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Researching Ancestors from the
United Kingdom

Using the LDS Family History Center's Resources

By Mark Howells - September 1995

markhow@oz.net


Information On LDS Family History Centers

This article was originally written with the patrons of an LDS (Latter-day Saints, or more fully, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Family History Center as its intended audience. Since placing this article on the World Wide Web, I have found that many readers are asking me "What is a Family History Center"? To answer that question, may I recommend you visit What is a Family History Center?. This site will help you understand what an FHC is and why they are so useful to the genealogist. To find the Family History Center nearest you, visit Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet - LDS & Family History Centers then look under the Family History Centers section for many links to lists of FHC locations such as Find a Family History Center Near You.

A. Start With What You Know

The goal is to use what you know about your ancestors' names, birth dates, marriage dates, and locations from the present back to the year 1837. This year is significant because that is when modern Civil Registration of births, deaths, & marriages began in England & Wales. Prior to that, records of such events were the responsibility of the Church of England. Civil Registration began later in Scotland in the year 1855 and later still in Ireland in the year 1864. Using what you already know will help you obtain Civil Registration records which is your next step in research.

  1. Use your family's resources at hand. Use family Bibles, relatives' reminiscences, newspaper clippings, letters from relatives in the United Kingdom.

  2. If you have no family information to work from, try the International Genealogical Index (IGI) at the Family History Center. This has over 80 million individuals who were born or married in the United Kingdom.

  3. Determining location is very helpful. Try to obtain the county, town, village, or parish name where the events of interest took place. County borders were redrawn in 1974, so if you find a location on a modern map, don't assume that that location has always been in the county indicated. Resources at the Family History Center are organized based on the pre-1974, traditional county boundaries. You may want to consult a historical atlas to confirm the county that a location is in. The Family History Library's Research Outlines give a general overview of the boundary changes. See also the online maps from FamilySearch.org for England & Wales and Scotland.

  4. If you know a county where your ancestors were from, but have no specific town or village, you might try using the 1881 Census Index for England & Wales. This is being compiled by local genealogical societies and Family History Centers in the United Kingdom. It is now (June, 1996) completed for all counties and many of these counties are available from the Family History Center on microfiche. In the Locality File, look under the county of interest and then for Census Indexes. Each county's census is indexed by Surname, Birthplace, Census Place, and Arranged-As-Enumerated. The surname index would be the most helpful in identifying your ancestor by name. For England, the counties already available through the FHC include: Bedford, Cambridge, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Glouchester, Hereford, Hertfordshire, Huntingdon, Leicester, Oxford, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Wiltshire, and the Royal Navy returns. For Wales, all counties available with the exceptions of Monmouth & Caernarvon.

We had a family Bible with birth dates and places for my immigrant great grandparents. Also listed were the names of their parents (my 2nd great grandparents). The surnames were relatively uncommon and both great grandparents were born in Norwich, Norfolk, England.

B. Use Civil Registration Indices To Order Birth Certificates

The goal is to obtain copies of your ancestors' post-1837 birth registrations directly from the General Register Office in the United Kingdom. Using the Civil Registration indices available through the Family History Center on microfilm, you can obtain reference information which will allow you to send for a birth registration. Information on the birth registrations will guide your search of the census records and parish registers.

  1. You must have at least your ancestor's name to take this step. A birth year is very helpful and an accurate birth date is best. The Civil Registration indices are organized by year & quarter of registration and then by surname alphabetically. If you don't know of the exact birth date, you can do a brute force search of all registrations for your ancestor's surname for the year of birth. For example, all births for surnames beginning with the letters A or B in the year 1860 may be on several rolls of microfilm, organized by the quarter of the year in which the registration took place. If you don't know the exact year of birth, you could search the indices based on a range of probable years, but this may take some time.

  2. Follow the instructions contained in "Ordering Birth Registration Certificates from England and Wales". Birth registrations for Scotland and Ireland are recorded in those countries and we have no experience trying to obtain them by mail.

