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In recent years there has been a huge increase in the numbers and types of records available online. The major types that are useful for those researching their UK family history include the civil records i.e. births, marriages and deaths, the census records starting in 1841 and increasingly parish records. Civil and census records are the only records where the information is more or less complete from the start of record keeping and readily available online.
It is often assumed especially by beginners that most parish registers are also available online, but not all of the surviving records are included, even in index form. It must also be remembered that although parish records began to be kept in the 16th century, there is by no means 100% survival of these records.
Online records are mostly hosted by commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past, and may be viewed only by subscribers to those sites. Library subscriptions for institutions are available and provide access to institution members. The largest site where indexes to parish records are available for free is Family Search,which also has a growing collection of images of the original registers which again can be viewed for free.
As a professional genealogist, I have a subscription to the commercial sites, so if you ask me to carry out research on your behalf, I will include images (where they exist) at no additional cost to you.
These records start in 1837 and continue to the present day. Currently the online indexes extend up to 2006. For family history purposes these records are often the place to get started.
The online records consist of the indexes only, providing the name and surname of the person and the year and quarter when the event occurred. For early records, this is literally all you will find in the indexes; for later ones there may be more details (birth indexes may give the mother's maiden name, a marriage record may give the spouse's name and death indexes start to give the age at death).
In order to obtain additional details of the event, a certificate must be ordered from the General Register Office, using the reference number found in the indexes. Currently (January 2023) each certificate costs £11.00 and is sent out by post within 4 working days. For some earlier records, a digital (pdf) copy is available at a lower fee of £7.00. You can either order the certificate yourself or ask me to do it for you. Certificates give vital detail to genealogists, especially birth and marriage certificates, for example:
- birth certificates: parents' names, place of birth
- marriage certificates: names of bride's and groom's fathers, age of bride and groom at time of marriage, names of witnesses
The UK census has been taken every 10 years since 1841 and is available for research up to and including 1921. In order to protect the privacy of those still alive, there is a '100 year rule' which prevents release of information until 100 years after the census takes place. The censuses have all been indexed and can be searched by name or by address. Images of the original census form are also available - I include these cost of obtaining these images in my hourly research fees.Here is an example of search results for Rebecca Rivers in the 1871 census index. I already know that she was born around 1815:
Name Birth Year Age Sex Registration District/Parish County Household Transcript Original census image
RIVERS, Rebecca 1815 56 F Wantage Berkshire VIEW VIEW
RIVERS, Rebecca 1814 57 F Bishop's Stortford Hertfordshire VIEW VIEW
Now I happen to know that the one I want (my great great grandmother) is the one living in the Wantage district of Berkshire. But suppose I hadn't known that? Or suppose I wanted to know the exact address where she was living and who else was living there with her? I would need to view the Household Transcript (a transcribed copy of the actual census form) and the Original census image, in order to find out the exact address, her place of birth and the other members of the family who were at the same address. All this would cost me money to see - and I might need to look at them for more than one individual, if I wasn't sure which one was 'mine'. And I was lucky in my search example above, because there were only two possibilities - there might be many more than this.
Parish registers are available as far back as 1537 in some cases, and many have been indexed. The indexes can be searched online on the Family Search website, and images are available for some registers for free at that site, or at a cost on commercial websites. Where possible I will verify what I find in an index by looking at the image of the original online, but it may be possible to do this only by viewing images of the original registers (usually on microfilm or microfiche) at a record office.
The time spent and possibly the travelling I will need to do for parish register research varies considerably, depending on the area where your ancestors lived and the availability of records.
There are a number of indexes to other records available online, some of which may be helpful in genealogical research. Coverage is patchy and as with the parish registers, a visit to a record office may be needed to verify information or to obtain images of the original records. Examples of records that can be helpful include:
- Military records
- School and university registers
- Court records, prison registers
- Land tax, survey records, freemen, electoral registers
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