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A black sheep in your family tree?



Many families can expect to find at least one black sheep lurking in their family tree.  Now it is easier still to find out if there is one in your family as almost two million  new records are now available on line. 


The records chart more than 150 years of crime and punishment in England and Wales. They reveal a very different criminal justice system, when a death sentence was seen as fitting punishment for forging money and public executions were the norm.


Genealogy website Findmypast have a dedicated Crime, Prison and Punishment page.  Here you will find all the brand new crime and punishment record sets as well as articles, guides and videos on tracing your criminal ancestors or indeed any ancestors who were victims of a crime.


Starting your research

This page will give you some general tips and pointers if you're completely new to family history. Our first advice - don't panic! It may seem daunting at first but the good news is that you can make a lot of progress before you even start searching historical records, just by doing some basic research before you start. And better still, family history is a very friendly world, with millions of generous people worldwide who are extremely happy to share their insights and knowledge with you. 

Family history begins at home. Your starting point for your family history is your family members themselves, in particular the older members. No research can replace hearing first-hand accounts from the people whose shared history you are trying to trace. There's a good chance that they will know the names of relatives whom it would otherwise take months to find by searching alone, as well as stories and legends that you won't find in any record. 
Discovering whether such tales are accurate is one of the joys of building your family tree. Do take comprehensive notes. Not only does this remind you of your source once your family tree begins to grow, but it is also a document of your personal history for future generations. Investigating your family's past in detail may cause you to uncover some unpleasant surprises, as well as all the fascinating finds and new relatives you will uncover. 

Below is a list of questions you may wish to start with when asking about a specific ancestor. This is only a guide and you may have more specific questions that you would like to ask. 

• What was their full name? Did they have a middle name or nickname that they preferred?
• When did they die? What was the cause of their death? Where were they buried? 
• Were they married? If so, what was the name of their spouse? When and where did their spouse die? 
• When did they marry? Where did the marriage occur? Was this the only marriage for both parties? 
• Where did they live? 
• Did they have children? If so, what were their children's names? 
• Did their children marry and where did or do they live? If they are deceased where and when did they die? 
• What was their occupation? Where did they work? Did they serve in the military? 
• Where and when were they born 
• What school or schools did they attend? Did they attend university? 
• Were they a member of a religious community, or parish? Which religious denomination were they? 
• Do you have any documentation of their life, such as birth, marriage or death certificates, their Will or other written records? 
• Do you have any photographs or newspaper clippings of them? Do you know anything about their physical appearance or accent? 
• Would any other relatives have further information, memories, or records relating to them? 

Starting at home doesn't simply mean speaking to those closest to you, but also examining the contents of your home itself. Often there will be old photographs, videos, letters and other heirlooms to discuss and investigate. If you're fortunate, there may also be birth, marriage and death certificates for family members, which will save you time and the cost of ordering copy certificates. 


Certificates hold a wealth of information about your ancestors. 

Birth certificates can tell you: 
• When and where a person was born 
• Their father’s name -where acknowledged. Illegitimate births may not state the father’s name 
• Mother's name 
• Father's occupation. 

Marriage certificates can tell you: 
• The date that the marriage took place 
• The bride and groom's full names 
• Their ages (note: age given is as stated by bride/groom, and may not be accurate) 
• Condition at marriage, i.e. widowed, divorced, or single 
• Their profession 
• Their residence 
• The bride and groom's fathers' names. If a father's name is followed by 'deceased', then search backwards from the date of marriage to find a death certificate for him. 
• The bride and groom's fathers' occupations 
• Names of witnesses - often family members. 

Death certificates can tell you: 
• When and where a person died 
• Their age 
• Their occupation 
• The cause of death 
• Details of the informant (often a family member). 


When you are starting out in family history, the abundance of available records, and the huge task of tracing your ancestors through the centuries, may seem a little daunting. Your research is personal, and your family's history unique; however, there are lots of resources and groups that can help you. 
There are also family history fairs throughout the year: whether you live in Europe, the USA or further afield, there's bound to be an event near you. 


1. Speak to older family members -make sure you record the conversations, or note down what they tell you 
2. Check the family home for photographs, letters, videos, certificates, and other material likely to offer clues 
3. Create a picture of your family using any birth, marriage and death certificates you have access to 
4. Order birth, marriage and death certificates to obtain more information and to progress further back in time 
5. Consider joining a family history society (Seaham Family History Group) , visit libraries and family history fairs.