Genealogy and Family History Research in UK

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English counties, parishes, etc.

I have noticed that genealogy mailing lists, at least those I subscribe to, frequently receive requests for an explanation of aspects of the British local governemt system as it affects genealogists. Questions such "What is the difference between a shire and a county" or "A document I consulted says this village is in county A, but my map/gazetteer says it is in county B, which is right", and less frequently people want to know what is meant by a hundred, a wapentake or a poor law union. This page is intended to help to answer such questions, showing how the system originated and how it has changed over the centuries. It also contains some explanation of other units of local government and types of settlement, mainly for the period prior to the reorganisation of 1974.

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Parish Locator program

Dr. Robert Slade has written an excellent program (available for free download) to aid in finding the location of parishes in Britain. Exact spelling of the parish is not necessary. It can tell you the names and Ordnance Survey map references for all parishes within any specified (in miles or kilometres) distance of the named parish. The output report can be displayed on screen, saved to file or printed. The program runs in a DOS window under any version of MS Windows.

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There are many books about genealogy and family history research in Britain, but a few are outstanding, almost essential, for beginners and experienced researchers alike. Two stand out, and complement each other perfectly:

Ancestral Trails by Mark D. Herber, published in 1997 jointly by Sutton Publishing and the Society of Genealogists (ISBN 0-7509-1786-5 paperback) explains all the main sources of information, including their origins, where to find them, how to use them and the likely problems in doing so. It is quite a large book, running to 674 pages, with a good index and an extensive bibliography. If you want to trace your ancestors in Britain, you should have a copy of this book.


The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History edited by David Hey, published in 1998 by Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-860215-4 paperback) is an alphabetical glossary/encyclopædia covering an enormously wide variety of topics concerned with this area of research. It includes the history of major social movements, the workings of various institutions, locations and use of archives, definitions of terms and abbreviations. Some idea of the scope can be given by quoting the subject headings of two consecutive pages near the beginning:
Admiralty, High Court of
aerial archeology
Agnus Dei
Agrarian History of England and Wales [a book review]
Agricultural Depression, the
agricultural history [this item goes on for about 5 pages]
This book runs to 509 pages, plus an appendix listing the postal addresses of the main national archives and the county and other major record offices.


The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers, by C.R. Humphrey-Smith, 1995, Phillimore & Co. Ltd., (ISBN 0-85033-950-2) contains a wealth of information about English, Welsh, and Scottish parishes.

My thanks to Mark Howells (list owner of the Norfolk mailing list) for the details of this book given below.

It shows each pre-1974 county with the boundaries of every parish in that county. Along with these general maps are given the date when the parish register began and what probate jurisdiction the parish belonged to. London is mapped but no other major cities are given.

It includes an index for each county, where the parishes are listed alphabetically, and for each parish information is given as to who holds the original parish registers, what dates they cover, if it has been extracted into the IGI and for what dates, what copies the Society of Genealogists holds and for what years, whether extracted into Boyd's or Pallot's marriage indices and for what years and if the parish's non-conformist records are deposited at the PRO.

It costs 50 pounds sterling and is available from any of the book sources listed in the next section below.


Gibson Guides deal with the whereabouts of various records, county by county, throughout England and Wales. Some of them, e.g. Specialist Indices, deal also with Great Britain, including Scotland, Ireland and the Channel Isles. They are FFHS (Federation of Family History Societies) publications and may be purchased from several places, but I mentioned Family Tree as it seems to be the source most easily accessed by everyone, regardless of where they may be, simply involving a phone call.

Many of the records dealt with have been filmed by the LDS, but after consulting the Gibson Guide, one may then refer to the Localities Index to see if the particular record appears there.


Books on genealogy, primarily in UK, are available from each of the following sources:

Archive CD Books - rare books on CD

Society of Genealogists

The Internet Bookshop

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I am aware of three monthly UK magazines on family history. All three include, as might be expected, articles on various aspects of family history research in UK, as well as letters from readers needing assistance, offering information and commenting on articles in previous issues. All three also offer their readers a free listing of their surname interests. All are obtainable from newsagents throughout the country (but are only stocked by the larger ones, and need to be specially ordered from others).

The oldest by far is Family Tree Magazine, obtainable from:
Family Tree Magazine,
61, Great Whyte,
PE17 1HL.

Produced from the same address, Practical Family History is specifically aimed at beginners to UK family history.

Competing with Family Tree Magazine is Family History Monthly, which is obtainable from:
The Magazine Editor,
Family History Monthly,
43-45, St. Mary's Road,
W5 5RQ.

