Beginning British Genealogy: What You Must Know to Start

With about 1/3 of Americans claiming British ancestry, chances are that at some point you will need to extend your research across the Atlantic Ocean. Genealogical research in the British Isles has some important differences when compared to the United States. Guest blogger Kate Eakman, a Senior Researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, clarifies confusing terms and helps you get your research started on solid footing!

Beginning British Genealogy

Britain? England? The United Kingdom?

When beginning British genealogy research, it’s important to first talk about the difference between British and English research. There are several terms which get used interchangeably but which really refer to different locations.

Great Britain is an island, the largest island in the British Isles.

On the island of Great Britain are three of the four sovereign nations which make up the United Kingdom, or the U.K.: England, Wales, and Scotland. Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland is the fourth country of the U.K.

The four countries of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Map courtesy Nate Parker.

Usually, when people talk about their British ancestors, what they really mean are their English ancestors. Although we Americans often treat the two words as interchangeable they really aren’t, and I suspect our English friends giggle a bit when they hear us misuse the words.

The four countries of the U.K. have some similarities but many important differences, and that is equally true for genealogical research. Rather than trying to explain all of those differences, this post will focus on English research.

One last thing to keep in mind when we talk about genealogical research in England is that today the country is divided into counties, which are sort of the equivalent of states in the U.S. Older records might refer to those counties as shires, and over time the borders have shifted, shires and counties were added, divided, or absorbed into each other. So a good map or two will be a useful tool to keep handy while you research your English ancestors.

Usually, when people talk about their British ancestors,
what they really mean are their English ancestors

What do you know?

Before beginning British genealogy research and making that leap across the pond, it is a good idea to consider what you already know about your English ancestors. Of course, you have a name, and you probably have an approximate date of birth.

  • Were you fortunate enough to find the name of a town or county where that ancestor lived or do all of the census reports and vital records simply say “England”?
  • If the ancestor arrived as an adult, what occupation did he pursue?
  • When did he or she arrive in the U.S.? Are there any clues on the passenger list to tell you where to start looking?
  • Once you have reviewed all of the information you have already acquired about your English ancestor, it’s time to start your research.

Beginning British Genealogy Research with the Census

The first step in most genealogical research is to study the existing census reports. Designed as a means to count the population for a variety of years, the census of Great Britain (including Scotland) is taken every ten years with the earliest records available in 1841. Due to very restrictive privacy laws, the most recent census available is from 1911, with one really valuable exception being the 1939 Register, available at FindMyPast.

Used for genealogical purposes, the census can give a snapshot of the family at the time the census was taken, as well as provide invaluable information such as the birthplace of the individual being recorded, occupation, birth year, and familial relationships. Elderly parents, or widowed mothers, aunts, or sisters, can be discovered living with younger members of the family.

Drawbacks of using the census for genealogical purposes include inaccurate name spellings, inaccurate age reporting, and inaccurate assumptions made by the enumerator. Another thing to keep in mind is that in the 1841 census the enumerated rounded down to the nearest five years the ages of people over 15. So a person who was listed as 25 could have been 25 through 29 years old.

It is important to remember that for the census reports through 1901 the enumerator copied the household information into books, and these copies are what we have today. Of course, when information is copied it is susceptible to error. The person who completed the census form may have had difficult-to-read handwriting, or the enumerator may have entered things on the wrong line. The individual reports have been kept for the 1911 census and offer a greater likelihood that the information they contain is very accurate.

An example of a transcription from the 1891 English Census from Familysearch.org.

Detailed transcripts of English census records are available for free on FamilySearch and the images can be found for a fee at FindMyPast.

It is important to remember that for the census reports through 1901 the enumerator copied the household information into books, and these copies are what we have today.

Civil Registry of Vital Events

All English births, marriages, and deaths were required to be registered in a civil registration office beginning in July of 1837. In addition to the records themselves, there are indices which list the name of the person who was born, married, or died, the place where the event was registered, and the quarter and year in which the event occurred. Because the General Register Office (GRO) will only search one year on either side of the date provided, it is best, but not required, to include the index information when ordering documents from the GRO.

Free BMD is a free database which allows you the most freedom to search for the birth, marriage, and death index record of your relatives. You can enter whatever information you know including the place where the event happened, a specific year or range of years, age, and mother’s maiden name.

Depending on the time period, the index may be handwritten or mechanically printed. The information can then be used to order a copy of the actual record from the General Register Office (GRO) in England for about $10 per record.

An example of handwritten (left) and mechanically printed (right) birth index entries. Photos courtesy https://freebmd.org.uk.

