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Tracing Family in England

Updated on August 8, 2016

This simple guide shows you how to start tracing family in England - it is intended for people in other countries to quickly understand the terminology and the "way we do things", which might differ from where you live.

It is intended to be a Quick Start Guide that is easily digestible by anybody who has a whim to start tracing their family tree in England.

Stages of Life

There are a few stages of life at which our details are recorded. The most rudimentary of these are being born, getting married and dying. These three events form the backbone of English records. If you were born, married, or died there would have been a record of that made at the time (date depending) and a lot of these records still exist.

Obviously, the further you go back in time when you trace your family tree, the less likely the records are to exist, the more likely people will have been illiterate and their names changed/written down wrongly or misheard. Additionally, as it was quite customary for children to be named after fathers and grandfathers etc, as well as living in one area for generation after generation you will find repeated names and have to sort out "who was really who".

Another fly in the ointment can be a couple having children with the same name. The infant mortailty rate used to be high and if a couple had a child, that then was either still-born or died at a young age, it can often happen that their next child is given the same name. Hopefully you won't find too many of these, but it does happen and you should be aware of it.

Beyond the three life basics, there are other avenues to explore. Over the years there have been regular official record taking events, such as the Census (every 10 years). Maybe your ancestors started a business, or were a trades person. Was there a war on at the time, perhaps your ancestor fought in that war. Perhaps your ancestor was down on their luck and ended up in the Workhouse as they had no money - or prison. All of these give you further avenues to explore.

But let's look at the basics.

England and Parish Registers

England is, and was moreso, a Christian country. If your ancestor was knowingly not a Christian, then you will need to look to their particular church for answers. However, in the main, ancestors in England will have been Christians, most likely Church of England.

Every village, every area, had one or more churches. Each church was within a parish. A parish simply defines the boundaries of a small area, just a few miles square. As a rule of thumb, if you lived in a village, there will have been 1-3 churches and you will have attended one of them. Often, the closest one.

It was to these local churches that the every day people of England looked when they wanted to marry, be buried or have a child christened. And these churches all kept records - called Parish Registers.

  • If you had a child, you took the child to your church and you had it christened. A record of that event would be made, in date order, in the Parish Register.
  • If you got married, you usually went to the church of the bride and firstly "Banns were read out" - this is where the names of the intended couple were read out in church three weeks in a row - and a notice of Intended Marriage was pinned on the door. This gave people an opportunity to object. There will have been a Banns Register, which might have survived.
  • When the actual marriage takes place, the bride and groom both sign the Marriage Register at the church, along with their witnesses. Witnesses provide further clues and links about people as they might be relatives or friends.
  • When you were buried in a church, a record was made of this in the Parish Register

It is for these reasons that the first port of call would seem to be the Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMD) records in the Parish Register, which was kept inside the church itself.

Obviously it isn't practical for many reasons, to go and visit every individual Parish and church and read the Parish Registers yourself - although until recent years this was precisely what family tree researchers had to do!

Parish Register Copies

A copy of all the registers was made and sent regularly to the main Church Offices. These copies were known as Bishops Transcripts - they were a transcript of the registers made for the Bishop. A second copy was made and sent to the Archdeacon. In some instances these copies exist - and, if they do, occasionally they will contain a little extra information over and above what the Parish Register recorded. However, in copying the original Parish Register it is possible that mistakes were made. These copies were seen as an extra imposed workload and the quality of them will vary depending on who was doing the transcription. A meticulous record keeper with good hand writing who stayed in the same church for many years would have produced a good copy; a careless person who was new to the job and following somebody with bad/spidery hand-writing might might have struggled to transcribe and understand the original and might have been rushed to complete the copy and send it off.

