How to trace your ancestors in England and Wales

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General remarks

For most legal purposes Wales is effectively part of England. It thus has the same system of records that may be used to trace ancestors.

Remember that spelling of names is often variable. Shakespeare didn't spell his own name consistently. Many people were illiterate much more recently. Thus your ancestors may appear in official records under a variety of spellings.

Remember also that transcripts and indexes will inevitably introduce occasional errors not found in the original documents. If possible, check everything important against originals or photographic copies.

Even original documents may not be correct. Informants may lie or misremember. Officials who are hard of hearing or speak a different dialect may mishear.

Handwriting has evolved over the centuries. If you work back through time and read a lot of original documents as you go, you may find that you pick up the handwriting. If not, there are websites and books to teach you: see [1].

Some documents before 1733 are in Latin (see [2]), and some documents for Wales are in Welsh (see [3]).

Remember that words change their meanings. An important instance is that, even in the 19th century, "-in-law" could also mean "step-".

Surnames weren't originally hereditary. They became so in most of England in the 14th century, but in some rural areas in the North in the first half of the 15th, and in some remote areas of Wales not until the 19th. Welsh names often used patronymics, so William Roberts might have had a son called John Williams.

If you're going to visit a record office, check all the arrangements with them first. In particular, most ban pens, and some have rules about what sorts of notebooks or loose paper you can make notes on.

Copy as exactly as possible what documents say, and note where you got the material. Record what you checked without success, so as to avoid repeating yourself.

People did move about sometimes. What you're looking for may turn out not to have been in England or Wales at all.

Your local library service may be networked in to some of the non-free websites mentioned below.

Abbreviations

  • CRO: County Record Office
  • FFHS: Federation of Family History Societies, [4]
  • FHC: Family History Centres, run by the LDS, but open to anyone; see [5]
  • FHS: Family History Society; all the important ones are affiliated to FFHS, where you can find contact details
  • GENUKI: [6]
  • IGI: International Genealogical Index, compiled by the LDS; available free at [7]
  • LDS: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons; tracing their ancestors is part of their religion, so they have copied and indexed large quantities of records of use for tracing ancestors, and kindly make them available for outsiders
  • NLW: National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, [8]
  • SOG: Society of Genealogists, Template:Flag, [9]; their library is open to the public for a fee
  • TNA: The National Archives, Kew, [10]

Modern period: back to the 19th century

Assuming you are starting from England or Wales yourself, rather than trying to trace ancestors who emigrated some time ago, it is a good idea to start by asking relatives what they can tell you. This information is not infallible: memories play tricks, or people may even lie. Nevertheless, this information can narrow your searches for relevant documents.

Birth, marriage and death certificates

The first official documents you will usually be looking for will be birth, marriage and death certificates. In England and Wales, universal registration was legally required from 1 July 1837. For a legally valid marriage, filling in the register was a necessary requirement, so all marriages should be registered unless the local register entries were lost before being passed on. It was illegal to arrange a funeral without a death certificate, so death registration should also be near enough complete. However, before 1875 there was no legal penalty for failing to register a birth, and even after that there are some examples of covering up births.

You may find such certificates in the possession of the family. If not, you will have to buy them from the Registrar General's office (or the local office if you know which one). In England and Wales it is not permitted to inspect the actual registers, except for the church registers of marriages (for which you would need to know the church to look at).

You will usually need to consult the indexes to find the correct entry before ordering the certificate. The original written indexes are no longer physically available to the public to search. For a list of places where you can access the indexes, see [11]. Until 1983, the indexes are by quarter, so for example the index labelled March 1963 will cover registrations in January, February and March of that year. Note that it is the date of registration that counts, not that of the event. As noted above, registration is part of any legal marriage ceremony, so the question does not arise here. Deaths must be registered within a few days, so they will usually appear in the expected quarter, but the legal time limit for registering a birth is 6 weeks, and this was sometimes exceeded in practice, so births will often appear in the next quarter. From 1984 the indexes are annual, though the same points apply.

Birth certificates will tell you the names of the parents, including the mother's maiden name. You can then trace the parents' marriage certificate, which will usually tell you the parties' ages (though sometimes it will just say something like "over 21") and the names of their fathers. This will narrow the search for birth certificates for the previous generation. Death certificates are less important.

You can order certificates online at [12].

