England, Locating School Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

National Records

National records concerning general educational policy, institution files, local education authorities, endowments file, and inspectorate files as well as the Reports of the Charity Commissioners (see Hey), are kept at The National Archives (TNA). A very readable guide to their contents and organization is by staff member Morton, and their downloadable domestic records leaflets are also helpful for:

  • Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools #65
  • Education: Records of Special Services #23
  • Education: Records of Teachers #63
  • Education: Technical and Further Education #24
  • Elementary (Primary) Schools #67

This collection is useful to the student of the history of education as well as those seeking information on a particular school. Items such as the authorization, building, financing, surveys and historical background of schools is likely to be at TNA. Occasionally one finds lists of pupils’ names or other details about individuals, perhaps where it has been submitted as evidence in a court case. Morton has an illustration of an attendance book for Bottoms Industrial School, serving the children employed in a mill in Rochdale, Lancs. Twelve children are listed with 2 hours of schooling each for six days 18-23 March 1839. PROCAT, the catalogue of TNA does not yet allow the researcher to identify specific school records online; research has to be done at TNA at Kew, London.

Local Schools

In most cases the best way to locate and begin researching a specific school is to approach the county or local archive. If they don’t have the extant records of teachers, pupils and daily school life in their area they usually know if they have survived and where they are. Note that many schools have had a change of name, or been amalgamated with another one, or have been known by more than one name. Thus the charity school in Westminster originally called the Hospital of St. Margaret, was also known as King Charles’ Hospital and The Green Coat School (Cole).

If you have a name of a school then try writing to the head teacher at the school itself, as Beauchamp relates when seeking his father’s records. The headmaster sent photocopies of admission registers, and there was a notation ‘D of York, Dover’. Suspecting it to be another school he just wrote to the principal at that address. The reply was from the Duke of York Military School in Dover and he received much interesting material from them.

The present head teacher may know of a local historian interested in the school, who probably knows what records survive and their location. Do contribute your memories, copies of photos or other memorabilia to ongoing historical projects, too. Some records have made their way to local libraries or education departments instead of archives. The Guildhall Library, which covers the city of London, has a website at  that gives, for example, a history and details of pupil records of King Edward’s Schools 1553-1927.

Much information about local schools in the 19th century can be found in the local newspapers and parish magazines, particularly special events such as school excursions, sports days, speech days (graduations) and fund-raising events. Earlier records can be found in vestry minutes, overseers accounts and other parish chest materials.

Other Schools

National and British School records may be at the school, or with the diocesan office or other denominational headquarters for the area. Since there was no legislation, or even consistent local regulations, regarding deposit of old school records, many were simply thrown out because of space restrictions or when schools were amalgamated or new buildings erected. Like other old documents not properly cared for, they may have suffered from fire, mould, mice, wartime activities, and general neglect. Peter King tells the tale of the discovery of old school records in Cornwall when renovations to the old school building were being made (Scholars - A Lucky Find! Family Tree Magazine Vol 12 #4, page 3-4).

The larger denominations had national magazines for teachers like the School Guardian, held at the Church of England Record Centre, which gives items such as list of teachers examined for certificates, situations vacant/wanted, and some births, marriages and deaths.

Board School records are kept at county or county borough record offices, but may still be at the school itself. Records were kept in more detail and much more consistently from 1862 in schools receiving government grants. This was due to the fact that teachers’ salaries now partly depended upon attendance records and the success of pupils in examinations. The grants were replaced by payment by results whereby schools were given four shillings for every child in attendance, which is why one sees average weekly attendances noted in school log books. In addition, eight pence was given for each annual examination subject passed by each child in reading, writing and arithmetic. The payments increased and changed over the years, for example to provide teachers and materials for specific subjects.

A little-known alternative route to finding birth information is that Local Education Authorities sometimes retain particulars delivered to them by registrars from birth certificates from 1876, which were required to ensure that every child was educated (Rogers).

Regimental and naval histories are good starting points for army and navy schools and some of the older records will be at TNA and may also be filmed. Records of army schools can be found with regimental archivists, and the admiralty has details of naval schools.

The Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL) provides a single point of access to descriptions of archival collections that are available for research in universities and colleges. It includes descriptions for the archives of a wide range of individuals, families, and organisations, from medieval times right up to the present day.

Early Public and Grammar Schools There are very few records before the 19th century for anything except the public and grammar schools, and the foundation dates for many of the old-established schools are given by John Richardson’s The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia.

Workhouse school records are generally with other poor law records for the area at county or local archives. An example of using district school records is provided by Nightingale. Likewise denominational school, including Sunday school, records are likely to be at church headquarters if they are not at the school, church or local archives.

