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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
Website opens family history hunt
National Archives - old family photo
Searching the National Archives can help people find their ancestors
Ever wondered if your granddad was a war hero, where your great-great-grandparents lived or if you really are the long-lost heir to a huge fortune?

Apparently we are a nation obsessed with tracing our past - research has found more than four million people study their family history each year.

A new website by the National Archives means forebears can be traced online.

Census records, births, deaths and marriages, not to mention a million wills, can be studied from your home.

Preparation is key

The National Archives expects as many as 500,000 visitors to the site in the first month.

But how easy is it to find your own family members lurking in among the website's 9.5 million entries?

Preparation seems to be the key to a successful ancestor-hunt.

Unless you come to the search armed with every detail of your grandparents and beyond that you can muster, the process can prove frustrating.

Copy of Clement Attlee's medal card on the National Archives website
Medal cards for World War I veterans can be searched by name

But locating my maternal great-grandfather's World War I medal card did bring a bit of a buzz.

That excitement may be what motivates the one in eight people in the UK who are tracing their roots, according to a poll by YouGov for 1837online.

Half those surveyed started their research in the past year, suggesting a new resurgence in interest.

Television shows like BBC2's Who Do You Think You Are? have tapped into people's desire to rediscover their links with the past.

Big snowball

Helen Campbell, internet marketing manager for the National Archives said: "People who are at a certain stage in their lives start to look back to see what their parents did, and so on.

"People want to see how communities were in the past and with anniversaries like D-Day coming along, people wonder 'what was my father doing in the war?'.

"It sparks an interest and then you start feeding that through looking at the records and, like a big snowball, it gets you more and more interested."

Beginners are offered the help of an in-depth guide to researching genealogy on the National Archives site.

Copy of Jane Austen's will on the National Archives website
Jane Austen's is one of more than one million wills placed online

With themes including military and family history, immigration and migration, probate records, manorial records and criminal ancestors, it helps to know where to start.

But while the online searches are free, users do have to pay to download most of the records they find.

Much of the money is ploughed back into the digitisation process, allowing more documents to be placed online.

Some people may be inspired to visit the National Archives base in Kew, south west London, or the Family Records Centre in central London - as more than 300,000 people did last year.

Desperate telegram

Ms Campbell said: "We've really only scratched the surface on the website - you can spend a lot longer looking at all the records here."

And if you grow tired of your own family history, there are always other people to check out.

The military records and census entries of former British prime minister Clement Attlee can be seen, as can the wills of Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

Queen Victoria's census entry for 1851 lists her 'Rank profession or occupation' as 'The Queen' and has her husband Prince Albert as 'Head' of the household.

Other documents include a desperate telegram sent as the Titanic sank in April 1912, Edward VIII's abdication letter and a collection of D-Day photographs.

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