If you're not sure whether the index entry is the correct one, you can ask them to check something not in the index. For example, a marriage certificate tells you the names of the fathers of the parties. You can ask for this to be checked when you try to get the parties' birth certificates. If the entry seems to be wrong you will get a partial refund. Similarly, if you're looking for a common name, there may be a number of possible entries in the index. You can send them a list of entries to check. If the first one is right, you pay the normal fee. Otherwise, you pay extra for each entry they check. If there are too many, you can simply ask them to search a whole period of time, for which of course you have to pay extra. In all these cases, you have to be very careful. They're extremely literal. If you say John Smith, they'll reject an entry for John William Smith. Have a look at the indexes to see how common the name is. Try to estimate how many entries there are likely to be. Bear in mind that they won't check all the entries. They will simply send you the first "correct" one they find.

The census

Once you get back a century or so, another major source comes into play, the census.

A census has been held every 10 years from 1801, except 1941 (for obvious reasons). Up to 1831 these give only numbers. From 1841 onwards an attempt was made to list everyone in the country, though of course this has never been totally successful. The returns are confidential, but after 100 years it is assumed that everyone in them is dead and they are released to the public. Thus the listings currently available are 1841 to 1911.

Although the 1841 census did try to list everyone, it gave no genealogical information, and the pencil has faded into illegibility for some parts of the country. The really useful censuses are those from 1851 on, which list relationships to head of household, and, more importantly, place of birth. The reason why this is so important is that, once you get back beyond the modern period, the main national records described in this section are no longer available, and the main sources (described in the next section) are local. So it's very useful to know which locality to look in. If you can find elderly ancestors in the 1851 census, you should have a good idea where your ancestors were living before the Industrial Revolution really got off the ground. If you're lucky, they won't have moved too far in the previous centuries.

Availability summary:

  • you can access all censuses and indexes to them free of charge by personal visit to TNA
  • you can access indexes and transcripts of the 1881 census free of charge at [13]
  • you can access the index to the 1901 census free of charge at [14], but must pay to see images or transcripts
  • you can access indexes and images of all censuses for a fee at [15]
  • many places have copies of census returns for their local area; you can ask the relevant FHS about this, or look up the relevant page in GENUKI

Remember to note down addresses mentioned in birth, marriage and death certificates. They may well make it easier to find the right census entries. Conversely, birthplaces mentioned in later censuses can help you identify the right birth certificate.

Other records

  • wills can obviously be very informative; as of 12 January 1858 a national system of probate was introduced for England and Wales; see [16]
  • newspapers: the British Library's newspaper section [17], near Colindale tube station, can be accessed without getting permission to use the main library; local newspapers can also be found at various local libraries
  • MIs: monumental or memorial inscriptions, i.e. gravestones etc.; many transcribed at SOG and locally

Middle period: back to the 17th or 16th century

Here, as noted above, you are back to mainly local records. The coverage here is general. For information about particular areas, you can

  • contact, or join, the relevant FHS (contact details can be found through the FFHS)
  • look at the relevant county pages at GENUKI

Parish registers

In 1538, parish churches in England and Wales were instructed to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Unfortunately, most do not survive all the way back. Most go back at least to 1660, so that, if you have a reasonably uncommon surname to trace, you have a good chance of getting back that far. Beyond that date, the further back you go the fewer registers survive, and it is a matter of luck how far back they go where your ancestors were living. Also, even where there are ealier registers surviving, there are often gaps in the period of the Civil War and Commonwealth, 1642-60.

The information given is very variable. For example, some early baptism entries just give the name and date, without any genealogical information. At the other extreme, some registers around 1800, mainly in the North, give the mother's maiden name, birthplaces of both parents, and order of birth in the family. Registers are usually in English, only occasionally in Latin or Welsh.

Most of the registers are now in CROs for England and NLW for Wales, but some are still held in the parish. In that case, the vicar is legally entitled to charge a fee. You can find the locations of registers in two books:

  • Humphery-Smith, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, Phillimore
  • National Index of Parish Registers, a series of volumes for parts of the country published by SOG; these give more detail, but some volumes are less up to date

These books also say how far back the registers go, and give information about copies and indexes. In particular, the SOG has a large collection of copies, and there are many others locally.

