Tracing London and Other Large City Immigrants From Abroad

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Tracing London and Other Large City Immigrants From Abroad

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Genealogical research in England’s large cities and towns requires knowing the specific locale, town, borough or parish within the big city in order to determine in which original records to begin research. That your ancestor was “born in Manchester” or that he was “of London“, is insufficient information. It requires obtaining the specific name of the town or parish in Greater “London” or “Manchester, etc., in order to know specific records to use to build your family’s pedigree connections further back in time.

Our ancestors for example—as well as many among the living today—often named a large city or town as their birthplace such as “Liverpool” when in reality they were actually born in or resided in a locality such as Everton neighbouring just three miles northeast of central Liverpool. Or, some ancestors from London may have said they were “born within the sound of “‘Bo’ Bells” or, that is to say they were ‘born within hearing-distance of the bells ringing from the celebrated parish church of St Mary le Bow, City of London’.; or, ‘I was from the City of Bristol’ (Gloucestershire), when in actuality subsequent research proves the birth occurred at Bedminster, a parish bordering next to Bristol City, and barely across county borders in Somersetshire.

When a migrant from within England (or an English immigrant to another country) such as a “John Smith“ said he was born in “London”, did he mean the City of London proper, with its 100-plus parishes, or, did he mean born in Greater London, which had over 200 ancient parishes and which, by 1900, had over 700 parishes? How will you know which “John Smith” is the right one in all of Greater London. This certainly applies as well for any other big city in England! Knowing or obtaining further or more clarifying information can make all the difference in the world in helping you to prove an ancestral connection in an England city.

So what’s the standard technique that helps researchers to discover an ancestors’ specific birth place or place of residence in England?

How to Begin

The steps below reveal how to best identify and prove ancestry in the rich genealogical records of England—including civil registration, parish registers and other records.

 Step 1: Search Home Records First

Search home records by thoroughly seeking for and searching in “home” sources and compiled family histories. This is a fundamental, preliminary exercise that will usually pay huge dividends in providing precise birth data from the outset of your search. It may not always be correct data, but it is a beginning and will help in narrowing down to the specific place of your ancestor’s nativity or residence in a large city or township in England.

Here’s a quick-list of home record sources::

  • Personal diaries and journals
  • Old letters: old addresses may provide an all-important locality
  • Handwritten family histories, biographies, autobiographies in private possession within the family or sometimes found in library/archives
  • Funeral home records: may give excellent information
  • Family Bibles: sometimes give specific localities of vital events
  • Obituaries: often contain locality-specific residence or place of birth
  • Certificate copies of vital records of marriage, death and births: often give parents names and specific place of residence and/or of birth and more
  • Military papers, i.e. discharge, pension, enlistment, court martial, or awards of merit, valor: usually provide a place of birth and sometimes parents names
  • Baptismal records, membership records, letters of recommendations
  • Naturalization papers: from three to as many as five different papers; one or more may indicate specific locale within an England city
  • Trace as many living descendants as you can in telephone directories (particularly ones with uncommon surnames); also in the U.S. try; then—
  • Interview or correspond with—the more elderly members of extended family members and distant relatives which can prove very effective in obtaining clarifying information on specific locales for in-common ancestry and for obtaining assistance in collaborative research efforts

Once you have gleaned as much information as possible from home sources, but still lack a specific birth place or residence then proceed to Step 2. If you succeeded in obtaining the specific township or parish in which your immigrant ancestor was born or resided before emigrating, then proceed to search in records of the specific England locale mentioned in Step 4.

Step 2: Search Compiled Sources – Family Histories at Archives & Libraries Before

Commencing your emigrant ancestor's research in original records, you must, like a research scientist, thoroughly seek for and study the research compilations of other researchers. The research scientist first seeks out every possible compiled source pertaining to the narrowed field of study so as not to duplicate or re-do research previously performed by other researchers. To do otherwise means the likely loss of critical funding or financial sponsorship for research! Why? Because why would the private funding sponsor or government provide funds for research already uncovered by another scientific researcher!

