Seeking English

By Paul Milner and Linda Jones Premium

Even if your ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, it’s likely that somewhere in your heritage there’s a bit of merry old England. Just as the United States can trace its origins back to English colonial days, millions of Americans have English roots. No matter who you are and no matter where you live, you can find your English ancestors. Unlike many ethnic heritages, you don’t have to struggle with records in foreign languages. You don’t have to struggle with records in foreign languages. You don’t have to travel to England. In fact, it’s ofter easier to trace your English ancestors from outside of England than it is to trace them in England. Some people begin their genealogy looking for famous ancestors or, especially in the case of English roots, hoping to find royal lines. A few people are even disappointed when they find that an immigrant ancestor was just an “average guy.” Be assured that you immigrant ancestors were not “average.” Your ancestors did something extraordinary: They left their homes, possessions, families, friends and homeland forever to try to find a better life.

Most immigrants left England for economic reasons. A few immigrants left for religious reasons, such as the Pilgrims in 1620 and the Puritans who came to New England from 1629-1640. Some did not come by choice; for example, English prisons were cleared and convicts shipped to the American colonies. Some women and children were even kidnapped from the countryside or from the streets of cities such as London to provide labor in the colonies.

Even after the Revolutionary War, English immigrants kept coming to the former colonies in search of freedom and opportunity. English immigrants were the third-largest group of US newcomers, behind only Germans and Irish, in the 1830-1860 censuses, and surpassed the Irish in the 1870 and 1880 counts.

No matter when or where they arrived, whether they came to the wilderness or to a large city already settled with people from their homeland, your ancestors were pioneers. They all have incredible stories to tell.

A Matter of Records

To start finding your English ancestors and discovering their stories, you need to begin with English records such as civil registrations, census returns, parish registers and probate records. English records are remarkably complete and in many cases go back centuries. But, because of the way records are organized and stored in England, it is actually easier to do research from this side of the ocean than in England itself. Research in England involves traveling to many different record offices; in the United States, you can access them via the Internet and your local Family History Center.

Because of the microfilming efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), almost all of the original records you need to begin your research are available from the church’s Family History Library. You can borrow these records through any of the church’s 4,000 Family History Centers worldwide. To find the center nearest you, call Family History Support at (800) 346-6044 or visit the FamilySearch website. 

Many genealogists have made the mistake of finding that an ancestor was born in England, finding someone by the same name there, and assuming that they’ve found their ancestor. A mistake like this can lead to years of tracing an incorrect family line. It’s essential that you have enough information about your ancestor to distinguish him from the many others of the same name in England. Find out anything and everything you can about your ancestor. It’s helpful to know your ancestor’s full name; place of origin; dates of birth, marriage and death; name of spouse; children’s names; names of parents; date of immigration; occupation; religion; and names of cousins, friends and associates. Of course, you don’t have to know all of that before commencing English research, but the more information you have, the easier it will be to identify your ancestor in English records.

It’s important to try to examine the original records (or microfilm of the originals) rather than merely relying on transcripts or online databases. Let’s look at an example from the 1881 census of England to see why:

Say you have an ancestor named Henry Goddard, who is listed in the 1881 census transcript as living in London, St. Pancras, occupation “Door Keeper H+.” The “+” sign means that the occupation stated on the census record was too long to fit. He is living next to a man named Karl Wass, an “Author Politi+.” A doorkeeper with an unknown author living next door might not seem interesting, but the original census tells a different story: Goddard’s occupation in full is “Door Keeper – House of Lords.” His neighbor turns out to be a German “Author, Political Economy,” whose mistranscribed name is actually Karl Marx. Yes, that Karl Marx. The moral? Always go to the source.

Certain British given names can also cause problems when consulting the records. Some names get abbreviated (William to Wm.), some can be interchangeable in England (Elizabeth and Isobel or Edward and Edmond), and sometimes nicknames were used (Will, Dick, Betty or Molly).

Placing Your Ancestors

Even the term “England” can be confusing. In 1536, King Henry VIII united England and Wales under the same system of laws and government. In 1707, Great Britain was formed when the Parliaments of the Kingdom of England and Wales and of the Kingdom of Scotland passed the Act of Union. In 1801, Ireland was united politically with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1921, most of Ireland separated from the United Kingdom. So today, Great Britain refers to England, Wales and Scotland, while United Kingdom refers to all of the above plus Northern Ireland.

As in all research, it’s important to locate the places where events occurred in the lives of your ancestors. Begin by locating the county. In England the county boundaries changed in 1974, so you will need the pre-1974 maps. For family historians, all pre-1974 counties have been given standardized three-letter codes known as Chapman Codes. The three letters make them easy to use when recording the name of the county and entering information into a computer.

In England, however, it’s not enough to know the name of the county where an ancestor lived. You need to know your ancestor’s parish. There is no separation of church and state in England; the Church of England is the official church, and the parish is the fundamental unit of the Church of England. You will find many records of your ancestors in the Church of England parish records, even if they were Catholics or “non-conformists” (those who did not follow the beliefs of the Church of England). Having your baptism, marriage and burial recorded in the Church of England was necessary to prove your right to inherit, to hold public office or to get welfare relief.

