The 15 best websites for tracing family history in London’s East End

By Guest, 6 March 2019 - 2:29pm

Jonathan Scott investigates the best online resources for finding your cockney family

Billingsgate Fish Market East End
Billingsgate fish market, London's East End, in the 19th century (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Dockland workers, manufacturers and migrant artisans of the East End powered London commerce.

It was the stomping ground of influential individuals, and the site of world-changing events. The Salvation Army can trace its origins back to a sermon William Booth gave in the Blind Beggar tavern in Whitechapel. The SS Great Eastern was launched from a yard in Millwall. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg attended a Russian Social Democratic Labour Party meeting in a Hackney chapel in 1907.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2018

The websites we’ve selected can help you learn more about migrant communities of East London, trace occupational records, find parish records and view court material.

When searching for registration districts, census entries or parish registers, an important first step is to clarify addresses. In such a densely populated urban area this can be harder than you might think. In Tower Hamlets alone the 1851 census records seven streets called Mary Street, nearly all of which have since changed their name – or disappeared altogether.


1. Charles Booth's London

Charles Booth's London

Charles Booth’s poverty maps and notebooks, which formed the basis for his Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886–1903), are a hugely valuable research tool.

While their genealogical use is limited, they can serve as a guided tour of London neighbourhoods, describing working life and living conditions.

View the map of London, check the ‘Show notebooks’ box, click the pin on the area that interests you, and you can see full-colour scans of the original handwritten police notebooks.

One example, a walk with Sergeant E Scales through District 34 (Lambeth and Kennington), describes the scene of Glasshouse Street in June 1899, noting “cemented yards” full of children, “well-fed, clean and fairly dressed, old people sitting on benches, yards well kept”.

2. London Metropolitan Archives on Ancestry

Ancestry London

All the commercial family history websites have London content, but the partnership with the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) means that Ancestry leads the pack.

The collection includes millions of parish records, nonconformist records, school and workhouse admission/discharge registers, electoral registers and tax records, plus marriage bonds/allegations and wills.

Coverage includes areas of East London, but LMA doesn’t have everything.

Tower Hamlets Archives, for example, has pre-1834 Poor Law records such as settlement examinations and poor relief payments, especially rich for parishes in Bow, Bromley and Poplar. Poor Law records after that date are held by the LMA.

3. London Lives

London Lives

This free website is home to searchable primary sources focusing mainly on plebeian, 18th century London.

The homepage boasts a figure of 3.35 million names (through 39 types of document, drawn from 14 archives).

These include some parish records; lots of court and criminal records drawn from Old Bailey proceedings and the City of London, Middlesex and Westminster sessions; plus coroners’ records and documents generated by hospitals and guilds.

The homepage search box allows you to search by surname, given name or keyword, and you can narrow by date range or, through the advanced option, the type of document.

4. Tower Hamlets History

Tower Hamlets History

Tower Hamlets Archives’ digital gallery and online catalogue reflect the breadth of unique resources that are housed in the former vestry hall at 277 Bancroft Road. These include census returns, newspapers, parish registers, trade directories, indexed deeds, and a large collection of cuttings. 

5. Hackney History

Hackney History

This website is not as packed as some, but it’s the place to find out more about Hackney’s archives and heritage.

You’ll learn, for example, that Stoke Newington’s earliest written reference was as ‘Neutone’ in 1086, while the earliest known reference to Shoreditch (as ‘Soerditch’) dates from c1148. The name Hackney, first recorded about 50 years later, is thought to derive from an island within a marsh – in other words a bit of dry land belonging to a Dane called Haca/Hacon.

More practical highlights include the online catalogue, a collection of digital images (a small proportion of the 20,000 held here), and the Friends of Hackney Archives page.

6. Expert's choice: East of London Family History Society

East of London Family History Society

Chosen by historian Dr Jonathan Oates, author of London's East End:

"The East of London Family History Society was founded in 1978, and the number of members worldwide now exceeds 1,800.

"It covers more than the East End, in fact all of East London, north of the Thames and east of the City – so every parish in the post-1965 London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Redbridge, Havering, and Barking and Dagenham.

"There are two sections on the website. One is available freely to all and sundry, and includes a census street index for Stepney in 1871, giving reference numbers for each street; surnames that members are researching, such as that of George Kent, a mariner of East London in the 1800s; and a number of information sheets, such as a programme of the society’s events (in 2018 these included talks as diverse as Samuel Pepys and how vehicle registration records can be a useful genealogical source) and a research guide detailing key museums, libraries and archives.

"However, if you pay to become a member, you can see copies of The Cockney Ancestor, published quarterly; take part in the discussion groups; download online resources, such as memorial inscriptions and a burial index for St Barnabas in Hackney (1847–1876); and gain free entry to society meetings.

"Membership is only £10 a year, with access to The Cockney Ancestor online, or £15 a year with the journal delivered to your door if you’re a UK resident."


Go further

7. Abney Park Trust

Find out more about this garden cemetery where over 200,000 people are laid to rest.

8. AIM25

This database features archives and manuscript collections from London’s higher-education institutions, learned societies and more.

9. Deceased Online

The website has burial records from many London cemeteries.

10. East London History Society

The East London History Society covers Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, and produces three newsletters a year.

11. London Metropolitan Archives Catalogue

The LMA’s online catalogue is much easier to use than the parent website.

12. London's Pulse

Explore Medical Officer of Health reports of London boroughs between 1848 and 1972.

13. Museum of London

Learn more about the Museum of London and its Docklands counterpart. The latter looks after the archives of the Port of London Authority.

14. Parish Register

This commercial site specialises in London’s parish registers and records of workers on the River Thames and London’s Docks.

15. Valence House Collections

Learn more about the museum’s Barking and Dagenham Archives and Local Studies Centre.



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