 'soul hunger', a desire to know who we are and where we come from; to know about our ancestors, where they came from and their way of life."

Mr Grant has traced many generations of his own family and has even made recordings of his father talking about his life as a coal miner in Lancashire so future generations of Grants can find out what life used to be like.

But there is a down side to the free availability of information about families online.

Some fear that criminals who specialise in "identity theft" will plunder such sites.

Identity theft

The genealogy site RootsWeb was forced to remove records from its site that were culled from a CD containing birth records for more than 24 million Californians.

The records dated from 1905 to 1995 and included names, birth dates and places as well as mothers' maiden names.

Armed with such personal information, criminals could easily assume false identities and convince credit card companies and banks they were someone they were not.

Identity theft has caused turmoil in many people's lives and led to their credit history being destroyed.

See also:

03 Jan 02 | UK
31 Dec 01 | dot life
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