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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Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 232

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 232

with Lisa Louise Cooke
August 2019

Listen now, click player below:

Download the episode (mp3)

Download the Show Notes PDF in the Genealogy Gems Podcast app. 

Please take our quick podcast survey which will take less than 1 minute.  Thank you!

 

 

In this episode:

  • Exploring what you can do to go deeper in your genealogy research for a more accurate family tree with Elissa Scalise Powell
  • Irish genealogy podcaster Lorna Moloney, a professional genealogist with Merriman Research, discusses Irish genealogy.

 

Mailbox

Marcia Finds Treasure on eBay

“I recently remembered your idea of searching for family related things on eBay.

My grandfather and his brother both worked as agents for the Wrought Iron Range Co. of St. Louis. They sold excellent quality wrought iron stoves and my great uncle did very well there as a supervisor.

I did a search for the Wrought Iron Range Co on eBay and immediately pulled up a history of the company, an advertisement for the range and a metal they gave away. I bought them all!

However, the best goodie which I am still bidding on is a “salesman’s sample Wrought Iron Range stove about 12 inches tall and 14 inches long in color and with all working parts.

Crescent Stove (Photo: The stove Lisa inherited from her grandmother.)

I may not win the bid, but I am thrilled with what I found.

This will bring my grandfather’s occupation to life for my great nephews!!!!”

More eBay Research Strategies on Genealogy Gems:

 

Steve Shares a New German Translation Resource

“I came across a new site that you might like to inform your listeners about. It is very new and just getting started, so I know they would appreciate a mention.

The name of this new site is “German Letters in Letters”  [germanletters.org]. What they are doing is trying to collect letters written between German immigrants to the US and their relatives back home in Germany.

You can very easily submit scanned copies of any letters you have and the really neat thing is that they will post them at their site. Once they post them, they are asking for translations by any volunteers. So, this is an excellent way to have any letters in your possession to be translated….. for FREE!

I was given about 30 letters written to my GG grandfather, Johann Bernard Husam, who immigrated to Adams Co., Illinois about 1855.

They are from his siblings, nieces, and a nephew back in Germany. They range from 1866 to the early 1900s.

I scanned them and they are now on this site. I was given these letters by great granddaughter-in-law [my aunt] who spoke German as she had grown up in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. She had escaped Czechoslovakia at the end of WWII before the Russians invaded. She, thankfully, had translated all of the letters.”

Resource:

Learn more about German research from these articles at Genealogy Gems.

What Ann Likes About the Podcast

Hi, Lisa, I’d love to say that your podcast has helped me with a genealogy brick wall but at this point I’m only a “drop-in genealogist,” figuring that I’m the only one in the family interested at this time (working on one grandson though, because I think he’d be a real asset) in finding and preserving family stories.

I do research in fits and starts. But, I do love your podcasts. I’m catching up on back episodes now and recently listened to one that started with you describing a granddaughter’s first Christmas coming up.

It reminded me of one of the best things about your podcasts – it’s like you’re sitting in my living room with me, having a cup of tea, discussing your stories and tips and tricks to help with mine.

Thank you so much for all the information, and for your casual, personal, yet professional style!”

Kristine is No Longer a “Cooke-Cutter” Researcher

“I just retired and guess what is first on my list of things I WANT to do? 🙂  I jumped in with both feet listening to your Premium podcasts and realized a few times that I am the ‘cookie-cutter’ researcher.  But, no more. You are the Captain of my ship now. Thank you!

After binging on your podcasts the last two weeks, the first bit of advice I took was changing the way I searched on Newspapers.com. My family’s everyday life’s treasures were buried in the pages of the local news! You made me take a second look after I dismissed the possibility of ever reading about them. 

Thank you so much for your dedicated work on behalf of all the genealogists. My Premium subscription will NEVER run out.  When a family member says “I don’t know what to get you” I’m prepared to solve that dilemma!

Warm regards,
A listener for life”

Resource:

3 powerful newspaper tipsRead Lisa’s article called A Shocking Family Secret and 3 Powerful Newspaper Search Tips

 

This podcast is sponsored by:

MyHeritage

GEM: Overcoming Shallow Research with Elissa Scalise Powell

About today’s guest:

Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, is co-director of the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP); past-president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and 2017 She won the Association of Professional Genealogists Professional Achievement Award. She is a Certified Genealogist®, and Certified Genealogical LecturerSM. You can reach Elissa at Elissa@PowellGenealogy.com. (Thank you to Elissa for contributing notes for this episode.)

Elissa Scalise Powell

 

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

The Genealogical Proof Standard was created to help genealogists gain confidence in their research conclusions by providing criteria that can be followed. A genealogical conclusion is considered proved when it meets all five GPS components.

 

The 5 Components of the GPS

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research – This type of research emphasizes original records that provide the information for all evidence that might answer a genealogist’s question about an identity, relationship, event, or situation
  2. Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item contributing—directly, indirectly, or negatively—to answers about that identity, relationship, event, or situation
  3. Tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence contributing to an answer to a genealogical question or problem
  4. Resolution of conflicts among evidence items pertaining to the proposed answer
  5. A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion based on the strongest available evidence

Resource

The book Genealogy Standards by the Board for Certification of Genealogists provides a standard by which all genealogists can pattern their work.

