An Introduction to British Genealogy

5-6 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | November 3, 2017


With about one-third of Americans claiming British ancestry, chances are that at some point you will need to extend your research across the Atlantic Ocean. The purpose of this guide is to clarify some of the confusing terms with regards to the British Isles and get your genealogical research started on solid footing.

First, let's talk about British and English genealogical research. There are several terms which get used interchangeably but that really refer to different locations.

Great Britain is an island, and is the largest island in the British Isles.

On the island of Great Britain are three of the four sovereign nations which make up the United Kingdom, or the U.K.: England, Wales, and Scotland. Northern Ireland (on the island of Ireland) is the fourth country of the U.K.

The four countries of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Map courtesy of Nate Parker.

The four countries of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Map courtesy of Nate Parker.

Usually when people talk about their British ancestry, what they really mean are their English ancestors. Although Americans generally treat the two words as interchangeable, they really aren't, and I suspect our English friends giggle a bit when they hear us misuse the words.

The four countries of the U.K. have some similarities but many important differences, and those differences sometimes affect how you should conduct genealogical research. However, rather than trying to explain all of the differences between each country, this blog will focus on English research.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about genealogical research in England is that today the country is divided into counties. Older records might refer to those counties as shires, and over time borders have shifted and shires and counties were added, divided, or absorbed into each other, so a good map or two will be a useful tool to keep handy while you research your English ancestors.

Before you make that leap across the pond it is a good idea to consider what you already know about your English ancestors. Of course, you probably have a name, and maybe even a date of birth – or at least an approximate one.

Were you fortunate enough to find the name of a town or county where that ancestor lived, or do all of the census reports, vital records and other documents you've collected simply say "England"? Do you know what occupation your ancestor pursued as an adult? Do you know when he or she arrived in the U.S.? Are there any clues on the passenger list to tell you where to start looking in England? Do you know the names of his or her parents?

It's always best to first exhaust all record sources in the country your ancestor immigrated to in order to find all available details and clues that might help you identify and trace them in English records. Once you have accomplished that, it's time to start your research in England.

The first step in most genealogical research is to study the existing census reports. Designed as a means to count the population for a variety of years, the census of Great Britain (including Scotland) is taken every ten years, with the earliest records available in 1841. Due to very restrictive privacy laws, the most recent census available is from 1911, with one really valuable exception being the 1939 Register, available at Find My Past.

Used for genealogical purposes, the census can give a snapshot of the family at the time the census was taken, as well as provide invaluable information such as the birthplace of the individual being recorded, occupation, birth year, and familial relationships. Elderly parents or widowed mothers, aunts, or sisters can sometimes be discovered living with younger members of the family.

Drawbacks of using the census for genealogical purposes include inaccurate name spellings, inaccurate age reporting, and inaccurate assumptions made by the enumerator. Another thing to keep in mind is that in the 1841 census the enumerator rounded down to the nearest five years for the ages of people over 15. So a person who was listed as 25 could have been 25 through 29 years old. In other census years ages might vary because someone else (another family member, a neighbor, etc.) reported the information to the enumerator.

It is also important to remember that for the census reports through 1901 the enumerator copied the household information into books, and these copies are what we have today. When information is copied it is susceptible to error, so keep that in mind. The person who completed the census form may have had difficult-to-read handwriting, or the enumerator may have entered things on the wrong line. The original reports have been kept for the 1911 census, so there is a greater likelihood that the information they contain is accurate.

An example of a transcription from the 1891 English Census.

An example of a transcription from the 1891 English Census.

All English births, marriages, and deaths were required to be registered in a civil registration office beginning in July of 1837. In addition to the records themselves, there are indices which list the name of the person who was born, married, or died, the place where the event was registered, and the quarter and year in which the event occurred. Because the General Register Office (GRO) will only search one year on either side of the date provided, it is best, but not required, to include the index information when ordering documents from the GRO.

Depending on the time period the index may be handwritten or mechanically printed. The information can then be used to order a copy of the actual record from the General Register Office (GRO) in England for about $10 per record.

The information contained in birth records includes:

The parents' places of birth were added after 1969, and the mother's occupation is listed after 1984.

Marriage records include:

Death records in the United States are often relied upon to provide the names of the parents. English death records do not include that information and therefore are not as useful for genealogical purposes. Each death record includes:

There are other records available, which we will talk about in a later post, that can be used to find and trace your English family members. The largest group are the religious records, and sometimes those can help you extend your family back in time to the 1600s – 400 years or more!

"Great Britain" is an island. "The United Kingdom" is a country (and is a sovereign state), and "England" is a country within the U.K. (and is not a sovereign state). Normally, when people are talking about their British ancestors they are referring to their English ancestors.

England has counties, or what used to be known as "shires," which function kind like our states here in the United States. The borders have changed over time, as have some of the names, so use a map when necessary to verify where you are researching.

Census records are available from 1841 through 1911.

Finally, civil birth, marriage, and death records are available to order from the GRO. You can use the index listings to find the most likely match for your ancestor, and the easiest place to access those is at Free BMD.

If you have English ancestry and aren't sure how to jump across the ocean, or need help narrowing down the options to determine which one is your ancestor, the experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help! Contact usto talk about which project would be best for your needs, or visit our website at

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