Beginner’s guide to researching your family history

The Genealogical Society of Victoria offers tips and tools for Club Members interested in researching their family history.

If you’re interested in researching your family history, start by talking to your living relatives. That’s the advice from the Genealogical Society of Victoria Inc, which has its headquarters in Queen St, near RACV City Club.

The GSV’s past president David Down says people who are keen on family history often skip this important first step.

Studio portrait of a family, circa 1913, by photographer Henry A. George

Studio portrait of a family, circa 1913, by photographer Henry A. George. Source: State Library Victoria 

“Talk to your family and pull out all of those photos and the ephemera,” David says. “If great, great granny came from England and you’ve got her teapot, why have you got her teapot? Why was important?”

David says his family still has the milk jug his great-grandmother brought to Australia.

“All of her china had been broken, except for that one piece,” he says.

He suggests writing down or recording conversations with your family members on your mobile phone or another electronic device.

“At the moment, many people are contacting their relatives by phone or Facetime, and it is important, I think, as part of feeling closer to one another, to start talking about the past,” he says.

The GSV has many tools to help you search and record your findings, including a link to a pedigree chart.

“That is the basic tool we use when recording our family history. It is essentially a chart that shows a starting person, and we recommend that this is the person doing the family history,” he says.

A family history software program is also useful. It’s not necessary to join ancestry.com or pay a premium for a deluxe program. There are good programs for around $40. David recommends downloading a free trial to find one that suits you. Before you fill in a chart, it’s important to know that women retain their birth family name, even if they take a husband’s surname.

“Once you have names, you can search the births, deaths and marriages records that are available online for each state and territory in Australia,” David says.
The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria’s records date back to 1853 and they also hold some early church records dating back to 1836.

However, records are restricted for between 30 and 100 years, depending on the life event, to protect the privacy and identity of living people.

If you are searching for Indigenous ancestors, David recommends contacting the Koorie Heritage Trust and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

Other useful avenues include electoral rolls, telephone books, cemeteries and school records, as well as local libraries and archive offices such as Public Record Office of Victoria.

David says Victorian residents can join the State Library of Victoria and get free access to ancestry.com and other databases. He also recommends FamilySearch.org, a free database set up by the Church of the Latter-day Saints.

“The next best sources of information are societies like ours,” he says. “People who join our society have access to catalogues, video recordings and resources that we have collected from similar societies all around the world.”

During the Covid-19 restrictions the GSV continues to operate and is conducting its events using Zoom.

David says it’s important to have a goal.

“Don’t try to do the whole family in one go,” he says. “Think about what might interest you, perhaps it’s a great aunt who was involved in the suffragette movement or someone else the family still talks about, that kind of focus will help keep you motivated.” 

His key advice is to always work backwards in time.

“Don’t start with King Edward II and try to come forward and prove you’re attached to royalty. It just does not work,” David says. “Always walk slowly back in time.” 

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