A Genealogical Overview of the Public Record Office, Kew

A Genealogical Overview of the Public Record Office, Kew

Roger Nixon, Professional Researcher
Military & Historical Searches

The Public Record Office (PRO) is situated at Ruskin Avenue, Kew, UK., about 7 miles from London's centre. It is the National Archive and it houses the most important records of England and Wales. Whilst the major holdings relate to government, there are numerous records held at the PRO of tremendous value to the family historian as well as to academic researchers and authors.

The earliest records held at the PRO date from the Norman period and include the Domesday Book of 1086 and run on right up to the most recent times. Housed here are records of central government and the law courts along with army, navy, marines, air force, merchant seamen, police, customs & excise, migrants & naturalisations, RIC, prisoners, convicts, to name but a few. It would take too long here to fully describe all the subjects deposited at the PRO. Suffice to say that the PRO Guide is over 5500 pages long and that shelf storage exceeds 100 miles!! It is one of the finest and most complete archives in Europe. Until a few years ago, the old PRO was housed in Chancery Lane in the City of London. However, there is only one Public Record Office in England these days - at Kew, slightly to the west of London's centre. The old building is now a university library.

It must be emphasised that the PRO at Kew is NOT the place to start family research. It is much more a respository where the researcher can build on existing knowledge or find valuable clues to reopen closed family-history files, revitalise dormant ones, research specific subjects or obtain biographical material. Whilst it is an absolute mine of information, neither is it the best place to search for civil births, marriages and deaths - although material can be accessed there.

It must also be pointed out that the PRO itself will undertake searches but only for a very limited range of material. Arrangements to photocopy records can be made if precise index references are supplied. Readers may, however, conduct their own researches in the building, or, if they are far from Kew or abroad and unable to visit, they can employ a professional researcher or record agent to do the searches for them.

Also worth mentioning is that many historians and researchers abroad confuse the PRO with the GRO, ONS, LMA, OIOC, and many other repositories in and around London. This article is concerned only with the PRO but more about these other important institutions is given at the end of this text.

Service at the PRO is also moving positively ahead. During 1998-9, the PRO put a large slice of its manual class lists on computer for internal use. This project was completed in 2001 and now means that users can dial-up and access the PRO indexes directly and so effortlessly scroll through the millions of headings using a sophisticated search engine called PROCAT: An outstanding achievement putting the PRO firmly in a world class league. PROCAT enables researchers and historians at home and abroad to undertake their own index investigations from afar and will be especially useful to specialists and authors. However, it has to be emphasised that it will probably still be necessary to employ the outside help of independent researchers and record agents but it will at least provide an overview of what can be researched and will no doubt unearth subjects which have hitherto lain dormant.

As it is the aim of this article to inform in a practical manner with a real slant toward genealogy, it would seem more valuable to cut through the detail and simply say, that if one had an ancestor with any connection with the subjects below, then there is a very good chance that their names might appear in PRO records and can be productively researched further:

  • Army 1760 - 1920
  • Medals and Awards
  • Militia
  • Yeomanry
  • Volunteers & Fencibles
  • Military & Naval Operational Records
  • Court Martials
  • Royal Navy 1688 -1923
  • Merchant Seaman from early 1800s
  • Masters & Mates
  • Merchant Shipping
  • Royal Marines 1664 - 1921
  • Customs & Excise from ca 1700
  • Coastguard from 1822
  • Royal Flying Corps
  • Royal Air Force
  • Ships Passenger Lists
  • Metropolitan Police from 1829
  • Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) from 1836
  • Convicts & Transportation from 1616
  • Prisoners of War (17th-20th c)
  • Criminal Trials, Assizes sessions, Higher Courts etc.
  • Prisoners & Prisons
  • West Indies
  • Slave Registers
  • Colonial Records
  • Emigrants (criminal) from 1616
  • Emigrants (voluntary) from 1634
  • Indentured Servants
  • Immigrants (naturalisation & denization) from 1700s
  • Apprenticeship Records (from 1710)
  • Changes of name
  • Death Duty Registers
  • Probate Records (PCC to 1858)
  • Tontines & Annuities
  • Crown Employees & Government Servants

(This list is not definitive in any way. There are many other subjects - too numerous to mention here - but not all will provide genealogical data although a family history in general might benefit from a wide spectrum of facts. Please note that the dates may change subject to revisions in the records but are given to generally indicate from when the most useful information might be obtained.)

There is no typical researcher and no typical subject. Family historians of all sorts will have ancestors from every walk of life but the most popular PRO material for genealogists and family researchers is that of members of the armed forces such as army, navy etc. The British Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries was vast. Its servants and their families were extensively distributed around the globe regardless of class or occupation. Apart from valuable biographical and historical details, the surviving records of soldiers sailors, marines, seamen, convicts and emigrants, in particular, can often break exciting new ground in family research as the records invariably give what every researcher yearns for: an age and a birthplace. More recent records might even show next of kin. In many instances, it is also possible to pick up other members of the same family.

Researchers and historians residing particularly in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will invariably have had British ancestors at some point. Those ancestors who migrated prior to 1900 might well have military or naval connections or have been involved in voluntary (or involuntary!) emigration of some sort. To gain an appreciation for the valuable information that can be gleaned from PRO records, view some case studies by clicking on the button.


There are many other repositories in London and it is very easy to confuse some with the others. The General Register Office (GRO) records of civil births, deaths and marriages from 1837 are not held primarily at the PRO but at the offices of the ONS - Office for National Statistics which is the umbrella under which the GRO is now housed. This is centred at Southport in Lancashire but comprehensive registers are also held by the ONS on the ground floor of Myddleton House, Myddleton St, Islington in North London. Fiche copies can also be found at various other record centres in the Kingdom and are accessible at the PRO.

Unlike the ground floor, the upper floor of Myddleton House is managed by the PRO. This houses the various censuses which run from 1841 to 1891 and Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills up to 1858. It also has an excellent computer section where researchers may consult the IGI, US Social Security Index and Ancestral files and other excellent related material sourced by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). The recently released 1901 Census is also housed here and an edition is also housed at the PRO at Kew.

The whole of Myddleton House is simply referred to as the Family Record Centre (FRC). It has become a very popular research location with upwards of some thousands of visitors a day at peak times. It is an excellent starting point for visits to other centres.

A few paces away from Myddleton House is the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) which houses records of Metropolitan, or Greater, London. 10 minutes further on is the Society of Genealogists and its Library (SoG). Yet another 10 minutes away is the the Guildhall Library which is home to the parish records of the City of London whilst the Corporation of London Record Office keeping the records of the City is just around the other side of the building in Basinghall Street.

The Principal Probate Registry at New Register House in High Holborn holds registers of wills and administrations from 1858 and is about a mile in the other direction. A short train or bus ride will also take researchers from the FRC to the British Library in Euston Road. This award winning building also houses the superb Oriental and India Office Collections which hold the records of British India. An exceptional library of oriental material can be found there.

Full addresses of these particular repositories can be found here.

Roger Nixon is a professional military and historical researcher and record agent based in London, England who specialises in research at the PRO. If you require assistance, please contact him by email or visit his web page for additional information.


Copyright © 2002
By the Author
All rights reserved