Principles of Research

Principle 1 - Move from the known to the unknown

In Family History, as in all research, we move from the known to the unknown.  Known means KNOWN. There needs to be evidence that what you think you know is the way it truthfully is. You need as many vital records (birth, marriage, death) as you can find for your immediate family group.  

Dig out the birth certificates for you, your parents and any other current family members.  Record the information you already know;

  • Names
  • Dates
  • Place

Decide what it is that you want to find out about your family, your ancestors. You may want to investigate some of the old family stories that you heard from your grandparents or solve a family mystery. Whatever it is, you need to apply the skills of a detective to track back from the now to the past.  

The trail will lead from today, backwards in time from you to your parents, then grandparents, then great grandparents until you find the person you are searching for. 

Principle 2 - Don’t make any assumptions.

Start with yourself and work backwards, proving each step as you go. Everything is just speculation until it verified. That being said, it is really important that you talk to members of your family, particularly the older ones. So often I have heard family historians say ‘I should have spoken to Grandma … or Grandad - but it is too late now’. Be aware that family myths are a great trap for beginners. There was an old family myth that the Lovetts came to England from Normandy in 1066 with William the Conqueror. I was told very proudly, that our first English ancestor was a soldier named Gilbert de Louvet. I politely ignored this, started my ancestor chart and worked backwards. I can get back to 1796 in Yorkshire, England. No older records are available. Between 1066 and 1796 there is a slight gap in the records and hence the family tree! 

Find the custodian of your family’s history and pick their brains. Search for old letters, diaries, photographs, certificates — in fact, anything you have which might have a bearing on your family history research. You never know what you might find. My mother-in-law had an old exercise book which contained handwritten recipes with the names of those who gave them to her and when.  There was also a family bible, on the middle page of which I found the signatures and details of all of her brothers and sisters who had signed the temperance pledge, some of whom had never been mentioned. 

Share your information. You never know who might have the missing piece of the family jigsaw puzzle. 

Many years ago, long before the Internet, a genealogist in Nottingham got in touch with me after I had advertised my research interests through the Genealogical Society in Sydney. We were searching the same mass migration of British  Lace workers from Nottingham to Calais in the 1700s. These lace workers made a second migration to South Australia and NSW. The outcome of sharing our research was the formation of the Society of the Lacemakers of Calais. 

Principle 3 - Check the spelling

The spelling of names varies. It just isn’t accurate to say “that it’s not my family because we don’t spell our name that way”.  At a time when many people could not read or write, authorities had to write everything for them. People wrote down what they heard, for example, MacNeil and McNeill were different spellings of the same name. 

Variations in pronunciation also led to different spellings of the same name: a person from the north of England might have pronounced a name differently to someone from Ireland. My Brogans were from Ireland and one of the spellings I came across was B-r-o-a-d-e-n (Broaden). If you listen carefully, you can hear the Irish accent.

Human characteristics also created spelling variations: for example, a person with a lisp might pronounce the ‘s’ sound differently and so the spelling might reflect this.  Then there is the ‘Hyacinth Bouquet syndrome’, pretensions to grandeur resulting in different spellings: Smiths transformed into Smythes, Brown with an e added … and so on.

Many names were anglicised.  Muller became Miller, Ah Kin became King. Others were transcribed wrongly in indexes: I couldn’t find my grandmother’s death record; she was indexed as Dawfon instead of Dawson. Why does this matter? Because it is the name you enter on search forms. What you enter is what you will be searching for.  When searching online, always click the box to turn on surname variations.

Watch, also,  for 

  • the interchanging of vowels — 
 a, e, i, o, u and the silent consonant y
  • if it starts with h, drop the h 
  • if it starts with a vowel, then add an h.
  • there could be an 'f' instead of an 's' because in old writing 's' was written in a similar way.
  • The surnames Anderson and Henderson, for example, are often interchangeable in indexes.

You will find examples in your own family.

Principle 4 - Recorded ages may not always be accurate

Just because information is recorded on a birth, death or marriage certificate, or in a book or newspaper or internet site or or any other online family history repositories, doesn’t mean it is true. Always check – find evidence and never assume. Some people simply didn’t know how old they were. Others saw advantages in ‘adjusting’ their age. Young men wanting to enlist when they weren’t old enough adjusted their age or adopted the age of an older sibling. Many of our ancestors arrived under one migration scheme or another. There were rules and regulations and often strict age criteria. If all your family qualified, but you didn’t, would you have stayed behind or tinkered with your age so you could go with them? 

The classic example is of an older woman lowering her age to better match that of a prospective husband. Convict research reveals ages could vary significantly. For example, a young convict girl arrived in Van Diemen’s Land after the Great Famine. Her age was recorded as 16 when she arrived in Hobart Town. Two weeks later she was admitted to the Asylum for the Insane at New Norfolk and, on admission, was interviewed and stated: “I am an orphan. I have no parents. I do not know how old I am.”  She could have been anywhere from 12 to 22.

Principle 5 - Keep good records. Get organised.

Keep a careful record of your research. Use standard charts and a research log. Back up your research and document your sources. This gives integrity to your research and allows others to track where you have been. You might put down and pick up searching years later. It can be frustrating not to know where a particular document came from.

Getting organised


Most family historians use the following charts;

  • Family tree - Ancestor and/or Descendant
  • Ancestor Chart for each person
  • Family Group for each ancestor their spouse/s and their children
  • Research log to record each search and the results its source and citation
  • Source summary to record all sources cited 
  • Correspondence to keep track of everyone you have written to for information and what they responded with. (This saves a lot of the embarassment of writing to a person for the tenth time with the same question.)
Chart Conventions
  • Capitalise surnames
  • Always use a woman’s maiden name. You won’t find her vital records under her married name.
  • Write dates in full to prevent confusion.
  • To a place name, add State/County, and Country
  • Use the standard abbreviations for places. They are known as the Chapman Codes (see references)
  • On the charts, the convention is that men go on the top and the women on the bottom.
  • Number the people on the charts. If we start with you, you are number one on this chart. Your dad is number 2 and your mum is number 3.  Your paternal grandparents are 4 and 5, your maternal grandparents are 6 and 7, and so on.

Your Filing System

With all of these charts to keep in order, your filing system becomes important.  

If you choose to file electronically, scanning all of the certificates becomes essential. You need to keep all of the documents for an individual in a directory/folder for just that person. Then their directory goes inside their family group folder, whcih is inside the family folder and inside the Family Tree folder.  

Your filing system would look something like this;

If you use specialised software, e.g. Family Tree Maker, your software will do this for you.  

A word to the wise. 




One day you will suffer a hard disk crash. It is inevitable. It will happen. You need to have a backup on another computer or a flash drive and preferably one ‘in the cloud’, that is, on Google Drive, DropBox, Evernote or whatever cloud-based backup service you choose.  There is nothing more soul destroying that thousands of hours of research, documents, photos and other records lost forever.

If you prefer not to use computer technology, your paper files are kept in much the same way.

 - A Family Tree filing cabinet

 - A drawer for each family tree if necessary

 - A hanger for each family in each drawer

 - A folder (or two, or three, or ...) in each hanger for each individual.

I use both systems. Inside each physical folder, I have plastic wallets and sleeves for each kind of document; certificates, newspaper clippings etc.

The disadvantage of a physical filing system is the chance of loss in case of fire or flood.  It would be impossible to move all of my family archive materials in an emergency. Hence I keep both, and one copy of the software backup is in the cloud. At least if there is a fire, I have scans of all of the priceless photos and information stored off-site.


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