Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Tracing Your Ancestors Before the Victorians : Cheaply or For Free Online

Pre-Victorian Family History Research

What can you achieve for free or at a low cost online

Going further back into your family’s past than the Victorian period can be a real challenge. The birth, marriage and death records which are so easily available to search and order online these days simply did not exist before the start of Civil Registration in 1837. Likewise, the decennial censuses of households in England and Wales (which can easily be viewed at any of the commercial genealogy sites) didn’t start until 1841.

Unfortunately, finding out more about your family before these dates can be  pretty frustrating. You should be aware that there is a more limited range of resources on offer and that these resources will potentially be much more difficult to interpret. Don’t be put off, however. The satisfactions of finding out more about the lives of earlier ancestors, can be immense, and your perseverance is likely to be well-rewarded. To get you started on your family history before the Victorians, there are, in fact, many records and other useful historical material which can be searched freely (or at a very low cost) online. This article deals only with the records for England and Wales (significantly different records are available for Scotland). 

My recommended book on tracing Pre-Victorian ancestors

Eighteenth century 18th century people
By Internet Archive Book Images - book page:, No restrictions, caption

Pre-Victorian Research – Managing Your Expectations

There are a number of key reasons why your family might be more difficult to research pre-1837 :

·        It’s possible that some of the records in which they appeared might not have survived or might be patchy.

·        Due to the way in which existing records have been transcribed and acquired by the commercial genealogy sites, you might need to subscribe to more than one such site.

·        The original records might be located in more than one archive.

·        It’s likely that there will be more confusion over the identification of some of your ancestors from the early period than there is for members of later generations of your family.

·        The amount of information available on these earlier ancestors will be far more dependent on their social, religious and economic status than it would be had they lived later in the nineteenth century – in short, the wealthier and more socially prominent they were, the more likely that you will find records about them.

·        Understanding early ancestors almost always requires you to gain some knowledge of the times in which they lived and of the local area. This article will give you some idea how to start doing this.

Family history gets more difficult once you start searching for events that happened before 1837. This period can also usefully be thought of as the ‘Pre-Victorian period’. This is because, as luck would have it, Civil Registration was introduced on 1st July 1837, less than two weeks after Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Knapp, family, family portrait, children, 1830s, pre-Victorian
The Knapp Family early 1830s Via Wikimedia commons

Pre-Victorian Church Registers

The main source of genealogical information before 1837 is that from church registers. These include the parish records of the Church of England (from 1538, following the Church of England’s split with Rome, it was decreed that each parish priest must keep such a register).  They also include entries in so-called non-parochial registers produced by Protestant Non-Conformist and Catholic chapels and churches. All such registers were originally handwritten volumes in which details of baptisms, banns, marriages, and burials were recorded. In 1754, separate marriage and banns registers were introduced in a standard printed portrait format. These remained in use until 1837.

Some websites offer information from early Church Registers for free, though beware that the information can sometimes be patchy and of minimal genealogical value. These include:

FreeREG   Free Internet searches of baptism, marriage, and burial records, which have been extracted from parish registers, non-conformist records and other relevant sources in the UK.

Online Parish Clerks Records transcribed by volunteers and made available online for free.

Family Search Free Site run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  (The Mormons) Links to the records of commercial genealogical sites that go back before 1837.

Pre-Victorian Content at Ancestry, Find My Past, The Genealogist

All the main commercial genealogy sites have information from church registers going back into the eighteenth century and much earlier which can be accessed for a small fee or subscription. None, however, give complete coverage and since the information is supplied to the genealogical companies by different sources, you might get slightly different details even when you are looking at a record of the same ancestor. Remember if you are not successful in finding the information you are looking for, be patient, new information from church registers is being added to these sites all the time.

Additionally, the commercial genealogical sites have a wealth of other material from pre-1837 which can be accessed as part of your subscription. I have listed only a tiny selection here to whet your appetite:


·        London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921

·        All London, England, Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930

·        Royal Collection – Includes information from 50 historical publications - including Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage (1802)  - detailing almost half a million people born into or descended from the peerage, nobility or landed gentry

Find My Past www.findmypast

·        The Bankrupt Directory 1820 – 1843 Until 1869, insolvent debtors could face prison terms, and this directory reveals the names of those bankrupt individuals whose names were published in The London Gazette.

·        The Crimes, Prisons & Punishment Collection  1770-1934 (Contains over 500,000 records of criminals who passed through the justice system in England and Wales from 1770 to 1934, both as criminals and as victims of crime)

·        Convict Transportation Registers 1787-1870 A collection of convict transportation registers from 1787 to 1867 containing the details of over 125,000 convicts who were transported to the various Australian colonies.

The Genealogist www.findmypast

·        Early Birth Certificates from the Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist Registry and from the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry. They cover dates from 1742 to 1840.

·        The Society of Friends' (Quakers) Registers, Notes and Certificates of Births, Marriages and Burials ranging from 1578-1841.

·        Overseas Birth, Marriage, Death and Burial of British Subjects including those onboard ships. Original registers, notebooks and copies of entries in registers kept by incumbents of English churches and missions, British embassies and legations etc. These cover the period 1627 to 1960.

Pre-Victorian Archival Resources

The National Archives and Local Archives/County Record Offices across the country house original records of many kinds going back many centuries. Official pre-Victorian records that might include information about your ancestors may relate to schools, property, land ownership, occupations, workhouses, the military, taxation, legal, religious and business matters, court records and electoral records, to name but the most common. Additionally, archives might hold personal records of your early ancestors such as diaries, letters, and commonplace books. Indexes of such records are available and searchable for free online at To see the records themselves, you will probably have to visit the archives in question, although more and more archival records are being made available online in digital format. Sometimes these can be accessed freely through computers in local libraries, and sometimes they can be accessed for a small fee through your own computer. It’s really a matter of finding the relevant archive online and seeing what it has to offer. 