Private Schools Few records would have been kept and practically none survive for the various small dame schools, common day schools and other private schools. There may be meagre details in the periodical bishops’ visitations where the clergyman noted what schools were in his parish, whether they taught the catechism, and perhaps the names of teachers. These visitation reports may also be useful in reporting an absence of schools, and indicating if children travelled to another village to attend.

Charity Schools Stella Bond provided a detailed descriptive article, 1998. Bluecoat Boy Friendly Societies sometimes involved themselves in education, for example the Amicable Society School started in Rotherhithe, Surrey in 1739 and merged with the United Society School in 1849. Records from 1777-1874 can be found in Southwark Local Studies Library, but have not yet been filmed. They include 6,000 names and Peter Shilham has prepared an index, and described the functioning of these schools (Rotherhithe United and Amicable Society Schools. East Surrey FHS Vol 26 #3, page 11-12). He includes the types of annual prizes given to about 30 students—commonly a knife, prayer book or other ‘improving’ text, workbox, or (once) a silver thimble.

A wealth of description, illustrations, references and school museums to visit, mainly concerning the 19th and 20th centuries, can be found in the Shire book on The Victorian Schoolroom (May) and Pamela Horn’s The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild

Additional School Items

Your survey of family records may turn up some of the following 19th-20th century items relevant to individual members of your family: work books, reports, certificates, examination papers, text books, school class photographs, testimonials (school-leaver’s character references), scholastic prizes, badges, athletic trophies or attendance medals. Ask the older generation for them specifically as they may not realize how interesting they will be to you. Occasionally one can find earlier items such as 17th-18th century samplers, or a museum collection of memorabilia for a notable ancestor or a local school. Once you have some clues on names of schools and dates of attendance you can then proceed to find the school records.

Census records include lists of staff and boarder pupils as they were taken during term time. Where children living at home were noted as scholars this was intended to indicate that they attended some kind of school, perhaps only on Sundays. However, it was often misinterpreted to mean ‘of school age’; and it certainly did not mean that they were academically precocious!

Wealthier families often had a tradition of attendance at a particular public or grammar school so once you have identified it search for earlier and later generations. Finding which school your middle-class ancestor attended is more difficult in cities where there are a number of schools within reach. Commercial directories list schools from the mid-19th century, sometimes in the description of the town but also in the trade and commercial section. It’s a case of searching each in turn.

School registers, histories and other records are accessible through public and university libraries, and the Society of Genealogists has published a catalogue of their excellent collection.

Centenaries are often commemorated by exhibitions or the compilation of a school history. Webb’s comprehensive index of school records of (Greater) London is a most useful publication. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has quite a few school registers for which a list was published in 1981 (see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Phyllis M. Jacob’s Registers of the Universities, Colleges and Schools of Great Britain and Ireland). Some of their collection have been filmed; they are easiest to find by searching under FamilySearch Catalog - PLACE NAME - SCHOOLS or by KEYWORD.

Lists of Pupils and Alumni

Most of the universities, colleges, public schools, anciently-endowed grammar schools, as well as many old charity schools, have published registers of their pupils and alumni. These are most informative, typically giving the pupil’s date of birth, father’s name, period at the school and some details of his or her later career. Some editions give the name of a former school or tutor even back to the 17th century, enabling further research to be attempted. Some registers also have biographical notes on the staff. Examples of published registers for public schools are the four volumes for Eton covering 1441-1877, and the register for Haileybury 1862-1946 on film 0973294. Mark D Herber’s book Ancestral Trails gives further examples.

Many schools have published annual magazines giving current happenings at the school as well as news about old boys and old girls such as higher education, career, address, marriage and births. In 1964 Phyllis M. Jacobs compiled a list of registers of universities, colleges and schools. John Titford has two most useful articles on school registers, and another two on the registers of higher education institutions including vocational, Anglican, Roman Catholic and nonconformist colleges.

Sometimes lists of pupils turn up in unexpected places, such as the 1898 list of senior scholars at the Countess of Warwick’s Secondary and Technical School, Bigods, Dunmow, Essex discovered in a prominent chemist’s papers (Barrett and Goodgame). Happily with electronic indexing and search facilities such items will be more findable than in the past.

Lists of alumni/alumnae for Oxford (Emden, Foster) and Cambridge (Venn) and many others have been microfilmed. Search catalogues under the name of the university and alumnae, graduates or matriculation. Such a search on the FamilySearch Catalog for Aberdeen yields lists for 1495-1860 (Anderson), 1860-1970 (Donald and Macdonald) and 1860-1925 (Watt).

These are valuable indexes, but more details can often be found at the universities and colleges themselves. The archivist of the British Federation of Women Graduates, Nancy Edwards, has given a history of this organization.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.