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English & Welsh Roots - Getting Started
Article posted: February 24, 1999
By: Fawne Stratford-Devai   Biography & Archived Articles

Welcome to the first of a new series on researching your English Roots. The focus of this series will be researching your roots in the United Kingdom (UK) from afar. I should also start by clearing stating that I am not an expert in researching in England. However, like many family historians I do not have the time nor the money to visit England and English repositories. In fact, I have traced many of my family lines in England back to the early 1600s and I have never been to London! I have not had the thrill of researching in the Public Records Office or the Society of Genealogists or the Office of National Statistics and other great repositories and archives for English Research. But, my own research has been verified by distant cousins in England with access to these great places. They like me, have been amazed at how a person in Canada can access English records without having to travel to England.

How can you research in England without actually travelling there? - with great books, the internet, your local Family History Centre of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a step by step plan and careful research. It is my plan for this series to share with you the great resources and steps I have used to successfully research my English families from afar.

Getting Started:

Develop a plan. Know which lines you want to follow. Remember, you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and your numbers only double every generation you trace back - and that does not even include all the brothers and sisters of each generation! Your time will be better spent when you have a clear plan to guide you.

Work from the known to the unknown:

Work backwards, from what you know to what you want to know - from the known to the unknown. There will be times when you hit the inevitable brick wall. At those times it sometimes help to work forwards again from the siblings of your ancestor in the hope that their lines will lead you back again.

Always talk to your existing family - all family members. My greatest clues came from living aunts and uncles and even great aunts and uncles who I had never met before. When listening to family stories and legends write everything down. Do not take the legends as fact, but rather as clues to the larger puzzle you are trying to put together. Always establish very carefully the basic genealogical facts (dates and places of birth, baptism, marriage and death/burial). Look at family Bibles, letters, journals, obituaries and any other records you can find. Do this for as many of your immediate relatives as possible. I began my own research by using individual family group sheets for each of my families. These family groups sheets quickly became large family trees and my notebook became filled with lists of records and microfilm I had checked.

Document your sources:

Always document your sources and your searches very carefully. Document everything!!! - both the successful results and the unsuccessful results. Even if you found nothing - write down the reference anyway - it may save you from searching the same record in the future. When I began my family history I was not careful about citing my sources. I cannot tell you how many times I found myself months and years later having to retrace my steps to an old source I had used previously to find yet another family member. I have a notebook of ruled pages I carry with me when researching. I use my notebook to write down everything I have checked - local history books, various microfilm of original records even if I did not find anything helpful in them. Next to each type of record listed in my notebook, I record the source information for how to find that information again and the names of families I was searching for at the time I looked at it. Many times I have switched to another line of the family and have had to retrace my steps back through records I have looked research log notebook has saved me a great deal of extra work because I could find the source again easily.

Establish a solid, carefully documented paper trail for each person you are researching. The goal should be to have enough information recorded that you can walk back to the same source (including page number) and find it again years later and that others who are verifying your research can find the same information. Careful note taking and recording all information exactly as it is written and recording all references is the greatest research skill you can have!!

Know the records:

Know the records you are using. How reliable are they? Are they a primary source of information or a secondary source of information?

Primary Sources: include original marriage, birth and death certificates, wills and other documents that are created at the time the event occurred. Always remember that original documents and records were not created or filed for the use and convenience of modern genealogists. You will quickly learn about many original records - most of them are not available from an easy to use index. Many original records can only be found in archives and record offices and have never been microfilmed and indexed. However, many have been microfilmed but not indexed. This microfilm is available to researchers in other countries.

Secondary Sources: are records that have been compiled by others - research done by others and include biographies, family histories, published local histories that are written years after events occurred and families lived. Even newspapers can present a distorted view of an event. The old adage "don't believe everything you read" should be foremost in the genealogists mind. Find the proof that events occurred as they were reported or find whatever records you can for any given event and compare their accuracy. Unless the record and the index is created at the time the record was filed, it is a secondary source. Modern indexes and transcriptions of original records should always be checked against the original information. Ask yourself where the information came from, who reported the information and who created it. Know why the record was created and learn why it is filed where it is today.

