Genealogy research

A guide to genealogy research resources.

A professional freelance researcher since 2005, I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute an article for beginners wanting to undertake their family history.

This page looks in more detail at where you can start your genealogy research.  Link to family history to find out how to plan and begin your search. 

I hope you’ll be inspired to begin today!

 Patricia O’Neill        

The guidance which follows for your genealogy research relates to research in England & Wales.  Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland each have their own resources.

Where should you look?

Birth, marriage and death indexes from 1837 onwards:  available on-line through various subscription websites, with incomplete indexes available free of charge through .  

Should you buy a subscription package?

Before paying for a subscription, visit your local library or record office to see whether a basic edition is available for you to use free of charge.  You may find their resources are sufficient for your needs.  

Subscription packages do mean you can research at home at whatever time suits you.  Before purchasing, try to visit a record office which subscribes to more than one package, so that you can try out different providers to see which one you prefer.  Once you’ve found an entry in the BMD indexes, you’ll need to buy a copy of each certificate to see the full details recorded: you can order on-line via . 

Genealogy research for Birth certificates give both parents’ full names - providing they were married –  also the mother’s maiden name, place and date of birth, usual residence and name of the informant.  

Death certificates record the date and place of death, occupation and usual residence of the deceased and the name of the informant and may refer to a post-mortem or inquest (so never ignore deaths).  

Marriage certificates give the date and place of marriage, full names and ages of the bride and groom – although sometimes the age column simply says “full”, meaning they were over 21 – as well as the usual residence of each, the signatures of bride, groom and two witnesses (if they were able to write) and the names and occupations of the father of both bride and groom – although sometimes a father may be referred to as “Deceased”.  If a father isn’t noted as Deceased, never assume he was still living at the time of the marriage.

Using Census records:

Census records:  From 1841 onwards, a census was taken in England & Wales every 10 years (except for 1941).  Some local censuses for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 survive; these contain varying amounts of detail ranging from predominantly statistical to entries which give some personal information, particularly for heads of households.  

Censuses for 1841 to 1911 are now publicly available and can be searched on-line via various subscription websites, some of which may be available in local public libraries or record offices.  Some local record offices also hold the census for their own areas on microfilm (take a magnifying glass).  Pre-1841 censuses (where they survive) are generally held at local record offices.

 Baptism, burial and marriage records:  

Civil registration in England & Wales did not commence until 1837, so for the preceding period it is necessary to search for life events in parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.  Usually the original registers have been deposited in county record offices; some are retained at individual churches and some have found their way to local record offices.  (Always contact the county record office to confirm they have the registers you need before making a special trip and to check their opening hours and whether you need to bring ID.)

Some parish registers have been digitised and made available on-line through subscription websites, on CD and fiche through family history societies and on CD through genealogical research companies. Family Search at is a useful resource; records which are “extracted” have been systematically extracted from parish registers or substitutes, those which are member-submitted should be treated with caution until you have checked the original entries.  

Whichever resource you use, be careful to check from which document the information has been taken and always check the original source yourself or request a copy from the appropriate record office or via a local researcher, as transcription errors can occur.

Using wills in genealogy research:

  Wills:  indexes to wills proved in England & Wales from 1858 to date are available at the Principal Probate Registry in London.  Partial indexes are also available on-line via subscription websites.  Wills proved in England & Wales before 1858 could be proved in one of a number of different Courts.  

Searching for a pre-1858 will can be complex, so consult research guidance available at local and county record offices or a family history society.  Alternatively contact a local researcher and request a cost estimate for a search

 World War 1 & WorldWar 2 service records:  

 WW1 service records have been digitised and are available on-line via subscription websites, although a substantial proportion were lost in a fire caused by enemy action during WW2.  WW1 medal cards have been digitised and are available on-line via and subscription websites.  

WW2 service records remain with the appropriate service:  contact details available on my website at (currently on the London & Middlesex page).  WW2 Home Guard records are in the process of being digitised and the first batch became available last year.

Other resources:

Directories, telephone books, electoral registers, rate books:  can be used for genealogy research to establish how long a family was at a particular address or to search for an elusive family member.  Absent Voters’ registers can be useful when trying to identify WW1/WW2 servicemen.

 Local newspapers:  copies are available at the Newspaper Library, Colindale (part of the British Library) but will move at the end of this year when the building closes.  Local record offices also hold collections of newspapers for their area.

Local newspapers covered inquests, accidents, suicides and court cases – in fact anything which might attract local interest – as well as publishing notices of births, marriages and deaths, obituaries and coverage of funerals.  

Early 20thC coverage of local funerals and marriages can be extremely detailed, sometimes with lists of mourners (in which case, relationships are often mentioned) and details of bridesmaids and even, in some cases, a list of wedding presents.

School records:  where they survive they may help in your genealogy research. They may be deposited at County or local record offices or in diocesan archives.  They can be useful for identifying siblings, tracing the family’s address and establishing ages of children in a family group.  School records are usually closed for between 70-100 years.

To enquire about research in London, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, please e-mail: 

All enquiries welcome:  for a free initial assessment of your enquiry please include all relevant details in your e-mail.  

Patricia O’Neill 

If you enjoyed genealogy research link to family history and  memories from the past to find out how you can present your research.

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