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Tracing English Immigrants From Abroad

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Thomas Luny - Port of London

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Return to the Middlesex County page.

Return to the London page.

Genealogical research in England’s large cities and towns requires knowing the specific locale, town, borough, or parish within the big city in order to determine which original records to search. That your ancestor was “born in Manchester” or that he was “of London“ is insufficient information. It requires obtaining the specific name of the town or parish in the larger city (such as Greater “London” or “Manchester) in order to know specific records to use to build your family’s pedigree connections further back in time.

Our ancestors often named a large city or town as their birthplace, such as “Liverpool,” instead of the smaller locality nearby where they were actually born or resided. For example, they may have said "I was from the City of Bristol" (in Gloucestershire), when in actuality they were born in Bedminster, a parish bordering Bristol City. Some ancestors from London may have said they were “born within the sound of ‘Bo’ Bells,” meaning they were "born within hearing-distance of the bells ringing parish church.

When an English immigrant in another country, such as a "John Smith," said he was born in “London”, did he mean the City of London proper, with its 100-plus parishes, or did he mean Greater London, which had over 200 ancient parishes and, by 1900, had over 700 parishes? How will you know which “John Smith” is the right one in all of Greater London? This certainly applies as well for any other big city in England! Knowing or obtaining further or more clarifying birth information can make all the difference in the world in helping you to prove an ancestral connection in an English city.

This page seeks to outline the standard technique in discovering an ancestors' specific birth place or place of residence in England.

How to Begin[edit | edit source]

The steps below reveal how to best identify and prove ancestry in the rich genealogical records of England.

Step 1: Search Home Records[edit | edit source]

Search home records by thoroughly seeking for and searching in “home” sources and compiled family histories. This is a fundamental, preliminary exercise that will usually pay huge dividends in providing birth information in the beginning of your search. It may not always be correct, but it is a foundation and will help in narrowing down to the specific place of your ancestor’s nativity or residence in a large city or town in England.

Here’s a quick list of home record sources:

  • Personal diaries and journals
  • Old letters - old addresses may provide an all-important locality
  • Handwritten family histories, biographies, autobiographies in private possession within the family or sometimes found in library/archives
  • Funeral home records - may give excellent information
  • Family Bibles - sometimes give specific localities of vital events
  • Obituaries - often contain locality-specific residence or place of birth
  • Certificate copies of vital records of marriage, death and births - often give parents names and specific place of residence and/or of birth and more
  • Military papers (i.e. discharge, pension, enlistment, court martial, or awards of merit) - usually provide a place of birth and sometimes parents names
  • Baptismal records, membership records, letters of recommendations
  • Naturalization papers - usually between three to five different records - one or more may indicate specific locale within an England city
  • Trace as many living descendants as you can in telephone directories (particularly ones with uncommon surnames) - also in the U.S. try
  • Interview or correspond with the more elderly members of extended family members and distant relatives - they can clarify information on specific locales for common ancestry and provide assistance in collaborative research efforts

Once you have gleaned as much information as possible from home sources, but still lack a specific birthplace or residence then proceed to Step 2. If you succeeded in obtaining the specific town or parish in which your immigrant ancestor was born or resided before emigrating, then proceed to Step 4 and start searching in records of the specific England locale.

Step 2: Search Compiled Sources[edit | edit source]

Family Histories at Archives & Libraries[edit | edit source]

To find your emigrant ancestor in original records, you must thoroughly seek for and study the research compilations of other researchers. The research scientist first seeks out every possible compiled source pertaining to the specific question or family so as not to duplicate or re-do research previously performed. To do otherwise means losing time and often missing key information. The research of others may give you a head start on your own research.

Likewise, you should thoroughly seek to locate compiled sources on your ancestral lines. By doing your due diligence in locating and searching compiled sources you will come to know where you are on the ‘research map’ so that you'll know where you want to go. In other words, you will know a more precise place to start conducting original research in vital and other records of a specific locale.

A word of caution for using compiled sources to assist in helping you build your family pedigree: Compiled sources are notorious for containing mistakes, omissions, incomplete data, half-truths, or prejudicial nuances in the information cited! Always take the information and consider it wisely and objectively and then weigh it against actual records and research. (For an extensive list of compiled sources to search, see the Appendix.)

