5 Tips for Finding Your British Ancestors

August 31, 2016  - by 
5 Tips for Finding Your British Ancestors

So your ancestors are from Britain? What do you do now?

While having British ancestors is fairly common, finding them and adding them to your family tree can be a bit more difficult.

Myko Clelland, outreach manager for findmypast offered some valuable insight in his 2016 RootsTech address. Clelland offered tips on completing British research and outlined how findmypast’s records collection can aid in your search.

Understand Where Your Ancestors Came From

The biggest and most important question in British research is “Where did my ancestors come from?” Often we can know where they landed after leaving their home country. We know they’re from Britain, but that’s a large place. Start your search by narrowing down possible locations.

“Look for a record in the United States that might tell you where you’re looking in Britain,” suggested Clelland. “We need to look for records like a passenger list, declarations of intent, citizenship records, naturalizations, passport applications, and death records. If we can find a region—any location that someone’s from—our job gets much easier.”

Use a Map

Few other tools are as important as a map when it comes to searching for your British ancestors.

“Keep a map with you at all times,” advised Clelland. “There were 15,600 parishes in 1851, but there were only 623 civil registration districts, and there are 86 historic counties. These overlap. The borders have changed often. Sometimes you’ll find your ancestors are in different places without ever having moved houses.”

Passenger Lists

If you’re trying to get back to the old country, the best place to start is with passenger lists. However, British passenger lists before the 1800s are pretty much nonexistent. The majority of passenger lists you’ll find begin in 1890, when the British government was determined to make sure that everything was recorded. Because of this, Clelland recommends using U.S. census and naturalization records to find a year of entry to narrow things down.

“Finding a year of entry will really help us,” he said. “Liverpool and Southampton were the two most common points of departure, but that doesn’t mean that your ancestors came from Liverpool or Southampton. Similarly, not all immigrants arrived in New York.”

If you find a passenger list in the United States, Clelland says to write down the name of the ship, the date of arrival, and try to find that departure from British records.

Parish Records

Parish records are church records and were recorded in every state in Britain. Typically, these records detail baptism, marriage, and burial dates across the nation. However, parish records can offer much more information, especially the records that came after 1812, when parish records were standardized by law.

“You can find occupations, place of residence, and age from parish records,” said Clelland. “There are also some key dates to remember when we look at parish records. In 1752, our calendar changed. The first of the year used to begin on the 25 March, and we changed to 1 January. That means that when we look before that, the year starts a little earlier, and we need to work out when that moves over. We also lost 11 days, so remember that when you look at earlier records, you’re 11 days out.”

Clelland also identified other key dates to remember when perusing parish records:

1754: Hardwicke’s marriage act made banns mandatory and marriages were recorded in a separate register.
1763: The minimum age of marriage was set at 16, unless a couple had special permission from a bishop.
1812: Rose’s act required separate printed registers for baptisms, marriages, and deaths.
1853: The cemetery act allowed for civic cemeteries.

Census Records

Luckily, quite a few British census records are available online, and the majority of them contain plenty of helpful information.

“The first census was taken in 1801 and every 10 years after that,” said Clelland. “It’s like a snapshot of daily life—a photograph of what the household was like at that particular time.”

The 1841 census was the first to record names of each individual who was living in the household. Young adults over the age of 15 were typically rounded down to the nearest five, which is important to remember when you’re searching for an ancestor.

“You have to use a large amount of leeway just to make sure you’re certain of finding them.”

In 1851, the British census became much more informational.

“1851 was the first census to record full birth locations,” said Clelland. “It gets more useful. Marital status, exact age, and relationship to the head of household is all included in 1851, and not necessarily in the earlier ones.”

What other resources have been useful to you in your search for British ancestors? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.

You may also like:

An Introduction to Lesser-Known British Sources

An Introduction to Lesser-Known British Sources

Crossing the Pond: Tracing your British and Irish Roots with Findmypast

Crossing the Pond: Tracing your British and Irish Roots with Findmypast

The British Reference Desk: Helping Folks do the Work

The British Reference Desk: Helping Folks do the Work









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  1. You left out http://www.freebmd.org.uk and civil registration completely. September 1837 is the important date there and it is about 1912 when the mothers surname is given for children. The census at Ancestry goes to 1841 to 1911 every 10 years. Also the Great Britain Principal Probate Registry Index (1858-upwards)which is available online at Ancestry as well as the PCC wills.up to 1858. It is very unfortunate that the church has not yet put the diocesian wills on line particulary for Worcestershire and Herefordshire which are all available on film at the FHL in SLC.

  2. There are many invaluable free sites for researching English ancestors. It’s not always necessary to sign up for paying sites. Try freereg.org.uk, freecen and freebmd. Probate records are also free online and don’t forget the wonderful Online Parish Clerks.depending on the region you are researching.

  3. I had my DNA done, and found out that I am 69% British. I am trying to locate my British Ancestors. Just getting started.Also had Irish, Scottish, German, Scandinavian, and 1% Russian or Finland. Also some Spaniard. Any help would be great. Thanks.

  4. my name was so common its hard to find which path to follow, im trying to find a connection to daniel ellott whomay have been i

  5. I would like to find someone who is in England and willing to help me break a brick wall. by help i mean swaping info and idea’s that would lead to breaking a wall.