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British Genealogy Research

This week I’m going to focus on the key records you need to do British genealogy research, starting with the group of records that most people are somewhat familiar with, and that is births, marriages and deaths.

Births / Marriages / Deaths (mid 1800s onwards)

Civil registration began in England and Wales in September 1837; prior to that the only records of a person’s coming into the world, marrying or leaving it were held by the church that was responsible for their baptism, marriage or burial.  Civil registration meant that official mandatory records for these key events in a person’s life now existed and have been kept from the day they were instituted.

Civil Registration in Scotland started a bit later, in 1855, on the Isle of Man from 1878, and  1864 in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

England and Wales records

Certificates for births, deaths and marriages can be obtained from either the General Register Office, or from the local Register Office where the event was registered.  It’s far easier (and likely quicker) to just order through the General Register Office.

Although the certificates are not available online for instant delivery pdf, the General Register Office have made a number of birth and death certificates available by PDF, with a delivery time of around four to five working days.  The indexes themselves are freely available online, however.

What information is on the certificates?

The most useful certificates for progressing family trees are birth certificates and marriage certificates.

Birth certificates

Birth certificates show the following useful information:

–       Birth date of the person being born
–       the name and occupation of their father (unless the birth occurred outside of marriage, in which case this section will usually be blank)
–       the name of their mother (together with their maiden name)
–       the address where they were born (which, for earlier births, was often the home address)
–       the address of the informant to the birth (which was usually the mother or father of the child)

example of a full birth certificate

Marriage certificates

Marriage certificates give the following information:

–       Date and location of the marriage and whether by banns or by certificate
–       Name of Groom, age (or whether “of full age” or a minor), his occupation and where he was living at the time of the marriage
–       Name of Bride, her age, occupation (usually blank for earlier marriage records, but sometimes one is recorded), and where she was living at the time of the marriage
–       Groom’s father’s name and occupation
–       Bride’s father’s name and occupation
–       Witnesses to the marriage

example of a marriage certificate

Death certificates

Death certificate don’t contain much information to help further a family tree, but do contain the following:

–       Date of death and address where died
–       Name and approximate age of deceased; if male their occupation (for females, this may contain an occupation, may be blank, or if they had been married during their lifetime, it will usually indicate “wife or widow of” which can help to identify a husband’s identity if not already known)
–       Cause of death
–       Informant to the death and their address (if this is a family member this can be useful)

example of a pdf certificate

Where to look up

A number of sites have the indexes to births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales including:

The General Register Office (free; not all years currently available though, and online search currently limited to births and deaths for those years that are available)
FamilySearch (free)
Ancestry (1837-1915 free; 1916 onwards requires subscription)
FindMyPast (requires subscription)
MyHeritage (requires subscription)

Which site you use to search on really is down to personal preference; personally my preference is to go straight to the GRO indexes when I know roughly when the person was born, since I can then proceed straight to ordering the record through them.  However, not all years have the search available, and as I indicated above, you can’t search for marriages on that site.  When I can’t use the GRO I generally use Ancestry or Find My Past – Find My Past’s search function is a little bit more straightforward, and I find the range of search parameters I can use a little bit better than Ancestry’s.

A word of warning – if you do need to order a certificate, do not order it from any of the above sites except the General Register Office. Ancestry in particular charge a large premium to order the record for you; the General Register Office is the only official place to order certificates, and will therefore be the cheapest price and most efficient service.  Therefore I definitely recommend you spend time getting familiar with the General Register Office search function as it will be extremely useful for you.

Scottish records – 1855 to present day

Civil registration (known as statutory registration) in Scotland began in 1855.  Scottish records contain a wealth of information not included on English and Welsh civil records.

Birth records

Scottish birth records contain:

–       Name of person being born
–       When and where they were born
–       Father’s name and occupation
–       Mother’s name (including maiden name)
–       the date and place of the parents’ marriage
–       Informant’s details

Marriage records

Scottish marriage records include:

–       date and location of marriage
–       bride and groom’s name and occupation, age, and usual residence
–       bride and groom’s parents’ details, including name and occupation of father, and name & maiden name of mother

You can see how this is a wealth of information for any genealogist!

Death records

Unlike their English & Welsh counterparts, Scottish death records also contain more useful genealogical information, including:

–       date and location of death
–       name, age and profession of deceased person
–       identity of any spouse (or if widowed, previous spouse)
–       name and profession of deceased’s father
–       name of deceased’s mother including maiden name
–       cause of death
–       informant’s details

Where to look up

The primary place to search for Scottish statutory records is ScotlandsPeople, which is the Scottish equivalent of the General Register Office.  It is free to search.

The other wonderful thing about ScotlandsPeople is that all statutory records over 100 years old have been digitised and are available for immediate view and download.

ScotlandsPeople operate a pay-per-view charging system. Each record costs 6 credits, but the minimum amount of credits you can buy in one sitting is 30 credits, which costs £7.50.  However, if you know you will eventually be purchasing more records, it makes far more sense to buy 40 credits for £10.00 (or you can buy 80 for £20 or 160 for £40).  If buying 40 credits for £10, this brings the cost per record down to £1.50 each. ScotlandsPeople also have a number of other useful records for genealogy including census records, parish records, wills and other documents.  Be warned though, credits expire two years after purchase so use them or lose them!

Northern Irish records

Irish civil registration began in 1864, and certificates principally hold the same information as English and Welsh certificates.

