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Discover your family history

Family history is among our most popular research subjects. Every year we welcome thousands of researchers to our reading room from all over the world, as well as highlight online resources which are invaluable to tracing ancestors.

Whether you are a seasoned researcher or a complete beginner, our staff and resources are here to help.

This page provides a general overview of our key sources for family historians, with links to more detailed guidance available for beginner, intermediate and advanced researchers.

Beginner family history research

Discovering your family history can be a stimulating and rewarding hobby, and can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of background or experience.

Intermediate Family History Research

Now you are ready to start looking at online resources, such as digitised census returns and parish registers, which this intermediate guide will explore.

Advanced family history research

In the final section we will also advise on researching family history themes such as tracing where people lived, occupations, religion, education and health. 

If your family lived or worked in Tower Hamlets, our collections include a wide range of sources which can help you trace your East End ancestors. Our most important resources for family history research include:

  • Census returns and parish registers on microfilm
  • Nonconformist Church and Synagogue records. For further details see our guide to places of worship
  • Electoral registers for the Tower Hamlets area from 1901
  • Street and trade directories for London from 1800
  • Local newspapers from 1853 on microfilm and hardcopy, including many titles like the East London Advertiser, East London Observer, Jewish Chronicle and several Bengali newspapers which are unavailable (or only partially available) online
  • Maps and plans from the 17th century onwards, including large scale Ordnance Survey maps and Goad Fire Insurance Plans
  • Photographs including a large alphabetical series of street scenes
  • Rate books and land tax assessments
  • Some workhouse and Poor Law ‘Paupers’ settlement examinations
  • Property deeds

If you are a local resident whose ancestors lived outside the borough, we can still advise on where to find resources to help you on your family history journey, including our online subscriptions to Ancestry Library Edition and the British Newspaper Archive.

We are by no means the only place where you can find out about your ancestors from the Tower Hamlets area, and a number of important family history resources are held at other repositories.

Before you visit us check the following table to determine if the material you need is held elsewhere or available online.

Type of resource Where to find them Online availability
Birth, Marriage and death certificates

Printed and digital copies of civil registration records from 1837, including birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered from the General Register Office.

We hold local marriage notice books from 1837-1982 (ref. C/SRT). These are not digitised and can only be viewed in our Reading Room. No comparable records for births or deaths are held.

Not available online, but a free index can be searched at FreeBMD, and via Ancestry Library Edition.

The General Register Office also maintains their own index of historic births (1837-1916) and deaths (1837-1957).


Census returns

Original census returns from 1841 are held at The National Archives, for which researchers use digital and microfilm copies. Census returns are closed to the public for 100 years, so the most recent census currently available from 1921, however it is currently only free to search at The National Archives and a small number of other organisations.

We hold microfilm copies of local census returns from 1841-1901.

We also hold original 1821 and 1831 Poplar census returns (ref. L/ASP/E/9), which unlike most pre-1841 censuses include the names of residents.

Census returns from 1841-1911 are available online on several popular genealogy sites, including Ancestry Library Edition.

Full digital images of the 1821 and 1831 Poplar censuses with names indexes are being uploaded to the Archives Online section of our website in second half of 2020.

Parish registers Original parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials for Anglican churches in Tower Hamlets are held by London Metropolitan Archives, dating back to the 16th century. Fully searchable digitised copies of London parish registers from 1538 are available via Ancestry Library Edition.
Registers of nonconformist churches, synagogues and other places of worship

Registers of other places of worship in Tower Hamlets may be held by London Metropolitan Archives or at the institution. The National Archives also holds a large number of nonconformist registers.

We hold original registers for some non-Anglican places of worship in the borough. For further details see our guide to places of worship.

Marriage registers for Princelet (formerly Princes) Street Synagogue, Spitalfields, from 1897 to 1907 are available on our website.

Copies of nonconformist registers held by The National Archives (1567-1970) and London Metropolitan Archives (1694-1931) are available via Ancestry Library Edition.


Electoral registers and street and trade directories

The most complete collection of London electoral registers is held at London Metropolitan Archives, and Guildhall Library has an extensive collection of trade and telephone directories for the whole of the British Isles from 1667 to 1990.

We hold electoral registers for the Tower Hamlets area from 1901 and London trade directories from 1800, however there are gaps in both collections.

London electoral registers from 1832 to 1965 and select trade directories from 1763 to 1943 can be accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

The University of Leicester also has 675 free and fully-searchable digitised volumes from their Historical Directories collection on their website.


Rate books and land tax assessments

London Metropolitan Archives holds land tax assessment records and other related documents. A special extra tax assessment was made nationally in 1798-1800, and The National Archives holds records relating to this in the series IR 23.

There are over a thousand tax-related documents in our collections dating from 1700 to the 1960s, though some areas like Stepney are not very well represented in earlier records.

Selected London rate books from 1684 to 1907 are available via Ancestry Library Edition.


School records

Many local school records have been retained by the institution, deposited at London Metropolitan Archives or have not survived.

We hold records of over fifty local schools, see our Education research guide for further information.

School records under 100 years containing pupil information will be closed under Data Protection legislation.

A selection of our school admission and log-books from 1870-1914 are available via Findmypast.

Local school records covered in this dataset include the Central Foundation Girls’ School. For further details see our Education research guide.

Apprenticeship records

Most surviving apprenticeship bindings can be found in livery company records, the majority of which are now administered by London Metropolitan Archives.

We hold apprenticeship registers for the parish of St Mary Stratford Bow from 1802 to 1827 (L/SMS/C/9).

Some apprenticeship records from 1400 to 1900 can be found at The Records of London's Livery Companies Online (ROLCO) website, and London Apprenticeship Abstracts for 1442 to 1850 are available via Findmypast.


Poor law, workhouse and hospital records

Most historic workhouse and hospital records are held at London Metropolitan Archives. Many hospital archives are also held by successor NHS Trusts.

Some early pre-1836 workhouse and poor law records can be found in our civil (local government) parish collections including settlement examinations. These are not digitised and are available to consult in our Reading Room.

Digitised Board of Guardians workhouse admission records from London Metropolitan Archives are available via Ancestry Library Edition.
Manorial records

Most Manorial Records for the London area are held by London Metropolitan Archives. You can search for manorial records held elsewhere using the Manorial Documents Register.

We hold four manorial books in our collection from Poplar and Bromley manors (ref. P/PLC/6/1).

The Manorial Documents Register (MDR) is the official index to English and Welsh manorial records and provides brief descriptions of documents and details of their locations in public and private hands.

Coroner's inquests

Records of Coroner’s Inquests for London are not kept in entirely. They are retained as a sample only by London Metropolitan Archives.

Not available online, however detailed descriptions of historic coroner’s inquests can be found in local newspapers, many of which are can be searched via the British Newspaper Archive.

Travel and migration records

Travel and migration records are held by the Home Office, with older records transferred to The National Archives.

Many records relating to international travel and migration are available through Ancestry Library Edition, including Incoming Passenger Lists (1878-1960) and Alien Arrivals (1810-1811, 1826-1869).

Military service records

Military records are held by the Ministry of Defence, which still hold World War Two service records, however older records including surviving World War One service records have been transferred to The National Archives.

World War One Service Records have been digitised and made available via Ancestry Library Edition.

Cemetery burial registers

Tower Hamlets Cemetery burial registers are held at London Metropolitan Archives.

We hold no original cemetery burial registers in our collections but do have several copies and transcriptions.

A searchable index of burial registers for Tower Hamlets Cemetery from 1841-1966 is available via Ancestry Library Edition.

Other useful websites from tracing burial records include Find A Grave, Billion Graves, and JewishGen for the online worldwide Jewish burial registry.