Tyler Stahle | Aug 9, 2017

4 Tips for pre-1800 British Research

This is the second of a three-part series exploring British genealogy research. Read part one.

In last week’s article, we presented some tips for researching British ancestors. In this article, we’ll get a little more specific and discuss research methodologies and techniques for pre-1800 British research. It’s important to understand that researching Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) before the initiation of the census and civil registration practices in the mid-19th century can be difficult and frustrating. For many genealogists and family historians, this can be a major brick wall in piecing together their family trees.

In her RootsTech 2017 presentation, Amy Harris, accredited genealogist and program coordinator for the family history major at BYU, outlined major record types and suggested a few strategies for to help you push your British research into the 18th century and beyond. We’ve compiled a few of her suggestions here.

1. Begin in the 19th Century

This may sound counterintuitive (after all, if you’re researching in the 1700s, why would you need information from the 1800s?), but genealogy research typically means working backward from what you know to the unknown. Records from the 19th century, which have more detailed and useful information, can help you trace your ancestors’ origins based on the information you have about the end of their lives.

“The records in the 18th century, … they’re not very explicit,” said Harris. “They don’t [give] as much detail as the 19th century [records]. So you have to piece them together to come up with the most logical conclusion based on all of those pieces having to work together.”

The following record collections will likely be most useful:

  • Probate records post 1858
  • 1851 census
  • Civil registration (especially children’s marriages and death certificates in Scotland)

The 1851 census can be of particular value because it contains more accurate information than the 1841 census.

“[The 1851 census contains] precise birthplaces, precise ages, and relationships, which you don’t get … in the 1841 census,” said Harris. “So if anybody survived in your family to 1851, you look for it. I don’t care if it’s your own ancestor or their sibling. Because their sibling in 1851 is going to tell you their age. And this is where [the British census] is way better than the American census—[a person’s] exact birthplace. And that might be the only clue you have for a bunch of people born in the 1780s, where they were born, because one sibling happened to make it to 1851.”

2. Watch for Changes in Record Content

Harris noted that the order in which you search British records depends on the accessibility of the records and on the content they contain.

“It’s helpful to know, for example, that after 1813, the preprinted forms for parish registers include information that was not standardly kept before that date,” she said. “That means that if you’re looking for your ancestors’ children born around 1813, you want to make sure, even if it’s not your ancestor, that you get that child born in 1815 or 1816 because the records have more content. They will help you find their parents more accurately.”

3. Avoid Using the General Search Page

If you’ve already formulated a specific research question, avoid using the general search page of any online database. Rather, choose a particular set of records and do a specific search through that.

“There is a place for [general search engines] in research, but when you’re trying to do something very specific that gives you too much information to filter through at once,” said Harris, “pick a record and go to that record. You can find that on FamilySearch, if you go under historical records, go down to your country, your county, or the catalog on Ancestry, or the A-Z list on FindMyPast.”

“Pick the specific record: Warwickshire baptisms, probate records from Lincolnshire, whatever it is, pick that and search it. It will help your research to be more focused, and you’ll be able to determine better where you should go next.”

4. Think of Research Questions, not Websites

It’s easy to jump straight to Findmypast or Ancestry or FamilySearch once you’ve formulated your research query. However, Harris said rather than thinking of platforms to research on, refine your research questions and goals as much as possible.

“Think of research questions or research goals and not about generations and not about websites. Think about a question [like,] ‘I want to find John’s birth,’” she said. “When you keep it in these little bite-size pieces, you do much more focused research. And then you can use all the little bite-size pieces … to make a conclusion.”

Tyler Stahle

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