  3. The information you will receive is from a birth registration certificate is: date & place of birth; child's name; child's sex; father's name; mother's name (including maiden name); occupation of father; the signature, description, and residence of the person giving the registration data; and the date registered.

  4. We have had excellent service by ordering the birth registrations directly from the General Register Office. As of November, 1996, the cost is still US$19 to the best of my knowledge and it takes about one month. I have seen advertisements placed by researchers in England who will obtain birth registrations for less than US$19 but have never used them. They are cheaper because the General Register Office charges less for walk-in requests than for requests by mail. In addition, local Register Offices often charge less for obtaining a birth registration recorded in their locality than does the General Register Office. An excellent source of information for contacting these local offices is the English and Welsh Register Offices web site.

  5. Marriage registrations and death registrations are also available in a similar manner but I have had no experience in obtaining them by mail.

  6. Civil Registrations in Ireland may provide more than just index information as the actual records themselves are available on microfilm through the Family History Center for some years. This means you don't have to send US$19 for a certificate but can order the record directly on microfilm. It is still a two step process of finding them on the index and then finding the actual record, but it's cheaper.

Using the Civil Registration indices, we were able to obtain my immigrant great grandparents' birth registrations. These documents gave us the neighborhoods within Norwich (a large city) where they were born. Based on information obtained later, I was also was able to obtain the birth registrations for one set of my second great grandparents (the other set were born in Scotland & Ireland before Civil Registration began in those countries).

C. Use Birth Registration Information To Start Researching Census Records

The goal is to begin "fleshing out" your ancestor's family. Using the information obtained from birth registrations, you can order Census records through the Family History Center. The Census records will give information on siblings, occupations, other generations such as grandparents in the household, social status, and more.

  1. The Censuses were taken every 10 years beginning in 1801 so they're a year off the dates of the U.S. Census dates. The first Census of genealogical value was taken in 1841 when names of individuals were first recorded. The 1841 census has some quirks in it such as it doesn't specify each individual in the household's relationship to the head of house hold and it rounds down to the nearest 5 years on the ages of individuals between 15 and 65 years old. The 1851 and later Censuses list where born by city & county (and often in London, which neighborhood) and give exact ages to the year. The 100 year rule requires privacy of records until 100 years have passed - so the latest Census available is the 1891 Census. The 1901 Census will be out in 2002. The 1891 Census is on microfiche, all others are on microfilm.

  2. There are street indexes for large cities of over 40,000 people for the 1841 to 1871 Censuses here at the Family History Center. They are in the Microfiche Reference Collection drawer. To use the index, go to the microfiche which lists that town and find the street name you are interested in. Each street is indexed by at least one set of 2 digit codes. A long street will have multiple 2 digit codes associated with it. Once you've got your code or codes, go back to the front of the section where your town began on the microfiche. It will have a table which cross references those 2 digit codes to FHC microfilm numbers of the census.

  3. Look under E for England, S for Scotland, or W for Wales in the Locality File. The Irish Censuses were destroyed by government ineptitude and civil war except for the Censuses of 1901 and 1911 which are available now. Go to the county and city, town, village, or parish within the Locality file and look under Census. Large towns will be divided by neighborhoods on several dozen rolls of film.

  4. Pick the Census which follows a known event date, such as the birth date of your ancestor. If your ancestor is born in 1846, start with the 1851 Census for that area and work forward in time rather than backward to the 1841 Census. This was the height of their industrial revolution and people moved around more than you might expect.

  5. Once you've ordered and received your desired film or 'fiche, start looking through it. Each section of the Census forms begins with a description of the area canvassed by the enumerator who took the Census. This description is very helpful as it often names street names and can help you narrow down which sections to look at. The neighborhood and/or parish name of the area should appear at the top of every sheet of the Census.

  6. Write down everything you find out about your ancestors on the Census. Lots of apparently irrelevant information can turn out to be useful later. Look around the neighborhood for similar surnames - families often lived close to each other. Neighboring families often provided spouses for each other's children.