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Web Sites

Genealogy of the UK and Ireland, contains on one page a complete list of British family history societies with officials' names and addresses and links to web sites where they exist - in some cases the web sites are actually pages on this site (e.g. the Wiltshire Family History Society). Another page (under the Wiltshire heading) lists surnames interests of researchers - and there is a list of all available surname lists! These are just examples of the contents of this site - there is much, much more. Parts of the site are on other servers, but the links make this transparent to the user. Incidentally, there are sections of this site designed specifically to help researchers located in other parts of the world.
There is a related newsgroup, with a mailing list form accessible by sending the message "SUBSCRIBE GENUKI-L" (without the quotes) to


On-Line Parish Clerks

Many kind folk offer a free lookup service in resources they happen to have available, or make them available on-line. Many of these services are provided by on-line parish clerks (nothing to do with the parish clerk who keeps official records). Such resources relating to UK genealogy are organised by county, with a separate web site giving the details of what is on offer for each county. A list of these sites relating to England is given in the On-Line Parish Clerks. At present only a few counties are provided for, and the coverage within them varies enormously, but it is growing as more people take on the role of OPC for a parish. Have you anything to offer? New volunteers are always welcome. (Offers to the relevant county organiser, not to me, please.)


Archive CD Books

Archive CD Books is a non-profit-making project to republish old and rare books of interest to genealogists and other historians on CD at low prices. Proceeds from the sale of CDs are used to buy more books and to rebind those which need it, as well as meeting normal running costs. Many books are loaned for the purpose, by both private individuals and institutions such as county record offices, libraries and the main Public Record Office, in addition to those purchased. After scanning to a very high standard (and where necessary rebinding), most purchased books are donated to appropriate local archives. Although the project only started, with a single book, in spring 2000, already several hundred have been published (the 500 mark was passed in January 2002). The full range can be explored, samples viewed and secure orders placed, on the Irish project web site.

This organisation now also publishes on CD exceptionally high quality copies of the original enumerators' books of selected county censuses. The prices are very low for this type and quality of material, because the project is not designed to make profits. See the web site for details of what is currently available.

The (original) UK business closed down with the retirement of founder Rod Neep on 30th September 2007, but the full range of CDs can still be obtained from the daughter companies in other countries. UK residents are recommended to use the Irish company, where I understand UK member and sponsor discounts continue to be available.


The UK Genealogical Index Directory, a new and growing resource, has surname interest lists for each UK county which can be searched and to which you can add your own interests.


The UK Ordnance Survey Gazetteer, giving a wealth of geographical UK information, is available on-line. If you don't know where to find a UK village, this is the place to look first. If you know your village is a parish, and if you know which county it is/was in, and if you have access to a copy, the Phillimore's atlas mentioned above will give you more information.


The General Record Office is the official government source for historical records. In particular, birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered from the site or directly from the subset at Note that civil registration did not begin until July 1837, so there are no certificates before that date.


UK Villages is a great means of finding what information is available on-line about any particular UK town or village. It does need at least Netscape 4, and Java must be enabled for this site to be accessed properly. It may not be quite comprehensive yet, but new links are being added continuously, so it's well worth a look.


Curious Fox organiser Roseanne issued the following announcement about this new web site at the beginning of August 2002:

Curious Fox is a gazetteer of 50,000 UK villages, towns and counties. You can search for the village name, generate lists of nearby villages and hamlets, and link to the exact location on a modern map or an old map.

It's really easy to use.

Each village/town/county has a page where you can leave genealogy and local history contact messages.

You can also search by family name. Within the next couple of weeks users will be able to add urls to their own sites as well.

The site can be used completely free or for a small subscription of £5 or $8. It's up to the user. There are no ads or affiliate links. Reasonable commercial use is allowed providing people stay on topic - books, maps, pics, research services etc. I am very keen that my site should become a place where societies can appeal for members and local historians can sell short run and home produced books. I have been asked to add county wide links which I shall be doing soon.

Even if people don't want to use the contact boards, the village gazetteer should be pretty useful and I'm very happy for it to be used as a general resource by schools and other internet users.

I will be making it possible for people to add village descriptions.

I will also be adding history files for each village. I hope to encourage schools to add local history projects which they have done as part of their national curriculum work. Trouble is I get so excited about all the things I can do - but first I need to get the basics working well.

In my first 2 weeks about 350 people have joined as free members and about 20 as full members but its going to be months before I get on the search engines and it really begins to work. If I'm lucky it will be one of those sites that snowball. People certainly seem to like it so it's fingers crossed time.

Do come and have a look and please let me know what you think. All feedback is really useful.


