Learn the basics of tracing your English ancestry with our tips and tricks.
If you have ancestors from England, count your blessings. Thanks to that country’s long history of early and consistent religious and government record-keeping, there are three major record groups for original research that are rich with genealogical information: church records, civil registration, and the census. While these documents were not originally designed with future genealogists in mind, they are nevertheless perfect for our purposes.
In personal research, I used these three sources to learn more about my third-great-grandmother. Mary Ann Maria Smart was born in Coventry in 1832 to parents Benjamin and Martha Smart. I can see her baptism here on this bishop’s transcript, a record created almost two hundred years ago:
What is a bishop’s transcript? Early in its history, England was divided geographically into parishes, and each parish had a minister. According to a great website called Discovering English Ancestors, “[s]tarting in 1598, the parish minister was required to send annually a copy or transcript of all the christenings, marriages, and burials performed during each year to his bishop.” These copies are now known in the genealogy world as “bishop’s transcripts” and they are a goldmine of genealogical information, particularly from the years 1598 until civil registration began in 1837. Beginning in the 1930s, the Genealogical Society of Utah began microfilming both the original parish registers and bishop’s transcripts, preserving those records for us to use today.
While the original parish records made by the priest are the best to use when available, in some areas of England, the bishop’s transcripts are all that remain, having been housed elsewhere and preserved from whatever event destroyed, lost, or degraded the originals. That said, bishop’s transcripts must also be used with caution; while priests made efforts to create faithful copies of their records, it is inevitable that occasionally errors would slip in, or that they might inadvertently skip a line or two. Therefore, parish registers and bishop’s transcripts should be used in conjunction with one another where possible.
Returning to the example, at age 18, Mary Ann Smart married in Coventry. The wedding was recorded here on this 1849 civil registration:
What is civil registration? According to Discovering English Ancestors, “[c]ivil registration is the national recording of vital statistics that began 1 July 1837.” This means that while churches continued recording vital events, it was at this point that the government began doing so as well. I was glad that I didn’t just rely on an index for her marriage information (which is what is usually available online here), but ordered the original image of Mary Ann’s marriage from the General Register Office so I could see the actual document for myself and all of the little details not included in the index, such as her father’s occupation as a weaver, her residence on Mill Lane in Coventry, and her standing as a spinster, indicating that this was her first marriage. I really, really wish civil registration had included one final box with the heading, “What the Bride Was Wearing.”
Mary Ann can be seen again on one more document – the 1851 Census. She lived in Coventry on Much Park Lane with her husband John and two lodgers. Of particular interest was that she and her husband both worked as hand loom weavers:
The census, which was first taken in England in 1841, is an extraordinary genealogical resource because the enumerations show our ancestors living together as families, and also tell us something about who they were. In 1851, Mary Ann was a young wife who lived and worked in Coventry, a city caught up in the Industrial Revolution, details that filled in some color and shadows for the genealogical portrait I was painting of my third-great-grandmother. Because of privacy laws, British Isles censuses are currently available up through 1911, and can be found at the major genealogical subscription databases MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and Ancestry.com.
Not long after her marriage, Mary Ann immigrated to America, walked 1300 miles across the continent, and became the mother of 14 children. These were details discovered in records generated in America – but that’s a story for another time. For now, the plentiful and valuable documents found about her life in England serve as a fascinating window into my intrepid ancestor’s younger years.
Do you have your own English ancestors to discover? The genealogists at Legacy Tree Genealogists have vast experience in English research, access to all the necessary websites and repositories, and even onsite researchers in England. We would love to help you discover your family’s story. Contact us and give your English ancestors a try.