  7. The Locality File isn't always perfect in referencing all neighborhoods contained on a film. If at first you don't find your area, try looking on the films preceding and following the original film you tried on the Locality File's list for that town.

  8. Once you've obtained new ancestor's names from the Censuses, look them up in the IGI. We were able to locate baptisms and marriage records in other areas of the United Kingdom for several individuals who were newly discovered off of the Censuses. This is particularly helpful if the families moved around a lot, as mine did.

The Censuses were where our research really started to get exciting. Birthplaces for 2nd great grandparents, siblings, and a maiden aunt started us looking at areas of the United Kingdom outside of Norwich - to Birmingham, England; Limerick, Ireland; and Leith, Scotland.

D. Use Birth Registration & Census Information To Start Research Parish Register To Go Back Past 1837

The goal is to push your family research back in time past the last useful Census (that of 1841) and back past when Civil Registration commenced in 1837. Using the birth registration & Census information you have, you can order parish records through the Family History Center which will further your research back in time.

  1. Records of births, marriages, & deaths were the responsibility of the Church of England (with the exception of Jews & Quakers from 1755-1837) from around 1558 until the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837. Parish record keeping did not halt in 1837, but they were no longer considered a person's "official" record of life events. Not all parish records survive, were faithfully maintained, or are available through the Family History Center, but a great many are available. In the Locality File, they are under Church Records for the area you are interested in. They are the primary source for family history prior to 1837. They are organized chronologically and usually divided by year. Baptisms (not births), marriages, and burials (not deaths) are usually found in separate sections. Standard, printed record books did not come into usage until 1813 and records before that date can be a challenge to read as the local vicar could follow any format of his choosing. Spellings of names varied again at the whim of the local vicar. Records may be found in Latin as late as the 1730s. The handwriting can be from fair to terrible and in some cases, an archaic script is used as you go back further into the 1600s. There are research aids available which help the family historian translate common Latin words and teach you how to read archaic script, but we have had no experience using them. Although full of challenges, the parish registers are critical to further research.

  2. Due to the Church of England's status as the state religion of the United Kingdom, if your ancestors were not members of the official church, you may still find records of them in the local Church of England parish. Due to religious intolerance, they were forced by law to have births, marriages, & burials performed by the Church of England, even if they were Quaker, Presbyterian, Jewish, Roman Catholic, etc. Some dissenter religious organizations kept their own records of these events, but we have had no experience with using them.

  3. Often, the birth registration or Census information you have already obtained will give you the name of parish you are interested in. Small villages and rural areas only supported a single parish. Large towns may have dozens of parishes with many of them bearing the name of the same patron saint. To differentiate between the various St. John's parishes for example, they are often given a qualifier such as St. John's at the Gate, St. John's on the Hill, St. John's by the Oak, etc.

  4. If you know your ancestor's location, but can't determine the name of the parish they were in, the best resource to consult is the Philmore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers. The Tacoma Public Library has two copies of this book. Its call number is 912.42 IN7P. It shows, by county, the names and boundaries of the parishes. Parishes for large cities are listed but not shown on a map, except for London. There is also a listing in the back which shows, for each parish, for which years the records are available, and where they can be found, including if they have been extracted into the IGI.

  5. The IGI has some information extracted from parish registers. If you find a baptism or marriage in the IGI, be sure to look at the original record on microfilm also. Often you will find very valuable information on the original record which was not extracted. We have found the actual birth dates given in the margins of the baptism record in many of the records we have looked at. This information is not on the IGI. Mother's maiden names are sometimes given in baptism records. Occupations of fathers and grooms is often given. Parish records sometimes contain more than baptisms, marriages, & burials. We have found Scottish parish registers which record who purchased Gaelic Bibles - useful information in determining if you're Scots ancestor spoke English. We also found a printed obituary for a First World War soldier which was a wealth of information. Don't be satisfied with extracts!

