Anyone Who’s researching English ancestors knows that 1837 is Year Zero for UK genealogy: the beginning of official registration of births, marriages and deaths. Prior to that year, genealogists have to rely on church records and other sources. But after July 1, 1837, you can search for your family in General Register Office indexes, then order copies of the original certificates of birth, marriage or death.
No wonder, then, that the Findmypast.co.uk website was originally known as 1837online.com. Its founding mission was to bring those 1837-and-onward vital records indexes to genealogists via the internet.
Today, however, the site has a new name—officially, Findmypast.co.uk, recently updated from the moniker Findmypast.com to emphasize the site’s UK focus—and a broader mission to offer more UK records. Most notably, it’s added 1841 to 1911 census records for England and Wales, and emigration records from UK ports. It’s the only site where you can find that early-released 1911 enumeration (other than the British national archives site
, which is also “powered by” Findmypast). Our guide will help you find your past with Findmypast.
Picking your package
All told, Findmypast now includes more than 650 million records. Besides “BMD” (birth, marriage, death) and census records, it’s added military records, emigration and passport records, an index to death duty registers of probates generating taxes (1796 to 1903), and miscellaneous resources such as a 1925 Dental Surgeons Directory and a pay-per-use search for living relatives. Not yet fully developed but notable for future research, Findmypast has begun adding parish records and the National Burial Index. If your ancestor’s parish happens to be among the early additions (especially in the period 1813 to 1850), you can almost hear those brick walls tumbling down.
These genealogical goodies will cost you, of course, and Findmypast has a somewhat confusing pricing structure that can make it difficult to calculate your bottom line. References to “PayAsYouGo” credits dot the site, and this is certainly an option if you need to check just a couple of things; packages start at a little more than $11 for 60 credits, which you can use over a period of 90 days.
Because, as we’ll see, finding ancestors in those BMD indexes can require a lot of clicking and viewing—at a cost of three credits or so for each page you look at—credits probably aren’t a smart option for doing intensive research. Instead, as long as your ancestors left England by 1911, you’ll do best with the Explorer subscription package, which lets you freely roam through all collections, except the 1911 census and the Living Relatives search, at a cost of $88 for six months or $144 a year.
A Full subscription that combines the Explorer package with the 1911 census runs about $152 for six months and $240 a year (renewing or upgrading subscribers get a 20 percent “loyalty scheme” discount).
Starting your Findmypast search couldn’t be simpler. The home page offers a straightforward search form (the only way to search multiple databases at once) in which you enter a first and last name. You can limit this basic search by birth and/or death date, but in general, it’s best to cast your net as wide as possible at first. Since the two most important record groups here—BMDs and census—are already arranged by date, there’s no sense restricting your search and possibly missing out on an ancestor.
This simple home-page search takes you to a results screen listing the number of hits from the census all the way down to more obscure resources such as Great Western Railway Shareholders 1835-1910. Hits in the census and miscellaneous records are listed by number of records. Simply click on “7 records” (or whatever) to view a detailed chart of hits in the source, which you can in turn click to view transcriptions or record images.
Results in BMD indexes and most other sources are listed by number of pages—sometimes a thousand or more. Clicking on these links leads to a long list of index pages; in the case of BMD records, they’re ordered by year, then by quarter within each year.
The initial results page also gives you the opportunity to narrow your search by birth or death date (the default is 1320 to 2006), or to broaden it to include variants of the first and/or last name. These variants won’t make much difference for BMD records—you’ll likely get the same batch of index pages—but may sweep in a few extra census hits. You also can use an asterisk * as a wildcard to search the census, with the asterisk standing in for one or more letters: Wil* finds Will as well as Willie, Wilt, Wilfred and William. You can even try two asterisks: *ill* finds not only all those Will variations but also Bill or Billy. This can be particularly handy for overcoming transcription errors affecting the initial letter of a name.
From the home page or using the blue bar of links atop every screen, you also can opt to search any one group of records, such as BMDs or the census. Those links in turn take you to a page where you can select individual databases to search.
Paging through BMDs
Findmypast suggests starting by scouring those birth, marriage and death records from 1837 on. Here, though, researchers accustomed to instant database gratification are in for a bit of a surprise: The 1837 to 1984 vital records aren’t truly searchable by name. Rather, searching Findmypast BMDs serves up a list of index pages on which your ancestor’s name might be found (births, marriages and deaths are listed in separate indexes, rather than being lumped together). Each entry in the list shows the first and last name on that page, so a search for Daniel Bing, for example, gets results that begin with a page for July-August-September 1837, from “BILLING, Sarah Jane to BIRCH, Female.” There may or may not be Bings on that page.
These registry books are arranged alphabetically by surname, then by forename, within each quarter of the year. Everyone in England born in April, May or June of 1853, for example, is listed alphabetically in the same registry. So if you don’t know an ancestor’s birth date or other key date, even approximately, you may have to view a lot of pages in order to find the right person. Even then, you won’t get the exact date: Registry books list name, geographic district, volume and page where the event was recorded; you can use this information to order the General Register Office (GRO) certificate (for a fee) containing more complete data, including the date of birth, marriage or death.
Even if you know your ancestor’s birth, marriage or death date, finding the event in the indexes can be tricky. Keep in mind that an event at the end of March, for example, may not have been recorded until April—and would be found in the April-May-June pages instead. Legally, births had to be registered within 42 days.
