Family history: a guide to sources

A guide to sources for family history and genealogy research, and where to find them.

Published date:

This guide aims to help you find sources for genealogy and family history research in the reading rooms of the British Library, other institutions and online. It does not attempt to give advice on how to conduct research. If you are not experienced in this field, we recommend you read one of the many introductions to the subject before you make a start.

Some general manuals on genealogy are included in this guide, with further references by types of records (births, marriages and deaths, census, etc.). There are also some excellent introductions to genealogy which are available online. The websites of GenUKI and the Society of Genealogists have links to information leaflets.

The open shelves of the reading rooms hold many genealogical reference works, a selection of which is listed in this document.

Please note that whilst this guide focuses on the Humanities Reading Room selection of genealogy open shelf material, the Gentleman’s magazine is held in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room and reference books relating to poll books and electoral l registers are mostly held in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

Primary genealogical material such as letters and diaries can also be found in the Manuscripts collections, including those compiled by antiquaries such as Davy’s Suffolk Collection. Please check the Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue when planning a visit to the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Uniquely in the British Library, genealogical records of British families in India are held in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room. The records include certificates of baptisms, marriages and burials from 1698 to 1947. For further information, please see India Office Records and Private Papers collection guide and How to Search for Baptisms, Marriages and Burials

Bibliographies

B. W. Christmas, Sources for one-name studies and for other family historians: a selected list and finding aid. London: Guild of One-Name Studies, 1991

P. W. Filby, American & British genealogy & heraldry: a selected list of books [3rd ed]. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1983. 1982-1985 supplement, 1987

G. Gatfield, Guide to printed books and manuscripts relating to English and foreign heraldry and genealogy. London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1892

C. R. Humphery-Smith, A Genealogist's bibliography. [New ed.] Chichester: Phillimore, 1985

S. A. Raymond, English genealogy: a bibliography [3rd ed.] Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1996

Guides

G. Davis, Solving genealogy problems: how to break down 'brick walls' and build your family tree. Oxford: How To Books, 2012

A. Bevan, Tracing your ancestors in the National Archives. Kew: The National Archives, 2006

P. Tomaselli, Tracing your secret service ancestors. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2009

P. Chambers, Early modern genealogy: researching your family history 1600-1838. Stroud: Sutton, 2006

S. Fowler, Family history: digging deeper. Stroud: History, 2012

P. Chambers, Medieval genealogy: how to find your medieval ancestors. Stroud: Sutton, 2005

R. Burlison, Tracing your pauper ancestors: a guide for family historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History, 2009

J. Brown, Tracing your rural ancestors: a guide for family historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History, 2011

M. D. Herber, Ancestral trails. Stroud: Sutton, 1997

R. Harvey, Genealogy for librarians [2nd ed.] London: Library Association, 1992

D. E. Gardner and F. Smith, Genealogical research in England and Wales [3 vols.] Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Publishers, 1956-66

R. Harvey, A Guide to genealogical sources in Guildhall Library [4th rd.]. London: Guildhall Library, 1997

Guildhall Library, The British overseas: a guide to records of their births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials available in the United Kingdom [3rd ed.] London: Guildhall Library, 1995

Certificates of births, marriages and deaths

C. Heritage, Tracing your ancestors through death records. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History, 2013

Certificates of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) for England and Wales since 1837 (when civil registration began) can be obtained from a local or General Register Office.

BMD records from 1837 to 2006 are also available on FindMyPast, which the British Library subscribes to and is accessible via dedicated terminals in Social Sciences reading room.

FreeBMD, part of Free UK Genealogy  is an ongoing project to transcribe the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, and to provide free online access to the transcribed records. The coverage is currently limited to the period 1837 to 1983.

Records of baptisms and burials (as distinct from births and deaths) and marriages occurring before 1837, are found in church and parish registers, a surprising high number of which still exist.

Census records

J. Gibson and M. Medlycott, Local census listings, 1522-1930: holdings in the British Isles. Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1994

J. Gibson and E. Hampson, Census returns 1841-1891 in microform: a directory to local holdings in Great Britain; Channel Islands; Isle of Man. Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1994

The National Archives holds historical Census records for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911.

All later censuses are in the custody of the Office for National Statistics where they remain closed for 100 years after the date they were conducted.

All available 1841 to 1911 censuses have been surname indexed for the whole of England and Wales and are available at the British Library via FindMyPast

FreeGen, also part of Free UK Genealogy, is an ongoing project to provide a ‘free-to-view’ online searchable database of the 19th century UK census returns.

Divorce records

London Marriage Licences. Chilmark: S&N Genealogy Supplies, 2001            

C. A. Bernau, Sixteenth Century Marriages, 1538-1600. London: The Editor, 1911-

J. Foster, London Marriage Licenses, 1521-1869. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1887        

S. A. Raymond, Marriage records for family historians. Bury: Family History Partnership in association with S. A. & M. J. Raymond, 2010

Records of divorce from 1858 to 1937 are in the National Archives. For divorces since 1937, you should apply to the Family Proceedings Department, Registry of the Family Division, First Avenue House, 42 - 49 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6NP.