  6. In addition to baptisms, marriages, & burials, some parish registers include records of the reading of banns prior to marriage. Banns had to be read out in the parish churches of both the bride and groom on three Sundays prior to the wedding. This was to give the parishioners the opportunity to object to any potentially bigamous marriages. Banns are very useful in determining what parish the groom came from if from a different parish than the bride. Marriages were usually performed in the bride's parish.

  7. Parish registers were required to be copied every Easter and sent to the local bishop. In the event that the original parish register did not survive, these copies, called Bishop's Transcripts, may be your only source of information. While better than no information at all, the Bishop's Transcripts are still extracts prone to error.

We've only just started exploring the potential of the parish registers. From a single parish register, we obtained 70 related individuals, our biggest single source of family information yet found. We found out that there are three generations of Excise Tax officers in my family. I couldn't figure out why they were working on a small island off the coast of Scotland until I found out that the island's primary industry was whisky making! Sometimes the stories the registers tell read like soap operas - illegitimate births, who can sign their names and who can only make their marks, or a girl marrying an acrobat!

E. Other Ideas

The goal is to locate and use other sources of information to build a family history about your United Kingdom ancestors

  1. The Family History Library's Research Outlines for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are extremely helpful for organizing your research and giving an overview of available records and how to use them. Be sure to suggest these to any person just beginning their research. All are available at the LDS FamilySearch web site.

  2. Genealogy is a popular hobby in the United Kingdom and many books have been published on the topic which we have found to be helpful. In Search of Your British & Irish Roots is very good and available at my local Family History Center and many libraries. There is a Web site that has the UK Genealogy A-Z (The Emery Paper) online, which is a good general primer.

  3. I have relied on the atlases available at my local Family History Center to locate very small villages in the United Kingdom. There are two very detailed ones there which are most helpful. They are the Reader's Digest Driver's Atlas of the British Isles and the AA Great Britain Road Atlas.

  4. If you are connected to the Internet, there are two excellent World Wide Web sites for United Kingdom genealogy. One is the GENUKI Site - U.K. + Ireland Genealogy about English, Scottish, & Welsh genealogy and is full of information for both beginner and expert along with hypertext connections to other Web sites helpful to genealogists. In fact, I had written by airmail to the Public Records Office (the U.K.'s National Archives) for some free brochures which described various records in their possession. They politely refused to send them to me - their free brochures are for walk-ins only. However, using this Web site, I was able to print copies of exactly what I wanted off of the Web! Another good Web site is at Irish Ancestors and is all about Irish genealogy. Very good basic information on what records are available and how to use them.

  5. The gazetteers - many of which are available on microfiche at the Family History Center - are a great way to find out more about a locality and what it was like in the past. These are dictionaries of place names with varying levels of descriptive information about the area. The Tacoma Public Library has several also.

  6. We've had great luck in tracing an officer in the 16th Lancers regiment by correspondence with regimental museums over in the United Kingdom. If you have Army ancestry in the United Kingdom, chances are that your ancestor's regiment either still exists, or was conglomerated into another regiment which exists today. They may be able to provide a detailed service record. Other sources which are available at the Family History Center include Army Lists and Pensioner records.

  7. I wrote to the local Genealogical Society in Norwich asking if any of their members are researching similar lines. Their reply invited me to join their society and listed the number of members researching the same surnames as I am. If you are interested in mailing addresses for local societies in the United Kingdom, see the handout of the Federation of Family History Societies.

  8. Civil servant records, such as those for Excise Tax officers, are held by the Public Records Office in the United Kingdom. I am considering hiring a professional researcher in London to do the research for me at the Public Records Office. If you have an ancestor who was a government employee, this may be an option for you too.

A Partial Bibliography

Available On the Internet:

GENUKI Site - U.K. + Ireland Genealogy
Irish Ancestors



About the Author


 Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet - UK & Ireland Index  Go to Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet - UK & Ireland Index for even more UK Genealogy links!

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Researching Ancestors from the United Kingdom
Created & maintained by Cyndi Howells. Please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated September 7, 2001
Copyright 1996 - 2001 by Mark & Cyndi Howells