Likewise, you should thoroughly seek to locate compiled sources on your ancestral lines. By doing your due diligence in locating and searching compiled sources you will come to know where you are on the ‘research map’ so that you'll know where you want to go. In other words, you will know a more precise place to start conducting original research in the actual vital and other records of a specific locale.

A word of “caution” for using compiled sources to assist in helping you build your family pedigree: Compiled sources are notorious for containing mistakes, omissions, in-complete data, half-truths or prejudicial nuances in the information cited! Always take the information and consider it wisely and objectively and then weigh it against bed-rock documentary,and when available, statutory (certified) records such as a birth certificate. (For an extensive list of compiled sources to search, see the Appendix.)

Compiled family history sources include published or manuscript family histories, family pedigrees, local and community histories (especially in U.S.), and donated family research files, biographies and autobiographies. Online archival and (research) library catalogs and inventories grant researchers convenience in determining availability of these local history sources in their collections. Some of these institutions also have additional databases available online for free searches. These institutions and societies may include:

  • Local - city/township/county archives
  • State archives
  • National archives
  • State historical societies
  • County historical societies
  • Research libraries, i.e. Newberry Library (Chicago, IL), Allen Co. IN Public Library, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Society of Genealogists, London, Genealogical Research Library, Bampton, Ontario, Society Genealogists in both Australia & New Zealand
  • Library of Congress, Washington DC,
  • National Libraries, i.e. New Zealand, Australia & Canada
  • British Library, London
  • City [public] libraries with genealogical sections: ie. Houston, or Dallas TX public libraries, Birmingham, Manchester Central Libraries
  • Academic libraries: major university & college libraries have archival sections
  • Societies: Archaeological, local history societies or local studies reading rooms
  • Googling the Internet for websites: by 1) family surname, 2) place-name—both city and/or county names and 3) “genealogy” (or “family history” in quotation marks)

Learning what critical databases and/or indexes are available allows you to more quickly find helpful details of your ancestor. Then you can gain access, via in-house staff or a record agent/searcher; or, through the services of a local volunteer to provide you with the critical search or lookup services. Contact the local archives or repository/library via e-mail for their fees, or for a list of searchers to get the lookup service you want. Here are some helpful websites for finding local volunteers to do a free “lookup” service:

North America

1. - Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness provides a lookup service (usually free) in North American records

2. - U.S. GenWeb network

United Kingdom




4. - free lookups in UK

5. - subscribe then request help

Other Countries

1. Most countries (the counties, or province/states within countries) have volunteers or for-hire agents; ‘google’ to find them


Here’s a short list of websites (‘archives’) which have thus far posted family histories, pedigrees or genealogies—at little or no cost—online:

1• - Google books offers some family history titles

2• - Internet Archives

3• - Family History Archives online

4• - Guild of One Name Studies

5• - Internet Public Library

Family History Library search the Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource file and in the future, the forthcoming databases

Social Networking Websites

Another research aid for assisting researchers to find family genealogical compilations is the social network websites with genealogical intent and content. These sites can have far-reaching capabilities for finding living relatives who are working on or who have already compiled data on in-common family lines and genealogies. They can be a wonderful and a welcome resource. Such websites are great tools for finding distant relatives with an interest in in-common ancestry and with whom you may work cooperatively to identify, share and/or prove in-common ancestral connections. It can further ignite enthusiasm and motivation in the discovery of many more generations of ancestors! Most of the following sites are United Kingdom-based, including:

1• - over 40 million listings

2• offers great resources; building large database

3• - best online family history social-networking

4• – a great resource for finding dead & living relatives

5• - good offerings for numerous genealogies

6• – huge family collections

7• - WorldConnect with millions of trees

8• – one of the best online compiled offerings

9• - fairly new, significant number of genealogies

10• - a good database worth checking for compiled data

11• – a very significant source of compiled lineages

Published Sources

Also, the following published sources can help you identify relatives who have or are currently tracing in-common family lines in England’s large cities:

• The Genealogical Research Directory, published annually by Keith Johnson 929.1025 G286grd, vols. 1983-2006.

• County family history societies publish annual “Member Interests” lists in their respective genealogical or family history journal publications.