Parish registers

E. L. C. Mullins, A Guide to the historical and archaeological publications of societies in England and Wales 1901-1933. London: Athlone Press, 1968

E. L. C. Mullins, Texts and calendars: an analytical guide to serial publications. London: Royal Historical Society, 1958

E. L. C. Mullins, Texts and calendars II: an analytical guide to serial publications, 1957-1982. London: Royal Historical Society, 1983

Boyd's marriage index is held by the Society of Genealogists. A list of the parishes covered by the Index is contained in A List of parishes in Boyd's marriage index [6th ed.] London: Society of Genealogists, 1987

You will usually find parish registers at the local County Record office or at the Genealogist which offers searchable transcripts and original images for a fee.

On the Parish Registers website you can find out about the parish registers and see what parish registers are available online.

GENUKI is a non-commercial service, provided by a group of volunteers in cooperation with the Federation of Family History Societies and a number of its member societies.

FreeREG, a companion project to FreeBMD and FreeCEN provides free Internet searches of baptism, marriage, and burial records, that have been transcribed from parish and non-conformist registers of the UK.

Probate and wills

A. J. Camp, Wills and their whereabouts [4th ed.] London: A. J. Camp, 1974

J. Cox, An introduction to affection defying the power of death: wills, probate & death duty records. Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1993

J. Gibson, Probate jurisdictions: where to look for wills [4th ed.] Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1994

J. Gibson, Wills and where to find them. Chichester: Phillimore for the British Record Society, 1974

D. M. Barratt, Probate records of the courts of the Bishop and Archdeacon of Oxford. Cambridge: British Record Society, 1985

N. Newington-Irving, Will indexes and other probate materials in the library of the Society of Genealogists. London: Society of Genealogists, 1996            

C. Webb, Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. London: The British Record Office, 1990

A. J. Camp, An index to the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1750-1800. London: Society of Genealogists, 1992        

Before 1858, the probate of wills and the granting of letters of administration for the estates of persons who died without leaving a will, took place in an Ecclesiastical Probate Court. You can look for records of a will or administration before 1858 at the National Archives.

Wills and Administrations, proved in England and Wales from 1858 are available in person at the Principal Registry of the Family Division, First Avenue House, 42-29 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6NP, or by post from Leeds Probate District Probate Registry, York House, 31 York Place, Leeds, LS1 2BA.

The older Indexes, from 1858 to 1940 have been deposited at several record offices and libraries. Original wills have likewise been deposited. Some of the indexes have been made available online by commercial organisations.

For the period 1796-1858 the Death Duty Registers on the Genealogist are the best means of locating a will. UK Burials contains the name and date of burial, and sometimes where the person was buried, and offers searchable transcripts and original images for a fee.

Cemetery registers from 1856 can be found at Guildhall Library, while Genes Reunited provides information on burials. You can register for free to access the information.

Deceased Online is the central database of UK burials and cremations, and holds records from 1850 onwards which can be viewed for a fee.

Guides to probate records, and how to find them are also available from the Government and the Society of Genealogists websites.

Work and employment records

S. Raymond, Occupational sources for genealogists: a bibliography [2nd ed.] Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1996

The series Office-holders in modern Britain compiled by J. Sainty and others is available in the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Manuscripts Reading Rooms.

E. B. Fryde (ed.), Handbook of British chronology [3rd ed.] London: Royal Historical Society, 1986

T. Venning, Compendium of British office holders. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

Service lists for the Army, Navy and Air Force can be found in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

I. S. Hallows, Regiments and Corps of the British Army. London: Arms and Armours, 1994

P. Tomaselli, The Crimean War 1854-56. Bury: Federation of Family History Societies Publication, 2006

A guide to tracing people in business and trades can be found in the National Archives.

Migrants, passengers and refugees

M. Amsel-Arieli, Jewish lives: Britain 1750-1950: a guide for family historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History, 2013

R. Kershaw and M. Pearsall, Immigrants and aliens: a guide to sources on UK immigration and citizenship. Kew: National Archives, 2004

The National Archives holds records of certificates of British citizenship 1949-1986, naturalised Britons, emigrants, evacuees, immigrants, internees, passengers, passports, and refugees. It also hosts Moving Here (archived 2013)

Electoral registers and poll books

R. H. A. Cheffins, Parliamentary constituencies and their registers since 1832. London: British Library, 1998

J. Gibson and C. Rogers, Poll books c1696-1872: a directory to holdings in Great Britain [3rd ed.] Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1994

J. Gibson and C. Rogers, Electoral registers since 1832 [2nd ed.] Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies, 1990

Guildhall Library, A handlist of poll books and registers of electors in the Guildhall Library. London: Corporation of London, 1970

Society of Genealogists, Directories and poll books including almanacs and electoral rolls in the Library of the Society of Genealogists [6th ed.] London: The Society, 1995

J. Sims (ed.), A handlist of British parliamentary poll books. Leicester: University of Leicester History Department, 1984

The British Library's holdings of UK electoral registers can be consulted in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

There are also digitised historical electoral registers on FindMyPast. They were digitised from our collection and cover the period 1832-1932.