Do not rely on online sources-verify all information found. Online sources are growing every day! Many people are working very hard to make available indexes and original material online or, are willing to share what they know with others. ALWAYS check the original source of the information. I know one researcher who did not check the original source and ended up spending a few years and a great deal of money and time researching a family in the wrong county of England. As it turned out, her own family was connected to the family in the other country many generations before. Use online resources as a guide to finding records and always followup by checking the original documentation.


It is extremely important that you establish the place of origin for your ancestors in England. When you have determined the place, try to find out something about its history, geography and jurisdictions. The best help you can have when researching in England is good, basic resources that you can refer to again and again to help yourself. Here are a few of the sorts of things you should have on hand.

  • An Atlas of England

  • Detailed Maps of the areas of interest (both general maps and parish maps)

  • Cassell's Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1899 (now available on CD-ROM).

  • The modern LandRanger series of maps are an essential geographic tool when researching.

  • Historic maps are also helpful such as the Victorian series of Ordnance maps for England and Wales.

  • An overview history of England (to help you to understand the main upheavals and events that affected the entire country and the areas your family lived). The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History is a great resource to understanding the everyday lives of your ancestors. This Oxford companion, paints a vivid picture of rural and urban life from prehistory to present England.

  • An understanding of web pages devoted to English/Welsh research. Surf the net!! One of the best starting points is The UK & Ireland Genealogical Information Service (GENUKI) site which can be found at: Cyndi's lists for England are also very helpful: The Emery Paper or as it is better known, the A-Z of British Genealogical Research by Dr. Aston Emery is another great online resource and can be found at:

  • Basic reference books for researching in England/Wales --such as:

  • Your English Ancestry, A Guide for North Americans - Revised Edition by Sherry Irvine

  • In Search of Your British & Irish Roots by Angus Baxter

  • Beginning Your Family History in Great Britain by George Pelling

  • The Family Historian Enquire Within by Pauline Saul (a great book of definitions)

  • Tracing your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford

  • First Steps in Family History by Eve McLaughlin is yet another invaluable source.

  • Welsh Family History: A guide to research by J. Rowlands, et. al (1993)

  • The Family Tree Detective by C.D. Rogers (1989).

  • It is always important to understand the economic, social history and the geography of the area combined with what you know of your ancestor's social and occupational background. For this reason it is important to read whatever you can get your hands on for the area in which your ancestors lived, loved and worked. Local histories, shire guides county, military history, genealogy, local history, folklore [many are availabel at Global Genealogy) even travel guides and other written works about the history and geography of the area are all very important aids.


    There will always be some overlapping of records and time periods, however, basic research in England and Wales should utilize the records listed below at some time in your research:



    Civil registration (1837 --present)

    Census records: 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891

    Electoral Records (1832--...) Poll Books (c1696-1872...)

    Feet of Fines

    Manorial Records

    Marriage indexes, marriage license allegations and bonds

    Military Records and Regimental Records (1790-19--)

    Monumental Inscriptions

    Non-conformist records (1567...,1689-...)

    Parish Records (1538...1598 - present) & Bishops Transcripts (1598...)

    Poor Law Records

    Quarter Session Records (1350-present)

    Wills-Probate Records (before and after 1858)

    Records in the United Kingdom related to the colonies

    and still more lesser known and used records.

    Articles to come will examine each of the records listed above - how to find and use them without having to travel to England. Beginning in the next column I will discuss getting from here to there - with an emphasis on passenger list resources. From there we will look at the importance of the local Family History Centres (FHC) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) - perhaps your best source of both primary and secondary sources of English records. After having a firm grasp of resources available to us we can move directly into a careful examination of the various records - beginning with Civil Registration records - birth, marriage and death records (1837-present).

    Here's to being gobsmacked by the challenge of English research!

    About Fawne Stratford-Devai
    Fawne Stratford-Devai's work on Land Records and early Ontario records is well known in the genealogy community. A published author of several Canadian and UK research books, she has also contributed articles to the Ontario Genealogical Society's newsletter "Families" as well as writing for the online family history newsletter the "Global Gazette". Biography

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