Even if you have only limited expertise or experience, it is often possible to trace your family history back to the early years of the Victorian period without too much difficulty. Speeding through the records of General Registration and census you can make rapid progress. However, your research may then grind to a shuddering halt. Prior to 1837, there are no more birth certificates to handily provide you with a mother’s maiden name, no marriage certificates that helpfully record a father’s name and occupation, or death certificates from which you can glean an age and possibly a family informant. In general, information becomes both sparser and harder to obtain. Now you cannot be nearly so confident that you really do have the correct person and if an ancestor died before the census, where were they born and who were their parents? Even when you are positive that you have identified the right family line, how much do you really know about them? You may have a collection of names and dates but little more. So what can you do? Here are my top ten tips on how can be successful with research pre-1837.
Join a Family history Society
The first thing you should do is join a family history society for the area where your ancestors were living. By doing so, you will gain access to a rich source of local knowledge and expertise for a very reasonable price. The website of the Federation of Family History Societies provides an A-Z list of over 160 member societies, amongst other useful resources: https://www.familyhistoryfederation.com/.
The offering of each society will, of course, vary, but as an example, I have recently joined Wiltshire Family History Society, as many of my ancestors were living in the county pre-1837. An annual subscription is available for the bargain price of £12. They have an ever growing list of transcripts of baptisms and burials for many Wiltshire parishes, available as printed transcripts, downloads or CD publications but there is so much more. Indexes to marriage licences, pew rents, bastardy records and manorial records are just a sample of their many publications. On the website you can download a copy of a Wiltshire parish map and there are other free resources too, such as a list of useful links for those with an interest in the county. The society has a network of local branches, which have a regular schedule of interesting talks for members. (Other societies may perhaps hold talks on Zoom, particularly useful for members at a distance). You are also able to access a directory of members’ interests. It can be so helpful to connect with other family historians who are researching the same families. Why not collaborate and compare notes? Oh, I mustn’t forget to mention that they also offer a research service for a very reasonable price.
Join a Local History Society
Joining a local history society is one of the best ways of gaining a deeper understanding of the lives of your earliest ancestors that will compliment your family history perfectly. The British Association of Local History (BALH) should be your starting point. It is a fantastic organisation with a website that is full of resources, such as “Ten-Minute Talks” and podcasts on subjects relevant to local history: https://www.balh.org.uk/. The BALH also produce a quarterly journal for members, The Local Historian, which is packed with interesting articles. One particularly useful feature on the website is the Local History Society Directory. Organised on a county basis, one can find out if there is a society for the area where you have an interest and if so, obtain their contact details.
Use a census substitute
One of the challenges of research going back into the 18th century and earlier times is the lack of census returns that provide evidence of relationship and place of birth. Where was your ancestor born? If they were mobile, this could be some distance from where they were living in later life. However, there are a number of records that you can consult, which will tell you where people with the same name were living at a contemporaneous time. For example, militia records, where they survive, are brilliant from the late 18th century, as they record all men of a fighting age (18-45 years old) from 1758 to 1831. Every parish in England and Wales had to create a list of eligible men and a list of those that enrolled. Marriage indexes, which are complete for some counties, (such as Wiltshire), will also give you an idea of parishes where the surname you are tracing is concentrated at earlier dates. Brides, in particular, tended to marry in their home parish. You may also be able to identify the marriages of siblings of your own ancestor. Taxation records, such as the hearth tax records of the 17th century, will also enable you to establish the distribution of a name in a given area and of course, your own ancestor may well feature in them. These are just some of the examples of sources that you can use as a census substitutes.