The information contained in birth records includes:

  • Name, date, and place of birth;
  • Father’s name (if given at time of registration), occupation; and
  • Mother’s name, maiden surname.

The parents’ places of birth were added after 1969, and the mother’s occupation is listed after 1984.

Marriage records include:

  • Date and place of marriage;
  • Name, age and marital status (spinster/bachelor, widowed, divorced) of the bride and groom;
  • Occupation and usual address;
  • Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom, with a note if either man was deceased at the time of the marriage;
  • Names of the witnesses;
  • Name of the person who solemnized the marriage.

Death records in the United States are often relied upon to provide the names of the parents. English death records do not include that information and therefore are not as useful for genealogical purposes. Each death record includes:

  • Name, date, and place of death;
  • Date and place of birth (before 1969 a certificate only showed age of deceased);
  • Occupation and usual address;
  • Cause of death;
  • The identity of the informant.

There are other records available, which we will talk about in a later post, which can be used to find and trace your English family members. The largest group are the religious records, and sometimes those can help you extend your family back in time to the 1600s – 400 years or more!

Beginning British Genealogy Important Take-Aways…

  1. “Great Britain” is an island. “The United Kingdom” is a country. And “England” is a country. Normally, when people are talking about their British ancestors they are referring to their English ancestors.
  2. England has counties, or what used to be known as “shires,” which function sort of like our states. The borders have changed over time, as have some of the names, so use a map when necessary to verify where you are researching.
  3. Census records are available from 1841 through 1911. Really good transcriptions are available for free at Family Search, or on the for-fee site Find My Past. And remember that age idiosyncrasy about the 1841 census.
  4. Finally, civil birth, marriage, and death records are available from the GRO. You can use the index listings to find the most likely match for your ancestor, and those can be found online at Free BMD.

Have fun and good luck finding your English ancestors!

 

Kate Eakman is a Senior Researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. 

Click here to learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team.


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New U.S. WWI Military Records for Genealogy

Topping the list of new and updated genealogy records this week are United States military records. Ancestry.com has a new collection of U.S. Navy Muster Rolls and an updated collection of historical postcards. Enjoy a special interview with military expert Michael Strauss on how he solved an old postcard mystery! Also new this week are WWI U.S. records at FamilySearch for Michigan and Utah, which you can access for free online. 

Featured: U.S. Navy Muster Rolls

Ancestry.com has a new collection of U.S. Navy Muster Rolls, 1949-1963. From the description:

“These records were created to document enlisted Navy personnel assigned to each and every discrete Navy command (known as “activities” in Navy terminology), such as ships, aviation squadrons, air stations, bases, stations, training centers and schools, flag staffs, and Marine Corps units.
“Arranged by two-year chronological subseries (1949-1950, 1951-1952, 1953-1954, 1955-1956, and 1957-1958), followed by single-year subseries (1959-1971). Each subseries is arranged by “activity number,” a unique number assigned to each ship, unit, and command within the Navy. Each activity’s muster rolls are arranged in chronological order by quarter, typically with enlisted personnel arranged by rate and thereunder alphabetically by surname.
“Beginning in the spring of 1956, officers precede enlisted personnel, with officers arranged either alphabetically by surname or hierarchically by rank. Personnel diaries, which precede each quarter’s muster rolls, are arranged chronologically by date.”

Historical Postcards

Ancestry.com also recently updated their collection of U.S. Historical Postcards, 1893-1960. You might be wondering how historical postcards would be valuable to your genealogy research. The collection description sheds some light on what you can use this database for:

“This database contains over 115,000 historical postcards with photos of places in the United States. Each postcard caption has been indexed and may be searched by keyword or location. The database also includes the city, county, state, and postcard era (estimated year range) for most postcards.

This database is primarily useful for obtaining a photograph or picture of a specific place in time. If you do not already have pictures of the places your ancestors lived, historical postcards are a good alternative to personal photos.”

In the video below: A captivating story unfolds of old postcards from WWI that are snatched from oblivion by Michael Strauss, who is the Genealogy Gems Podcast Military Minutes man. Michael shares the story of how he found the historic postcards on eBay, and the research process he followed to identify their author. These are strategies that you can use in many areas of your family history research!

FamilySearch

You can explore even more new WWI records for genealogy thanks to FamilySearch’s newest additions to their free records.

These records may help you find out more about your ancestors who served in the military during WWI. Depending on the collection and record, you might find:

  • name of Veteran;
  • serial number;
  • address;
  • place and date of birth;
  • nationality;
  • color;
  • occupation before and after the war;
  • marriage date;
  • wife’s name,
  • birthplace and date;
  • names of children and their birth dates;
  • parents’ names and addresses;
  • first camp entered and date;
  • rank, company, and regiment;
  • transfers and promotions;
  • battles engaged in;
  • discharged date and reason, and additional information.

