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Going back before 1837

Ancestors Magazine cover - March EditionIf you have just started researching your family tree, Simon Fowler has some sound advice in this and other articles in our ancestors series.

Simon is an experienced writer and lecturer regularly giving lectures at the Society of Genealogists. His latest book Military History on the Internet has just been published by Pen & Sword

Ancestors is the Family History Magazine from the National Archives click for the special offer they are making to laterlife visitors

Using the official records of births, marriages and deaths, and census records, as described in previous newsletters, it is fairly easy to trace your ancestors back to the days of Jane Austen. Going back before then is more difficult – there are different types of records (never mind the handwriting) to master. But it is perfectly possible, although most people get stuck in the first half of the 18th century. Even having three hundred years of ancestors is something to be proud of.

Parish registers
The most important records are undoubtedly those kept by the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey ordered the keeping of registers of baptisms, marriages and funerals in 1538, although few survive before the early 17th century. Indeed they are still kept today. If you married in a church, you will have joined generations of your forebears by signing the register.
Initially there was no compunction for vicars or, more often, their clerks to provide anything more than the names of the individuals being married or buried, and the name of the child being baptised and their father (although even this is sometimes omitted). Occasionally you may come across a detailed register, but these are rare.
In 1753 printed marriage registers were introduced and these provide more details of the bride and groom. Then in 1812 clergymen had to fill in printed baptism and burial registers, both of which provided more information than had previously been the case.
There is no national collection of parish registers, although the Society of Genealogists has the best collection ( ). Relatively few are available online. Even so, if your ancestor came from a small parish it is worth checking Google or another search engine, because a number of local history societies and local historians have placed registers online.
In general, parish registers are held at county record offices. You can find details of these archives at .
There are two indexes based on parish registers, although neither are complete.  contains millions of entries of baptisms and, to a lesser degree, marriages which originally appeared in the International Genealogical Index. The National Burial Index has details of burials. At present it is being transferred from  to  so you may need to check both sites to find the entry you want.
Not everybody was baptised, married or buried in an Anglican church. From the 17th century a number of new faiths grew up – generally referred to as Nonconformists – such as Methodists, Baptists and Quakers. Their registers are available online at , although not everything is yet available. Transcripts of entries are also available at .

Monumental inscriptions
Inscriptions on gravestones and memorials inside chapels and churches can contain a wealth of information. There are many transcripts of monumental inscriptions, as they are known, but relatively few exist online. NAOMI, the National Archive of Memorial Inscriptions, , is aiming to rectify this. As a pilot project they have provided data for Bedfordshire and Norfolk.
Incidentally, war memorials are indexed at , although the site includes relatively few lists of the names which appear on the memorials. However, , has many such lists particularly for the First World War.

Wills exist since the 15th century. However, until well into the 20th century relatively few people made wills because they had very little to bequeath, and what there was, was generally amicably divided by the family. It is thought that about 10 percent of people made wills, and not exclusively the rich, so the indexes are well worth checking.
From the beginning of January 1858 wills were proved centrally. Detailed indexes are available in the National Probate Calendar which is available at a number of record offices and The National Archives until the end of 1943. The wills themselves can be ordered in person at the Probate Search Room, First Avenue House, 4249 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP or by post from the Court Service, York Probate Sub-Registry, First Floor, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York, YO1 9RG. There are also plans to digitise the wills and make them available online.
Before 1858 finding wills is much more difficult. Wills were proved in a number of different ecclesiastical courts. The two most important were the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), which covered the whole of England and Wales and whose wills are available at , and the Prerogative Court of York (PCY) for England north of the Trent, whose records are now at the Borthwick Institute at the University of York . Otherwise wills were proved in a bewildering number of local courts, most of whose records survive at county record offices.


Are you interested in tracing your family history?
Ancestors, the family history magazine from The National Archives, is the essential read for all family, local and military historians. Packed full of informative features from family history experts, it gives practical advice for beginners and more experienced researchers, reveals the best family history websites and online resources and news on what is happening at The National Archives.

Articles in the series:


Get going with your family history

Census Returns

Birth, marriage and death records

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Going back before 1837

back to laterlife interest

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