Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

Research in England

by Donna Przecha
Print this article
Printer-friendly version
Exploring England's Major Genealogical Records
Donna Przecha examines what you can learn from civil registrations, census records, and parish records in England. Find out what you should know before heading to the Family History Library or to your ancestors' homeland.

In this article, "the Family History Library" refers to the central genealogy library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), located in Salt Lake City. "Family History Centers" are LDS genealogy libraries located throughout the world through which researchers can borrow films and fiche from the Salt Lake facility.

If your genealogy research takes you to England, consider yourself fortunate. To begin with, you will not have a language problem — at least, not too much, even though it is said at times that we are divided by a common language! England has been a very stable country, not overrun by foreign armies, and many old records still exist. The political boundaries have been pretty much the same for centuries so the political divisions will mostly have the same names and boundaries. The only geographical change is that the counties were restructured in 1974 and the genealogy records are filed by old county boundaries, so you do need a pre-1974 map.

Three Major Sources

If you are working in the early twentieth or late nineteenth centuries, there are three main types of records that you need to consult:

  • Civil Registration (births, deaths and marriages and their indexes)
  • Census records
  • Parish records

A large percentage of these records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and are available through the Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Census and parish records are arranged geographically so you must know where your ancestors lived. The Civil Registration is national, but unless the name is very unusual, you will probably need to know at least the county to be sure you have the right person. The International Genealogical Index (IGI),available through the Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), can be help reveal in which localities your surname was prevalent.

Civil Registration

Since July 1, 1837, it has been a requirement that every birth, death, and marriage be registered with the central government, which means there is only one place you need to look for one of these records. However, prior to 1875, there were no penalties for not registering so compliance between 1837 and 1875 was not 100%. The event is registered at a local office, which retains a copy, so each document should be available in both the local registry office as well as the central office.

The death record is the least helpful to a genealogist as it only gives the name of the person, address where they died, sex, age, rank and profession, cause of death, and signature, description, and residence of the informant. It does not give parent's names nor a woman's maiden name. Marriage records are quite helpful because in additional to the names of the bride and groom and date of marriage, it also gives the ages, marital condition (spinster, widow, etc.), rank or profession, residence, father's name, and father's rank or profession for both parties. Birth certificates are also useful because, in addition to the child's name, sex, and date and place of birth, they also contain the name of the father with his rank or profession, and given and maiden name of the mother. As with all similar documents, pay particular attention to the informant. It is very likely this person is a relative.

The records are all indexed by type — birth, death and marriage — and then by name. Each index is produced quarterly so if you only know the year of the event, you may have to look in four indexes before finding it. Keep in mind that the event had to be reported within six weeks so a birth at the end of March (the first quarter) might not be reported until May 1 (second quarter). If you locate the event in an index, it will give you a reference to the book and page. If you can supply this information with your application, the fee for obtaining a copy of the certificate is less. The indexes are available on microfiche and microfilm through Family History Centers. Some of the larger centers have the films permanently while others may have to order them individually from Salt Lake City. If your local center does not have the indexes and you have to search over several years, it may be expensive to order so many film or fiche. In this case, you may want to hire a researcher, either in the U.S. or England, to search for you.

The actual certificate must be ordered from England. If you know the exact date and place of the event, you can contact the General Register Office in Southport directly via mail or e-mail. If you know the district, you can contact the local registry office as the certificate is less expensive there. (Learn how to order a certificate.) for excellent information on how to order a certificate.) If you are in London, you can order it at the Office for National Statistics, which is part of the new Family Records Centre. It houses Civil Registration and census records that used to be kept at St. Catherine's House as well as the Census Reading Rooms in Chancery Lane.

Census Records

In conjunction with the vital records, which you would want for direct ancestors, you can fill out family groups much less expensively using the census, which is available every ten years from 1841 through 1891. All census returns are available from the Family History Library, but unfortunately, there are few indexes to the census so you need to have a pretty good idea of where people lived. Birth, marriage, and death certificates can help you determine location, especially if the name is not a common one.

The 1841 census lists everyone in the household by name, sex, and occupation. Ages are rounded down to the last multiple of 5 — i.e., a 49 year old person would be listed as 45. The place of birth is either Y or N meaning "Yes, born in this county" or "No, not born in this county."

Later returns give names, exact ages, occupations, relationships to the head of the household, and parishes and counties of birth. If you are searching a fairly large city, you might be able to find the person in a city directory first. That will give you an address, which is helpful because there are several indexes for large cities which tell you where in the census you can find the records from each street.

Parish Records

Using the names and ages found in the census and on civil registration certificates, you can move back before 1837 to the parish records which extend back another 300 years to 1538. Naturally, not all parishes have kept their records intact for this period of time, but many parishes go back to the 1600s and some to the 1500s. Again, the English researcher is fortunate because the Family History Library has filmed the majority of parish records in England and they are available on microfilm. Where it may take four films to cover one year of index in the civil registration, one film of parish records can cover 200 years and give you many new family names — providing the family stayed in one place.

Parishes corresponded quite closely to the villages of the same name. A rural parish may include a village and two or three hamlets. In larger cities there will be several churches so you will need to determine in which parish your family lived. There are many books showing the parishes of Great Britain, so check your local genealogy library.