If there is any chance you can get your hands on the original copy, that is the best way to see precisely what was written. I appreciate that for many people they are either not in a position to do this, or are simply "interested, but not THAT interested" and so, quite often, people researching their family tree as a hobby, rather than an obsession, won't do this. For most people, trusting what they find online is good enough. You will, of course, meet purists and they are right. Just because your ancestor was called something, a marriage of the same name in the church he was married in doesn't make him yours - he could have easily had a cousin of the same name, both being named after their shared grandfather. This is why it's important for factual reference to check and double check your sources (from originals) if you want to be CERTAIN. On the other hand, if you're just idling away a Sunday afternoon for enjoyment, it's not THAT important and it's OK to trust.

Parish Register Years

Parish registers will also depend on the age of a church. If a church were built in, say, 1740, it won't have a Parish Register from 1720! It is therefore useful to quickly look up (Google is your friend) the age of the church and parish registers you are looking for. If the records you are after were from before the church was built, your ancestor can't have been there and must have gone to another church.

You'll usually be OK if you're looking for ancestors in the 1700s-1800s as a lot of the churches in England are very old :)

  • Pre-1837: Before this date you will have to rely on parish registers. The keeping of records was compulsory. The priests were told what to record and how to record it, so mostly the parish registers follow a pattern.
  • Post-1837: A new Law was passed and the compulsory registration of births, marriages and deaths was started.

Parish Registers the Easy Way

There are a lot of voluntary groups across England who are transcribing the original parish registers.

They are making this information available, for free, as their objective is to make it easy and free for everybody to do searches.

This is no mean feat as the hand writing is spidery, they might be in Latin or English, the space to write the information was cramped and the documents are old. These dedicated volunteers are going through every Parish Register and typing it up (usually from a microfiche copy and not the original).

This is good and bad.

GOOD: As they are transcribing the information, it is going into searchable databases online - and they are making it available for free. Local record offices, in conjunction with local family history groups, are working together to make the indexes available and free to use.

BAD: A parish covers a few square miles and the Parish Registers might contain 400-500 years of births, deaths and marriages, kept in separate books. This means it's a long job and they need somebody motivated enough to transcribe a book, somebody with a strong connection to that church, to do a register. In some areas it can therefore be slow progress to complete all this transcription. One or two areas are prolific though and have nearly done the lot.

While being able to search all Parish Registers (some are by church and some have a central search database) saves you years of time, there is probably a 50:50 chance that the one you'd want hasn't been transcribed yet and/or a small chance that the entries you are after were difficult to read. Having said that, for most of the time, most of the transcripts are available and of good quality.

Trace Ancestors England
Trace Ancestors England | Source

Parish Registers: Births & Christenings

Parish registers recorded Christenings, not births. Not all churches kept the records and many have been lost over the years. These records are now becoming available online through the efforts of volunteers who transcribe them and make them available.

1837: It became compulsory for all births to be registered shortly after the birth.

Birth certificates come in two types:

  • Short Birth Certificate: These give the surname, forename(s), date of birth, sex, registration district and sub-district in which the birth took place. A short certificate was given free when the birth was registered and so is commonly found.
  • Long Birth Certificate: This contains additional information including named parents for the child at birth. The Long certificate also shows the exact place of birth (not just the district), father's occupation and the address of the person registering the birth.

It is therefore necessary to obtain the full, long birth certificate if you are buying a copy for family tree purposes. The extra information it gives is essential.


You might also see records of Churchings. These are not commonplace these days, but years ago when you had a baby, you had to go to church to be cleansed after the birth. Prayers were said and there was a ceremony - and these were called Churchings. In a few parishes you might find a list of Churchings, so it is worth checking these. If, for example, you can find a Churching but no birth, then you know a birth must have taken place - meaning the record is either missing or the baby was stillborn or died soon afterwards. A Churching might be enough 'evidence' that there was a birth when a marriage crops up a few years later


Parish Register: Marriages

This is one area where you might get a little stumped. As a rule of thumb, it was commonplace for a couple to marry in the parish of the bride. While many people did live and die in one village, most villages will have also had a local town, or a county town, where festivals and markets were held - and it was probably a big thing to go to these local towns and hope to meet your future spouse.

