English Research: Starting Out
As you begin your research into a new country of research, you will find your effort difficult and frustrating at first, but if you persist you will be rewarded. Beginning to do family history is like learning to do any other exercise: it takes time, study, patience and perseverance. You don’t know all the answers. Maybe you don’t know any answers, or even know what to ask so you can get an answer! Everyone starts at the same place. Be willing to ask questions.
In 1066, William the Conqueror and his forces successfully invaded a Saxon country. The first existing written record is the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086. Being a rural economy throughout the first 700 years, the people relied on farming, home economy and trade with other countries to support themselves. Most of the population was poor. The industrial revolution that began in the early 1800’s transformed much of the face of England.
The succession of rulers, mostly through first-born male inheritance but sometimes through a sibling, was generally peaceful. A king who wished to be above the law precipitated one civil war in mid-1600. Parliament was suspended, the king was beheaded, and a commonwealth era was established, ending with a king being restored to the throne.
Famous Henry VIII is credited with the commencement of English parish registers. After the pope refused to grant his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1536, he broke away from the Roman Catholic faith, declaring himself to be the head of a new Protestant church. The Church of England (Anglican) became the established church. Records of christenings, marriages and burials were to be kept, by law, starting in 1538.
Gazetteers and Maps
England is organized on a county, parish and town system. Ecclesiastical boundaries are similar to civil boundaries. Gazetteers and maps help you to understand the relationship between places. Since the 1500’s, place name spellings and jurisdictions have not changed in major ways like in some other countries. Start with a gazetteer first to learn a brief bit about your place, then find the place on a map and see where it lies in relation to other places in the area.
Gazetteers vary, but generally state brief information about the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, where it is located in relation to a larger place, and historical tidbits. Consider looking in several. One published in 1837 may state different information than one published in 1865, though both are correct.
Maps also vary in size and content. The size of your place, creation date and the purpose for which the map was made are factors in whether or not you will find it. In general, most English places did not drastically change their names, or have major jurisdictional changes. Topographical maps show the elevation of the terrain by the coloring, to indicate the elevation of the terrain. Study a map to see how your place relates to the surrounding area. Usually parish maps are available for each county, indicating the relationship between parishes. How does the parish boundary correspond to the topographical area? Is your place near the border by the sea, another county or country? Where are the hills, rivers, canals or main roads? Is it an urban or rural area? All of these factors influenced your family.
Definition of Terms
You will find many new words with which you are not familiar. It’s best to arm yourself with good dictionaries, either your personal copies or access to them in your local library. The Local Historian's Encyclopedia defines historical terms in relation to land, occupation, transportation, etc. The Dictionary of Genealogy shows the genealogical usage for many terms, with the emphasis toward ecclesiastical matters. Other reference sources are mentioned in the bibliography. You may find that two books are similar, but slightly different in their context.
It's important to start learning the definitions of new words, since the exercise will aid you in getting more involved in your research. Today you may be unsure about the definition of christening or census, but later your list may include words like hundred, reeve, and gaol. Learning these new terms can be like learning a new language.
Use a Handbook
Perhaps you first need a definition of the word handbook. It is a narrative explanation about how to conduct research in general, how to understand a given set of records, a summary of what records are available in a specific place, or a combination. Reading a handbook is similar to taking a class; it helps you to learn more.
A few handbooks are like dictionaries. They define the family or local history usage of words and terms. The Oxford English Dictionary is a good source to use when seeking the definition of a term, but the handbooks set the terms in a special setting.
Handbooks that discuss records are most helpful when they tell the time period in which the record existed, the content and value to a researcher, and where the record is currently housed. Roger's Tracing Your English Ancestors is one handbook that gives information about the most-used records of civil registration, census, church and probate, though he says little about the location of these records.
If you don’t live near a family history center, visit your nearby public or university library. They have access to the catalogs of many other libraries in the United States, and some throughout the world. The information you wish to search may be housed by one of these libraries. You can borrow works through interlibrary loan.
Do you have access to the Internet? An increasing amount of genealogical information in placed on the Internet. Names and dates of ancestors may not be there but you may be able to order copies of some records over the Internet, such as vital records. The Internet can give you easy access to the catalogs for repositories where records are kept.
The Internet can also provide learning material for you. Use caution when you are on the Internet, since not everything you read is true! If you were limited to only one Internet site for your research, choose Genealogy of the United Kingdom and Ireland (GenUKI) at http://www.genuki.org.uk/. This large site links you to hundreds of web sites for British Isles research. It provides information for first time users of the site, frequently asked questions, bulletin boards, and more. British genealogists administer GenUKI for British genealogists.
Join a Society
A family history society is an organization for individuals interested in family history and genealogy. No rules limit the novice from joining. Members go to meetings, receive a quarterly journal (magazine) and get involved in indexing projects, in addition to doing their own research. Members have an opportunity to share their successes and roadblocks, to feel like there are others in the same boat. Several of these organizations publish the indexes they prepare, and are available for anyone to purchase.
Umbrella organizations offer assistance to individual family history societies. This type of organization seeks groups or societies as members. You cannot join as an individual, but you can join a society that is a member of the umbrella. In England, a society exists in every county. The Federation of Family History Societies is the umbrella group. Its journal, Family History News and Digest, lists the names and addresses of member societies. Other societies throughout the world having some British interests are the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, the Australian Federation of Family History Organizations, and the U.S. Federation of Genealogical Societies.
The executive board of the Federation of Family History Societies in England has been concerned for many years about the education of genealogists. They produce an excellent set of handbooks, inexpensively priced. A list of their publications appears in Family History News and Digest. The Society of Genealogists in London also produces research guides. These are also available for purchase.
All English researchers use four groups of records. These are:
- Civil Registration.
- Census records.
- Church records.
- Probate records.
They are the ones that show the facts most genealogists seek, and they are easily accessible. Civil registration is the government recording of the vital statistics of birth, death, and marriage. Taken every ten years, a census record is a list of people who lived in a household on a specific night. Church records are records of ecclesiastical ordinances of christening/baptism, marriage and burial. A probate record is a written statement of a deceased person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property. This was done after death.
These records start being recorded at the following times.
- Civil Registration: 1 July 1837 to the present.
- Census Records: 1841 to the present, except 1941.
- Church Records: As early as 1538 to the present, depends on the religion.
- Probate Records: mid-1300's to the present
John Bartholomew, Bartholomew Gazetteer of Britain.
Jean A. Cole, Tracing Your Family History: A General Handbook.
Family History News and Digest.
Terrick V. H. FitzHugh, The Dictionary of Genealogy.
Cecil R. Humphrey-Smith, The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers.
The Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales. 6 vols.
1:50000 Landranger Series. Southampton: Ordnance Survey, 1987-9.
Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of England.
Oxford English Dictionary. 12 vols. and suppl.
The Ordnance Survey Gazetteer of Great Britain: All Names From the 1:50000 Landranger Map Series.
England Wiki article.
John Richardson, The Local Historian's Encyclopedia.
Rogers, Colin. Tracing Your English Ancestors.