A Genealogy Research Guide for England and Wales

A Genealogy Research Guide
England & Wales

Tony Fitzgerald, Professional Genealogist

The principle tools used for researching one's English ancestry are:

  • Birth Certificates - which provide parent names
  • Marriage Certificates - which provide father's names for both parties
  • Census records - which, amongst other things, provide evidence of places of birth and ages
  • Parish Registers - which provide a trail of baptisms, marriages and burials for the families being researched.

Essentially, all the records of Birth, Marriage and Death registrations, Censuses and Parish Registers should be worked together in order to provide corroboration of each find.

It is of vital importance to start researching from the latest known provable fact - it could be parents, grandparents or it might be one's own birth registration. Even that could be problematic for people who have been adopted or, for some other perfectly good reason, do not know the names of their biological parents. Indeed, it is such people who are often to the forefront of those undertaking research.

For the majority of us, our interest is in researching our roots - where did my family originate; what did they do; how did they live; what brought them to New Zealand, Australia, the United States or Canada ... or wherever it happens to be ... and how and when did they arrive.

Please allow me to lead you through some of the research work you will need to undertake.

Most of us have had, at some stage in our lives, a hankering to find out more about our roots. Maybe there is a favourite story that has been doing the rounds within the family circle for years - a story which is humorous or perhaps, has a hint of mystery or intrigue or even scandal about it. Perhaps it is an old photograph, family heirloom, newspaper clipping or even a tombstone inscription or war memorabilia. Maybe your own family is asking questions and it is that which arouses the curiosity. Or, more basically, it is a pride in your ethnic origins that gives you the urge to probe into the past and learn something about your forbears, the times they lived in and their way of life.

Whatever it is, there has to be some kind of motivation which takes us beyond just idle curiosity to create a desire to look for answers. Indeed, for most of us it will be the latter - ethnic origins.

So you have found the motivation to start back-tracking - where do you start?

Without a doubt, the best quality information comes from a Family Bible or from an older generation and, so, elderly parents or uncles and aunts are the best starting point. The information which comes from them may have become distorted, for a variety of reasons, over the years but deep inside the stories is a strong element of truth. And if they shut up tight when asked about something intriguing you will immediately know that there may be something especially interesting that they do not want to pass on. Very inviting to the curiosity, isn't it?

Civil Registrations began in England and Wales on 1 July 1837. However, just because a person was born after the start of Registrations, does not guarantee that the birth was registered although marriages and death were almost invariably registered.

The reason why it is so important to actually buy the birth and marriage certificates of one's ancestors is to provide checks all the way along the line that you are not researching someone else's ancestry. Taking short-cuts and by-passing this vital step is a recipe for disaster.

A birth certificate shows, amongst other things, the father's name and occupation, mother's maiden name and their place of residence.

A marriage certificate includes the names of both fathers and their occupations and places of residence. With luck, it may also give the couple's ages; without luck, it may merely describe them as "of full age" or as a "minor". A word of warning, however. The ages given on a marriage certificate cannot always be totally relied upon. For example, if the two people are substantially different in age or perhaps very young, some white lies may be told in order to minimise the age difference although there will usually be other means of detecting the truth. For example, the ages given on a Passenger Arrival list are probably far more reliable than those on the couple's English marriage certificate. A marriage certificate might even indicate whether either or both fathers had already died ... but a word of warning - if it does not say deceased, do not jump to the conclusion that they were still alive. The couple getting married may not have known this for sure or the question may not even have been asked,

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors who were born, died or married in New Zealand, Australia or Scotland, there is a real bonus to be had. Certificates for each of these countries generally include a considerable amount of additional information about the person named in the certificate - where they were born and married, who their parents were and where they also came from and , in the case of a New Zealand death certificate, how long they have lived in New Zealand which, of course, helps you find their arrival details.

So, where do you obtain these certificates - especially those which relate to someone in England? Each birth, marriage and death certificate has an index reference to help the Registrar's Offices to locate them. The principal indexes are, of course, held in London, but microfilm copies of these are very widely distributed.

How does one search the indexes? Marriages are relatively easy because both bride and bridegroom will be indexed under the same reference number. As far as births are concerned, you may have problems if you are researching a commonly found name and there may be a certain amount of trial and error involved before the right one is found. Minimally, an age is needed from a subsequent marriage or death certificate or a Census. Oral tradition may give you a lead but, once again, do beware because sometimes the year is wrong even though the day and the month are both right. It is also important to have some idea of where this person was born and even more helpful to know something about the parents - for example, forenames, mother's maiden name, father's occupation. If the certificate still leaves a doubt, it may be necessary to seek corroboration by also obtaining the birth certificate for a known sibling - that is, a brother or sister. With all the relevant details from the Index carefully noted down, the certificates may be ordered.

