Before I get to part two of my beginner genealogy guide, I wanted to give you the low down on my most used online genealogy tools for British research. These will be helpful for anyone with any British ancestry; some of them you may know already, but hopefully some of my tips will also help you!
1. The official GRO historical birth and death indexes (particularly for births to 1917)
The official GRO index is a lesser-known online genealogy tool, at least outside the UK, but it’s now my favourite way to search for birth and death information. It covers all English and Welsh births for the period 1837 to 1917. It also covers death records from 1837 to 1957. It is completely free to search but you do have to register to use the search function. It’s great because once you’ve found your record, you can immediately order the certificate in either hard copy or pdf format; the latter is particularly great for overseas folk since you don’t have to pay shipping and the pdf is much cheaper. The PDF version isn’t quite as fancy as the paper version, but for genealogy needs it works fine. Note this service is currently a beta trial for which no end date has been set. They, unfortunately, don’t have plans to do this for marriage certificates.
The main reason I love this search is that the indexers have painstakingly added the mother’s maiden name to each record. This means, if you were previously stuck on your tree because you weren’t sure which John Smith was your John Smith without ordering several different records, you can now pull up all the records for a given 5 year period (by searching for say 1879 +/- 2 years, and see the maiden name which was recorded against each entry, without having to order 10 different certificates to be sure; that get expensive fast!
The other thing you can do with the maiden name search is search backwards and forwards in the index by father’s surname and mother’s maiden name to gather the names and years/quarter of birth for all potential siblings to a particular ancestor. I have used this method to great effect, even with common surnames, particularly for births between 1911 and 1917, where I don’t have census information to use. If you know when the parents were married you can search from that date forward, or if you aren’t sure, my usual rule is to search a 15 year period either side of the child I know. For common surnames you can narrow down results further based on registry location where the child is likely to have been born, but I usually leave this field blank.
Sometimes the index also highlights errors in your research, or in publicly available trees at places like Ancestry; for instance, most public trees on Ancestry have one of my ancestors as a Mary Pailing, when she was actually Mary Abram. In fact, Mary Abram had died and her husband had re-married to another Mary, and since one census record listed a father-in-law Thomas Pailing, other researchers had assumed there was only ever one Mary.
The search is a little odd in that for some reason they set it so you have to search for male and female births separately, and you can only search up to two years either side of a year. I’ve also had one instance where a record was not in the index at all but was easily found in a browse of the indexes elsewhere.
For other birth and death information, and all marriages, you can search elsewhere; a free option is Free BMD, otherwise all the major online sites paid sites such as Ancestry, Find My Past and The Genealogist have the registers.
2. 1939 Register
The 1939 Register is available at Find My Past (who were instrumental in the digitisation of the register), a British based online genealogy website, and now Ancestry as well. The Register was taken in September 1939 after the declaration of war, and its aim was to help coordinate the war effort particularly for arranging identity cards and rationing. The information collected included the names of those in the household, their dates of birth, marital status and occupation. It was later used in the founding of the NHS.
The register is incredibly useful because it’s the only national record we have of households after the 1911 census currently. Since the 1931 census was destroyed in World War II and no census was taken in 1941, for the majority of us, this and the 1921 census (when released) are likely to be the last national British records of this type available in our lifetime.
The Register only contains details of civilians so will not contain details of military relatives or ancestors, and only covers England and Wales. It is also subject to the ‘100 year’ rule, so does not contain records of people born earlier than 100 years ago, unless someone has provided proof that a person has died, or the person died prior to 1991. I understand that Find My Past are gradually cross-referencing their death records with the 1939 Register, so in time more records should become available. I have noticed that people seem to be ‘unredacted’ from the FindMyPast images and indexes more quickly than at Ancestry, so if someone born around 1917-1919 is not appearing when you search at Ancestry, do try Find My Past.
Even if you know your relative will be marked as closed in the records, if you know their parents’ names it can sometimes be useful to search for names of the parents, since if you can see how many closed records there are against a specific address, this can give you a clue to how many siblings there may have been in 1939.
One thing to be aware of is that the transcription is occasionally inaccurate, so you may have to be a little creative in your search methods; there is a procedure to report transcription inaccuracies.
3. Census records 1841 – 1911
Census records are hands down the best way to get your tree back as far as you can and discover siblings for ancestors in one hit. Sometimes you can find families living next door to each other, or elderly parents living with their grown children; if this is on an earlier census, this can get you back to pre 1837 or give vital clues to allow you to search elsewhere.
The 1911 census is the most recent census that is currently available, with the 1921 census expected to be released no sooner than January 1922. It’s also hugely useful since it lists how long couples have been married, how many children have been born to the marriage (and how many survived). It’s also the first census that (for literate families anyway), was written in your ancestors’ own handwriting, which can be really cool to see. As it was self-completed you can sometimes find some gems – there are a few reported records where householders had listed pets, including cats resident with an occupation of ‘mouser’!
