Could genealogy be better than sudoku?

Yes, it's a compelling brain exercise, says Dr Dan Rushen

Exercising the brain regularly is one way of reducing the chances of spending all of your NHS pension on boosting the profits of the local nursing home. I do sudoku and crosswords, but there is one puzzle to which I am even more addicted – my family tree.

TV programmes have increased the popularity of this hobby. But by far the most significant factor in the surge in genealogical studies has been the use of the internet.

I started my family tree over 20 years ago. Family stories had passed down the generations and one about my great great grandfather, Daniel Fale Elbourne, after whom I was named, interested me. He had apparently drowned at sea.

I went to London to search the registers of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. The reading rooms were cramped, and full of people adept at handling the A3 tomes and finding the few free spaces at tables. I learned how to do the same.

It was hard going, searching through original Victorian handwriting, one for each quarter from 1856. But on day two I found Daniel’s marriage certificate. What a thrill seeing his name jump out at me.

Since then, I have gone on and on. And if you start with these three steps, you may find yourself hooked.

1 Interview your living relatives, especially the older generations. Ask them to identify people in old photos and ask about where they lived. 

2 Organise the data using a software program. I use Family Tree Maker, which lets you import photos and print out in different formats.

Check the software can send and receive GEDCOM family tree files. If someone else is searching the same line, you can share research this way.

3 Search register and census. Births, deaths, and marriages since 1837 in the UK are registered and indexed. A birth certificate shows both parents’ names which can lead to a marriage entry, which which show the age of bride and groom and names of their fathers.

Census returns have occurred every 10 years for nearly 200 years. From 1841 they give details of all household members and later returns show ages, occupations, and parish of birth. A great link to this information is By subscribing you can find you get access to the registers and census returns. It also contains US census returns and many other sources.

Searching beyond 1837 involves more hard work, as records were kept for individual parishes and often kept by the church. Many survive and are usually held in main libraries and county records offices. These can date back to the 1500s.

Most of my family tree is of ordinary folk, but I am working on a possible link to Dick Turpin, the highway robber.

As for Daniel Elbourne, it turns out he didn’t die at sea. He died of a ruptured heart at the age of 31. So the family story wasn’t true, but I found another piece of my jigsaw.  

Dr Rushen is a GP in Fareham

Genealogy links Search other peoples family trees to find a link. Useful for ordering certificates (birth, death or marriage) online. Parish records and family tree data via the Mormon church. The Society of Genealogists, who hold many records including copies of some parish records. Register and census returns, UK and some international

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