Kill off contenders
When you do find a potential baptism for your ancestor, how do you know if it is the right one? If you know the age of your ancestor when they were buried, the baptism should be in broad agreement. One should also look at the names of siblings and see if they appear in the next generation. Nevertheless, it is sound genealogical practice to check for more potential candidates. If there are other possibilities, you will need to kill off the contenders. Some may be straightforward to eliminate. With high rates of infant mortality, some candidates will not have reached adulthood. If you can find a burial for the child, (sometimes the burial register will provide the names of the parents, which is helpful with identification), you can narrow down the possibilities. Another method, sometimes referred to as family reconstruction, is to look for the potential marriages and children of each candidate so you can distinguish them and eliminate them from your enquiries. They may even have survived to be recorded in the census whilst your ancestor did not. In this way, you may be able to prove that William Tyler, baptised in West Farleigh in Kent in 1777, is the man who married Caroline Fagg and was buried in Maidstone, Kent in 1853, whilst William Tyler, born in East Malling, Kent in 1778, is the man who married Jane Coveney and was buried in Barming, Kent in 1834.
View a Map
One of the problems of researching ancestors at earlier dates is that they often lived in places that you have never visited and in the present day, have changed beyond recognition. You therefore need to get acquainted with the local area and view the landscape with the eyes of your ancestors. I would highly recommend that you consult a map. A good starting point are the parish maps that have been compiled for each county in the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, which have been reproduced on Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.co.uk). These provide a quick guide to the parishes that were in close proximity to where your ancestors were last living. The earliest date of the registers is also recorded. Topographical maps are also important. Nowadays, we mainly rely on roads and train tracks to get around the country but our ancestors would have travelled mainly by foot, sometimes by coach or horse, or in certain areas, even by boat on inland waterways or on sea-going craft. It is therefore worth assessing the local terrain. Trace the course of the rivers, see where there were hills and high ground, which would have formed natural obstacles, as well as tracking the major roads and thoroughfares. This will help you assess the plausibility of migration from one place to another. The website of the National Library of Scotland has an extensive collection of wonderful maps of various scales and dates from all over the U.K., including Ordnance Survey maps, which can all be viewed for free: https://maps.nls.uk/
Something that you may like to consider is either forming a one-name study or seeing if someone else has already formed one for a surname of interest. Perhaps you have a particular interest in a distinctive surname and its variants, maybe your own research has hit a brick wall or you want to investigate DNA links? Why not check out the website of the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS): https://one-name.org/. The GOONS website explains clearly the purpose of a one-name study:
A one-name study may concentrate on aspects such as geographical distribution of the name and the changes in that distribution over the centuries, or it may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the lines bearing the surname. A frequent aspiration is to identify a single place of origin for the name, especially if the name appears to derive from a place name. However, for many names – for example those indicating an occupation like Butcher, or a patronymic-type surname such as Peterson – there will not be a single origin. Some one-namers also run an associated DNA surname project to assist with the analysis of origins.
If there is already a one-name study established for the surname that you are researching you can check this on the GOONS website, where over 8000 surnames are registered. If one doesn’t exist, perhaps consider setting one up. The Guild currently has 2600 members in over thirty countries around the world. Members also have access to the Guild’s scholarly quarterly journal.
Explore The Local and Social History
I have already mentioned the benefits of joining a local history society. However, you can do even more to immerse yourself in the world that your ancestors would have known by educating yourself about the local and social history of an area. There are numerous benefits. For example, you may be able to explain the motivations behind the decisions that your ancestors made. Knowledge of local industries, when they were established and when they went into decline, can help you determine why an ancestor may have moved from one place to another. In my home county of Kent, the hop industry was very important in certain areas; the first hop garden is thought to have been established in Canterbury in 1520. A great deal of manpower was needed to pick the hops in September, as the value of the crop depended on it being picked quickly and at the right moment. From the mid 17th century, there are many mentions in Kent parish registers of “strangers who came a hopping”. Sometimes a parish register or a poor law document may mention their specific place of origin. At the industry’s peak, more than 80,000 people poured into Kent every autumn. Conversely, agricultural depression in certain rural areas may have led to an influx of workers into new industries in towns, especially in the north of England. There are many wonderful books and websites on local history and social history that will provide colour to your research and provide you with new leads on the lives of your ancestors. Many churches also have a parish or church guide for sale that can provide you with helpful tidbits of information. It is also worth taking a look at the Society for One-Place Studies: https://www.one-place-studies.org/ The Society exists to encourage and support those studying the history of a particular place. There are 152 studies in the U.K. alone. Perhaps even consider establishing one of your own.