4. Find My Past
Find My Past was actually my favourite site for a very long time, and I’m listing them as a separate resource because sometimes they can be useful to search through instead of the likes of Ancestry. I think they have the cleanest interface and they have some records that other places do not have. For example, as far as I know, they are currently the only place with full Isle of Man birth, marriage and death records. I also think their search function is the easiest to use. You can search for free, but you do have to have a paid subscription to view records. Note they fairly often do free access weekends, so it’s well worth signing up to their newsletter or social media accounts so you can find out when those are. I don’t maintain a permanent subscription to Find My Past because I primarily use Ancestry for my DNA research needs, but I do frequently subscribe for a month to get what I need when Ancestry doesn’t have it.
Find My Past also owns the British Newspaper Archive, which you can access via Find My Past’s Pro subscription, and I consider it Britain’s answer to newspapers.com. There is a very limited trial (three free pages) if you register, otherwise, you can get a standalone subscription if you don’t want a Find My Past subscription. There is also a pay as you go option. Unless you are doing an extensive research project though, you can probably get what you need in one session. Searching is free and you don’t need to register, so that will give you a good indication if there are any articles you might want to get before you lay money down. My method now (since I maintain my Ancestry subscription) is usually to buy a month Find My Past subscription and get everything I need in that month and then cancel before the next month’s payment is due.
6. The Genealogist
I mention The Genealogist separately since it has records that no one else has, including Tithe maps and records, particularly useful where you are searching for a specific area or address. It includes not only landowners but tenants too and covers the period 1837 to the 1850s. They also have an interesting image archive. An exciting project they are currently working on is the Lloyd George Doomsday survey. This was a survey taken across the whole of the UK in 1910, and used for property tax. Currently areas around London are searchable, but they are working on getting the whole of the record set digitised and available online, and North Buckinghamshire was added in late 2019. It’s really interesting because you can see not only where your ancestors lived in 1910, but you see who the land has changed by overlaying modern maps over the maps shown in 1910. The Genealogist also has a wonderful (and expanding) collection of Tithe Maps with colour maps for Warwickshire and Bedfordshire having been added in the last few months.
The Genealogist is a paid subscription site but you can very often find trials available in genealogy magazines, or by following them on social media.
Scotlands People is the main site you want for any Scottish records and is searchable for free, though you do have to register to view results. Records are obtainable by buying pay per view credits. They have a variety of indexes available to search including Statutory Registers, Church registers, census returns, valuation records and legal records. Records that are available to purchase using credits are delivered as an instant download; more recent records are only available as certificates delivered by mail. Since March 2020 this service is suspended and so it is not currently possible to order any records by mail.
8. Parish Records
This one needs a caveat. Not all parish records are available online and not all survive. The Parish Records that are online are available at all the biggies; Ancestry, Find My Past, and The Genealogist. However, not all sites have all the registers, so you need to check carefully to see which site covers the area you need. I don’t recommend buying a subscription to see if they have your record as they may not. Try and take advantage of free searches before paying up, or see if you can have a friend search for you.
It’s also worth searching Free Reg. This offers free searches for some areas, but is not yet complete (it is a volunteer program).
Two fantastic (and free!) resources for pointing you in the right direction for your parish (and many other) records are Genuki and UK BMD. Both these sites have county pages which will give you lots of info about what records are available for that locality.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up to commemorate those who died in either the first or second world wars. You can search for your ancestor by name to find them. Note, if you have trouble finding them but are sure there should be a record, try just surname and first initial. If it is known where someone is buried you’ll receive a result with various documents, a note of where they are buried, and you can download a memorial certificate.
The National Archives Online has a varied range of sources, together with a full catalogue as to what is available if you want to visit the archives in person. I particularly use it for finding military records. One particular set of records I’ve started investigating is AIR 27 – Royal Air Force operations record books 1939-1945 – to see if I can find more info as to the kinds of things my grandfather would have been doing on a day to day basis during the war.
Special mention – Deceased Online
I wanted to give Deceased Online a mention even though it does not make my top 10. The reason being, it’s relatively in its infancy, and very incomplete. It’s great if your ancestor is on it, not so much otherwise. It’s kind of Britain’s answer to Find A Grave. Note it is worth searching for your British ancestor on Find A Grave as well as some British graveyards are on it, however, neither site is anywhere near complete for British graves. Therefore it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether your ancestor will be found on either site. Deceased Online charges to get records, but it is free to search. Since I first wrote this article I have noticed that this resource seems to be getting more and more records so it’s definitely worth a check.
There you have it, my absolute favourite online tools for genealogy ! What about your favourite tools? Let me know in the comments!