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English Records - Family Tree Basics

Journal by Dave Calladine

Let me confess up front, that my own personal experience with genealogy is from trial and error. I am a conservation bookbinder, who used to work with some professional genealogists, including the Royal Heralds but I was not formerly trained by them. My experience is limited to the archives of England and Wales. Please don't go taking me as some kind of world expert on the subject - I am not however, I am willing to share with you, some of the things that I've learned.

To begin, start with asking your family members (parents, grandparents and cousins) for copies of their birth and marriage certificates. Invest time in chatting about silly stories, and if they cant remember, I always insert a silly detail. For example, if they simply cant remember where their parents got married, I say oh one of the big churches in London? and you will be surprised how quickly they correct you, with what they do know. Dont waste money on computer sites, until you have some idea of the basic tree, and your details have been checked out.

So once, you get them to chat about their own parents, grandparents and so forth - use a pen and paper to record what they say. Thats when the real work starts, for you have to check; birth and marriage dates and places. The best way to do this is to visit a major Library in your area and ask if they have a genealogy centre. Here, they will have many resources, but the most helpful are the microfiche and microfilms of birth, marriage and death records. They will have readers for both the fiche and the films, and the thrill of the chase begins.

For English records, the microfiche have local records back to 1900. You will find the records for each year neatly arranged in 'quarters', and in strict alphabetical order within each quarter. Quarters span from 1st Jan to 31st Mar - referred to as the March quarter; 1st Apr to 30th June, June quarter; and September and December quarters. Please bear in mind though - for births, the parents had 6 weeks to report the birth to the registrar, so someone born on 17th Sept may be recorded in the December quarter. Births, marriages and deaths are each kept separately. You will quickly get the hang of it.


I must say at this point that the original records were kept in Somerset House, London Now they have been moved to the GRO (General Record Office) in Southport. Each local register office holds records of every birth, marriage and death which has taken place within their district and can provide copies of entries, in the form of a certificate, on request. Alternatively, you can also obtain copies of these entries online. You will need the GRO index reference and for certificates dating from 1900 up to 18 months before the present date.

Before 1900, the details get a bit harder to read. Between June 1837 (when compulsory registration began) and 1900, the records are on microfilm and microfiche. This is not quite such fun, as the early films are of handwritten, iron gall ink pen, records some on pages faded and damaged with time. The archive is kept at the Family Records Centre in London where you can look through the GRO indexes yourself. Most major Libraries have a microfiche of this allowing you to locate the GRO index reference number. The index reference number is the code (the GRO) allocate to every event of birth, marriage or death registered in England and Wales relating to the year, quarter, and district in which the event was registered. It is particularly important that you make a note of this, as you will need to quote it when you apply for a certificate in order for them to identify the correct entry as quickly as possible. Publications like Philmores have code areas to help you if you cannot read the film. You need to then order certificates of the entries you require - while you are in London, or online (caution it is 7.50 a certificate).

The Family Records Centre (FRC) is jointly run by the General Register Office (GRO) and The National Archives. Records include; births, marriages and deaths and census returns. It is located in Myddelton Street, LONDON, EC1R 1UW and you can view the actual books into which the records were transcribed. Although this would be easier than struggling with the films, it would be rather expensive in travelling costs for most of us, so thank god for the films.

Therefore, what do you get on a certificate?

Birth Certificates contain; Child's forenames, Sex, Date of birth, Place of birth, Mother's full name and maiden name, Father's full name and occupation if married to the mother, and the name, address and relationship to child of the person who registered the birth.

In Scotland (from 1855 onwards) the following additional information would be given: Time of birth, and date and place of parents' marriage

On a Marriage Certificate - Date of Marriage, Place of Marriage, Whether by banns, licence or certificate
Name and age of bride and groom, Occupations of bride and groom, Marital status of bride and groom
Current address of bride and groom, Names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom, and names of witnesses

In Scotland (from 1855 onwards) the following additional information would be given: Mother's name and maiden name
For regular marriage - name of officiating minister (or registrar from 1940)
For irregular marriages - date of conviction (to 1939), decree of declarator or sheriffs warrant

In addition, for the Death Certificate, Full name of deceased, Date of death, Place of death, Given age
Cause of death, Occupation (or name and occupation of husband if the deceased was a married or widowed woman)
Name, address and family relationship (if any) of the person who reported the death.

In Scotland the following additional information would be given: Marital status, Spouse's name, Sex
Father's name and rank or profession, Mother's name and maiden name

Prior to June of 1837, the records were kept by the Anglican churches as Baptism, Marriage and Burial records. Note the distinct differences between the baptisms and burials of parish registers (also called PRs) compared to the births and deaths of compulsory registration above. Sometimes children were not baptised for some years after birth, so this can give some additionally interesting features and mysteries to your family history.

Accessing English PRs varies from one county to another. In Oxfordshire, almost all records are available to purchase as transcriptions on microfiche at very reasonable prices. Some Parishes in Derbyshire have transcribed their registers online, for free searches. In Gloucestershire, there are limited records available, they are much more highly priced, and you have to sign a copyright declaration to say that you will not share the data (I signed M Mouse lol). The best way to find out what is available is to search the web for family history societies and/or county record offices. In addition, joining the mailing list for your counties of interest can be wonderful. Again, the good, the bad and the Ugly here, but most counties have dedicated volunteers who willingly look up information for people for free.

One final, and very important tip though... write down the places that you've searched, the names you looked for on each visit, and the dates you did it. This can save you so much time when you revisit a place to look for newly found family members, so you don't waste time making repeat searches, and very importantly, when you find relevant data for your family tree, keep thorough records of where you found it. When you hand down your research to your children or grandchildren you want them to know that your findings were based on facts, and not just, the 'ranting's of Grandma'. There are some excellent computer programs to help you store and arrange your findings - some are free downloads from the web and apparently very good. I have Family Tree Maker which I bought four years ago because it was designed by the Mormons, so I figured it could handle multiple spouses.

Just a quick note - when writing a surname for genealogical purposes it is the preferred convention to always write the name in UPPERCASE LETTERS. There are thousands of email 'lists' for genealogy, and when you begin discussing surnames that can also everyday words or items like LIGHT, or be first names like PETERS, DERRICK and JAMES; there has to be some quick and easy way of distinguishing the important feature. It also has the added bonus of making the words leap out from a full page of information so that you can find them more easily.

Likewise, with so many names, it is preferential to put a location, and to use the proper noun, (Capital Letter) to make it sound out. England is a bit too vague, so try to put in some more detail, like southern England, no idea of birth county, but married in ... or died in .... Or even son born in .... . In addition, you need dates, and again, if no concrete dates are known, then circa (c.) should be used.

If you do not know what your ancestors Christian name was, then you should put in a \ and a double \\ for unknown surnames, usually of spouses. For guess work, I put a date of about 17 years on the marriage date, as a rough birth date, and look from 13 to 25 years after the baptism for the marriage.

If you get back to 1881, you can start to focus on the census returns, but that is another story.

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by Dave Calladine Profile | Research | Contact | Subscribe | Block this user
on 2006-01-26 14:20:15

Dave Calladine , from Yeovil, Somerset, UK, has been a Family Tree Circles member since Jan 2006. is researching the following names: CALLADINE, LAUNCHBURY, FULLER and 22 other(s).

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