There is a vast wealth of data available for the regions that make up the British Isles — England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. There is, in fact, much more than can be adequately discussed in this book. But to get you started, here are some of the largest and most useful online resources for genealogy research in the British Isles.
Two of the best jumping-off points include GENUKI and the BritishIsles-GenWeb. GENUKI (www.genuki.org.uk), short for GENealogy of the United Kingdom and Ireland, serves as a virtual reference library of genealogical information with relevance to the United Kingdom and Ireland. It's a great place to look for links to vital websites and primary source documents organized by region, county, and topic. The BritishIslesGenWebsite (www.britishislesgenweb.org) has genealogical data and queries, along with links to the eleven British Isles country projects (Caribbean Islands, Channel Islands, England, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Ireland, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland, St. Helena, and Wales). Don't miss their Location Finder — a useful tool for identifying the location of your ancestor's parish.
If you're confused about the differences between the terms British, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Isles, you're not alone. It's important to learn the distinctions, however, because it not only affects how records are organized and where you will find them, but it will also prevent you from offending someone or appearing ignorant during the course of your research. Learn more from “What is British?” (http://genealogy.about.com/b/a/255920.htm).
Once you've spent some time exploring the records available at the above volunteer projects, it's time to jump into online records and databases.
Like census records in the United States, censuses in most of the British Isles were conducted every ten years — but in the second year of the decade (the years ending in “1”) instead of the first. Because they cover the entire population, they are among the most comprehensive records available online for research in this region.
The free records at FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org) are a good place to begin your census research with complete indexes to the 1841, 1861, and 1881 England and Wales Census. From there, make a stop at FreeCEN (www.freecen.org.uk), where volunteers worldwide are transcribing UK census records for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, and 1891. Coverage varies widely — with some counties and years almost 100 percent complete, and other counties with nothing. GENUKI, as well as Census Online (discussed in Chapter 6), are good places to find links to free census indexes, transcriptions, and images organized by region and county.
The volunteer indexing project at the Genealogist offers rewards in the form of vouchers and subscriptions in return for time spent assisting in their transcription efforts. As a volunteer, you would participate in error-checking previously indexed entries, using special online tools. If you have some free time to offer and would enjoy free database access in return, consider signing up as a volunteer at UKIndexer (www.ukindexer.co.uk).
Once you've exhausted the free offerings, censuses from 1841 through 1911 (the most recent released to the public) can be viewed on a variety of pay-per-view or subscription sites. Ancestry.com offers census indexes and images for all years in England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man as part of their World Records Collection subscription. The National Archives offers free online searches of the 1901 census of England and Wales (www.1901censusonline.com), although you'll have to pay to access full transcriptions and digital images. The official genealogy website of the Scottish government, Scotlands People (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), offers subscription-based access to indexes and images of the Scottish census, for the years from 1841 to 1871 and 1891 to 1901, plus index and transcription (no images) of the 1881 census. FindMyPast (www.findmypast.com) offers a free census search and your choice of pay-as-you-go or subscription access to census transcriptions and images for the complete census of England and Wales, 1841 through 1911. The Genealogist (www.thegenealogist.co.uk) offers inexpensive subscription access to transcripts indexes and images for the England and Wales census 1841 through 1901. Another alternative for the 1841 census, which has a more accurate index than other offerings, is available at subscription-based BritishOrigins (www.origins.net).
Census records for Ireland are not quite as easy to come by. The 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891 census enumerations were destroyed by government order during World War I. The 1901 and 1911 Ireland census records, however, have been digitized and made available for free online use by the National Archives of Ireland (www.census.nationalarchives.ie). In the absence of earlier Irish census records, Griffith's Valuation of Ireland 1847–1862 can be searched online at the Origins Network (www.origins.net). Named for its director, Richard Griffith, Griffith's Valuation was an evaluation of every property in Ireland, conducted between the years 1847 and 1862. It doesn't offer details on family members as census records do, but does provide a listing of the owner and occupier of each piece of property.
Civil Registration Records — Births, Marriages, and Deaths
Online access to vital records in the British Isles is a breath of fresh air after the inconsistent availability of such records in the United States. In addition, all British Isles civil registration records are open to the public, including even the recent records. England and Wales share the same civil registration system, while Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland each have separate systems.
Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, second revised edition, by Mark Herber is the best in-depth reference book for genealogists with British ancestry. For online research links and information, The Genealogist's Internet, third edition, by Peter Christian is another outstanding reference.
Civil registration in England and Wales was instituted nationwide on July 1, 1837. Searching these records is much easier than the painstaking state-by-state process most American genealogists are used to, because the General Register Office (GRO) maintains a national index of these births, deaths, and marriages. The alphabetical index, arranged first by year and then by quarter (March, June, September, and December), includes the surname, first name, registration district, and volume and page of the GRO reference. The mother's maiden name was added to the birth index in 1911 and the spouse's name to the marriage index in 1912. Online access to the GRO or BMD (birth, marriage, death) index is available from the following sites:
FreeBMD (http://freebmd.rootsweb.com) — This massive volunteer project aims at creating a full transcription of the GRO BMD indexes for England and Wales. As its name implies, the database offers free access. The primary focus of FreeBMD is the period from 1837 to 1903, although many more recent records are available. Work is ongoing, and the project does not yet include the entire index. A copy of the FreeBMD database is also available for free searching on Ancestry.com, the project's financial supporter. Both sites offer the same data, although FreeBMD offers links to the original index images; response times can sometimes be faster on Ancestry.com.