The information in the records varies widely. A baptism, or burial record especially, may only give the name. More helpful parish records will give the father's name on a baptism and sometimes even the mother's name is listed. It is extremely rare to ever find a mother's maiden name listed on a baptism record. Burial records may give age or, especially for children, will note the father's name. Marriage records may only contain the name of the bride and groom, but often will indicate the parish. Since the parish records, especially the early ones, were written on a blank sheet rather than a form, a comment may occasionally be added. I found the following comment about my ancestor in one record: "The remainder of names given at baptisms together with ye names of Persons buried and married this year & the following 1666 were lost (as I am informed) by one Francis Fludd then churchwarden." (What did Mr. Flood do with all those records?!) Keep in mind that the dates are for baptism and burial, not birth and death, but children were traditionally baptized a few days after their birth.

Parish records are, for the most part, from the Church of England. However, rules required that Catholics register the baptisms and marriages in a Church of England and that they be buried by the Church of England. Many of these requirements were often ignored, but Catholics would often marry in the Catholic Church as well as the Church of England. Anyone not conforming to the Church of England were called Nonconfirmists and included Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists. You will have to look in other specialized sources for these records.

It was also required that banns be read in the parishes of both the bride and groom for three weeks prior to their marriage. After 1754, when marriage laws were made stricter, the banns were recorded in a separate book or the parish record. These banns books may also be available. If the couple did not marry in the parish of the bride or groom, they had to obtain a special license. Licenses are found in many different locations, but may have interesting additional information if they can be located. Another helpful finding aid is Boyd's Marriage Index by Percival Boyd. Many parishes have been indexed by bride and groom and are arranged by county. If you locate your ancestors, it will direct you to the correct parish.

Parish Chest Records

You may also find "parish chest records" listed in the Family History Catalog under the parish you are searching. These included poor taxes, bastardy bonds, settlement and removal records, apprenticeship records, churchwarden records and other events relating to the church and village. The parish was responsible for taking care of the poor. Since this could be a large expense, they did not accept people on welfare lightly. If the family was not originally from the parish, the church authorities might send them back to their original parish to avoid having to support them. If a girl had an illegitimate child she and the child might become dependent on the parish. Every attempt was made to determine the identify of the father so he would have to provide support. These records can provide wonderful details on a family.


Another valuable source of information is wills. They were not reserved for the very wealthy — many yeomen farmers made out wills. Often a father would mention all of his children in a will. Wills since 1858 are all held by the Principal Probate Registry and are indexed. For wills prior to 1858, the jurisdictions can be extremely confusing and you may have to be very determined to run down a particular one. A will was supposed to be probated in the district where the decedent lived or had property. If his holdings were scattered through several districts, the more general jurisdiction was the Prerogative Court of York, for the north, and Prerogative Court of Canterbury for the rest of the country. Sometimes, as a matter of prestige, a will would be proven in one of these courts even if it were not necessary. It is worth your while to check these two courts first. The wills are generally indexed by year, but in many cases you will find that they are not in strict alphabetical order. Instead, names that begin with the same first letter or first two letters are grouped together.

Research in England

While it is great fun to visit the ancestral village, hopping on an airplane to England is not the best way to begin your genealogy research. In England the records are spread amongst many repositories. These usually are open normal business hours and may have limited space so reservations are required. The records are usually kept in closed shelves so you have to request an item and wait for it to be retrieved. However, you often will be working with the original document, not a copy or microfilm. If you want a copy, it may not be possible because the document is too fragile. If copy services are available, they are often operated by the repository employees which means you have to leave the documents and wait for the copies and there may be restrictions on what records can be copied. (At one county record office I was told no copy of the microfilmed parish record for a 17th century entry could be made without permission from the local parish priest.)

People travel from England to Salt Lake City to do research in the Family History Library. The records are all in one place; the facility is open 6 days a week, 5 of them from 7:30 AM to 10 PM; you pick up and refile the film yourself and make your own copies. It is a much more efficient way of researching.

However, once you have exhausted the resources of the Family History Library, there may be records in England that you would want to examine, either personally or via a hired researcher. The Public Record Office (PRO) in Kew has many records that are not available elsewhere.

The Society of Genealogists in London also has many published family histories and the largest collection of transcribed parish registers. Each county in England has its own record office and they often have additional land, church, taxation, and other records that you will not find elsewhere. Contact the county record offices in advance for information on opening hours, reservations and how to obtain a reader's ticket.

Visiting the local churchyard is not always rewarding. The early tombstones may be worn so badly they cannot be read. It is not unusual for the parish officials to remove all the tombstones, perhaps stacking them along a wall (where it may not be possible to read them), so that it is easier to maintain the landscaping.

This article only mentions the more common records that most people will use. As you get deeper into English records you will find there is great diversity and, depending on the family history, you may find a wealth of information in some very obscure records.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
•Find new leads on your ancestors. Get a FREE Trial Membership.
• Have questions about researching your family history? Browse through our expert tips archives for answers.
How-To Article: They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island
How-To Article: European Migration and Your Family History
Online Lesson: What are Civil Registrations?

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011