GPS book

 

 

 

 

 

About Sources

Some sources are considered “Low-hanging fruit.” They can be described as:

  • straightforward research
  • easily accessible
  • record type is easily understood
  • document states the fact desired

Many times, genealogists will need to stretch and reach for harder to find sources. These types of sources are:

  • not straightforward
  • possibly unknown to you at this time
  • not easily accessible
  • time-consuming to explore
  • take study to understand it
  • not self-explanatory

 

Elise’s Examples of the Pitfalls of Shallow Research

  • Believing that family stories have been accurately passed down in all details.
  • Believing that official documents are always correct.
  • Believing that published records, especially transcriptions or abstracts, are faithful representations of the original.
  • Premature conclusions can come back to haunt us.
  • Disregarding ill-fitting evidence can create brick walls.
  • Careless citation practices do not give us the tools we need for analysis.
  • Researching and understanding historical context is crucial to solving problems.
  • Barriers requiring expertise beyond our own should not hamper the research process.
  • Assuming there is only one record and suspending research when the first one is found.
  • Assuming that details are unimportant, or not noticing them at all.

 

Elissa also points out that when we do shallow research, we can actually do more harm than good. Shallow genealogical research:

  • Doesn’t allow our ancestors to reveal themselves or their reasons for actions
  • Puts them in the wrong time and place
  • Can create wrong kinship ties
  • Misleads future researchers
  • Causes brick walls
  • Wastes our time
  • Does a disservice to our current family and descendants

 

GEM: Irish Genealogy with Lorna Moloney of Merriman Research

While speaking at THE Genealogy Show conference in Birmingham England in June of this year I got a chance to sat down for the first time with Lorna Moloney host of The Genealogy Radio show which is produced at Raidio Corcabaiscinn. It airs live on Thursday at 4p.m. and is podcast (click here for episodes). Lorna runs Merriman Research which is dedicated to bringing educational solutions and resources to a wide audience.

Lorna’s website: www.traceyouririshroots.com

lisa and lorna

Photo: Lisa and Lorna at THE Genealogy Show in Birmingham, England in 2019. 

 

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

Are you tracing the family history of someone who lived in the U.S. during the 20th century? Check out a wonderful free database in the United States called the Social SSDI SearchSecurity Death Index, or the SSDI. Keep reading for 5 FREE online sources for the SSDI, 7 tips for searching the SSDI and what you can do with SSDI info.

In 1935 the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, and consequently more than thirty million Americans were registered by 1937. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains over 89 million records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and they are publicly available online.

Most of the information included in the index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Many of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.

The SSDI does not have a death record for everyone; and occasionally you may find an error here and there if something was reported inaccurately, but overall it’s a terrific resource! It’s especially great for many people who were missed in the 1890 census or whose birth predated vital records registration in their home state. Remember they just needed to live past 1937 and to have worked to have been included. So they could have been born sometime in the later 1800s.

5 FREE Online Sources for the SSDI

Several genealogy websites provide free access to the SSDI, including (click to go right to the SSDI at these sites):

On the Search page, enter your relative’s name and other details you’re asked for. Hopefully you will get back results that includes your relative!

7 Tips for Searching the SSDI

If  your relative doesn’t show up in the SSDI, even though you know they worked after 1937 and you know they have passed away, try these search tips:

1. Does the website you are using to search the SSDI have the most current version available? Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated. Try searching at other sites.

2. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.

3. Many SSDI indexes allow you to use wildcards in your search. So for example you could type in “Pat*” which would pull up any name that has the first three letters as PAT such as Patrick, Patricia, etc.

4. Try using less information in your search. Maybe one of the details you’ve been including is different in the SSDI database. For example it may ask for state and you enter California because that’s where grandpa died, when they were looking for Oklahoma because that’s where he first applied for his social security card. By leaving off the state you’ll get more results. Or leave off the birth year because even though you know it’s correct, it may have been recorded incorrectly in the SSDI and therefore it’s preventing your ancestor from appearing in the search results.

5. Leave out the middle name because middle names are not usually included in the database. However, if you don’t have luck with their given name, try searching the middle name as their given name. In the case of my grandfather his given name was Robert but he went by the initial J.B. But in the SSDI his name is spelled out as JAY BEE!

6. Remember that married women will most likely be listed under their married surname, not their maiden name. But if you strike out with the married name, go ahead and give the maiden a try. She may have applied for her card when single, and never bothered to update the Administration’s records. Or if she was married more than once, check all her married names for the same reason.

7. Don’t include the zip code if there is a search field for it because zip codes did not appear in earlier records.

While most folks will appear in the SSDI, there are those who just won’t. But knowing where information is not located can be as important down the road in your research as knowing where it IS located, so I recommend making a note in your database that you did search the SSDI with no result. This will save you from duplicating the effort down the road because you forgot that you looked there.

What You Can Do with SSDI Information

Now, here comes the most exciting part of the SSDI: what you can do with that information. First, it usually includes a death date (at least the month and year) and sometimes a state and last known residence. Use this information to look for death records, obituaries, cemetery and funeral records. And use that Social Security Number to order a copy of your relative’s application for that number: the SS-5. Click here to read more about the SS-5 and how to order it.

Up next, read:

Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free

7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History

How to Find Your Family Tree Online

Best Genealogy Software

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