To take an important example, all wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (1384-1858), can be viewed online for a small fee from home via the National Archives ( By way of a second example, Manchester City Archives (which can be accessed either through the Discovery Section of the National Archives or through has many records which have been digitised and can be viewed for free from computers in Manchester libraries. These include 609 apprenticeship indentures (indexed by the name of the child and master) mainly for children put out by the churchwardens and overseers between 1700 and 1913.

Moffat, graveyard, dead, headstones, burials
Old graveyard, Moffat. 2009, Via Wikimediacommons

Websites with Useful Free Pre-Victorian Content

·        British History Online

A not-for-profit digital library based at the Institute of Historical Research brings together material (including biography, religious history, local history, parliamentary history and urban history for Britain and Ireland (mainly between 1300-1800).

·        Vision of Britain ( Search by the name of the place in Britain in which you are interested to view statistics, maps, writings and more.

·        Federation of Family History Societies

The Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) is an educational charity with over 160 member societies throughout the world. Most societies focus on a particular geographical area or on a specific surname.

Pre-Victorian Maps

Viewing a map of where your ancestors lived at the time that they lived there, can really help you understand what their daily lives might have been like. You will be able to see how they were connected by road, river, or canal to other nearby centres. Understanding their proximity to the sea, forests and mountains can give you an idea the occupations and pastimes they might have had, the dialects they might have spoken and even the food they might have eaten.

·        Historic Maps of London from before 1800

·        London Ancestor

·        Old Maps Online

·        Vision of Britain

·        British Library (Original Ordnance Survey Maps- Preliminary Drawings)

·        Mapco  Free access to high quality scans of rare and beautiful antique maps and views.

Pre-Victorian Books
The text of many books published before the Victorian period can be viewed for free online. Some of the best websites include:

·        Early Cookbooks

·        Wellcome Library Cookbooks Selection of cookery books from 16th century onwards.

·        Virtual Books at the British Library   Access to digitised copies of some manuscripts and books in the British Library’s collections.

·        Google Books More than 2 million full text books now in the public domain are available for free.

·        Project Gutenberg Provides the free full text of over 50,000 free e-books (mainly pre-1930s and so out of copyright) which can be read online or downloaded.

·        Internet Archive A not-for-profit archive including millions of digitised books. 

John Roque, map of London, 1746, Woolwich, River Thames
John Roque 1746 = Map of Woolwich, London, via WikimediaCommons
Pre-Victorian Newspapers and Periodicals

Newspapers give a real flavour of life in the locality where your ancestor lived. Before the Victorian period, the names of ordinary people were not mentioned in newspapers anywhere near as often as they were later to be. However, if your ancestor was a person of wealth or importance it is possible that he or she will receive a name check and that you will be able to find them on a digitised historical newspaper site.

·        British Newspaper Archive (

More than 21 million newspaper pages – digitally scanned, going back to the 1700s, can be viewed for a subscription. This is also available if you have a membership with FindMyPast (

·        Ancestry (

The pre-1837 newspaper collection (available to view through your subscription or pay-to-view) includes:  The Times (1788-1833); The Gentleman’s Magazine Library (1731-1868); The Edinburgh Advertiser (sporadically 1771-1909, and many other titles.  

·        The Welsh Newspaper Archive (

This free site includes over a million newspaper pages from nearly 120 newspapers from 1804 to 1910. The first newspaper to be published in Wales was the Cambrian from 1804 in Swansea. This was followed by The North Wales Gazette (1808)  and The Camarthen Journal (1810). The first Welsh language weekly was Seren Gomer in 1814.

MiscellaneousToolbox – For Free Pre-1837 Research


·       Genuki Occupations Gives information on early occupations in the UK and Ireland and explains how to find out more.


·        Historic Hansard
Provides a written transcript of Parliamentary debates in the House of Commons from 1803-2005.

·        Acts of Parliament Public Acts of Parliament from 1801

Courts and the Law

·        The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
A free fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.


·        FindaChurch on over 30,000 UK Christian churches, with photo, map, description, contact details, and visitor information.

·        Historic Churches A gazetteer featuring history, architecture, location, photos, and heritage of British churches.

Graveyards and Monuments

·        Church Monuments Society Conceived to encourage the appreciation, study and conservation of church monuments both in the UK and abroad.

·        Deceased Online  Digital scans of register pages, grave details and other interments in a grave, pictures of graves and memorials, maps showing the section or exact location of graves and memorials. Has some records dating back as far as the 1600s.
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Useful Books

John Wintrip, Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians, Pen and Sword Books, 2017 Buy this book here  

Gardner and Smith, Genealogical Research in England and Wales. 3 Volumes, Bookcraft, 1956-1964.

Cole J. and Titford, J., Tracing Your Family Tree, 4th ed. Newbury, Countryside Books, 2003.

Herber, M.   Ancestral Trails, 2nd edition, Stroud, Sutton, 2004.

Chambers, P. Early Modern Genealogy: Researching Your Family History 1600-1838, Stroud, Sutton, 2006.

Oates, Jonathan, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Local History Records: A Guide for Family Historians, Pen and Sword, 2016.  

This article first appeared in December 2017  Family Tree Magazine UK

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