Criminal records

S. Wade, Tracing your criminal ancestors: a guide for family historians. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2009

Guides on criminal records and how to find them are also available on Old Bailey Online.

Slavery

There are several types of records on slavery and slave owners held in the National Archives, including: slave registers and records of the Slave Compensation Commission (1812-1851), Colonial Office records, Reports of Protectors of Slaves (1824-), Manumission records, Court records (as they may have been arrested or been on trial), church records (especially Anglican churches), records of owners and their property

There are no registers of enslaved people from before 1812. The best place to find information is in the private papers of the slave owners, or in records about the owner or their property. Papers might still be with the family or deposited in a local archive or library where the family lived or settled.

The Centre for the study of the Legacies Of British Slave Owners at UCL traces the impact of slave-ownership on the formation of modern Britain.

Published family histories

To find published family histories on The British Library catalogue, select 'Subject' and 'Is (exact)' from the Advanced Search options and enter the words Robinson Family, for example. A list of titles is then displayed. This approach is useful mainly for works published after 1975.

Privately printed family histories may not be in the Library’s collections; they may however be listed in T. R. Thomson's A catalogue of British family histories [3rd ed.] London: Research Publishing Co, 1980.

Further privately printed family histories can be traced in the online catalogue of the Society of Genealogists library. If you cannot trace a separately published family history, you may find useful references to passages in periodicals, series, and reference books in the following guides:

G. W. Marshall, The genealogist’s guide. Guildford: Billing and Sons,1903

G. W. Whitmore, A genealogical guide. London: Walford Bros., 1953

G. B. Barrow, The genealogist’s guide. London: Research Publishing Co., 1977

G. E. Cokayne, The complete peerage [13 vols.] London: St Catherine Press, 1910-59

The following works, frequently cited in the guides above (by Marshall, Whitmore and Barrow), are on the open shelves in the Humanities Reading Room:

The Genealogist (old and new series)

The Gentleman’s magazine

Harleian Society publications

Notes and queries

The Victoria history of the counties of England

London County Council Survey of London

Many, but not all, of the other works cited such as county histories and visitations, are also on the open shelves. Marshall, Whitmore and Barrow also cite family entries found in the many genealogical and heraldic works published by Burke. To identify the particular edition required, you need to consult Burke's Family index. London: Burke’s Peerage Limited, 1976. The index is preceded by a bibliography of Burke’s books annotated with British Library shelfmarks.

Thousands of family records can be found in the following:

C. Mosley (ed.) Burke’s peerage, baronetage and knightage, clan chiefs, Scottish feudal barons [107th ed. 3 vols.] Stokesley: Burke's Peerage & Gentry, 2003

Debrett’s peerage and baronetage. London: Debrett’s Peerage, 1976-

Biographical records

Resources cited here are used typically for genealogical research.

British and Irish biographies 1840-1940. Cambridge: Chadwyck Healey, 1985-1991, is a collection of biographical sources in microfiche consisting of 266 separate titles. In addition to biographical dictionaries it contains official lists, directories and yearbooks. Entries for all these titles can be found on the Humanities and Social Sciences open access reference books.

R. H. Farrar, Gentleman’s magazine. An index to the biographical and obituary notices in the Gentleman’s magazine, 1731-1780. London: Index Society, 1891

W. B. Musgrave, Obituary prior to 1800 as far as relates to England, Scotland and Ireland. London, Harleian Society Publications, vol. 44-49, 1899-1901.

The Times is an important source both for obituaries and for general biographical reference. It is available on microfilm in Humanities - Floor 2 from 1785 to the present day. In addition to the printed indexes, there are various CD-ROM and online databases relating to The Times. The most important are the two online databases providing full-text access are Palmer's Index and Full Text which spans the years 1800 to 1870, and The Times Digital Archive which covers the entire period 1785 to 1985. For obituaries in other newspapers you should visit the Newsroom at St Pancras.

Collection guides

Reference sources for family history

Bibliographies, indices, dictionaries and guides for family history research.

UK electoral registers

Printed electoral registers from 1832 to the present

India Office Records and Private Papers: family history

Information about people who came into contact with the East India Company and the British administration in India

Oral history

One of the largest collections of oral history and life story interviews in the world

Modern British history printed sources

Monographs, periodicals and printed ephemera on modern British history