If you don’t find the person you’re looking for, FamilySearch has these helpful suggestions for next steps:

  • Look for variant spellings of the names. You should also look for alias names, nicknames and abbreviated names.
  • Look for an index. Local genealogical and historical societies often have indexes to local records.
  • Search the records of nearby localities (or military units, counties, parishes, etc.).

More Military Records with Michael Strauss

Michael Strauss is our resident Military Minutes man for The Genealogy Gems Podcast. He first debuted on the show on episode #207, where he talked about draft registrations. Click here to listen to the episode and download an exclusive free 4-page handout! For more expert military research tips and insight, browse Michael’s many articles on our website by clicking here.

 

About the Author: Lacey Cooke has been working with Genealogy Gems since the company’s inception in 2007. Now, as the full-time manager of Genealogy Gems, she creates the free weekly newsletter, writes blogs, coordinates live events, and collaborates on new product development. No stranger to working with dead people, Lacey holds a degree in Forensic Anthropology, and is passionate about criminal justice and investigative techniques. She is the proud dog mom of Renly the corgi.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

New & Updated US Genealogy Records Online

From coast to coast, U.S. records from the ‘genealogy giants’ are new and updated this week. Findmypast has a new collection of mine accident records for Pennsylvania (and we’ll also highlight a similar collection for England). Ancestry.com has updated a large number of genealogy collections for U.S. marriage, census, and military records that you’ll want to check out. And lastly, FamilySearch has made updates to a small set of U.S. county, tax, and enumeration records. 

new genealogy records online

Pennsylvania, Register Of Mine Accidents

Mining was an integral part of United States history. Immigrants were able to find work in the mines but sometimes at great risk and peril. Findmypast has a new collection that may shed light on the miners in your family tree.

The Pennsylvania Register of Mine Accidents is a collection containing records from the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries. These records document mine accidents for the anthracite districts and the bituminous districts between 1899 and 1972. They are held by the Pennsylvania State Archives and links to the PDF versions of the accident registers are available on the transcripts.

The records explain where the accident happened, the cause, whether the accident was or was not fatal, and who was at fault. A few examples of the accidents include caught in a conveyor belt, runaway trip wrecked into an empty trip, crushed with a possible fracture of the leg, fallen roof, and falling coal.
With each record, you will find a transcript of the vital information about the individual involved in the mining accident, including nationality, name, age, marital status, and other details. Over time the amount of information recorded at the time of the accident changed as the volume of accidents diminished.
More Mining Records at Findmypast
If your mining ancestors were immigrants, they may have also been miners in their home countries. Findmypast has another fascinating collection of records of England Mining Disaster Victims. Included in these records are the 26 children who lost their lives in the Huskar Pit disaster of 1838 as well as 88 of the men who died in the Cadeby Main pit disaster in 1912. The initial explosion at Cadeby Main killed a total of 38 men; however, when a rescue party was sent in, another explosion occurred, killing 53 of the rescue workers.
From these transcripts, you can discover the following information: name, birth year, age, event date, colliery, and incident details. Four counties are represented in the records: Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Yorkshire. This collection has been obtained from the Alan Beales Database of Fatalities in the Coal Fields. Additional information about the records can we found on the source’s website.

Updated U.S. Records at Ancestry.com

Over at Ancestry.com you’ll find big updates to numerous records collections for the U.S.

Marriage Records

Military Records

Census Records

More Updated US Genealogy Records at FamilySearch

Lastly, we head over to the all-free genealogy giant website FamilySearch. This week they’ve made updates to the following US genealogy records collections:

Most of these updates are pretty small, under 2,000 records. But you never know where your ancestor’s name might be lurking! The Ohio Tax Records collection has over 1.5 million new records, so if you have Ohio ancestors you’ll definitely want to check it out.

More U.S. Research Resources on the Free Genealogy Gems Podcast

If you’re filling in the gaps of your family tree with your U.S. ancestors, you’ll love episode #193 of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! In this episode, we’ll talk about tips for using the U.S. Public Records Index. We’ll also dig deep into using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for genealogy research, including what kind of records you can access, how to request them, and more. Take listen to this episode right now in the YouTube media player below, or find it on the go on the Genealogy Gems App!

Lisa Louise Cooke Author

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke is the producer and host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google ToolboxMobile GenealogyHow to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series. She is an international keynote speaker and the Vice President of the Genealogical Speakers Guild.

 

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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