Top three websites for copyright-free family history images


02 April 2023
Dr Simon Wills looks at three of the best websites for finding images to illustrate your family tree.

Images can serve many purposes apart from showing us what our direct ancestors looked like: they can ‘bring alive’ an event, place or character.

Maybe you can find an illustration of the church where your ancestors married even though it has since been pulled down, an old street map of your family’s town, pictures of the clothes they might have worn, or a disaster in which they were caught up. 

Read on for three great websites that can be particularly helpful for genealogists who are looking for illustrations because the restrictions on usage tend to be minimal (see below for copyright guidance).

Wellcome Images: A huge collection of high quality images with a significant medical bias but containing a large number of general historical subjects, scenes from everyday life, occupations, locations from around the world, and images of people and events. Some of these pictures are still in copyright but the site tells you which ones can be used freely and the conditions of use. 

State Library Victoria: An Australian site which is especially useful for images of British ships, early colonial existence, and highlighting the lives of ancestors who emigrated or were deported to Australia. 

Yale Center for British Art: Many British art galleries display images from their collections online but often impose restrictions which may limit how they can be used. However, the valuable Yale collection in the USA allows many British drawings, paintings, manuscripts and sculpture in its own collection to be used freely or with limited restrictions.  

A word of caution on copyright...

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There are a number of ways around this. One method is to use an acknowledged national collection of images, such as the examples given below, where the owner of the collection typically provides guidance for users on copyright status. Another increasingly popular approach is to look for what is called a Creative Commons (‘CC’) licence for the image. This is a method for modern photographers, illustrators and copyright owners to make it clear which uses of their online images are acceptable. It’s worth allowing a few minutes to become familiar with the various licence types here.

Embellishing your genealogy narrative with images can be very satisfying and absorbing. Hopefully, the online sources highlighted here will help you find illustrations to make your family history a more interactive and complete resource for yourself, your relatives, and future generations.  

About the author

Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and author with more than 30 years’ experience of researching his ancestors. He has a particular interest in maritime history and the natural world. His latest book is A History of Birds (White Owl). He is also author of The Wreck of the SS London, Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors, and How Our Ancestors Died amongst others.

Image shows Dulcie Coppock and family, Frieda and Edna at a picnic outingView shows four women and two children sitting beside a river having a picnic. Circa 1930-50. State Library of Victoria.