Before proceeding to Step 3, here is a consideration: When you are researching an uncommon surname (as the above case), or someone with a very unusual first given name, such as Sebastian, or Provis, or Pleasance, etc., it’s quite possible to skip steps 1 to 3 outlined in this study and proceed directly to Step 4 and obtain a copy of an actual baptismal record or birth certificate, etc., in the original records of England.

Example of an Uncommon Surname - Example 1: Let’s say that Florence Beatrice Bradsell Dunn, came to the United States in the year 1946 but all that’s known is that she was born in “London" but it’s not known precisely where in London. Let’s also suppose you’ve just searched through your family records, and those of extended family members but your searches provide no solution to the precise place of birth. As you search your list of compiled sources, you discover in the website an entry from one of the databases called Ancestral File, possible clues suggesting her birth could have occurred at Hampstead in the year 1884. With an open mind and using this tidbit of birth data, you directly focus your research now in England’s civil registration indexes and certificates for a possible birth for Florence in the years roughly 1875 to 1895. With such an uncommon surname, you find only one likely birth registered—in the whole of England in the 4th Quarter of 1884 and order her birth certificate. The certificate is hers and it reveals and confirms that Hampstead was in fact her place of birth. The names of parents match that which was already known among living descendants and that which appeared in the compiled source. Thus, this single birthplace clue from compiled sources in the country of settlement (i.e. a source within, led your search directly to not only a “London” birth entry, but it helped you verify and confirm her precise birthplace in primary records, and narrowed your search from the whole of “London” with its 28-plus registration districts which comprise Greater London—and quickly helped you locate her precise birth place, birth date and parentage.

This is very possible to do when you have the benefit of researching an ancestor with an unusual or uncommon surname; it can save you the time necessary to search in any or all sources in any country-- indexed records or not!

Step 3: Search Indexes: Key to Finding Immigrants' Specific Place of Birth

Proceed to find compiled indexes to primary sources in the host-country of settlement to step no. 4 (researching in the national and city records of England),be certain to search the records of the country of settlement. If you are researching strictly in England and if your ancestor came from outside an English city or large township, or from England’s countryside into a city, be sure to search the following records for further clues about your ancestor's birthplace.

a. census records,

b. church registers

c. civil registration certificates (marriages and births especially),

d. parish poorlaw records such as settlement, examination or removal records,

e. apprenticeships,

f. directories, etc. for further clues about your ancestor’s birthplace.

Here are some ways to access extant surname indexes to various and important genealogical records for England’s large cities:

a. Vital records of births, marriages and deaths located in state health and vital statistics offices around the USA have indexes to their vital records available to in-house patrons; some will conduct index searches over the telephone; contact them via

b. Gateways to websites such as

c. The Family History Library’s Patron Desktop “Favorites” web links available at to download free data-rich sites. Search billions of names using many websites at no—or low—cost! Search “England/[name of] County/[Name of] Parish or Subject Heading—i.e. ‘Church records’

d. Private collections, i.e. marriage indexes (see

e. ’Look up’ exchanges – see

f. County Family History Societies


h. “Google” name of county and the word “index”; Note: numerous free online county-wide indexes exist

i. findmypast

j. (£)

l. - where to write for US vit. recs


n. – try their FamilySearch Catalog (“Place” Search, then [Name of] “Subject-heading - Index” )

o. - see “Record Search” – UK/US 15. - Social Security Death Index


q. Guild of One-name Studies at: – often has world and country-wide surname listings

Search all of these in order to locate available indexes covering large cities. Indexes may be available for just about any genealogical record type. Numerous indexes have been published and many have been made available solely at archives and libraries. Many are also now posted online including indexes to church records, civil registration of births, marriages and deaths, and census. Indexes to wills, cemeteries, land ownership, military or militia lists may also be available, to a limited extent, and etc.

