By Bridget M. Sunderlin
When we ponder exploring jolly old Great Britain and Northern Ireland with its pastures of green, sprinkled with ancient castles and quaint village cottages, it may seem like a research slam-dunk for any seasoned genealogist. Why not? Their history goes back for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Plus, their native language is English, right?
We may assume that these qualities make the United Kingdom easier to navigate, but perhaps we hold some misconceptions about research in the UK? Well, pour yourself a spot of tea and let’s see if we can straighten out some of those misunderstandings.
5 Things to Keep in Mind When Researching UK Ancestors
1. It’s a Kingdom of Cultures
The very first important concept to keep in mind is that the United Kingdom is exactly that. A kingdom. It is made up of several distinctive countries and islands including England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each of these territories has its own culture, traditions, history, and record keeping practices in place. You can learn more about the best UK record collections by reading this article.
It is important to note that natives of each land speak varied languages. For example, when researching Wales, you might need to know a bit of Welsh. It will be most helpful to note that the Gaelic dialect spoken in Scotland is quite different from that of Northern Ireland. Additionally, there are Scots, Ulster Scots and even Cornish dialects to contend with. Perhaps it would be wise to arm yourself with Google Translate?
To assume that records will be kept in only our modern English language would not be wise. Let us not forget Chaucer’s English. It will have quite an impact on the oldest written records that you find.
Before crossing over the pond (digitally, of course), I suggest that you place your ancestor in a historical timeline and locate precisely where they lived. Legacy Family Tree Webinars offers a webinar on “Using Maps in Genealogical Research” that will shed light on the process for you. Pinpoint exactly where they lived by investigating historical and landowner maps – this approach to research will save you precious hours and reap greater rewards.
2. It’s a Kingdom of Churches
Upon first glance, the predominant religion of England and Wales appears to be Protestant. During the Reformation of the 1500s, did not King Henry VIII break from Roman Catholicism to establish the Anglican Church of England?
While this is true, you may discover through your established ancestral timeline and religious affiliation that the Church of England may not hold any of your ancestor’s religious records. It is important to note that the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian. And, although the Church of Ireland is Anglican, be advised that Catholicism is still a prominent religion in Northern Ireland. In fact, Roman Catholics lived throughout the entire United Kingdom and left quite an array of records for you to find.
Many active parishes still exist today. The Gen Guide is an amazing resource for Roman Catholic registers and records. The best jewel of all may be found within the “Oaths of Loyalty to the Crown and Church of England” which offers great artifacts from clergy. This resource evolved across time in response to the various religions in power and offers a timeline of religious events. Allow these records to dispel the belief that all British citizens are Protestant.
3. It’s a Kingdom of Workers and Royals
Oh, how wonderful it would be if we were all royals! Perhaps your family tree would already be mapped out and you could boast that Queen Victoria was your eighth cousin, once removed. It’s even possible that your relatives served the royals. But sadly, many of us cannot and will never prove royal heritage. (You can check to see if you have Royal names in your tree though!)
Perhaps instead, your ancestors toiled to earn their living. Quite possibly on the British railroad system. Or maybe as a coal miner in Durham or Glasgow. It may have been a life at sea that called to your Welsh ancestors. Or you descend from a long line of Irish Military or Police. These occupations may not seem as glamorous as the life of a royal, but the stories are bound to be fascinating.
Occupational records in the UK, especially those of the commoner, are an abundant resource. Let them bring life to your family tree but, as you learn more about their specific occupation, beware, you may need a dictionary to help you decode the language. Use this helpful guide.
4. It’s a Kingdom of Cottages and Castles
Doesn’t everyone hope to have hailed from some ancient Medieval castle? Or how about a cozy Cornwall cottage surrounded by pink tea roses? Yet, for most of us, that may not be the case. Just think. Would they have left the old country if it had been so wonderful? Probably not.
In reality, our ancestors may have led difficult lives under difficult conditions. These conditions propelled them to leave everything they knew, to sail across the ocean for a few weeks on a ship with even less amenities. Many never even made it to the new country.
When your ancestors left the British Isles, the housing conditions there were often deplorable. So much so, that the remnants of these conditions no longer remain. They’ve been torn down and rebuilt. You may never have the opportunity to see the actual homes, but maybe ‘tis for the best.
Such is the case for many Scottish mining villages. This is also true for any of your poor British ancestors who were sent to the workhouses (also known as poor houses), as Scrooge suggested they should be. If your ancestors did have property in the UK, the Land Registry is the best resource to locate deed transfers and land transactions.
5. It’s a Kingdom of Emigrants
As researchers, we often focus on our ancestors who immigrated to the United States, pouring over records taken as they entered the new country. We may not think about records created as, or directly before, they left the British Isles. However, these are worth investigating. They may offer more information than those gathered in the United States.
When it comes to ships manifests or passenger lists, you must review the entire document to capture every bit of evidence. Within, you may find addresses, names of relatives they left behind, and their intentions regarding a return.
Study the history of the time in order to determine the true reason for their emigrations. Read their newspapers to learn more. Not only do they have stories about the social and economic problems, but they also have ads about outgoing ships and potential jobs.
Speaking of ships, The Ships List will give you insight into the emigrants’ varied paths to Canada, the U.S., Australia and even South Africa. Real life stories can be found in newspaper accounts, marriages at sea listings, missing passenger lists and shipwrecks.
Remember that immigration was a two-sided event. To truly capture every part, you will need to investigate both events, the coming and the going.
When it comes to research in the UK, we should be open to overcoming any misconceptions we hold. The best approach is always to assume nothing and be pleasantly surprised to find the real stories behind our ancestors.
Bridget M. Sunderlin is a certified genealogist who runs Be Rooted Genealogy. She specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland and British Isles research. Her family hails from all of the countries within the British Isles and she recently visited Ireland and Scotland, meeting quite a few cousins along the way.
Image: Photograph from the Coal Board showing the backs of a row of old colliery houses, 1920. The National Archives.