Compiled family history sources include published or manuscript family histories, family pedigrees, local and community histories (especially in U.S.), and donated family research files, biographies and autobiographies. Online archival and library catalogs and inventories help to determine the availability of these local history sources in their collections. Some of these institutions also have additional databases available online for free searches. These institutions and societies may include:

  • Local (city, town, county) archives
  • City [public] libraries with genealogical sections
  • Academic libraries: major university & college libraries have archival sections
  • State archives
  • State historical societies
  • County historical societies
  • Research libraries
  • National Archives, i.e. Library of Congress (Washington DC), The National Archives (London)
  • National Libraries, i.e. British Library (London), National Library of New Zealand
  • Societies: archaeological, local history societies or local studies reading rooms
  • Googling the Internet for websites: by 1) family surname, 2) place-name—both city and/or county names and 3) “genealogy” (or “family history” in quotation marks)

Learning what critical databases and/or indexes are available allows you to more quickly find helpful details about your ancestor. You can then access these records through visiting the repository or library, sending a request to the staff or a record agent/searcher, or ask a volunteer to search in the collections for you. Visit the repository's website or look online for lookup services to find more information about these options. Here are some helpful websites for finding local volunteers to do a free “lookup” service:

North America

United Kingdom

Other Countries

  • Most countries (the counties, or province/states within countries) have volunteers or for-hire agents; ‘google’ to find them

Here’s a short list of websites which have thus far posted family histories, pedigrees or genealogies (at little or no cost) online:

Social Networking Websites[edit | edit source]

Another research aid for assisting researchers to find family genealogical compilations is the social network websites with genealogical intent and content. These sites can have far-reaching capabilities for finding living relatives who are working on or who have already compiled data on in-common family lines and genealogies. They can be a wonderful and a welcome resource. Such websites are great tools for finding distant relatives with an interest in in-common ancestry and with whom you may work cooperatively to identify, share and/or prove in-common ancestral connections. It can further ignite enthusiasm and motivation in the discovery of many more generations of ancestors!

Published Sources[edit | edit source]

Published sources can help you identify relatives who have or are currently tracing in-common family lines in England’s large cities. County family history societies publish annual “Member Interests” lists in their respective genealogical or family history journal publications.

Before proceeding to Step 3, here is a consideration: When you are researching an uncommon surname or someone with a very unusual first given name (i.e. Sebastian, Provis, Pleasance) it’s quite possible to skip steps 1 to 3 outlined in this study and proceed directly to Step 4 and to find and obtain birth/baptism information or a record.

Example (with an Uncommon Surname)
Let’s say that Florence Beatrice Bradsell Dunn, came to the United States in the year 1946 but all that is known is that she was born in “London" but it’s not known precisely where in London. Let’s also suppose you’ve just searched through your family records, and those of extended family members but your searches provide no solution to the precise place of birth. As you search your list of compiled sources, you discover in the website an entry from one of the databases called Ancestral File, possible clues suggesting her birth could have occurred at Hampstead in the year 1884. With an open mind and using this tidbit of birth data, you directly focus your research now in England’s civil registration indexes and certificates for a possible birth for Florence in the years roughly 1875 to 1895. With such an uncommon surname, you find only one likely birth registered in the whole of England in the 4th Quarter of 1884 and order her birth certificate. The certificate is hers and it reveals and confirms that Hampstead was in fact her place of birth. The names of parents match that which was already known among living descendants and that which appeared in the compiled source. Thus, this single birthplace clue from compiled sources in the country of settlement (i.e. a source within, led your search directly to not only a “London” birth entry, but it helped you verify and confirm her precise birthplace in primary records, and narrowed your search from the whole of “London” with its 28-plus registration districts which comprise Greater London—and quickly helped you locate her precise birth place, birth date and parentage.

This is very possible to do when you have the benefit of researching an ancestor with an unusual or uncommon surname; it can save you the time necessary to search in any or all sources in any country - indexed records or not!

Step 3: Search Indexes[edit | edit source]

Next find compiled indexes to primary sources in the country of birth. Also search the records of the country of settlement. Indexes are key to finding immigrants' specific places of birth. Search the following record types when researching in England for your ancestor's birthplace:

  • Census records
  • Church registers
  • Civil registration certificates (marriages and births especially)
  • Parish poor law records (i.e. settlement, examination, and removal records)
  • Apprenticeships
  • Directories

Here are some ways to access extant surname indexes to various and important genealogical records for England’s large cities:

Search all of these in order to locate available indexes covering large cities. Indexes may be available for just about any genealogical record type. Numerous indexes have been published and many have been made available solely at archives and libraries. Many are also now posted online including indexes to church records, civil registration, and census. Indexes to wills, cemeteries, land ownership, and military or militia lists may also be available, to a limited extent.

