15 records to take your family history back to the 1500s


21 April 2018
Family-history-week-Family-Tree-magazine-Blog-back-to-the-1500s-94820.png Learn how to use all sorts of family history documents to take your research back centuries
Discover the key record collections that could potentially take your family back to the time of the Tudors with genealogist Celia Heritage’s expert guide

Discover the 15 essential record collections and numerous invaluable websites that could take your family history back to the 1500s - or earlier. Celia Heritage reveals those must-search records for successful research!

Whether you are an old hand at family history or just setting out on your quest to learn more about your family, it’s important to explore a wide range of sources to get the most from your research and ensure you are tracing the right family line. Here I suggest a range of sources which will aid you in tracing your family from the 20th century back to the 1500s.

1 Family records

As you begin your family history research it is essential to ascertain if there are any records already held by the family which may kick-start your research. These range from birth certificates and family Bibles through to diaries and newspaper cuttings and provide essential information to get your research underway. They can also save you money where certificates are discovered. Use social media to track down relatives with whom you have lost touch. See if they, or any ‘new’ cousins you discover during your research, have any family papers too.

Family history tip!

Remember to interview older relatives who may have vital oral knowledge about the family that has never been recorded and which will die with them. Encourage the sharing of family photographs and other data, but use online family trees with caution, as they may be inaccurate.

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2 1939 Register

This is a record of the civilian population of the UK taken in September 1939 just after WW2 broke out, and is one of the few easily available sources post-1911. The register for England and Wales is at Findmypast.co.uk (£) and provides details of an ancestor’s name, address, full date of birth, marital status and occupation, as well as others living at the same address. The database was later used to set up the National Health Service (NHS) and some information was updated by them up to 1951, for example, a woman’s name may have been updated upon marriage. You may also be able to see some of the information on the opposite page of the register which has not officially been released. This ranges from notes regarding wartime activities, such as Red Cross membership, to causes of death. Read more at www.findmypast.co.uk

Research tip!

For privacy reasons, you can only view entries for those people who were born over 100 years ago or whose deaths have been verified.

3 Census records

The decennial census returns, available from all main commercial genealogy websites and partially from FreeCen.org.uk, form a core source for family historians from 1841-1911. Census returns give an ancestor’s age, place of birth, marital status, address, occupation and the names of other family members living at his address, together with their relationship to the head of the household.

Locate your ancestor on as many census returns as possible and cross reference the information given for each year. Details may not be recorded consistently across the years. Assess whether any changes are credible, to ensure you have not identified the wrong person. Use census returns in tandem with birth, marriage and death (BMD) entries to help identify your ancestor’s correct birth entry (see point 4 below).

Irish census tip!

With a few exceptions, Irish census returns only survive for 1901 and 1911 but these are freely available on the National Archives of Ireland website at www.census.nationalarchives.ie 

Look at www.nli.ie/en/griffiths-valuation.aspx to learn more about Griffith’s Valuation, which can be used as a census substitute in Ireland.

4 Birth, marriage and death certificates

BMD registers form an essential part of your research back to 1 July 1837 in England and Wales, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland. Birth and marriage registers provide important details regarding your ancestors’ parents and spouses. Use this source in tandem with information found in census records to prove your family tree to what I call verified pedigree level; that is, identifying solid evidence of your ancestor’s parentage in at least two independent documentary sources.

Certificate ordering tips!

Locate BMD register entries via the General Register Office (GRO) index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales on the FreeBMD website at www.freebmd.org.uk 

For births 1837-1915 and deaths 1837-1957 you can use the new GRO index at www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates and use this web address to order copies of all certificates.

In Scotland the equivalent Statutory Registers begin in 1855 and are online at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
For Ireland visit www.irishgenealogy.ie/en

5 Local newspapers

Newspapers carrying local news really got under way in the mid-19th century. These will help you flesh out what you know about your ancestors and give you a flavour of the times in which they lived. Copies are held in local libraries, archives and national repositories such as the British Library and the National Library of Ireland, but many have been digitised and are searchable by any key word or phrase, making nominal searches for your ancestors easy. These can be accessed via The British Newspaper Archive (BNA) at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk or www.findmypast.co.uk

Free Welsh newspapers tip!

Many Welsh newspapers are available for free at http://newspapers.library.wales

6 Parish registers

Recording our ancestors’ baptisms, marriages and burials, parish registers are a vital tool before civil registration (and thus BMD certificates) begin, but are also useful after this date. At best, parish registers will take your research back to around 1538, but in reality many start much later and will only take your research back to the mid-1700s. If this is the case, Bishops’ Transcripts may survive for the missing years. These were contemporary parish register copies sent annually to the bishop. 

