Tyler Stahle | Aug 23, 2017

Important Records for British Research

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

Thanks to technology and online databases, many British genealogy records have been preserved to help you find and add ancestors to your family tree. Finding and using these records, however, isn’t always easy. Some records are digitized, others exist only as microfilm. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most useful records for British research, where they’re located, and how to use them.

Church Records

For both England and Wales, record coverage is very similar because these areas operated under a similar legal structure. One of the best places to start is with church records. Starting in 1538, local parishes throughout England and Wales were required to register all marriages, baptisms, and burials. These church records are the main source for identifying people prior to 1837, when civil registration was implemented.

Researching church records, however, can be difficult because they’re not necessarily in one central location.

“Within England and Wales, [church records are] digitized in 14 different places,” said certified genealogist Amy Harris in her 2017 RootsTech presentation. “They’re transcribed, they’re microfilmed; there’s no one central location.”

Harris suggested starting with online databases on FamilySearch, Ancestry, Findmypast, or in the Online Parish Clerk system, where many of these church records are indexed. If you’re not sure whether these databases have information regarding the parish you’re looking for, search the National Index of Parish Registers, a series of regional volumes published by the Society of Genealogists and Phillimore Ltd, which lists the existence of original parish records.

Many researchers are familiar with the FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Findmypast databases, which are fantastic resources for British records. However, many researchers are unaware of more specific online databases (such as Online Parish Clerk, Parish Mouse, and FreeReg) that can also be useful in your search.

Online Parish Clerk

Online Parish Clerk extracts and preserves records from various parishes and provides online access to these data collections. Depending on the British county you’re researching in, this can be a valuable tool.

“It’s not just somebody sort of transcribing their family surnames for fun,” said Harris. “They make a serious effort to make sure they transcribe everything. And if you have Dorset ancestors … you’re the lucky few because theirs is exceptionally good and well done. They’ll give you a call number, and they’ll give you the Family History Library film number for the collections.”


FreeReg offers free access to baptism, marriage, and burial records from parish registers, nonconformist records, and other relevant sources in Britain.

Probate Records

Probate records are court records dealing with the distribution of property from the deceased to the living. Probate records contain a wealth of genealogical information, but making sense of the complicated pre-1858 ecclesiastical jurisdictions takes patience and effort. Before 1858, the Church of England probated the estates of deceased persons, no matter their religious affiliation. This created a very complicated jurisdiction system.

Harris noted that one of the best websites for navigating this jurisdiction system is dea.byu.edu. Developed by David Pratt, this site offers researchers county-specific information to help find records for the time and place of interest.

As for researching probate records, Harris recommends making a visit to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

“It’s easier to do English probate research in the Family History Library than to go to England, because all of the English and Welsh archives stuff is all microfilmed and in one spot,” she said.

What other tips or tricks can you share for British genealogy research? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to join the conversation.

Tyler Stahle

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