After having successfully searched indexes to record sources, the researcher normally is led to actual entry found in the original records, which usually provides the precise place of former residence or place of birth in the mother country. Research in the records of the country of settlement is a critical step and usually an essential one at that. If the previous steps haven’t produced the critical place or locale of birth or residence in the city, then original records of the country of settlement must next be consulted. The following original records are the most helpful with i.e. birth data of a big-city emigrant from the mother country:

  • Certificates of marriage, death & births: standard format of statutory certificates often request for and often give parents’ names, specific place and date of birth
  • Obituaries: may provide helpful and clarifying place name information
  • Tombstones: may provide clarifying information on specific place of birth
  • Newspaper articles: may give information on business, accounts of tragedy, and stories of interest on your immigrant ancestor
  • Funeral home records, where available, may be helpful
  • Biographies (when documented)
  • Naturalization
  • Merchant marine
  • Assisted/unassisted ship passenger lists
  • Social Security Death Index – Form SS-5—“Social Security Number Record Third Party Request for Photocopy”
  • Military U.S. and Canadian (“C” series) records may give birthplace/parentage
  • Consulate records of births, baptisms, marriages & deaths in countries

It should be emphasized that death and marriage (and even birth certificates of the children of immigrants) in Australia, New Zealand, United States, and to some extent, Canada, provide (potentially) some of the most crucial birth information to be found anywhere!

Example 2: Let’s suppose that your search in both family records and compiled sources reveals no Florence Beatrice Bradsell birthplace other than merely just “London”. The next step then is proceed to Step 3 and search in vital, church and other records of the state or province in the country of settlement such as Louisiana or New York or Ontario. In Florence Bradsell’s case, after searching in the most likely record sources in the state of Utah—including her tombstone and her newspaper obituary to no avail, you request a copy of her death certificate from the state department of health statistics.

Nationally throughout Australia, in New Zealand, South Africa, most provinces in Canada and now, in a majority of U.S. states, the availability of online indexes makes searching much easier, more convenient and quick. Thus via the state of Utah’s online deaths index, Florence’s death entry is found and her certificate of death obtained for the year 1950 (see below). Her certificate indicates her birth in “Hampstead, London, England” in the year 1884, with the added bonus that it includes the names of both her parents—“Thomas Bradsell” and Catherine Harriet—including her mother’s maiden surname of “Brock”! You’re now ready to search other important records in England in order to confirm this data and for discovering the next generation back. The birth data on death certificates must always be considered secondary source information only and thus used with considerable caution.

The next step of the task is to obtain a copy of Florence’s birth certificate for the year 1884. Her certificate of birth will provide and confirm her birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names.

Step 4: Researching in England’s Records to Determine and Prove Place of Birth

The challenge of researching in England’s large cities is in dealing with the large task of searching in huge population bases. Along with large populations comes the challenge of searching through bloated records—i.e. church registers often containing tens of thousands of entries for not just one single parish, but sometimes numerous parishes. Add to this already daunting task, the task of researching in several additional genealogical record types! The sheer number of inhabitants in Greater London and other large cities in England places fact-finding into slow-motion and it becomes the biggest source of frustration, and challenges the very best of researchers. Thus, availability of complete data-bases or “indexes” then, is incredibly helpful and is an enormous boon to genealogists when researching in especially big cities because indexes help you find next-generation ancestry in a mere fraction of the time, versus normal research the ‘old fashioned way’—parish by parish, by parish, and etc.!

Today’s approach to researching ancestry in England is quite different than in the past. Your approach should always include the protocol to always meticulously and comprehensively search for available key indexes or databases. Such indexes can and often now exist for the large cities and towns of England. This could not be said prior to two or three years ago. The danger here, is realizing that a comprehensive “search” for indexes should never be limited to online sites only, but extended to archives, record offices, academic libraries/archives, even local and public libraries—all of which may have both computerized indexes and databases available to in-house patrons only, as well as manual-form (i.e. published books, microform, manuscript) indexes for you to search.

Big city research in England is greatly facilitated when you know or learn what available quick-finding resources (i.e. indexes) there are for England and its large cities. Locate and then search, or, arrange for someone to search on your behalf, all extant indexes or databases for large cities in which you need to conduct research. If you choose not to use available indexes to key primary sources of vital, church and other records, your genealogical research will expend considerable time and in today’s economy will likely fast become an extremely pricey endeavor—especially when researching from abroad.