Search an Archive Catalogue
When you are researching your Victorian ancestors, it is possible to do a lot of your research online. However, if you are looking at an earlier period, it will soon become apparent that online records are insufficient. At some point you will need to visit an archive or use the services of a genealogist who has access to the records. However, before leaving your home or parting with your money, you need to do your homework and find out what records exist for the area where your ancestors once lived and determine their location. One of the best ways of doing this is to consult the online catalogue of the relevant archive. Search creatively under both surname and place of interest, even by occupation, to identify what sources are available and their whereabouts. Don’t forget to also check the Discovery catalogue of the National Archives: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. The Discovery catalogue holds more than 32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country. Over 9 million records are available for download. Even if you cannot visit an archive in person straight away, make a check list of relevant records to consult for future reference.
Brush up on your Palaeography
There is no doubt that handwriting gets more difficult to read the further you go back. Whole document can be filled with spidery scrawl, abbreviations and creative spelling. You may even encounter some Latin. How can you develop your skills in palaeography, the study of historic handwriting? There is no simple solution but practice is what you need most so you become familiar with various handwriting styles and formats. Compare letters with those in other words in the document that you can read and if you are reading a long document, such as a will, make an abstract first that contains all the relevant information, rather than a full transcription. You don’t always need to read every word. Also consider taking a course! The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) regularly runs online tutorials on palaeography: www.ihgs.ac.uk/courses. The National Archives also has an excellent free online tutorial: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/
Join a Facebook Group Or Family History Forum
A number of Facebook groups and other forums have emerged to cater for family historians and those with an interest in the local and social history of a specific area. Members post information on all sorts of topics that are relevant to the group. They provide a great means of seeking help. Wrestling with a question and you can’t find the answer? Can’t read a particular word in a document and need some assistance? It is highly likely that someone will come to your rescue. I belong to several Facebook groups that reflect my interests such as “Wiltshire – Ancestors and Genealogy” and “EAST End of London and East of London – History and Memories“. Many family history societies also maintain a Facebook group that is open to non-members too. For forums, there is the popular FamilyTree Forum: http://www.familytreeforum.com. These groups and forums can provide tremendous support and advice plus loads of resources when you are tracing your pre-1837 ancestors.
I hope I have given you some ideas on how you can be successful in tracing your ancestors prior to 1837. If I had to sum them up, I would say that the most important thing is to educate yourself. Discover which sources might be valuable to you and determine their whereabouts. If your ancestors were mobile, use census substitutes and maps to locate the parishes where they could have originated and make sure you kill off any contenders to ensure that you are following the correct family line. With practice and experience, even reading old documents can be rewarding and less problematic. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you get stuck. Forums and Facebook groups dedicated to family and local history have members who are willing to help, some of whom have specialist knowledge. In particular, collaborate with others and join groups and societies that have been formed to bring people together who share the same interests. Have fun learning more about the life and times of your ancestors so your pre-1837 family history is not merely a collection of names and dates. All that research into the local and social history will pay off. Although researching your ancestors in more distant times can be challenging, don’t be intimidated, just go for it!
@ Judith Batchelor 2021
8 thoughts on “Top Ten Tips to Finding your Ancestors pre-1837”
Wonderful and extremely useful piece as always. Along the theme of online forums to help, I recently used the Reddit Community to translate Yiddish from a tombstone, lots of generous people willing to help out there.
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You have provided a great help for those stuck in that early period. Well done
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Thank you, glad you found it useful.
Thanks so much for this great post. I hope some of your suggestions will help me move to earlier ancestors.
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Glad to hear you liked it. Wishing you every success with your research.