While it's good to look locally, you should be aware of the local geography: where are the nearest 2-3 towns? Is it likely my ancestor moved there for work, or to be married? Sometimes a couple who met in a local town might also choose to marry there instead of their own village. Again, Google Maps can help you here as you can plot out where people are living and where towns are and see the distance. How far could they reasonably have travelled by horse or cart back then?

There were really two ways to get married in the past:


1215: Since 1215, if you were to marry in your local church, banns would be read out and pinned on the church door. You might see references to this. The priest might say a marriage was by banns, or license (the other option). A Banns Register might be mentioned or available.


A marriage by licence was the second way to get married. In this instance the groom filled out a form and declared he was free to marry, this was a legal document called an Allegation. Sometimes the groom also paid a bond and details of how much that bond was might be available. If a marriage was by licence, it might be that the church has a copy of these still and that it has been transcribed so you can check. The bond wasn't returnable, the church kept this whatever happened.

A marriage by licence would have been required for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there wasn't enough time to read the banns, or perhaps the wedding might have been seen as illegal due to their age. The physical marriage license was given to the priest at the wedding - and, as the priest had no requirement to keep these, many were simply thrown away. A licence could be for a specific church, region or even county - so ideal for eloping!

1753: Since 1753 a new law meant that marriages were ONLY valid if they'd been performed under Banns or Licence. This article is assuming Christian/Church of England Weddings and this law didn't apply to Jews or Quakers.

1753-1837: Between 1753 and 1837 all marriages HAD to be performed in a 'consecrated building', a church clearly being the most common consecrated building available to people.

Marriage Certificates and Proof of Marriage

  • Up until 1837 the only evidence of a marriage that was required was that it was entered into the Parish Register.
  • After 1837 a Marriage Certificate was issued at the wedding ceremony and that is the proof of marriage.


Parish Register: Deaths

Another starting point for tracing your ancestors in England is to find out when and where they died.

There are two parts to dying:

  • Date and place of death
  • Burial date and place

These two will be different and you might only find one of them.

Burials are recorded in the Parish Register. The date in the parish register will be the date of the burial and not the date of death.

1837: Deaths have only been recorded centrally since 1837, when the law changed and there was a national compulsory registration of death. Originally, this document would have contained only:

  • When and where a person died
  • Their name and surname
  • If they were a child, their parent/parents
  • Sex, age, occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Description and residence of the person registering the death
  • Date the death was registered
  • The official registrar's signature.

Since the system started, the following information has added to what needs to be recorded:

  • The deceased's date and place of birth
  • Any maiden surnames and other former surnames of women who have been divorced.

1879: Since 1879 a Doctor's Certificate has been required. Before this date, no reason for death was needed.

For deaths and burials before this date, you'll need the Parish Registers, or, if you're lucky, local newspapers which might have a family notice published, or if they died unexpectedly they might have had an inquest reported, or a court case.

Don't Waste Time

Don't waste time looking for information that simply doesn't exist. Get to know these basic outline dates at least so you know what information was available at any moment in time.

Check Any/All Record Sets

Always check through every record set you can find. You might find them in only one - or the combined set might yield more information. Newspapers are often the best source of information, or for clues - especially how people died. Whereas you can see a death registered in, say, FreeBMD, the local newspaper might give the date and how they died if it were unusual. Family notices posted in the newspapers will also sometimes give more information!

Thank You

Thank you for reading this article, which I hoped help you to find your ancestors.

If you think it will be useful to others, then help them by sharing it on your favourite social sites.

Good luck!


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    • earner profile imageAUTHOR

      Dedicated Content Curator 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      That's interesting Ralph - surely you've a voice inside you willing you to find out more! The thing is, every day new records are coming online. It's not like years ago, when you had to actually make 'proper effort' to get to various locations and spend hours/days searching yourself.

      You should get on top of that! Write a book...

      You don't have to trace all yuor ancestors - just that one line....

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Interesting. My earliest known maternal English ancestor was John Pound believed to be from Yorkshire. Family legend has it he was given the choice of being hanged or emigrating to America.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      This information will help many seeking the proper sources for contact and methods. Very well detailed and presented.


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