Geof Stone, Society of Genealogists Mailing List Administrator, published the following comments and his question and answer exchange with Roseanne:-

The site has been set up by a husband and wife team based in Whixall, Shropshire, UK as a family business. This is not a get-rich-quick scam as you can see from the very modest fee of £5 for those who want the full facilities or free for those who want to dabble or put their toes in the water first.

The advantage of this system is that anybody being helpful doesn't have to pay a penny but anybody wanting help can encourage responses by choosing to pay. It's completely up to the user whether they choose to pay or not but one side in any message transaction has to be a paid member. Membership costs £5 or $8. You can update to full membership at any time.

Why the name?
>Our background is design and marketing. One of our theories about the
>internet is that companies need an easily memorable name. Something
>that will get mentioned in a conversation or on the radio and
>remembered. So far this has worked quite well. We were mentioned in
>the Guardian a few weeks ago and the name stuck in people's memories so
>that they found us several weeks later when we opened.

How do the mailboxes work?
>The free membership is for as long as people want it. We have
>developed a red box / green box system. As far as we know it is a new
>system, we haven't seen anything like it elsewhere.

>Free members have red mailboxes. Only paid members can contact them.
>Paid members have green mailboxes. Free members and paid members can
>contact them. Basically one side in any transaction has to be paid.

>If a paid membership lapses it changes back to a free membership.

>This is pretty complex system but our reasoning was that we need to
>build a huge database that was enticing - hence free membership.
>Anybody who wants to contact a free member has to join as a paid
>member. Therefore it entices people to join.

>Anybody who is keen to get a response can join as a paid member, it
>makes it very easy for free members to contact them and they are far
>more likely to receive messages.

>By going for bulk, we could keep costs very low. In many ways the
>site works in a similar way to friends reunited. Our costs are very
>low so 5 should be enough to grow and develop a very good site. We
>have lots of plans for adding local history information, more refined
>search capabilities etc but whether we can do this depends upon the
>response we get.

>The benefits of £5 membership are the red and green mailbox system as
>above. Plus all members can store a list of villages for easy access
>but paid members can be emailed whenever a new entry is added for one
>of their stored villages.

>You can search the site by surname. This is by surname keywords so
>that TEACHER doesn't find every entry that refers to a teacher. We
>will be adding extra search facilities as the site grows. Since we do
>all our own programming this is no problem - just fun.

What is the next step?
>As soon as we have this working smoothly we will be adding URLs as
>well. This will work the same way. A red URL will only work for
>members. A green URL will work for both paid and free members.

>I also feel that workplace archives do not get much attention and
>have lots of valuable material for family historians. I would love to
>be able to include links to people who could help with them. The
>next stage will probably be to add historic houses and castles since
>I can add them to the map links easily and they were often
>communities in their own right with fascinating archives.

>We will not carry any banners as they are one of my pet hates - and
>personally I don't think they work for either the advertisers or the
>site owners and they certainly don't work for users.

>We do not intend to carry any links for affiliate income. We might
>add links to aerial photos and ordnance survey maps etc but any
>affiliate income will be incidental and I don't want to be seen as a
>site that exists on affiliate links. If we do have any I might
>consider giving the money to charity in order to make my point. There
>are plenty of charities that I would like to support.

>Yes our bias was villages and place names. But we will be guided by
>the way people use the site. I want to bring together local
>historians and genealogy. There are so many people doing stirling
>work on local history and I am sure there will be enormous interest
>in short run local history publications, photos etc. I've lived in
>several old houses and would have welcomed contacts from previous
>occupants' families etc.


Geoff continues:

Having had a quick look at the site I like the idea. At the moment most villages do not have content since it will take time to build up. I have already joined as a free member which was a simple process, especially if you use a browser for email. After entering your registration details including a user name and password, the system emails back immediately with a Validation Code. If you use your browser for email then you can pick it up straight away and key it in to validate your registration. [In my case I had to log off and re-dial to my other ISP, but it all worked well when I logged on again later.]

I will certainly be paying a modest five pounds to help build up the site, I think that the potential is enormous.

Please have a look and see what you think. Constructive comment will be welcome by the organisers, but remember that the site is very new indeed and therefore lacking in detailed content, but even for the village finder alone it is worth a visit.

Also remember that the 'old' county names are used so much of London may be in Middlesex.


I (Jim Fisher) have also joined as a paid member - it looks such a promising initiative it must be worth supporting.

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Transcriptions of historical records

I have set up a page listing the various transcriptions of original records held on this site. They are mostly censuses and parish registers, and each generally has a surname index.

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