How to find immigrant ancestors


19 July 2016
old-suitcases-37736.jpg Migration
Discover how immigration is part of all our histories, with Ruth A Symes.

With all the current heated debate about the 'crossing' and 'raising' of borders in Europe, it's worth remembering that immigration has always been a very important part of the history of the British Isles. Our streets - particularly in ports and cities - have in fact reverberated with the languages and cultures of other countries since time immemorial. Here Ruth A Symes explains how immigration is part  of all our histories.

Tracing ancestry can be an eye-opening experience for many who like to think they are 'British through and through'. A quick look at the ten-yearly censuses  (1841-1911) online on the main commercial genealogy sites can soon prove otherwise. In a column that records 'place of birth', you will often find the names of the countries and - better still - the towns and villages (in Europe and further afield) from which your immigrant ancestors originated.

Aliens in the family tree?

From 1793, an ancestor arriving from another European country would have been classed under the unfortunate title of 'alien', only those from other countries of the Empire and Ireland were automatically regarded as 'Britons'. From 1793, newcomers were required to register with a local Justice of the Peace under the Aliens' Act (originally set up to monitor the influx of French refugees after the Revolution). Later Acts tightened up the registration requirements.

Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, many of our ancestors are likely to have lived in multicultural communities; and, despite the regulations, 'aliens' and the indigenous population seem to have rubbed along pretty well for generations. Evidence of this neighbourly proximity pops up everywhere in the online censuses. Just scroll down the entries in busy Victorian cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow to find scores of people born in places like Germany, Italy, Russia and Scandinavia. Some of these people (Russian Jews, for example) were fleeing discrimination or even persecution, others came to put their specific practical and intellectual skills to good use in the fields and factories of the agrarian and industrial revolutions. 

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Search passenger lists

You can trace your immigrant ancestors' journeys to Britain by searching passenger lists of ships arriving at the various ports (again via the main online commercial genealogy sites). The quality and quantity of information on these lists varies according to the shipping line in question, the historical time period, and the port of arrival, but you can sometimes discover such gems as how much money an ancestor was carrying with him to start his new life and his distinguishing physical characteristics.

Again, scroll down through the entries. You might find that your ancestor did not travel to Britain alone, but made the journey with other members of his or her family or community. 

Migration records

All sorts of other official records for your ancestor's immigration might exist: justice of the peace records, aliens' entry books, certificates of alien arrivals and returns, aliens' registration cards, non-parochial church records (for institutions such as the Swiss Church in Britain) and naturalisation case papers.

Take a look at the website of The National Archives for advice on which of these might be viewed online and which in archives. A useful book on such records is Migration Records by Roger Kershaw (The National Archives, 2009). If you are able to work out exactly where your ancestor came from and when, you might then move on to investigate further genealogical records in his country of origin.

Cultural clues

And don't neglect other, less official, clues to an ancestor's different cultural roots. An unusual middle name on a birth certificate, a family recipe for an unusual stew or pudding, a strange family saying that might have its origins in another language - any of these might be a nod to the fact that your ancestors came from somewhere other than Britain. DNA testing is, of course, a further exciting avenue providing evidence of geographical origins.

British emigration

Don't forget too  - especially if an ancestor seems to disappear from the records at any point - that many of our British ancestors emigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Huge numbers, for instance, went to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.

Some were spirited self-starters who went to take advantage of overseas employment incentives, others, like many hundreds of governesses and needlewomen in the mid-19th century, were sent overseas to marry officers of the British Empire, and might have felt that they had little choice in the matter.

Start by looking for the record of the departure of your ancestor in passenger lists and then investigate what records might be available on their subsequent lives in the genealogical records of other countries. 

For some fascinating stories of individual immigrants and emigrants, and more about the various sources that can help you in your own investigations, see Ruth's latest book, Unearthing Family Tree Mysteries (Pen and Sword, 2016). You can follow Ruth on Twitter (@RuthASymes) and Facebook ( and visit her blog

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