Knowing what district to look for can help separate your John Smith from similarly named individuals in other places. Marriages were typically recorded in the parish of the bride, which may not be in the same district as the groom’s. Deaths were recorded in the district where they occurred, which might be in a hospital different from the deceased’s home.
Still can’t find somebody? Try a few years on both sides of the supposed date; people often fudged their ages, and census takers and other officials made mistakes.
You might also get tripped up by accidents of alphabetizing. Although the indexes generally list individuals in order much like a telephone directory, there are a few oddities:
- Births and deaths where the surname was unknown may be listed after Z.
- Prior to June 1969, surnames beginning Mac and Mc were indexed separately; thereafter, both were alphabetized under Mac.
- Surnames beginning with O’ (such as O’Reilly) were alphabetized as if without the apostrophe.
- “Double-barreled” surnames such as Harvey-Jones were usually listed by the first part of the name. Harvey-Jones would fall after the last Harvey but before Harvey-Smith.
- Multiword surnames such as De Burgh, Le Jeune, St. John or Van de Kamp were alphabetized by the first word, as if without spaces.
- Births of those with hereditary titles were listed under given names, but deaths may be under titled names; marriages could be listed either way.
- Nuns may be listed as Sister Cecilia or Cecilia, Sister.
Depending on the date, viewing an ancestor’s entry may be rewarding even before ordering from the GRO. Births from September 1911 and later include the mother’s maiden surname in the index. Marriages are listed under both the groom’s and bride’s names, but spouses weren’t listed together until March 1912. (To be sure you have the right couple in earlier indexes, look up both the bride and groom to see if the information matches.) The index shows age at death beginning in the second quarter of 1866—but be aware these ages are notoriously unreliable.
Seeking English enumerations
Results of a Findmypast census search will feel familiar to online researchers. The list of hits for each census displays columns for “Institution, Household or Vessel,” name, birth year, age, sex, registration district and county, plus links to a household transcription and an image of the original.
Clicking on the column headers in your results list lets you sort them by name, birth year or district. Take that “birth year” date with the usual grain of salt: As in US censuses, UK enumerators recorded the person’s age, not the actual year of birth, so these years are simply calculated estimates. And you can’t even depend on the age in the earliest, 1841 headcount: Enumerators rounded ages to the nearest multiple of five, so a 21-year-old was recorded as age 20, while his 48-year-old dad got bumped up to 50.
Keep in mind, too, that the UK census reflects a snapshot of the population’s whereabouts on a single day. Your ancestor may have been sick in hospital or visiting a friend; if so, that’s where you’ll find him recorded. Young women were often “in service,” and would be enumerated in the household of their employer. Someone on board a ship would be recorded if in an English port, but not if at sea.
You can use this place-specificity to overcome transcription and spelling errors: Findmypast lets you search censuses by any combination of street name, residential place (treated as a keyword field, so you can enter Rose if your ancestor’s address includes “Rose Cottage”) and county. Just click Search by Address on the census search page
for any census. The advanced search provides more-specific options, but you likely won’t need them.
So, for example, if you’ve found Daniel Bing’s family in every census except 1861, you can use the address information from those other finds to try to solve that mystery. Doing an advanced search for the road Hereson in Thanet district, county Kent, retrieves the entries for all the households on the road in that census. Sure enough, there’s the “missing” entry, mistranscribed as “Danice.”
Other census search options, under the Advanced Search tab, let you search using any of the fields for that particular census, such as gender or marital status, even occupation or names of others living in the same household.
Once you’ve found your ancestor in BMD records and the censuses, explore Findmypast’s other databases. The growing parish records collection is under the Births, Marriages & Deaths tab. Migration records range from 1793 to 1960 and include passenger lists of those leaving the UK (1890 to 1960) and the register of passport applications (1851 to 1903).
“Specialist records” include civil service records, directories of the medical professions and clergy, crew lists and those shareholders of the Great Western Railway. If you still have kin in England, try the Living Relatives search—by name, address or business—at 10 credits per search. (You could find who’s now living in your ancestors’ old house.)
Findmypast also lets you post a tree online using the free Family Tree Explorer
. You get 200MB of media storage for scanned documents, certificates and photos, with more features and collaboration options in the works. If you have lots of English ancestors, it might make sense to put your tree where other English researchers might be likely to find it. You can start from scratch or upload a GEDCOM file exported from your genealogy software. With a little help from those distant kin and the power of Findmypast, you’ll have your family tree all leafed out back to 1837—and be ready to push back beyond that Year Zero.
Owner: Brightsolid Online Publishing, 38-41 Fourth Floor, Broadgate Court, 199 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3TY, firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 (020) 3326 6300
Full: about $152 for six months or $240 annually
Explorer: about $88 for six months or $144 annually
1911 census only: about $64 for six months or $95 annually
Content: more than 650 million historical records
• English and Welsh birth, marriage and death records back to 1837
• 1841 to 1911 English and Welsh censuses
• lists of passengers leaving the UK, 1890 to 1960
• National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918
• Army Roll of Honour 1939-45
2003: 1837online.com launches with complete BMDs for England and Wales
2006: Site is rebranded as Findmypast.com
2007: Findmypast.com adds long-distance outbound passenger lists from UK ports (1890 to 1960) and largest online collection of parish records; wins the Queen’s Award for Innovation
2009: Findmypast.com launches the 1911 census, three years ahead of scheduled release