By Bridget M. Sunderlin
The United Kingdom is truly an amazing place to discover your ancestors. Rich with history, each country’s heritage is unique to the land and its people.
Just imagine: your relatives might have been herring fishermen off the quaint seaside village of Clovelly, England. Or perhaps they were linen weavers from Glasgow or tartan weavers from Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe your forefathers were sheep farmers who worked the land of Randalstown, Northern Ireland or slate splitters from Llanberis, Wales? Your ancestors may have even ruled the entire kingdom itself from the parliamentary seat of London.
Whatever their vocation, you are sure to find heaps of records they left behind with a wee bit of toil of your own and the following resources to guide your way. Most of the sites on this page offer the vast number of their records and resources free of charge, some offer a combination of free and paid options.
12 Essential Sites for Researching Your UK Ancestry
Record Collections for England
Royalty abounds in jolly, old England. With its rolling hills, lovely villages and the fantastic city of London, exploring your English roots will be anything but dull. So much history is simply waiting for you to discover it. Let’s dive right in.
Civil registration records for England and Wales can be found right here. Their archives date back to 1837 and include births, marriages and deaths. Start your search by locating the index from your record. Be sure to note that records were recorded quarterly and dates will be approximate – so be loose with date ranges when searching. Special features of the GRO are adoption records and the “Abandoned Children” and “Thomas Coram” registers. Read our more detailed guide on how to use the GRO Index right here.
With 195 family research guides available, the sky’s the limit. The most popular guides include Census Records, the 1939 Register, and Wills from 1384-1858. Yes, you read that correctly -1384! Lesser known records include Insolvency, British Army Nurses, British Army War Diaries from 1914 to 1922, and Manorial Documents and Lordships. This site is so comprehensive and diverse, you may wish to set aside an entire day just to browse before committing yourself to specific research.
Free UK Genealogy is the umbrella organization that oversees FreeBMD, FreeREG and FreeCEN. It was developed as a Charitable Incorporated Organization with a belief in free public access databases and the organization has been actively transcribing documents for over 19 years. FreeBMD includes 270 million vital records like birth, marriage and death. FreeREG includes 43 million parish records, while FreeCEN focuses on census records from 1841 to 1891. This is such a remarkable resource for both England and Wales.
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Collections for Northern Ireland
Ulster’s lovely blanket of green consists of six counties; Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. With its bustling Belfast City, majestic cliffs, volcanic rock formations, and grand castles, Northern Ireland has a rich and vibrant history to explore. Where shall we begin?
With vital records, of course! Those found within the GRO include civil births, marriages, and deaths. Northern Ireland is currently part of the UK, which requires you to distinguish where records might be held from varied historical times. Before 1921, records were generated by Ireland, with no further distinctions. Therefore, for records before this time, search within the Republic of Ireland. When in Belfast, do take the time to visit GRONI’s (General Register Office Northern Ireland) Public Search Room. It’s a gem!
Find My Past offers over two billion records from the UK, Canada and the US. It is a wonderful resource for census, church and immigration, newspapers and vital records. Imagine locating an image of your ancestor’s baptism, written in Latin! You can find those records right here, many without a subscription. Some records unique to FMP include Workhouse and Poor Law Books, Poverty Relief Loans, Police Registers, and even Dog License Registers, which practically every farmer submitted.
Griffith’s Valuation is a key record collection that should be at the top of your list when conducting Irish genealogy research. It represents the first full-scale property tax assessment of Ireland residents, which was supervised by Sir Richard Griffith, a Dublin geologist. Extremely thorough, it included every parcel of land and its owners, not only in transcript form but also in detailed maps. Knowing the surname, county, barony, union and parish of your ancestor will be most helpful, but is not necessary.
This article only includes information about Northern Ireland since it is part of the UK. For help researching your Irish ancestors in general please see this article about Irish research or take our online course for lessons on how to research in Ireland.
Genealogy Sites for Scotland
The sights and sounds of this beautiful country cannot be easily rivaled. Wailing bagpipes, vibrantly-colored tartans, locks of auburn hair, and some of the most stunning landscapes your mind could ever imagine make Scotland a cultural beauty. Once you start to explore your ancestors’ records, you’ll realize how truly lucky you are to be Scottish.
Scotlands People is an outstanding site. You’ll navigate it through three searches: people, places and the image library. The “Search for People” drive introduces you to vital, census, church, valuation and legal records. Many previews are free. “Searching by Place” is a great resource to locate your ancestor’s FAN Club (family, associates and neighbors). And let’s not downplay the map collection found there – such a wonder! The “Image Library” offers you the unique opportunity to truly visualize Scotland and its people throughout the years.
The quick links found here will allow you to easily connect with invaluable research guides. This is the place to order original vital records like births, marriages and deaths. My favorite find here is the Royal Anniversary Messages. If your marriage took place in Scotland, and you are celebrating 60, 65, 70 years or more of wedded bliss, apply for a special message from Her Majesty The Queen. How wonderful is that?
The National Library is your one-stop destination for digitized books, newspapers, journals, maps and bibliographies. Here you will find British & Irish Women’s Letters & Diaries, British Newspaper Archive, Ebook Central, Forces War Records, Queen Victoria’s Journals, and the Scotsman Digital Archive from 1817-1950. This list is quite comprehensive but the digital resources do require registration. For all things Glasgow, my favorite library is The Mitchell. They have a genealogy center on-site but also have a wonderful digital site online.
Known for its stunning coastline and majestic mountains, Wales is a country of people who are artistic and friendly. Literature, poetry, performance and music are vital to the Welsh. As a bilingual country, Wales embraces its distinct cultural heritage and enjoys sharing it with all visitors to its land.
Welsh archives are primarily located within individual towns. Note that the original town’s name is used, not its modern counterpart. Archives Hub is an umbrella for individual archives, plus all repositories throughout the UK. You can search by Archived Collections, Themed Collections or Repositories. It may not lead you directly to a record, but it will most definitely lead you to its repository. Start by clicking “Search” on the right-hand side of the home page. It’s well worth your research time.
The Library of Wales is a must for all serious genealogists. Within, you can find tithe maps, archives and manuscripts, Welsh newspapers, and wills proved in the Ecclesiastical courts before 1858. They offer a vast Digital Gallery with maps, manuscripts and photographs from the country. You can see the earliest printed book, published in 1546. The Lampeter Vestry Book is a pure gem, detailing significant news of its parishioners. Their collections also include “The Cambrian,” a magazine for Welsh-Americans from 1880 to 1919. This searchable magazine is a must read for all those who are descendants of emigrants.
This archive includes a searchable catalog that offers records such as wills, photographs, census records, tape recordings, and church registers. Their repository includes collections that have not been cataloged yet, as well. You might have to work a tad harder to locate specific records, but it will be well worth the effort. You can learn a bit of Welsh along the way if you click over to Welsh as the site’s language.
Enjoy the search for your UK ancestors!
You may also like to check out these resources:
- The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland
- Free Genealogy Sites for Researching Ancestors in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland
- Family Heritage Tours are Taking Off: These 14 Companies Will Help You Walk in Your Ancestors’ Footsteps
Bridget M. Sunderlin practices in Maryland. In her view, she was born an artist. As a self-proclaimed career changer, she has been a graphic designer, art teacher and now, professional genealogist. She has been actively researching her Irish roots for well over 30 years. Her family hails from all of the countries within the British Isles. Last year, she visited Ireland and Scotland, meeting quite a few cousins along the way. Ms. Sunderlin believes that the act of researching one’s family history helps us to “be rooted.”
Image credit: John Atkinson Grimshaw’s “Shipping on the Clyde” 1881