The amount of information in parish registers varies greatly, meaning it can be difficult to identify your ancestors with certainty in the records, especially where a surname is heavily localised. In these circumstances, look for some of the other sources suggested here.

Finding parish & Nonconformist registers tip!

Original records are kept at county record offices, but many registers are available online as transcriptions or digital images at commercial websites and FreeReg.org.uk – the Free UK Genealogy sister site of FreeBMD. Make sure you check coverage before you search and look at the original image where possible as well as a transcription, which may contain errors or not record the complete entry. Also look at similar registers kept by Nonconformist churches. Not all survive, but those that do can be found at subscription sites BMDRegisters.co.uk, TheGenealogist.co.uk and Ancestry.co.uk

7 Settlement & removal orders

Settlement and removal records can help to document the lives of some of our poorer ancestors between the 17th and early 20th centuries. Before 1834, poor relief was the responsibility of the parish where a person was legally ‘settled’. Originally a person’s usual ‘place of abode’, the Settlement Act of 1662 introduced new categories and criteria for establishing someone’s place of settlement. By the late 17th century your parish of settlement was usually inherited from your father. However, as you grew older you could change your place of settlement in many different ways depending on whether you were apprenticed or, if a woman, married etc.

From 1662, settlement certificates could be issued to anyone wishing to travel to a new parish. They were a form of indemnity guaranteeing that the person in question would be supported by his home parish if he needed poor relief. If a person arrived in a new parish with no certificate, he could be removed back to his place of settlement by the parish authorities. In this case a removal order would be issued. Both removal orders and settlement certificates will name a person’s place of settlement. Removal orders will also record the parish where he was apprehended. They may also contain details of a man’s wife and children. Survival rates are not great, but records may help you track down the missing baptism of an ancestor who has migrated some distance. Records are at local record offices, with a small number online. After the introduction of union workhouses in 1834, the system continued and records will be found among workhouse records.

Workshouses tip!

Find out more at www.workhouses.org.uk and www.londonlives.org/static/PoorLaw.jsp

8 Monumental inscriptions

While there are many laudable modern-day projects that aim to record those gravestones still standing, earlier churchyard surveys are of greater value, since they recorded details on stones which have long since weathered away. 

Providing names and dates of death, monumental inscriptions (MIs) may also record crucial information relating to places and dates of birth, relationships and other information about your ancestor’s life. Many churchyard surveys are available via the internet and can help further your pedigree when other sources let you down. Historic surveys now online include many Kent churchyards recorded by 18th and 19th century antiquarians, which can be found at the Kent Archaeological Society website at http://familytr.ee/kentmis

Ancestors' graves tips!

The World Burial Index www.worldburialindex.com, Find A Grave www.findagrave.com and BillionGraves https://billiongraves.com plus gravestone projects run by Ancestry and TheGenealogist.co.uk. Copies of older surveys can usually be found in local record offices and your local family history society may sell CDs of their own transcriptions.

9 Probate records

An important source of genealogical information for all periods of research, but especially before the advent of BMD certificates and census returns, wills tell you more about your ancestors’ occupations, property they owned and, perhaps most importantly, will establish and confirm relationships, which will in turn grow and verify your family tree.

Where to find wills tips!

For English and Welsh wills from 12 January 1858 look at the Principal Probate Registry (PPR) indexed up to 1966 on Ancestry. The complete index is accessible at www.gov.uk/search-will-probate from which you can also order digital copies of wills for £10 each. Before 1858, wills were proved by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts. While some of these are online, many are not, so you will need to check which probate courts operated in the area where your ancestor lived and then look to see where the original wills are held and if any have been digitised – read TNA’s research guide ‘Wills or administrations before 1858’ at http://familytr.ee/tnawillspre1858
For Scottish wills visit www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk and for wills in Ireland visit PRONI at www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni

10 Guild & apprenticeship records

Some of your ancestors would have served an apprenticeship in order to learn a trade – in some cases travelling far from home to do so. Apprentice registers were kept by local town or city guilds (the bodies who regulated local trade) and are held in local record offices, where you will also find registers of those people admitted to the guild. All of these can provide useful biographical data for your ancestor. 

Between 1710 and 1811 you can also check apprenticeship registers kept by the Inland Revenue. These record a stamp duty levied each time a master took on an apprentice. They also give details of the length of the apprenticeship, the child’s name and, up to the mid-18th century, his father’s name, address and occupation. The last can be crucial for extending the family tree especially where a boy has settled far away from his place of birth.

Where to look for apprentices tip!