England's Key Genealogical Record Sources

A valuable list is in order, then, which provides researchers with as current a standard list as is remotely possible, of data-rich indexes, databases, calendars or other resources (usually compiled sources) of which you can search to help you to more quickly find possible ancestry in the civil vital or other records of England. Always check against the original primary sources in order to validate what you find in these and all indexes. Recourse must always be taken by looking at original record source[s] when an entry from an index or a compiled source appears to likely be that of your ancestor.

Before presenting a list of indexes for large city researchers, first, let’s identify the most prime and reliable genealogical records—original records held and preserved in archives and record repositories which should be used to prove ancestry in England’s big cities from the present, back to early times. Here’s a list of the more used genealogical record sources of England used to compile family genealogies:

  • Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began July, 1837-present; at General Register Office, London (the national level)
  • Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began July 1837 to present; at the local or registration district level throughout the country
  • Census records 1841-1911: all at the National Archives, Kew, Surrey England; many also are available at county record offices
  • Church registers 1538-present: registers of the Church of England and nonconformist church registers provide vital information and must be used to compile family pedigrees during this period; are at county record offices, sometimes at the local parish church, or many online indexes and transcribed records are available for roughly 60% of the ancient parishes of England. You can (and should) also Google the following three (or more) terms in order to find names of ancestors in church registers:
  • Google: city or borough or regional place-names, or name of record type, i.e. for baptisms or marriages or burials, census, military, and other records; also can add such terms as “index” or, in quotation marks, “surname index“
  • City Directories – identify occupations, addresses, tenure of residence
  • Occupation, guild, trade or professional records – often give lineage-linked data
  • Tax assessment – land tenure and value, address; may suggest ancestral links
  • Probate records from 1304 to 1858 – including wills, administrations (admons), calendars, inventories, etc.
  • Manorial records – comprise mostly court rolls including court leet, court baron, court customary—all of which dealt with such issues as behavioral, tenancy, land conveyance and management, breaches of custom, crime, trade offenses, and nuisances, etc. [Note: Few of these records have been indexed]
  • Land Registry of Deeds – Middlesex from 1708 to 1988
Indexes to England's Key Genealogical Record Sources

In identifying the above crucial resources to help prove and to build family pedigrees (above) in big cities, now let’s identify some of the most outstanding indexes to the above records—available either online or at specific locations and which should be searched, first:

1. Census records
  • Google on the words--“place-name” and “census”, or census “year” and the word “index”
  • The Family History Library’s Patron Desktop “Favorites” links (see under the county name; then listed under the  Census” subject heading; access online at )
  • – numerous indexes/databases for mostly 1881, 1851; some 1841, 1861 and 1891
  • Federation Family History Societies – great resources offered by county societies; most produce long and significant lists of transcribed census records (£)
  • – nearly 70 million online parish and church register database (£)
 2. Civil registration indexes
3.  Parish church registers
  • County Record offices – i.e. London Metropolitan Archives and Library. Some big city County Record Offices have transcriptions and indexes to many parish registers and other records, as well as the original records in their collections
  • City Archives – i.e. Birmingham City Archives
  • Private collections of transcriptions and indexes – i.e. Marriage Indexes: Nimrod Index (Wiltshire), Baxter Index ( Essex)
  • Federation Family History Societies – great resources offered by county societies; most produce long and significant lists of transcribed parish registers (£)
  • (£) – nearly 70 million online parish and church register database (£)
  • Society of Genealogists, London –  (£) – the most vast collection of transcribed parish registers to be found anywhere; and much more
  • Online Parish Clerk Project (OPC) currently online; an absolutely project currently under way for the following counties with large cities: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Lincoln, Somerset, Sussex, Warwickshire, and Wiltshire. Similar projects available for Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Durham. "Google" to find these. 
  • “Google” name of county and the word “index” and by name of record type, i,e, “marriages”; [Note: there are numerous free online county-wide and/or parish indexes depending on the county; search parish by parish and county by county]
  • Atlas & Index of Parish Registers by Phillimore; Co. publishers (£) – see county section in back for church and census indexes and addresses
  • The Family History Library’s Patron Desktop collection of approximately 7,000 data-rich England Internet links; visit and search under county name; then i.e. “Church records” links to numerous free, countrywide, county-wide and parish by parish database transcriptions online
  • Family History Library – has thousands of in-house indexes/databases
  • See or purchase booklet: Marriage and census indexes for family historians by Hampson; Gibson
  • – free index to non-parochial registers transcriptions with a free index, pay-per-view for each transcribed entry – about 8 million online
4. Probate records:
  • under “England”, then [Name of] “county”, then “Probate”; most England counties now have extensive online indexes!
  • Google the following words: 1) [name of] “county”/big city; 2) “probate”; 3) “index”
5.  Occupational records:
  • Family History Library thousands of microfilm holdings for “occupations”
  • FHL - [Name of] “County” or [Name of] “City - Occupations” - order; search films at FHCs worldwide
  • Family History Library “Favorites” – see online at under the county names’ “General” folder, under “Occupations”. Many sites!
6. Newspapers, etc.:

