Public library services in the UK are free at the point of delivery. All you have to do is get yourself to the building! So in many cases, you might be paying for petrol/bus fare and the cost of any copies you wish to make. After that, you can freely use the resources they have to offer for family tree research.
It should be said, that we do not believe there is such a thing as completely free ancestry research. Not if the aim of research is to provide accuracy and veracity. Relying on census, name lists, and other people's research to fill in the gaps or provide the framework will not work alone.
Consider this, if your ancestor was born illegitimate, they are unlikely to be shown as such on a census. You may find them in a family unit and skip ahead to research the parents shown on the census and their parents and their parents, only later to find they are not your ancestors.
Alternatively, you may want to use other people's family trees on Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch etc. You will think all you have to do is copy everything they've done and then Bob's your uncle you're back to 1720 in no time.
The reality is this. We research hundreds of trees a year and use traditional methods consulting and analysing original documents. We make sure each piece of evidence overlaps with the previous and try to resolve any conflicts. At the end of research we have a pretty accurate family tree. We then compare it to the trees on Ancestry etc. The vast majority of the trees do not share the same level of accuracy. We have concluded they cannot be relied upon.
In the end then, you are faced with having to part with some of your money to ensure you are researching the correct family tree. You will need birth certificates, you will need marriage certificates (though many of these are now part of subscriptions – see below), and you may need death certificates to help bolster evidence.
To keep costs to a minimum, do not purchase your birth, marriage, and death certificates from anywhere other than the government website, the General Register Office. Do not pay inflated prices when you can get English and Welsh certificates for £9.25 each.
You may wish, before you have even begun thinking about certificates, to trot down to your local library. It is wise to either phone your library or check their website before making any plans to visit. Ask or look for family history and local history services they may offer. It might be the case that if you wish to use their resources for family tree research you will have to book a computer in advance.
Ancestry Library Edition,
British Newspaper Archive (though this is also available on Findmypast),
Your Family Tree magazine,
IWM Lives of the First World War,
British Library 19th century Newspapers,
Guardian and Observer archive – 1791 to 2003,
Times Digital Archive,
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
Who's Who and Who was Who.
Note the number of newspapers available. These are a fundamental genealogical resource providing details of inquests, criminal proceedings, occupations, illegitimacy, and obituaries etc. If you are fortunate enough to find your ancestors mentioned of course!
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is an amazing resource for those of us looking at the lives of the middle class and upwards. While we may not find our surgeon ancestor or our acting forebear directly mentioned, it might be possible to begin to research the circle in which they moved in.
Out of all those mentioned above, free library access to both Ancestry and Findmypast will be the most useful when trying to build the family tree. Both sites have indexes to births, marriages, and deaths, both sites have many images of marriage certificates. Marriages are important for research because they provide the names of the fathers (in most cases) of the bride and groom. This information can then be used to a/ trace the family on the census, and b/find the births of the bride and groom.
Ancestry and Findmypast both provide access to the census indexes and images of England and Wales plus the 1901 and 1911 census indexes of Ireland. Ancestry also provides name indexes for most of the Scottish censuses. This can be very useful to use first before turning to Scotlandspeople.
Other record sets from different authorities all over the UK are also beginning to appear on both sites. Educational records, criminal records, and poor law records are just a few of the other types of records available.
All this for free at your local library.
Finally, if you live in the area where your ancestors originated, first of all lucky for you, and secondly go and make use of the local history section of your library.
Havering Libraries, for instance, have an abundance of rate books, maps, telephone directories, post office directories, newspapers, and rural district council records.
Do not neglect your local library – go and make use of its resources!