There are a variety of indexes:

  • IGI: mainly baptisms and marriages from parish registers, but also includes a few miscellaneous items
  • Boyd's marriage index: mainly East Anglia, London, the West Coutry and the North, with little from the Midlands; available at SOG, and relevant portions in various local libraries
  • Pallot's marriage index: mainly the London area around 1800; includes entries from some registers subsequently destroyed by German bombing; can be accessed for a fee at [18]
  • National Burial Index from FFHS
  • numerous local indexes: unlike the above, these are often complete

Remember that people did move about from parish to parish sometimes. Use indexes to estimate how common a name was in the area in order to tell how certain you are that you've got the right person.

In 1538 the Church of England was the only legal religion. Jews were allowed back into the country in the 1650s, other Protestant churches were legalized in 1689 and Catholicism in 1778. Illegal religions tended not to keep records of their members (for obvious reasons). From 1754 to 1837, the only legally valid marriages in England and Wales were those of the Church of England, Quakers and Jews, and other religious groups usually couldn't afford their own burial grounds, so it's mainly the baptism records that are incomplete. In theory the registers were supposed to include those of other churches, but the vicar couldn't include them if he didn't know about them. Most of the registers for other Protestant churches are in TNA and covered by the IGI, but for Catholic and Jewish records it's usually necessary to contact the religious authorities.

Wills

Wills can obviously give you all sorts of useful information. In particular, they can often sort out which person with a particular name is the right one.

Up to 11 January 1858, probate was dealt with by hundreds of different courts, mostly run by the Church. Survival varies around the country. At one extreme, the records for Lincolnshire go back to the 12th century. At the other, those for Devon and Somerset were destroyed by German bombing in 1942.

Wills and other probate records are mostly in CROs for England and NLW for Wales, but there are plenty of exceptions. Some have been copied by LDS and are available at FHCs. Most have been indexed in various ways. Some old indexes compiled by the probate authorities themselves mix together all surnames beginning with the same letter. Some recent indexes cover everyone mentioned in wills, not just those who made them. Details can be found in the following books:

  • Camp, Wills and Their Whereabouts
  • Gibson, Wills and Where to Find Them, Phillimore
  • Gibson & Churchill, Probate Jurisdictions; less detail, but more up to date

Better-off people were more likely to leave wills, but even poor people sometimes did so; it's always worth while looking. Note, however, that married women didn't usually do so, because their property belonged to their husbands (until 1882).

If you can put together tentative family trees from parish registers, you may be able to identify useful wills by people with different surnames.

Death duty registers at TNA give a lot of information from many wills after 1796.

Other records

  • For about a century from 1711 there was a tax on many apprenticeships. An index to the tax records is at the SOG. For about the first half it usually names the father (or widowed mother).
  • Under the pre-1834 poor law, responsibility for poor relief belonged to the parish where the poor person was "settled", for which there was a complicated legal definition. Parish authorities questioned people about their life history to determine their parish of settlement. The resulting records, where they survive, can be very informative, They are mostly found in CROs.

Early period

Before 1538 there was no attempt to record the rites of passage for the whole population. Wills survive in some areas, but you're unlikely to find enough to get far. The main genealogically useful records were those of the inheritance of land. This didn't just mean the gentry. Even peasant smallholdings were recorded in manor courts from the 13th or 14th century. Unfortunately, the survival rate of these records is poor, but it is nevertheless sometimes possible to trace a family of ordinary people back to the Middle Ages.

The location of manorial records varies. Some are in TNA. Some are in CROs, though not always the one you expect (the lords of the manor may have had most of their estates elsewhere). Some are still in the custody of the lord of the manor, which in practice means in their solicitors' strongroom. In this case they aren't allowed to take them out of England and Wales without permission from the Master of the Rolls (though some may have been exported before this law). However, you have no legal right to see them unless you're a tenant of the manor. The details of known records and their locations are collected in the Manorial Documents Register ([19]) at TNA. Parts of the country are on their website, and they may answer simple enquiries without your having to visit in person.

Manorial records are mostly in Latin. In some manors they go on to 1925, when the customary land tenure was abolished.

See also

External links

  • [20]: collection of links relevant to the British Isles

Suggested reading

  • Ross, Researching Your Family History, Crowood Press, 2010
  • Foy, Family History for Beginners, History Press, 2011
  • Catlett, Track Down Your Ancestors, Right Way, 2008
  • Fowler, Tracing Your Ancestors, Pen & Sword Books, 2011
  • Gilchrist, Growing Your Family Tree, Piatkus, 2011
  • Oates, Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2012
  • Vincent-Northam, Trace Your Roots, Greatest Guides, Warwick, 2012
  • Ward, Starting Your Family History, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire, 2009