BMD Index (www.bmdindex.co.uk) — This pay-as-you-go subscription site features the complete BMD index in the form of digital images from the original record books. It also offers full name searching and better bang for your buck than other subscription-based sites. Searches only point you to the pages in each quarter where your ancestor's name might appear. You'll still have to view the actual pages — at least one for each quarter per year — to locate them in the index.
FindMyPast (www.findmypast.com) — Previously mentioned for its census records, FindMyPast offers pay-per-view access to digitized images of all original GRO index pages from 1837 to 2002. It offers a surname-only search to help narrow down the pages you need to view.
When searching for marriages in the BMD Index, there's a technique you can use to identify the spouse in the pre-1912 marriage indexes. In the FreeBMD index, all you have to do is click on the hyperlinked reference link to view the other names appearing on the same page. If you already know the spouse's name, finding his or her name on that page will help you confirm that you have found the correct index reference. If you don't know the spouse's name, you can use this to help narrow down the potential candidates. When viewing actual index images, you'll need to search the pages for both surnames (look for the more uncommon one first) to see if they appear on the same reference page. This, of course, means you'll need to know at least the spouse's last name. Of course, by ordering a copy of the actual marriage certificate, you'll be able to confirm the names of both parties in the marriage.
RootsChat (www.rootschat.com) is a free, easy-to-use messaging forum for anyone researching his or her family history or local history. The focus is on Ireland and the British Isles, but there are also discussions for other countries such as Canada and Australia, plus more general topics such as photo restoration.
Once you've located the reference to your ancestor's birth, death, or marriage from the GRO Index, you can easily order a copy of the original certificate online through the GRO's certificate-ordering service (www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates). Online fees for this service are comparable to what you would pay in person at the Family Records Centre in London or through the local register office. You'll need a valid credit or debit card to use this service.
Civil registration in Scotland began on January 1, 1855, and returns are kept at the New Register House in Edinburgh. The previously discussed ScotlandsPeople website (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) offers an index and online images of the original registers of births more than 100 years old, marriage records more than 75 years old, and records of deaths more than 50 years old. The best part about this service is that you don't have to wait for the certificate to arrive — you can view digitized versions of the actual handwritten register images online. Certificates of more recent births, marriages, and deaths have to be ordered directly from the General Register Office of Scotland (GROS) (www.gro-scotland.gov.uk). Disappointingly, this site doesn't yet offer online ordering, but it does include directions for ordering a certificate in person, by mail, or by telephone. For free research in Scotland civil registration records, the International Genealogical Index (IGI) at FamilySearch, previously discussed in Chapter 4, includes entries from the first twenty years of births and marriages recorded under Scottish civil registration (1855 to 1875). If you do find your ancestor in this database, you may want to confirm the entry by ordering a copy of the actual certificate.
What is the best website for researching Scottish ancestors?
A first stop for anyone researching Scottish ancestry should be ScotlandsPeople (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), the official family history website of the government of Scotland. It offers a wealth of genealogical data on a pay-per-view system, including indexes and registers of civil births, marriages, and deaths from 1855; records of births, christenings, and marriages appearing in parish registers from 1553 to 1854; census records from 1841 to 1901; and wills and testaments from 1513 to 1901.
Official registration of births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland began in 1864, although state registration of marriages for non-Roman Catholics began earlier, in 1845. The civil registration index is arranged alphabetically by year until 1877, after which each year was divided into quarters as in England and Wales. FamilySearch.org (www.familysearch.org) offers free online access to the civil registration indexes for Ireland from the beginning of registration to 1958. Certificate copies can be ordered online through the General Register Office of Ireland (www.groireland.ie).
Emerald Ancestors (www.emeraldancestors.com) offers a variety of vital records databases containing extracts and records from civil registrations for Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. Monthly and annual subscription-based access is available.
Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Parish Records
Before the recording of births, marriages, and deaths in the British Isles became a civil issue, such vital events were recorded by individual parishes in the form of baptisms, marriages, banns, and funerals. The earliest date you'll generally find such parish registers in England and Wales is 1538, although many churches did not begin keeping records until 1558 or later. The recording of parish registers in Scotland, Ireland, and the rest of the British Isles began around the same time. After 1598 in England and Wales, a copy of the prior year's register for each parish was also forwarded to the bishop of the diocese. Known as Bishops' transcripts, these copies provide a second record of the valuable parish registers, and may have survived when the parish register has not.
The FreeREG site (http://freereg.rootsweb.com), a companion to the previously discussed FreeCEN and FreeBMD, offers free Internet access to baptism, marriage, and burial records that have been transcribed by volunteers from parish and nonconformist registers of the United Kingdom. Another free alternative for parish records is the International Genealogical Index (IGI) at FamilySearch, which includes information collected and transcribed from parish registers from the British Isles by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both sources offer a good avenue for locating information from parish registers online, but because they are transcriptions you may want to check the information you find against the original parish register (or a microfilm or digital copy of the original) to verify that it has been accurately transcribed. Subscription-based access to many UK parish registers is available through Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com. FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org) is also continuously adding new free collections of online parish registers and Bishops' transcripts for England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
In addition to the previously mentioned census and civil registration records, ScotlandsPeople also offers access to births, baptisms, banns, and marriages from old parish registers of Scotland from 1553 to 1854. The Emerald Ancestors site, previously discussed for Irish vital records, offers entries from a selection of parish registers for the period 1796 to 1924.