It’s Latin to Me

While researching in English records skirts the language barrier of other ancestries, you may still run into problems with old handwriting. Both the “secretary” style, which petered out around 1700, and the newer “italic” style can seem very hard to read at first. Luckily, a bit of practice with copybooks should make the process easier. Remember that words won’t always be spelled the same as they are today and that their spelling might vary even within a given document.

And you aren’t entirely free from foreign languages: Most legal documents before 1733 were written in Latin. To decipher these, however, fluency isn’t important and there are books available to translate key words. When you do encounter Latin records, treat them as a sign that you have completed a significant amount of research.

Another unexpected difficulty in English records is in date keeping. Prior to 1752, England used the Julian calendar, in which the new year started on March 25, the day it was believed Christ was conceived. By 1752, however, the calendar was 11 days off from the actual seasons and solstices. So September 3-13 of that year were simply skipped, a leap year was instituted, New Year’s Day was changed to January 1, and January, February and March become the first three months of the year instead of the last three months.

Thus, a child born on March 4, 1605, to parents married April 14, 1605, may look like he was born out of wedlock but was, in fact, born 11 months after the marriage. Also, September, October, November and December may be abbreviated as 7ber, 8ber, 9ber and 10ber respectively even though they are now the ninth through twelfth months.

Vital Information

From the time of the Reformation until 1837, the local clergy of the Church of England were charged with recording vital records for everyone in their community. But the number of church dissenters and the onus of forcing the clergy to work, in practice, as unpaid civil servants caused problems. So Parliament created a new civil registration system that began July 1, 1837. The country was divided into 27 regions. The regions were divided into 618 districts and these districts were divided into subdistricts with local registrars. By 1838 there were 2,193 local registrars.

English law required all births to be reported within six weeks, although many births went unrecorded. Marriages and deaths were usually registered because the person performing the marriage registered it, and deaths had to be recorded to receive a burial license.

Estimates indicate that more than 90 percent of all births since 1837 have been registered and the percentages are even higher for marriages and deaths. Since technology has made recording data more effective, very few events have gone unrecorded in England in the 20th century and copies of all of these records are in the General Register Office in London.

In addition to well-indexed vital records, England also has a number of other well-preserved record types that will make your family history quest easier:

Census: England took its first national census in 1801 and, since then, a new census has been taken every 10 years with the exception of the war year of 1941. The 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses were nothing more than population head counts. The 1841 census and every one since theoretically listed everyone in the country by name. But the English census was taken on a specific night so it was actually a snapshot of society on that date: Only people who were at home that night were supposed to be enumerated.

Because of how the census was completed, families may be listed incompletely. If someone isn’t listed, don’t jump to the conclusion that he or she had died. Men, especially sailors and soldiers, might have been working away from home that night.

The 1841 census listed genders, occupations, exact age of children, age of adults rounded down to the nearest multiple of five and whether a person was born in the county where enumerated. From 1851 on, the census recorded exact ages (as reported), relationship to the head of the household, marital status and exact place of birth.

English censuses remain confidential for 100 years, so the 1901 census will be opened in January 2002. While it’s common practice to start with the most recent census and move backwards, for these records the 1881 census is usually a better starting point because it’s indexed by surname for the entire nation. Other censuses may not be indexed by surname, so you need to know where your ancestor was living.

As with any set of records, especially when indexed, there will be some spelling errors of surnames, people may not be listed by the same names found in civil or church records, some records have been lost or damaged, and some people have been missed.

Probate records: English probate records can be divided into post- and pre-1858. Prior to 1858, probate was the responsibility of the Church of England. Since 1858 all records have been processed in one central court system for England and Wales. Probate records include wills and administrations of the estates of those who died without making a will. Before 1540, inheritance was set so that only testaments could be written; law predetermined the division of land.

Before 1837, boys 14 or older and girls 12 or older could make wills but, after 1837, anyone making a will had to be 21. Wills would have been probated by the court where the deceased held property. If property extended from one ecclesiastic unit to another, the will would be moved up to a higher church court. The rank (from smallest to largest) of the divisions is parish, Peculiar (Peculiar Court), Rural Deanery (Rural Deans Court), Archdeaconry (Archdeacon’s Court), Diocese (Bishop’s Court) and Province.

Most pre-1858 probate records that survived are now in the Public Record Office or at county or diocesan archives. A majority have been microfilmed. To get started in searching these records you need to have a date of death and a location of property to determine what court would have jurisdiction.

For post-1858 records, a nationwide Probate Calendar recorded every will since probate jurisdiction was given to the state. To use the Probate Calendar you will only need to know your ancestor’s name and enough information to pick him out from others with the same name. The calendar will tell you when and in what court the will was executed and may also give details not found in the will.

English research isn’t painless, and it still takes plenty of time to find the results you want. But most researchers can eventually find what they are looking for and put together a relatively complete family history — something that’s not always possible with other European record systems.

Remember that your English ancestors have beautiful and often heart-wrenching stories to tell. It is up to you to tell them. You, your family members and researchers for generations to come will be glad you did.

Excerpted from A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your English Ancestors by Paul Milner and Linda Jonas (Betterway Books). 
From the June 2000 of Family Tree Magazine