English Genealogy: Finding Historical Documents in England

November 11, 2019  - by 

If you have English roots, you can search a variety of English historical documents to learn about your ancestors’ identities and stories. Since the 1830s, England has kept civil registration records of residents’ births, marriages, and deaths. Census records showing entire families exist as far back as the 1840s. Even further back, you may find relatives in parish registers and other kinds of records. Start with these three kinds of records to build your English family tree.

English Censuses

English census records provide glimpses into ancestral households every 10 years between 1841 and 1911. You can often follow a relative’s appearance in censuses from adulthood, living with a spouse and children, back in time to childhood, living with parents and siblings. These records may help you reconstruct entire family groups with their names and approximate places and dates of birth.

an english historical record from a census.

Though exact details may vary by census, the above example shows the contents of a typical census entry. James Firth Jr appears as “head” (of household) with his family: his wife, Hannah, and their children William, Ann, and Grace. Also listed are their ages, places of birth, and occupations. James was a master plasterer; his son appears to have followed him into this trade. Hannah was born in Idle; the rest of the family was born in nearby Eccleshill. Following this family through multiple census entries can help you identify any additional children (born earlier or later) and see what happened to the family.

It is easy to search digitized English census records for free on FamilySearch.org, as well as on subscription genealogy websites findmypast.com and Ancestry.com. The 1921 census, which contains additional personal information not included in previous censuses, is scheduled to be released in early 2022 and will be available on subscription website findmypast.com. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire, but a 1939 register, which was taken to document residents of England and Wales on the eve of war, can also be searched on genealogy websites. (Explore it for free on FamilySearch.org.)

a historic photo of a wedding in England

Civil Registrations

Once you have found relatives in English census records, you will generally have enough information to search for records documenting their births, marriages, and deaths. Civil registration of these events began on July 1, 1837, and registration records are generally available after this date.

a historic english birth record.

This sample birth registration for Ernest Whittam provides his exact birth date and place, parents’ names (including his mother’s maiden surname), and father’s profession. Marriage registrations generally include similar kinds of information about the bride and groom, with fathers’ names. Death registrations don’t usually give the identities of relatives; records usually include just the name, age, sex, and occupation of the deceased, as well as the date, place, and cause of death. However, the informant for any of these events (the person who registered the event) may have been a relative.

Online indexes to civil registrations can be searched for free at FamilySearch.org and FreeBMD, as well as at other major genealogy websites. But indexes do not have all the information contained in the original records. To learn all you can about your ancestors, order copies of the actual civil registrations, which are not available online. Purchase these for a small fee from the General Register Office of the United Kingdom.

English Parish Records

Local parishes of the Church of England began keeping baptismal, marriage, and burial records beginning in 1538. Many of the earliest records haven’t survived, and those that have survived may not be complete. But they are the next place to look for historical evidence about an ancestor’s life or family. In addition to original registers kept by parishes, bishop’s transcripts of those registers may also exist (between 1598 and about 1860). Look for both types of records, which may include unique details.

a historic english marriage record.
Sample marriage record from England, Cornwall Parish Registers, 1538–2010

Hundreds of millions of church registers are available to search on genealogy websites, including for free on FamilySearch.org and FreeREG. (Subscribers may also search major collections at Ancestry.com and findmypast.com.) You may need to search on multiple websites to find the records specific to an ancestor’s parish. Consider also that ancestors may not have worshipped in the Church of England; if so, their life events may appear in the records of other churches.

More English Historical Documents

Censuses, civil registrations, and parish records are just three types of historical documents in which information about your ancestors may appear. As you learn more about the identities of your ancestors, you may also successfully discover information about them in other common records, such as electoral registers, various kinds of death records, and millions of digitized newspaper pages available on subscription websites findmypast.com or the British Newspaper Archives. Find free advice and instruction on tracing English ancestors in the FamilySearch wiki.

Start searching for your ancestors in English historical documents for free at FamilySearch.org.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. Es muy valiosa la información, para quienes tenemos antepasados ingleses. Ya lo empiezo a utilizar. Desde ya, muchas gracias.

    Translation: Information is very valuable, for those of us with English ancestors. I already start using it. From already thank you very much.

  2. The General Register Office Index website now lets you search by mother’s maiden name for births. It is a powerful research tool for finding children who were born and died between census enumerations. There is no fee to search. I have found hundreds of previously unknown babies!