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Beginning the Search for Your English Ancestors


You've done it!  You have traced your ancestors back to the immigrating ancestor and discovered (or confirmed) your ancestor immigrated from England. 

Now you are ready to begin your genealogy research in the English records.

Do you know what records for your English ancestors exist? What records should you look in first? Where are those records housed?

Let's explore where to start your English genealogy research.

Begin the Search for Your English Ancestors

As with any new-to-you records, take time prior to the start of your research to familiarize yourself with record collections. Know the answers to questions such as 

  • What time periods and locations do the records include?
  • What type of information does the record include?

Knowing answers to these questions ahead of time prevents you from wasting valuable research time searching for information that was not recorded or was lost over time.

English Census Records

Most genealogy researchers are familiar with census records making these a great place to start your research.

English census records began in 1841 and were taken every 10 years.  Census records actually began in 1801, but prior to the 1841 census, the census records did not include the names of the individuals. The 1911 census is the latest census accessible to the public.

Keep in mind as you explore the English census, an individual's age may be rounded down to the nearest "5". This practice of rounding an individual's age will be a new concept for US researchers as they begin the hunt for their English ancestors.  For example, in the 1841 census, a female aged 24 years will be listed as 20 years of age. Children less than 15 years of age are enumerated with their correct age. You'll find English Census records available on all the major subscription sites (see resource list at the bottom).

Civil Registrations

Remember the year 1837!

Civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) began in 1837 resulting in a national index. If you find your ancestor in the civil registration index, you can then order a copy of the actual certificate.

England and Wales Birth Registration Index (Source:


The England and Wales Birth, Death, and Marriage Registration Indices can be found on

Parish Registers

If you are researching ancestors prior to 1837, turn to the parish records. Going back to their beginning in 1538, these can be a gold mine for the genealogy researcher.

Parish records were created and kept locally by the vicar recording baptisms, marriages and burials. Typically, parish records were kept chronological order. The tricky part of researching parish registers is knowing which parish your ancestor lived in and which county that parish was located in. Many parish registers have been indexed, transcribed or digitized. 

Beginning in 1598, copies of the parish register known as the bishop's transcripts were sent annually to the parish bishop. These make good substitutes for damaged or missing parish registers. If you fail to find your ancestor in the traditional parish records, check the bishop's transcripts.

Passenger Lists

Passenger lists are another resource to find your English ancestors. Genealogy researchers are both thrilled and frustrated by the variety of information found in these records. Earlier passenger lists may provide only minimal information on passengers, while later passenger lists can contain quite a bit of information on individual passengers. From example, the 1920's passenger lists out of the UK asked for the last known UK address!

1923 UK Passenger-List
1923 UK Passenger  List for the Aquitania (Source:, courtesy of The National Archives, London, England)


Resources For English Records

Watch this Legacy QuickTip video - English Resources in Legacy Family Tree

In this Legacy QuickTip:
- Recording Quarter dates for vital records in the United Kingdom
- Adding English timelines to the Chronology View
- English gazetteer links in Research Guidance

Resources for English records include:

Not sure where your American ancestor immigrated from? Find strategies for researching your immigrant ancestors in Where Did My Immigrant Ancestors Come From? 


Lisa Sig Photo 200 x 200Lisa Lisson is the writer, educator and genealogy researcher behind Are You My Cousin? and believes researching your genealogy does not have to be overwhelming. All you need is a solid plan, a genealogy toolbox and the knowledge to use those tools. Specializing in southern US research and finding those elusive females, Lisa is passionate about helping others find resources and tools to confidently research their genealogy. Lisa can be found online at , Facebook and Pinterest


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I hate to be difficult here, but the wonderful article about researching English (and Welsh) ancestors is illustrated a British flag. I realise that it's only a minor error. For the sake of the British readers I was hoping you might use the English flag of St. George, or just at least highlight the difference between Englsih and British to your readers.

It would make one Brit (and probably more than on Scot) happy...

Hi Phil,

You're not being difficult at all! Thank you, in fact, for taking the time to help us with our history.

First, let me set the record straight. The Union Jack was not added by the author, Lisa Lisson. Leave it up to the marketing people (me!) to mess that one up! And to do it during the World Cup - let's say I like to go "big" when I mess things up!

Hopefully you'll find my changes above provide some educational clarification for all of us who aren't as familiar with the national flags in the U.K.

Marian Pierre-Louis

I'm disappointed that there is no mention of for finding Vital Events after July 1837. No subscription required.

Note that in the context of online records on the major sites, the records are English and Welsh. This is defintely one case where "English" and "British" are not interchangeable! Scotland has its own subscription site, and the Irish records are diverse and often Parish based because of the separation in the 1920s of Eire and Ulster.

A word of warning: Don't click on links to "get certificates" when on these sites. The only place where you won't have to pay a mark-up is to visit the General Record Office's own site, registration is free, and there is now the facility to search early records for things that aren't available in the published paper indexes, such as mother's maiden names for births in the 1800s.

Two helpful books:

Ancestral Trails by Mark Herber for descriptions of the resources available in the UK, not all online, but a really good overview of what exists, and why.

The second book is sort of left field. It's about the migrations to America from the UK and is a reminder that the the UK may be small but it is not homogenous. It is called Albion's Seed: Four Folkways in America and is by David Hackett Fischer.

It is an enthralling read giving the background into social mores determining the likelihood of such things as "lying" about age and why, premarital pregnancy and attitudes towards it, age of marriage, even class attitudes, food and clothing, and house styles. I am English and yet learned more about my nation's society from this book that is ostensibly about the USA than in any school history lesson. (It's also instructive on the shaping of American Presidents whose families were from the UK!)

Ooops! Poor Netiquette, posting twice on a thread...

Forgot to mention which is now the umbrella organisation for FreeBMD and has parish records - no subscription required. It's a growing database and is based on the same principles as FreeBMD of transcription > second independent keying > discrepancy resolution and consolidation.

A small correction to the writer's comments on census ages. It is true that in the 1841 census enumerators were instructed to round adult ages down to the nearest multiple of 5. But only in that year. After that they were told to enter the actual ages. Of course some were then entered incorrectly and sometimes they were given false information, but that's probably true the world over.

An excellent article and brush up on researching in England. Thank you for posting.

I would also give a shout out to I have found a record on that site that, for some strange reason, doesn't appear in the GRO records.
Remember that even the GRO relies on human eyes reading what are sometimes difficult to read originals and be wary of assuming that your ancestors names are spelled as you have spelled them! Try variations on the names (including the maiden name of the mother).
Oh by the way the Union flag should only be referred to as the 'Union Jack' when it is flown from the jack staff of a ship. I know that common usage is to refer to it as the Union Jack regardless of when or where it is flown so I suppose it is fair to use the name as it has been. The flag incorporates three flags, the crosses of St George for England, St Andrew for Scotland and St Patrick for Ireland. (sorry Wales :) ).

Can I respectively point out that many Scots also emigrated to America. The records are held by the National Records of Scotland and can be viewed on Scotland's People website. The Union flag combines the cross of St George (England), the saltire of St Patrick (N Ireland) overlaid on Scotland's saltire (St Andrew).

I realise it wasn't a deliberate mistake but I expect you want to be accurate so I hope this is helpful.

ps dismiss us Scots at your peril !! 😃 😃

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