Records for births that took place in what is now Northern Ireland can be searched through GRONI online; note, only birth records over 100 years old, marriage records over 75 years old, or death records over 50 years old can be searched and ordered online; more recent records can only be searched in person at GRONI’s public search room in Belfast.

GRONI’s search function is a little confusing; you can do a basic search for free but need a credit to view, a full search costs one credit (50p) and to view full registration details costs five credits (£2.50); for some records the full registration details will include a transcript, for others an image of the original record will be available.  There’s no minimum to how many credits you can buy, but you cannot buy or hold more than 200 credits (£100) at a time.

If you’re not sure whether your Irish birth/marriage or death took place in what is now Northern Ireland, you may want to search Irish genealogy records as well – these can be searched through irishgenealogy.ie. For information about ordering certificates please see https://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en/civil-records/help/i-want-to-get-a-copy-of-a-certificate-what-do-i-do.

Isle of Man births marriages and deaths

Although the Isle of Man is located in the vicinity of the UK and Ireland, it is self-governing and so has its own procedures for the registration of births, deaths and marriages.  the registration of births and deaths commenced in 1878, with marriages following in 1884.  These certificates are broadly in the same form as English/Welsh/N. Irish records.

You can try searching for records online through ManxBMD.com, and certificates can be ordered from https://www.gov.im/categories/births-deaths-and-marriages/.  For other Isle of Man research, you may also be interested in checking out the wonderful iMuseum – an online archive with useful information for the genealogist as well.

Census records (including 1939 Register): 1841 – 1939

Census records are the main other form of official record that provides useful information for British Genealogy research.  We have census records for the period 1841 to 1911 currently, with the 1921 census for England & Wales due to be released through FindMyPast in early 2022, and the Scottish 1921 census due to be released through ScotlandsPeople later on in 2022.  In addition to the official census is the census substitute, the 1939 Register.

1851 to 1901 censuses

The 1851 to 1901 censuses broadly contain the same information on a particular household:

–       The address or general location where the household was living on the census date;
–       Who was in the household overnight (i.e. the night before the census date);
–       the relationship of each person to the head of the household
–       adults’ marital status
–       age of each person
–       occupation of each person
–       Birth location of each person.

example 1861 census record

1911 census

The 1911 census is in the same format as these earlier censuses but contains extra useful information including how long married couples have been married for, how many children they have had, and how many of those children are still living.

It also provides more information about how each household lived, since it also gives the size of the dwelling in which the household lived.  Finally, for England and Wales at least, it’s the first census for which we have been given access to the actual sheets filled out by the householder; which means that we can see the handwriting of the person who filled out the form (usually the householder if they were literate); perhaps not that useful genealogically speaking, but of immense human interest to be able to see the actual handwriting of our ancestors.

example 1911 census entry

1841 census

The 1841 census, as the first one which took householder information contains less information, but can still be useful, containing:

–       the address / general location of the household on the census date
–       Who was in the household overnight
–       the age of each person
–       their profession
–       Whether they were born in the same county as the current address or not.

example 1841 census record

1939 register

The 1939 Register is not technically a census, but it is a record of households in September 1939 and was taken to produce identity cards for people due to the Second World War.  It was also used to for various war purposes including to issue ration books.

The register contains:

–       address of each household
–       names of those in the household (often with a notation as to later married names for females)
–       date of birth of each person
–       occupation of each person

The 1939 Register only covered England and Wales, and only contains civilians and members of the armed forces who were on leave at the time it was taken.  It’s also important to note that records of those born more recently than 100 years ago are closed, unless the person is known to have died.  For more information about the 1939 Register please see https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/1939-register/.

Where to look up

Most genealogy sites have access to the England and Wales censuses.  I recommend the following:

Ancestry (requires subscription, although 1881 census free to search)
FamilySearch (free to search; transcriptions only)
FindMyPast (requires subscription, although 1881 census free to search)

For Scottish census records, Ancestry has transcriptions, so it can be helpful to search there first for likely records, then once you’ve found the right record, search through ScotlandsPeople for access to the actual image (cost 6 credits).

Parish records (pre-1837) 

For births, marriages and deaths prior to September 1837, church records are the place to go, since churches took records of all the baptisms, marriages and burials that took place.

The records tend to differ in what information is recorded, with burials usually indicating just the person’s name, age and when buried, and marriages just giving the bride and groom’s details, and who witnessed the marriageBirth records tend to be a bit more detailed indicating the parents’ names and father’s occupation, and where they lived (often just a village or locality name is recorded).  Often baptism records will just include the baptism date, but sometimes they will include the birth date as well.

example of parish baptism record

Where to search

In the relatively recent past, searching for these records usually meant trekking to the relevant local records office or archives where the relevant church’s records were kept – which of course meant you had to have a good idea where the event took place.  However, now we have a wealth of parish records online, and more make their way online all the time.

The downside of this is that not all companies have the same records, though you can very often find a transcript of an English or Welsh record through FamilySearch, Ancestry or FindMyPast, and one or more of these may have the original image available as well.  I tend to try a search on all three sites to try and find what I’m looking for if I’m not sure exactly where it took place.  If I do know roughly where the event took place in, I’ll usually use the FamilySearch Wiki to see where best to search for records online.

Other potentially useful records

These are the primary records I recommend you become comfortable with, but that is not to say there are no other useful records for British genealogy research, there are many other records that you may find helpful including probate records and wills, obituaries, actual gravestones, military records, land records and ship manifest records, just to name a few.