After having successfully searched indexes to record sources, the researcher can use the information discovered in the indexes to find the actual entries in the original records. The original records usually provide the precise place of former residence or place of birth in the mother country. Research in the records of the country of settlement is a critical step and usually an essential one at that. If the previous steps haven’t produced the critical place or locale of birth or residence in the city, then original records of the country of settlement must next be consulted. The following original records are the most helpful with finding birth data of a big-city emigrant:

  • Certificates of marriage, death & births: standard format of statutory certificates often request for and often give parents’ names, specific place and date of birth
  • Obituaries: may provide helpful and clarifying place name information
  • Tombstones: may provide clarifying information on specific place of birth
  • Newspaper articles: may give information on business, accounts of tragedy, and stories of interest on your immigrant ancestor
  • Funeral home records
  • Biographies (when documented)
  • Naturalization
  • Assisted/unassisted ship passenger lists
  • Social Security Death Index
  • Military U.S. and Canadian records may give birthplace/parentage
  • Consulate records of births, baptisms, marriages & deaths in countries

It should be emphasized that death and marriage (and even birth certificates of the children of immigrants) in Australia, New Zealand, United States, and to some extent, Canada, provide (potentially) some of the most crucial birth information to be found anywhere!

Let’s suppose that your search in both family records and compiled sources reveals no Florence Beatrice Bradsell birthplace other than merely just “London”. The next step then is proceed to Step 3 and search in vital, church and other records of the state or province in the country of settlement such as Louisiana or New York or Ontario. In Florence Bradsell’s case, after searching in the most likely record sources in the state of Utah—including her tombstone and her newspaper obituary to no avail, you request a copy of her death certificate from the state department of health statistics.

Nationally throughout Australia, in New Zealand, South Africa, most provinces in Canada and now, in a majority of U.S. states, the availability of online indexes makes searching much easier, more convenient and quick. Thus via the state of Utah’s online deaths index, Florence’s death entry is found and her certificate of death obtained for the year 1950 (see below). Her certificate indicates her birth in “Hampstead, London, England” in the year 1884, with the added bonus that it includes the names of both her parents—“Thomas Bradsell” and Catherine Harriet—including her mother’s maiden surname of “Brock”! You’re now ready to search other important records in England in order to confirm this data and for discovering the next generation back. The birth data on death certificates must always be considered secondary source information only and thus used with considerable caution.

The next step of the task is to obtain a copy of Florence’s birth certificate for the year 1884. Her certificate of birth will provide and confirm her birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names.

Step 4: Researching in England’s Records[edit | edit source]

It will take effort to search through all of the records and prove places of birth. The challenge of researching in England’s large cities is in dealing with the large task of searching in huge population bases. Along with large populations comes the challenge of searching through extensive databases with many different record types and names. The sheer number of inhabitants in Greater London and other large cities in England causes many challenges for the researcher. Thus, the availability of searchable databases or indexes is incredibly helpful to finding the right record or information and connecting generations. If there are no searchable databases or indexes, researchers must search collections page by page, which is very time-consuming. Indexes often exist for the large cities and towns of England.

Remember that searching for indexes should never be limited to online sites only, but should be extended to archives, record offices, academic libraries/archives, or even local and public libraries. Most of these locations may have both computerized indexes and databases available to in-house patrons, as well as manual-form (i.e. published books, microform, and manuscripts) indexes for you to search.

Big city research in England is greatly facilitated when you know or learn what available quick-finding resources (i.e. indexes) there are for England and its large cities. Locate and then search all indexes and searchable databases for large cities in which you need to conduct research. If the record or information cannot be located, search through the databases that do not have indexes. This requires a page by page search. If this does not produce the record, visit or hire someone to search the various archives that may house other record collections.

England's Key Genealogical Records[edit | edit source]

The key genealogical records and databases for big city research in England are different that other areas of the world. The key records and the information that can be found in them will be presented below. Most of these records will be available online, but some can only be found in archives or other repositories. After these lists, the useful indexes, databases, calendars, and other resources where these records can be found will be provided. These resources should help you more quickly find the desired records or information. If searching in an index, always check the original record in order to validate that everything in the index is correct.

  • Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths: July 1837-present. Located at the General Register Office in London (the national level) or at the local or registration district level throughout the country. Birth certificates give the birth date and place, child's name and sex, father's name and occupation, and mother's maiden name. Marriage certificates give the marriage date and place; names of the bride and groom and their ages, marital conditions, professions, and residences; and the names and occupations of the bride and groom's fathers. Death certificates give the death date and place and the deceased's full name, sex, age, occupation, parent (if a child), and cause of death.
  • Census records: 1841-1911. All are available online and at the National Archives in Kew, Surrey England. Many also are available at county record offices. Censuses list the residence of the family and the name of each member of the household and their relationship to the head (after 1841), sex, age, marital condition, occupation, and birth place.
  • Church registers: 1538-present. Most are available online or at the Family History Library. Church of England church records, which include parish registers and bishop's transcripts, include christenings, marriages, and burials. Christenings usually list the child, christening date and place, parents, and father's occupation and residence (after 1812). Marriages usually list the marriage date and place and the bride and groom's names, residences, and marital statuses. After 1837, marriage records also list the bride and groom's ages and fathers. Burials list the name of the deceased, the burial date and place, and a relation (the father if the deceased was a child or the husband if the deceased was married. After 1812, the age, residence, and occupation of the deceased was also listed. The majority of these church records are available online. Nonconformist church registers also provide vital information and usually available online. If not online, church records can be found at county record offices or the local parish church.
    • You can (and should) also Google the following three (or more) terms in order to find names of ancestors in church registers:
Google: city or borough or regional place-names, or name of record type, i.e. for baptisms or marriages or burials, census, military, and other records; also can add such terms as “index” or, in quotation marks, “surname index"
  • City Directories – identify occupations, addresses, tenure of residence
  • Occupation, guild, trade or professional records – often give lineage-linked data
  • Tax assessment – land tenure and value, address; may suggest ancestral links
  • Probate records from 1304 to 1858 – including wills, administrations (admons), calendars, inventories, etc.
  • Manorial records – comprise mostly court rolls including court leet, court baron, court customary—all of which dealt with such issues as behavioral, tenancy, land conveyance and management, breaches of custom, crime, trade offenses, and nuisances, etc. [Note: Few of these records have been indexed]
  • Land Registry of Deeds – Middlesex from 1708 to 1988

