This is such an enormous topic with so many possible sources to list, that I’m going to focus here on my own journey researching my family tree, and what I have found most useful as I’ve researched my ancestry predominantly in the British Isles. For many of you based in the US, your ancestry will often go back into the British Isles through the 18th and 19th centuries, so I hope you find some information here that is useful.
I will also include some links to ‘signposting’ websites, which may serve as a starting point to family research outside the British Isles.
Note that also some of these databases are not yet complete (or never will be if the records haven’t survived) but usually the site will state how complete the set of records are.
A note on ‘free’ vs ‘paid’ websites
There is much you can do when you get started and it won’t cost you anything. But at some point, if you really want to produce a quality tree with accurate and enriching information, you will want to invest in some sort of subscription or two.
In the past, I have gone with Ancestry, as they contain the most comprehensive collection of records (over 1 billion), as well as one from GenesReunited as the best place of discovering and connecting with living relatives. There are many others.
What type of records are available
Researching your family history in the UK can be incredibly rewarding, and at times, it can all come together with relative ease. Once you find your grandparents or great grandparents around the early 20th century on FreeBMD and the 1911 census (and have verified your trail via vital records), you might find you can work backwards through the censuses and paint an interesting picture of their lives via their occupations, place of residence, family size, local history and much more.
Here is a starting point as to what’s available for your UK ancestral search. Unless indicated otherwise, the various records and collections are viewable on a number of different websites.
1) United Kingdom
Vital records (ie. Birth, marriage, death records, including both civil registrations and parish registers):
- Free searchable birth, marriage and death indexes (from 1837-c1929, with the eventual goal of transcribing the indexes to 1983) FreeBMD (you can then use this information to order the certificate from General Registry Office if you wish to)
- Birth, marriage and death indexes on GenesReunited (with some clever search strategies, you can search the searchable database for free first which lists the name with a year, and then look up the relevant free index which are scanned pages. Otherwise, you can pay for a subscription or pay-per-view option to view the entire database and search results to 1983)
- Free Parish registers (not complete)
- Ancestry has a very comprehensive set of birth, marriage and death records (including christenings, marriage banns, and burials)
- ScotlandsPeople – Scottish vital records and wills online (pay per view)
- Census records (for 1841-1911 for England, Scotland and Wales, with 1881 being free on familysearch.org ).
- 1901 England census online (free)
- Military (pension records and medal rolls) – these provide interesting insight into your ancestors life, as sometimes pension records will contain detailed genealogical information such as immediate family names and birthdates, campaign medals and where served, and even a physical description.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Passenger lists and immigration records (including naturalisation records and shipping lists) – there are many free websites
- Newspapers and trade directories
- Wills, probate and tax records
- Electoral rolls
- The UK National Archives (shortcut to online records)
Many of the nation’s primary records were lost during the civil war in 1922, which has meant previously that unless you can take a trip to Ireland and visit local archives, you often hit a brick wall. But much has survived and more is becoming available online all the time.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the major collections:
- Birth, Marriage, Death and gravestone records. Over 20 Million Irish Family History Records online not found anywhere else online. (see website for individual coverage dates for different counties)
- Church records, 1901/1911 census, and Tithe Applotments, soldier’s wills, Griffith’s Valuations, and others.
- Emerald Ancestors: northern Irish birth, marriage, death and census records for over 1 million Irish ancestors.
- Irish records on familysearch.org
- Ancestry.com has the following (viewable via various subscription options):
Connecting with others is an absolute must and will enrich your journey in family research. One of the most enjoyable aspects of family research for me has been sharing research and giving and receiving help.
Here are a couple of places that I’ve found a wealth of information and connection:
- British genealogy forum
- Ancestry – forum and place to upload your family tree (option to make private or public)
- GenesReunited – upload your family tree and contact other members. Also has records and forum.
Other helpful websites:
- Cyndi’s List – the best sign-posting website to direct you to thousands of other sources;
- GENUKI – reference library of genealogical information (especially good for looking up parish districts and historical geographical information);
- Family Search – the world’s largest collection of free family trees, and genealogy records.
Hopefully this is a good starting place for you on what can be an incredibly rewarding and revealing journey into discovering your family’s story.
You might also be interested in reading previous posts on researching your family history: