Intermediate Family History Research
In our guide to beginner family history research you can find out how to take your first steps towards building your family tree, including:
- Writing your own life story
- Talking to relatives
- Consulting family records
- Using civil registration records, including birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Searching Free BMD indexes and ordering from the General Register Office
Once you have gathered as much information as possible from these sources, you should hopefully have traced some of your ancestors back about a hundred years.
Now you are ready to start looking at online resources, such as digitised census returns and parish registers, which this intermediate guide will explore.
A basic familiarity with computers and the internet will be necessary when using these sources. If you are a Tower Hamlets resident you can enrol on a beginner IT course through the Idea Store website.
Discovering your family history is now easier than ever due to the wide range of resources available online. These resources include indexes to birth marriage and death certificates, which are covered in our guide to beginner family history research, but also census returns, parish registers, and many other things like WW1 service records, local directories and newspapers. These can be accessed through various family history websites, some of which are free to use like FreeBMD, and others which are subscription-based or pay-per-view.
The following free family history websites are useful for beginner and intermediate researchers:
- Cyndi’s List – genealogy portal where you can browse useful links to family history sites organised by country
- FamilySearch – international database of transcribed family history records, set up and managed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the USA
- FreeBMD –searchable database of UK birth, marriage and death index entries (see our guide to beginner family history research)
- FreeCEN – transcriptions of UK census returns without images of the original records
- FreeREG – transcriptions of UK Anglican parish registers, including baptisms, marriages and burials, without images of the original records
- Genuki – an useful online ‘reference library’ for British and Irish genealogy
- RootsChat – large discussion forum for family historians, a good place to seek advice and find researchers with shared interests
You can find more links to free online family history resources on our useful websites page.
Subscription family history websites
If you are serious about your family history research free websites will only get you so far. Many useful resources like census returns and World War I service records can only be accessed through subscription websites.
These can often be searched for free but the records are behind a paywall. There are several of these websites on the market, some of the most popular include:
If you choose to subscribe to a family history website, it is worth looking into which deal is best for you. Many offer a free trial period so you can ‘try before you buy’.
This is useful for checking which you find easiest to use and whose collections are most relevant to your research.
The world’s largest subscription family history website is Ancestry. This site hosts many digitised collections from the London Metropolitan Archives and is therefore particularly useful for tracing London ancestors.
You can also access Ancestry Library Edition for free in any Tower Hamlets library or idea store.
Census returns are one of the most useful sources available to family historians as they provide a detailed snapshot of each household in the UK every ten years.
Digitised census returns up to 1911 can be viewed online via major most family history websites including Ancestry, however the 1921 census is currently only available through Findmypast and at The National Archives. Censuses taken less than a hundred years ago are still closed to the public to project people’s privacy.
The census was introduced in 1801 as a way of gathering population statistics to help the government plan spending and services.
The first four for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 were usually simple headcounts which featured no names. Some local returns survive in civil parish records. Fortunately 1821 and 1831 returns for Poplar survive in our collections, ref L/ASP/E/9. These give names, occupations and ages.
Each census took place over about a week. During census week each household received a questionnaire about their home and everyone staying there that Sunday night. These were collected the following Monday by an enumerator and transcribed into notebooks, with the original questionnaires routinely destroyed. These transcripts are what we mean by the term ‘census returns’.
1841 census returns
The original 1841 census returns contain the following columns about each person:
- Place. Sometimes this was a street name, but no house numbers were included and sometimes it was just the name of a village.
- Houses. This column recorded whether a house was uninhabited, under construction or inhabited.
- Names of each person staying in the household on Sunday 6 June 1841.
- Age & sex. Adults’ ages were rounded down to the nearest multiple of five, so if you see someone listed as 25 they could have been anything from 25 and 29.
- Profession, trade, employment or of independent means. This was only recorded for the head of the house.
- Where born. This column only recorded whether someone was born in the county in which they were currently living, and if not whether they were born in Scotland, Ireland or 'Foreign Parts.' In Irish and Scottish census returns the names of those countries are replaced by England.
1851-1901 census returns
The lack of detail about birthplaces was one weakness of the 1841 census which later censuses tried to put right. The new format used from 1851 to 1901 (with some modifications made along the way) was a big improvement from a family historian's perspective, as it featured many more useful columns, including:
- Name of street, and name or number of house
- Relationship to head of household, for example wife, brother, daughter, servant.
- Marital condition, for example married, widowed or single.
- Age and sex, with ages no longer rounded down.
- Rank, profession or occupation. From 1891 the census also included a question on whether a person was an employer, employee or self-employed, and from 1901 respondents were required to state whether they were working from home.
- Employer, employed or neither from 1891.
- Whether working from home from 1901.
- Where born, which after 1841 included both the parish and county.
- Whether ‘blind’ or ‘deaf and dumb’, or visually impaired or deaf in today's terminolgy
- 'Imbecile, idiot or lunatic' from 1871. While now considered offensive, historically these were medical terms which were used to describe people with mental disabilities or a mental illness.
- Language, in Scotland and Wales only from 1891.
The 1911 census
The census of 1911 is the most recent one we are currently able to view. If you look at any digitised pages available online you will notice they look quite different to those of 1841-1901. This is because as they are the original questionnaires our ancestors filled in and not enumerator's transcripts. Much of the information they contain is very similar to that found in earlier census returns, but several columns were added or expanded:
- Name and surname
- Relationship to head of family
- Ages and sex
- Particulars as to marriage. This included not only the person's marital status, but the total number of years the marriage lasted, and the number of living children born to this present marriage.
- Profession or occupation. This included their personal occupation but also their industry or service and whether they were an employee, an employer or self-employed.
- Nationality of every person born in a foreign country. This new addition reflected the increasing number of migrant people living in Britain at the time.
- Infirmity, for example whether 'deaf' or 'blind'.
How to search the census
The 1841-1911 UK census returns are available to search and view online through subscription websites like Ancestry.
Free access to census transcriptions can also be found at www.freecen.org.uk, but coverage is so far incomplete and they do not provide access to images of the original pages.
We also hold microfilm copies of 1841-1901 local census returns at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. These cannot be searched by name but are sometimes useful for browsing by street.
To search the census via our subscription to Ancestry Library Edition:
- Log in with your Idea Store library card number and PIN.
- Click Search and select Census & Electoral Rolls from the drop-down menu at the top of the Ancestry Library Edition homepage.
- On the main search page, select U.K. Census Collection under Narrow by Category
- Next, enter the details of the person you want to search for. Keep things simple to start with, just their name and an approximate year/place of birth will do.
- Click Search and it will take you to a results page where you can check for possible matches.
- Click on a record to view a transcription of the person’s census entry. This will contain details that could help identify your ancestor, such as occupations and names of other people in their household.
- Click View if you want to see a scan of the original census record. Doing this is recommended as they include more information than the transcriptions, which often contain errors.
Potential problems and troubleshooting
If you are lucky you may find your ancestor on your first attempt, but you may also encounter a few common problems during your search:
- There may be too many potential matches to search through. This will be especially true when searching for common names like ‘Smith’ and ‘Jones’.
- Names, ages and birthplaces may have been misspelt or mis-transcribed. Remember what you are searching is a transcription of a transcription, so there will have been plenty of opportunities for mistakes to occur.
- Details may have been recorded in unexpected ways, for example middle names and nicknames, initials, alternate spellings and name variants.
- Several census returns are known to have been destroyed, including all Irish censuses before 1901.
Fortunately, there are a few simple tips which can help improve the accuracy of your search results:
- Use wildcards and alternate spellings to make sure your results include all possible name variants and mis-transcriptions. A wildcard is a symbol used by search engines that stands in for a missing letter or letters, like a blank scrabble tile. Ancestry Library Edition uses an asterisk (*) as its wildcard symbol, therefore a search for Ann* will retrieve results for Ann, Anne, Anna, Anabelle and son on. You can achieve a similar result by searching different name variants, for example William, Bill, Willie.
- Broaden your search. Avoid precise ages, birthplaces and addresses, for example ‘London’ rather than ‘Whitechapel’. People were sometimes hazy about when and where they were born, and the names of streets and towns have often changed over the years.
- Try browsing by location if you think you know where your ancestor lived, or search instead for someone with whom you think they may have been living. You can still browse through the census returns page by page online and on microfilm, and while normally that would not be the most efficient way of searching it is always there as a last resort.
Looking up an address
Cant find your ancestor's address in the census? Searching Ancestry for an address can be difficult as street names are generally unindexed.
You can try entering a street name in the keyword field but this will only work for the 1881 and 1911 censuses, and this method is not all that reliable.
There is an introduction page for each enumeration district at the beginning of each book of transcripts which summarises the route the enumerator took to record the households.
This may be of help, but failing that we hold in the Reading Room a unique alphabetical card index to Tower Hamlets street names for the 1851-1891 censuses, plus separate bound guides to streets in the censuses of 1841 and 1901.
Civil registration and census records can help us to trace our family back to 1837 when the General Office Register was established. If we wish to go back further we will need to look at parish registers, which have been around far longer.
Like birth, marriage and death certificates, parish registers provide a record of key events in our ancestors’ lives but are usually less detailed.
Many parish registers have been indexed and can be searched online. Coverage is patchy however and they are spread across numerous competing websites. This is because they were administered on a local rather than national level, so they are held in various local archives across the country and not in one centralised location.
Parish registers were first introduced in 1538 as a way of recording family relationships and proving inheritance rights.
The Act which established them was part of a wider program of church reforms which included the dissolution of the monasteries and the foundation of the Church of England.
The act decreed that every Anglican church had to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages and burials which took place in their parish, but the only information they were compelled to include was the date and the names of those being registered.
Over time many parish clerks added more details, such as addresses, occupations and names of other family members, but there was no legal requirement to do this.
Early baptism registers from the 16th and early 17th centuries often only recorded the date and names of the child and father.
They were also usually in Latin which makes them difficult to use for most readers. From around the mid-17th century however the amount of information recorded gradually increased, and following an act in 1813 a standard template was introduced which compelled all baptism registers to include:
- The date of baptism
- The child’s first name
- Their parents’ names
- Parent’s address(es)
- Father’s occupation
- Name of the officiating minister
Before and after this act many clergymen would insert extra details, such as dates of birth, and whether the child was a twin, or if the mother was unmarried, which was usually indicated by the word 'baseborn,' or even 'bastard'. Some particularly diligent clerks would even include grandparents' names.
Like baptism registers, early marriage registers were very sparse, sometimes only recording the date and groom’s name. Occassionally even the bride's name was left out. In 1753 however the Marriage Act ensured all marriage registers adhered to the same format, which included the following details:
- The full names of both spouses
- Their marital condition (bachelor, spinster, widower or widow) and current residence
- The date and place the ceremony took place
- Whether it was by banns or license
- The name of the officiating minister
- Signatures (or ‘marks’) of both spouses and two witnesses, who were often relatives
The extra details required after by the 1753 Marriage Act, especially the requirements for two witnesses and a statement on whether it was by license or banns, made it more difficult for clandestine marriages to go ahead. They are however also of use to family historians, as are the sections for the spouses' marital conditions and residences.
Additional details sometimes recorded include the groom’s occupation and (after 1837) the name and occupation of each spouse’s father.
Burial registers are generally less detailed than the equivalent registers for baptisms and marriages. Early burial registers usually only mention the date and the name of the deceased.
As with baptism and marriage registers though, burial registers became more detailed from the 17th century onwards.
From this time it became common to include the age of the deceased, especially if they were an infant or very old, and sometimes details like occupations and their cause of death.
You may also occasionally see a note saying 'affidavits bought', which confirmed that the body had been buried in a woollen shroud. This was compulsory for a time in the late 17th century as a way of propping up the wool trade.
The very poor were exempt however, so sometimes the clerk would write 'pauper' in a burial record to show that this rule had been waived. This can be very useful for family historians as it tells us about our ancestor’s socio-economic status.
Following the same act which standardised baptism registers in 1813, a similar template was introduced for burials with the following five columns:
- When buried
- By whom the ceremony was performed
While the post 1813 entries are easier to read, and for the first time the clerk had to include the age and abode of the deceased, the downside is that the registers are still quite sparse compared to baptism and marriage records.
Also, the standardised format meant there was less room to include the kind of interesting miscellaneous details which we sometimes find in older ones.
Following a series of Burial Acts beginning in 1852, the majority of London burials took place in cemeteries rather than parish churchyards.
The largest of these within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was Tower Hamlets Cemetery, whose original registers are held at London Metropolitan Archives.
A searchable index of these burial registers from 1841 to 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. We hold no original cemetery registers but do have several copies and and monumental transcriptions in our library, mostly classed at 120.
How to search parish registers
The parish registers for Anglican churches in Tower Hamlets are held by London Metropolitan Archives. We hold microfilm copies of many of them which can be viewed in our reading room, but the easiest way to search them is via Ancestry Library Edition.
You can also explore entries relating to Black and Asian communities in Switching the Lens: Black and Asian presence in parish registers. This dataset by London Metropolitan Archives contains entries from 16th century onward and covers Tower Hamlets.
Before searching the parish registers, you can use census returns to find out as much as you can about the ancestor you are researching.
For example, a person aged forty in the 1851 census whose oldest child was eighteen would probably have been baptised in about 1811 and married in about 1833.
A person’s birthplace will tell you where to look for their baptism record, while their oldest child’s birthplace is often where they were married.
If a person was alive in the 1871 census, but their spouse was recorded as a widow or widower in 1881, their burial will have been registered at some point in between.
Similarly, they will often have been buried in the parish where they were recorded in their final census.
Once you have a name and some approximate dates and places:
- Log in to Ancestry Library Edition with your Idea Store library card number and PIN.
- Click Search and select Birth, Marriage, & Death, including Parish from the drop-down menu. On the right side of the screen you will see an option to narrow your search by collection, which you can use to your search to registers held by London Metropolitan Archives.
- Next, on the search page which comes up, enter whatever relevant information you know about your ancestor and hit Search.
- Check the results page for possible matches. You may want to filter your results using the options on the left. For example, you may want to narrow your search so that you only get baptism records.
- Click on a record to view its summary.
- Select View to see a digital copy of the original parish register page (this option is not always available). Here you can see more details than are available in the summary, such as the father's occupation in baptism records, or the deceased's abode in burial records.
Potential problems and troubleshooting
As with the census returns, searching for your ancestors in parish registers may be complicated by a few common problems:
- The relevant parish registers may not have been digitised or indexed, or they could be on a different website to the one you’re using. Unlike with civil registration records or census returns, there is no national database of parish registers where you can search them all in one go. Instead different websites have access to different collections.
- They may have been poorly indexed or transcribed. For the most part the people transcribing and indexing for companies like Ancestry are volunteers or temporary staff who are not necessarily experts in interpreting old handwriting. This often-illegible handwriting combined with the centuries of wear and tear the registers have endured makes some errors inevitable.
- Details may have been recorded in unexpected ways. Name spellings in particular tend to become more idiosyncratic the further back in time you go. For example, William Shakespeare’s name is known to have been spelled more than 80 different ways during his lifetime.
- Information can be very sparse, making ancestors with common names especially hard to identify. Occupations, address and other identifying details like this only became mandatory features of parish registers after a series of Acts between 1753 and 1837. Before then it can be very difficult to say for certain whether you have found the person you are looking for.
- If your ancestors were non-Anglicans (for example Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Jews) or living outside the UK at the time they will not have been recorded in Church of England parish registers. Similarly from the mid-nineteenth it became more common for urban dwellers to be buried in cemeteries rather than their local parishes, and cremation became more popular after World War II.
There are however some easy steps you can take to increase your chances of finding the person you are looking for:
- Use wildcards (like Jon*), alternate spellings (like Samuel, Sam, Saml.) to make sure your results include all possible name variants and mis-transcriptions. If you do not find who you are looking for on your first go, think of the other versions of their name they may have gone by and try them. Next, think about the 'shape' of the name as it would have appeared on paper - which letters might have been hard to read and therefore mis-transcribed? Replace these in your search with a wildcard character.
- Try removing your ancestor’s surname from your search altogether, as this is the part of their entry most likely to have been mis-transcribed. Historically there were only a relatively small number of common first names in Britain (John, William, Thomas, Elizabeth, Mary etc.) so if the person transcribing your ancestor's record mis-transcribed something it is more likely to be their surname. Remove it from your search and see what comes up by just using a first name, date range and location.
- Broaden your search – avoid precise ages, places and addresses (for example London rather than Bethnal Green) and check maps for neighbouring parishes where your ancestors may have moved. Do not get fixated on a particular parish. Our ancestors may have moved around less than we do today but that does not mean they stayed in the same place all their life. This is especially true in urban areas like London.
- Try another website. Two excellent free online indexes to parish registers are FamilySearch.org and FreeReg.org. They do not provide access to images of the original records like Ancestry does, but their coverage is good and their index entries are usually very detailed.
- Consider whether your ancestors may have been non-Anglicans or living outside the UK. Where else might they have worshipped? What registers did they keep? Websites like Genuki are particularly useful for this type of background research. Many non-conformist churches and chapels deposited have their pre-1837 records at The National Archives so you can access many non-Anglican registers through their website, as well as through Ancestry and TheGenealogist. If you think your ancestors have come from outside the UK, Cyndi’s List is an excellent place to start. 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 and cremation records include DeceasedOnline, Find A Grave, Billion Graves, and JewishGen for the online worldwide Jewish burial registry.
Using a combination of family records, birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, and parish registers it is often possible to discover a great deal about your ancestors. To continue your journey, you can find out even more through other sources including:
- Wills and probate records
- Directories and voter lists
- Travel and migration records
- Military records
We will explore these in our guide to advanced family history research.
The following books are recommended for intermediate family history researchers:
Peter Christian. The Genealogist’s Internet: The Essential Guide to Researching Your Family History Online, 5th ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Peter Christian and David Annal. Census: The Family Historian’s Guide, 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Nancy Hendrickson. Unofficial guide to Ancestry.com: how to find your family history on the #1 genealogy website, 2nd ed. Blue Ash, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2018.
Mark Herber. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, 2nd ed. Thrupp: Sutton, 2005.
David Hey. Oxford Companion to Family and Local History, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.