7.  Land Registry of Deeds – Middlesex from 1708 to 1988: at the London Metropolitan Archives and Library; visit: ; email:; or call (tel): 020 7332 3820

8. Manorial records: see Manorial Documents Register (MDR) at  for availability

Additional Helps:

• University and other academic libraries and their archives’ collections

• The National Archives’ ‘guides’ to

• British Library - ( – also little used and under-recognized—for family history and biography! – has some links to indexes to church registers and more - best topographical dictionary on the Internet (Imperial Gazetteer)

Wiki Main Page -’s new family history wiki-pedia; calling all volunteers!

Appendix  I


Regardless of your research experience in primary and original record sources, test your knowledge and see if you have done your ‘due diligence’ in the past by looking at the following ‘Where to Find’ list for home, compiled, and/or secondary sources for information on your families. You will be pleasantly surprised. In today’s world, making an orderly approach to tracking all available sources at your perusal is a very difficult task! The following is a standard list of family, home and compiled sources:

  • Family & Home Sources

1. Pictures

2. Journals & Diaries

3. Family Bibles

4. Interview close 

5. Extended family members

6. Interview distant relatives

7. Copies of vital documents 

8. Interview close 

9. Family Bibles 

10. Family data deposited or published

  • Compiled Sources

1. Family Histories

2. Pedigrees

3. Biographies & autobiographies


  • Online family genealogy sites, pedigrees, history sites:

2.  -  thousands of scanned books now online

3. - thousands of libraries and their catalogs online via this site

4.  – Chicago’s massive library collection

5.  (follow prompt to catalog; do a “Surname” search)

6. – see “England/General/Book search” or England/General/Genealogy”

7.  - published family Histories online

8.  - New Eng. Hist. & Gen. Soc.

9.  - Allen co., Indiana Pub. Lib.

10. Houston TX Public Library

  • Repositories and libraries with published family genealogies, biographies and other compiled source databases; here are their online website addresses:

1. Aim25 at:  (100 London archives)

2. FamilySearch Catalog

3. National Archives of Canada

4. The National Archives (NARA) U.S.

5. The Genealogical Research Library, Toronto, Canada

6. The National Archives - UK

7. Provincial archives (Canada)

8. A2A (Archives to Arch.) at The National Archives, UK

9. The British Library, London

10. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  • . County records offices – have numerous family genealogies and pedigrees – Google for their websites and search online catalogs or inventories

l. Local Public Libraries—often have published and/or typescript family histories

  • Compiled manuscripts or typescripts, on family histories, genealogies, biographies, and pedigrees in any country around the world, generally may be deposited at:

1. State, provincial, local & national archives, i.e. Library of Congress; Provincial archives, National Library, Ottawa

2. Research libraries, i.e. Genealogical Research Library, Toronto, Dallas Public Library or Allen County IN – have important genealogical collections

3. Society archives and libraries, and the D.A.R. – have significant records including, biographies, family Bibles, and much more

4. University and college archives - i.e. University of York; BYU - have extensive collections

5. County and state historical societies

6. College of Arms (London), Lord Lyons (Scotland)

7. Large (and frequently small) local public libraries have local genealogical collections