Stamp duty registers are online at TheGenealogist.co.uk and Ancestry.co.uk, while the Society of Genealogists www.sog.org.uk in London has a large indexed collection of apprentice indentures covering the 17th to 19th centuries.

11 Quarter & Petty Sessions records

Many of our ancestors feature in the records of the Quarter or Petty Sessions Courts. These courts were held at regular intervals in England and Wales from the 14th century until 1972. They generally heard less serious criminal cases and also dealt with a wide range of civil matters. The latter included enforcing trading standards, supervising the poor law, the administration of taxes, upkeep of the highways and local defence. They are a useful source for fleshing out our ancestors’ lives and may provide details about relationships, notably in settlement and bastardy cases.

Using Quarter Sessions records tip!

Find Quarter Sessions records at the county record office, with some now online.

12 Manorial records

Ranging in date from the 12th to the early 20th century, there are many different types of manorial records, although survival rates vary greatly. Court rolls, which record the transfer of a type of land tenure called ‘copyhold’, are the most important. After the death of a tenant, copyhold land normally devolved to his closest next of kin. Since the court roll recorded the relationship of the new tenant to the old, it can provide vital evidence regarding your ancestor’s parentage or other family ties. Look out for references to ‘my copyhold land’ in your ancestors’ wills; if there is such a reference then checking out any surviving court rolls is a must. In some cases several generations of one family can be determined by means of the court roll. 

Before the 18th century most records will be in abbreviated Latin but you should be able to spot your ancestor’s surname and in that case it may be possible to get a photograph of the entry for translation by an expert – see www.agra.org.uk
Some early court rolls have been translated and published.

Finding manorial records tip!

Pinpoint surviving manorial records for the area where your ancestor lived using the Manorial Documents Register at The National Archives. This is online for many counties but if not, pay a visit to Kew or contact the relevant local record office to ascertain which manorial records survive – see http://familytr.ee/guidetomdr

13 Records of the Court of Chancery

Many of our ancestors were involved in civil disputes of one sort or another during the course of their lives, and one of the most popular courts for this type of case was the Court of Chancery. Disputes frequently involved family members (inheritance disputes are particularly common) and the records are therefore rich in references to family relationships. They can also reveal other details, ranging from addresses and occupations, through to information regarding the existence of illegitimate children. They may also refer to other documents used as evidence in the court case and which still survive. This source covers the 14th to 19th centuries and the records are at TNA.http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk

The National Archives’ catalogue tip!

Use TNA’s Discovery catalogue at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk to start your searches but make sure you also read its research guides ‘Chancery equity suits before 1558’ and ‘Chancery equity suits after 1558’ – located via the Research Guides tab on the Discovery home page – to learn more about how these records were indexed.

14 Heralds’ Visitations

You may never imagine your ancestors were members of the nobility, but the further you get back, the greater the chance of finding such an ancestor. Inheritance rules in much of England and Wales meant that the eldest son inherited any title or estate. It was usual, therefore, for the younger sons of each generation to become steadily less well-off as the years passed by. After several generations the descendant of a Lord might be a humble labourer. If your research indicates a possible link (for example you might find your ancestor described in 16th or 17th century records as ‘Esquire’), take a look at the Heralds’ Visitations. These date from 1530 to 1686 and record the descent of armigerous families – those entitled to bear arms. The information was originally taken down orally by heralds from the College of Arms based on what the family told them. They would then verify this with their own records.

Sourcing Heralds’ Visitations tips!

Most visitations have been published by societies such as The Cheetham Society and the Harleian Society and can be found in libraries such as the British Library or the Society of Genealogists. Some are online and are listed (along with other links to early online genealogy sources) at https://sites.google.com/site/cochoit/home

15 Printed histories

Don’t rely on the records just offered by genealogy websites. Learning something about the history of the area where your ancestor lived is important and many older printed histories will provide this, as well as information about more notable local families. Good examples are Hasted’s History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent and Nicolson and Burns’ History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland.

Background reading – online tips!

The British History Online website at www.british-history.ac.uk offers transcripts of many local history books and gives access to the Victoria County Histories (VCH) – read more about the VCH at www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk

Also look for free digital copies of printed histories at https://books.google.co.uk and http://openlibrary.org and the aforementioned Internet Archive at http://archive.org

For Northern Ireland, the Ordnance Survey Memoirs were parish accounts commissioned to accompany the new Ordnance Survey maps in the 1830s. They provide information about places and local people and can be bought from the Ulster Historical Foundation via www.booksireland.org.uk

This article by professional genealogist Celia Heritage www.heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Family Tree.

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