Useful genealogy records

By Jon Bauckham, 31 July 2013 - 11:00pm

A typical English parish church

Whether you want to trace your family history back to the Tudors or find out all you can about your 20th-century ancestors, there is a wealth of other records that will assist you alongside censuses and civil registration certificates.


Parish registers

We use parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials to find people who lived before the Victorian period. They were first introduced in England and Wales following the split with Rome in 1538, though few churches maintained a complete set of records.

Unfortunately there isn’t a single nationwide index to the surviving registers, and they’re not as detailed as later GRO certificates, which can make it difficult to be sure you’ve found the right people. However, more and more parish registers are being scanned and put online by the various websites we’ve already looked at.

A Google search should help you find out if there’s an online collection for your ancestors’ county. Ancestry has a huge collection for Warwickshire for example and FindMyPast is in partnership with Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. The geographical GENUKI reference guide at is great for finding out about free online parish transcriptions too. Those that aren’t online will be found on microfilm in local archives.


Wills are worth their weight in gold for proving connections between people in your family tree. Your ancestors didn’t have to be rich to leave wills though. The National Archives even has an online collection written by 18th-century seamen. All wills proved in England and Wales since 1858 can be found using the National Probate Calendar, on Ancestry up to 1966, and copies of those wills can be ordered by post using the form at Ecclesiastical courts oversaw probate before 1858, and most of those records are in local archives. The National Archives has links to some early wills online at


If a family member did leave a will, then chances are that the local newspaper published an obituary for them too. County archives and regional libraries hold microfilmed collections of historical newspapers, but millions of pages are being put online at so they can be searched quickly by name and place. This often leads us to the unexpected discovery of fascinating reports about ancestors who were criminals, or the victims of crime, and families who suffered an unfair share of misfortune.

Though newspaper reports give unparalleled descriptive accounts of criminal activities, you may find out even more from the original court books. Calendars of Prisoners usually confirm the person’s age and place of birth, so you can be sure you’ve found your ancestor, and depositions contain statements presented to court. Less serious crimes heard by Courts of Quarter Sessions are generally documented at the county archive, whilst more grievous crimes were tried at the Assize Courts with records at The National Archives. FindMyPast and Ancestry have digitised some criminal records and lots of useful links are found by clicking here.

British soldiers

Military records

Military records are another fruitful source for adding more than just names and dates to your tree. Most families have at least one person that fought in the First or Second World War. Service records post-1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence but can be requested by next of kin. Only around 40% of First World War army service records survived destruction during the Blitz, but those that did can be seen on Ancestry. Findmypast has scanned pension and attestation papers of men who fought before 1913 and saw service during the Anglo-Boer and Crimean wars. If your ancestors served at sea or in the air then check The National Archives’ online records, which include many Air Force, Navy and Marine papers.

Armed forces service records invariably include a medical history, but if you want to find medical records for civilian ancestors you’ll probably need to check hospital files at the local county archive. Search the Hospital Records Database at to find out where the original registers are kept, but bear in mind that most are closed for 100 years. The Historic Hospital Admission Records Project at has put some children’s records online, which are particularly valuable given the high rate of child mortality in the 19th century. So, from cradle to grave, there’s lots out there for you to discover about your ancestors.

From the show: Gregg Wallace
WDYTYA? celebrity Gregg Wallace

MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace went on an emotional journey when he discovered his roots. In one of many cruel twists of fate he learned from newspaper reports that his great grandmother lost a daughter through a tragic accident in 1908.

The WDYTYA? research team was led to this discovery through a sequence of documents. Firstly the 1911 census indicated that Gregg’s great grandmother Emily Springett had given birth to two children, but one had died. A search of the death indexes between 1905 when Emily married and 1911 for anybody with the surname ‘Springett’ located a Valerie Irene E. Springett, aged one, who died in the Devonport area where the family lived.

The death certificate from the GRO proved that she was Emily’s daughter and that she died from burns, but newspaper reports often provide much more detailed information about upsetting events like this.

We searched for the name ‘Springett’ using the British Newspaper Archive at, restricting the year to 1908 and the place to Devon, and found a report in the North Devon Journal of 2 July 1908 explaining that a lit paraffin lamp had toppled over. The paper also confirmed that Valerie’s mother was with her and had a narrow escape.

We were then able to search other historical local newspapers that have not been digitised at the British Library to find fuller reports of the incident.


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