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English Genealogy 101

Tracing Your Family Tree in England & Wales


If your family tree stretches back to England, you're in pretty good shape. England has maintained an excellent system of official records stretching back into the early 1800s, including civil registration and census records. If you want to go back further, parish records, city directories and a wealth of other records exist that can take you back into they 1600s and beyond. As interest in family history grows in England, more and more records are also being made available online.

While an introductory guide, this article assumes that you know at least the basics of researching your family tree. If you're new to family history research, begin by reading First Steps: How to Begin Tracing Your Family Tree.

Learn Your Way Around

Whether you live in England or elsewhere, a basic familiarity with the geography and political divisions of England and Wales is essential to genealogy research. As far as genealogy goes, it is important for genealogists to know that most records are filed by county. Just to confuse the issue a bit, the government decided to restructure its administrative counties in 1972. This did not alter or abolish the counties themselves, but does affect where you'll find older records. Check out a good gazetteer, such as the Gazetteer of British Place Names, and familiarize yourself with the boundaries of the pre-1974 "historic counties" - because that is where the records will be filed.

Civil Registration

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales began on 1 July 1837. To order a full, certified copy of a civil event, you will need the full index reference (often referred to as the GRO index) for the birth, marriage or death. The Family Records Centre in London is the official repository for indexes of all births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales since 1837 as well as indexes of adoption since 1927 and indexes of births, marriages and deaths for some British citizens abroad since the late 18th century. The GRO registration indexes are also available from many locations online.

Once you have the reference from the GRO index, records of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales are held by the General Register Office (Office for National Statistics). You can order certified copies of these certificates online, or by telephone, postal mail or email, provided you have the proper reference (year, quarter, registration district, volume and page number) from the indexes.
How to Request Copies of Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates

Census Records - 1841-1901

A census has been conducted in England & Wales every 10 years since 1801, except for 1941 due to WWII. The 1841 census marks the first for which names of individuals were included, and from 1851 on, the census also gives the place of birth. To protect the privacy of living individuals, the most recent census to be released to the public is 1901. Digitized copies of the complete British census from 1841 - 1901 are available online (mostly through subscription sites). The census records are also available on microfilm through the Family History Library and its network of Family History Centers.
Researching Ancestors in the British Census

Parish Records

Prior to 1837 there was no central registration of births, marriages and deaths in England, and therefore parish registers or church records are the main source of information for establishing the facts of such events during this period. Parish registers from England and Wales may date back as early as 1538 -- although mid-1600s is more common -- and can help fill in the gaps prior to 1837.

Parish registers are usually held in local or county record offices, but may also still be held by the local parish. Copies of entries from Parish Registers were also made annually and sent to the Bishop. These copies are known as Bishops Transcripts or Parish Register Transcripts. Generally, the Bishops Transcript is an exact copy of the Parish Register, but sometimes one or the other may include additional information or be easier to read. It is generally best, if possible, to check both copies.

Because they are not held centrally, parish records aren't as easy to access online. The largest online collection of information drawn from parish registers in England and Wales is the International Genealogical Index at FamilySearch.org. The IGI includes millions of entries transcribed from parish register records for England and Wales, but it is important to note that these records are not the only source of information included in the IGI. It is also a database of transcriptions, taken from the original microfilms, opening the door to a chance of errors. Other online sources for parish registers, exist, including many projects by local historical societies and individuals.

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