Indexes to Key Records[edit | edit source]

In identifying the above crucial resources to help prove and to build family pedigrees (above) in big cities, now let’s identify some of the most outstanding indexes to the above records—available either online or at specific locations and which should be searched, first:

Census records[edit | edit source]
Civil registration indexes[edit | edit source]
Church records[edit | edit source]

Online databases


  • County Record offices - i.e. London Metropolitan Archives and Library. Some big city County Record Offices have transcriptions and indexes to many parish registers and other records, as well as the original records in their collections
  • City Archives - i.e. Birmingham City Archives
  • Family History Library (view the Catalog)
  • Society of Genealogists ($) - the most vast collection of transcribed parish registers to be found anywhere; and much more
  • Private collections of transcriptions and indexes – i.e. Marriage Indexes: Nimrod Index (Wiltshire), Baxter Index ( Essex)
Probate records[edit | edit source]
Occupational records[edit | edit source]
Newspapers, Magazines, Gazettes[edit | edit source]
Land Registry of Deeds[edit | edit source]

Middlesex from 1708 to 1988: at the London Metropolitan Archives and Library; visit:; email:; or call (tel): 020 7332 3820

Manorial records[edit | edit source]

See Manorial Documents Register (MDR) at for availability

Additional Helps:

  • University and other academic libraries and their archives’ collections
  • The National Archives’ ‘guides’ to
  • British Library - ( – also little used and under-recognized—for family history and biography!
  •– has some links to indexes to church registers and more
  • best topographical dictionary on the Internet (Imperial Gazetteer)
  • Wiki Main Page -’s new family history wiki-pedia; calling all volunteers!

Appendix I


Regardless of your research experience in primary and original record sources, test your knowledge and see if you have done your ‘due diligence’ in the past by looking at the following ‘Where to Find’ list for home, compiled, and/or secondary sources for information on your families. You will be pleasantly surprised. In today’s world, making an orderly approach to tracking all available sources at your perusal is a very difficult task! The following is a standard list of family, home and compiled sources:

Family & Home Sources

  • Pictures
  • Journals & Diaries
  • Family Bibles
  • Interview close
  • Extended family members
  • Interview distant relatives
  • Copies of vital documents
  • Interview close
  • Family Bibles
  • Family data deposited or published

Compiled Sources

  • Family Histories
  • Pedigrees
  • Biographies & autobiographies


Online family genealogy sites, pedigrees, history sites:

Repositories and libraries with published family genealogies, biographies and other compiled source databases; here are their online website addresses:

  • Aim25 at: (100 London archives)
  • FamilySearch Catalog
  • National Archives of Canada
  • The National Archives (NARA) U.S.
  • The Genealogical Research Library, Toronto, Canada
  • The National Archives - UK
  • Provincial archives (Canada)
  • A2A (Archives to Arch.) at The National Archives, UK
  • The British Library, London
  • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

County records offices – have numerous family genealogies and pedigrees – Google for their websites and search online catalogs or inventories

  • Local Public Libraries—often have published and/or typescript family histories

Compiled manuscripts or typescripts, on family histories, genealogies, biographies, and pedigrees in any country around the world, generally may be deposited at:

  • State, provincial, local & national archives, i.e. Library of Congress; Provincial archives, National Library, Ottawa
  • Research libraries, i.e. Genealogical Research Library, Toronto, Dallas Public Library or Allen County IN – have important genealogical collections
  • Society archives and libraries, and the D.A.R. – have significant records including, biographies, family Bibles, and much more
  • University and college archives - i.e. University of York; BYU - have extensive collections
  • County and state historical societies
  • College of Arms (London), Lord Lyons (Scotland)
  • Large (and frequently small) local public libraries have local genealogical collections