When the certificate arrives, and is found to be correct, there will usually be sufficient information to enable work to begin on the previous generation. From a birth certificate, a search can be made for the parent's marriage; from a marriage certificate the search is for the births of the two fathers named. However good the information on the certificate appears to be, it is always prudent to seek some secondary evidence to corroborate it.

One of the most important sources of corroboration comes in the form of Census schedules which list family members, their ages, occupations and places of birth. The Census of population was taken every ten years from 1841. The 1881 Census is by far the most valuable of these because it has been indexed alphabetically by County. The 1851 Census is also very useful because a reasonable amount of surname indexing has been carried out in most Counties. For other years which are currently available, in particular 1891, 1871 and 1861, unless you are looking at a small village, an address or suburb or parish is vital especially in the case of a large town or city. This may be obtained from the certificate of a birth, death or marriage occurring around Census time. For the larger towns and cities you may be able to find out exactly whereabouts on the Census your ancestor appears from Street indexes.

The 1841 Census is of lesser value since the information it contains is much more limited than the later ones. For example, it does not show the place of birth - just whether the person was born in the County or not. This makes the 1851 Census especially valuable because it is the earliest one of any real value available and can quite easily lead one's research back to the second half of the previous century.

A further, and most important, tool for providing corroboration comes from Wills - these frequently name the spouse, children and perhaps other relatives. Of particular value is a Will which names a daughter by her married name - perhaps even naming her husband.

Once a research has got back as far as the start of Civil Registrations - the Parish Registers are the principal source of earlier information. For England and Wales, a large number of parishes - but by no means all (and it varies from County to County) have been indexed on to what is called the IGI (International Genealogical Index). The majority of all unindexed parishes have had their registers microfilmed by the LDS for various periods - mostly up to at least 1812, and often very much later, and the films may be viewed at an LDS library or, if the Parish Registers have not been filmed, you may have details extracted by the particular County Record Office.

One thing you have to be most careful about when churning out information from the IGI is not to allow yourself to become carried away. You must always inspect the actual entries in the Parish registers.

These Registers may not always be easy to read. If the actual Parish Register is hard to read, you may be able to try the Transcripts sent by the incumbent vicar to his Bishop each Easter. Since these Bishop's Transcripts were held in a different location, they may not have been subject to the same degree of deterioration as the originals and so they are well worth going to if the original - which is the one you would obviously prefer to look at - is either illegible or even lost.

Another very important source of information are the various marriage indexes which exist up to 1837. Most Counties have their marriages indexed and it is as simple as locating the name of the person holding these indexes and writing for a search to be made - usually very inexpensive but yet so vital to your research. "Boyd's Marriage Indexes" may even provide the answers you seek. They cover just 16 Counties and with varying degrees of completeness ... Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire are virtually 100% indexed. Similarly, Pallott's Marriage Indexes cover almost all the ancient parishes of the City of London, many Middlesex ones and some from other Counties too.

You may find from the Parish Register that a marriage was, not by Banns, but by Licence. If the LDS does not happen to have filmed these Licenses, they are easy enough to get hold of by writing away to a researcher in the County where the marriage took place. It is well worth the effort because you will often find corroborative information by way of occupations, ages and perhaps even a family member.

Whilst using the internet for researching is a subject on its own, you may be lucky enough to receive a message which says something like "Hello, Cousin Tony" and that your correspondent recites the whole ancestry which had been handed down generation by generation right back to the mid sixteenth century. So, do post your interests in the County Newsgroups of interest to you and join their Family History Societies.

If any of the Certificates or other documents which come your way indicate that one of you ancestors had an interesting occupation or was, perhaps, a Soldier or had some other form of Government employment, it may prove to be extremely worthwhile following this up - at the Public Record Office at Kew or through the other appropriate official source.

Under Poor Law legislation, a person could not just move from Parish to Parish at will - he had to be in possession of a Settlement Certificate entitling him to be there and this would normally only be granted to a person who was capable of providing for himself and his family. Breaches of these requirements would often see the person concerned being the subject of a Removal Order with the Overseer of the Poor escorting him back to his parish of lawful settlement where he would be a charge on its Poor Law Relief rather than that of some new Parish. Investigations into the existence of the records of the Examination of your ancestor could be the smartest thing you ever did ... because these frequently recite the person's whole life history in much detail.

I cannot promise you that your own research will be completely successful but the real message is simple - there are numerous records of all descriptions and clues just waiting to be found and interpreted and, if you have had a burning desire to investigate your own roots, I hope that this page has given you some ideas as to how to go about at least making a start.

If researching is new to you, may I please offer a word of advice? Do try and make your research become something more than just a collection of names, dates and places - dig down deeper and find some books which will give you a much better impression of who your ancestors were.

A Genealogy Research Guide for England and Wales

Tony Fitzgerald is a professional genealogist based in New Zealand. He provides a Certificate Service throughout New Zealand and for his overseas clients via an Agent in London. If you would like more information on any of the record-types referred to above, or would like an appraisal of your own research, please contact him by email or visit his web page.


Copyright © 2001
By the Author
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