A professional freelance researcher since 2005, I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute an article for beginners wanting to research their family history to .  

This page looks in more detail at the resources available for genealogical research.

For advice on how to begin and plan your search, go to my Beginners to Family History page.


Patricia O’Neill 



The guidance which follows relates to family history research in England & Wales.  Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland each have their own resources.





Birth, marriage and death indexes from 1837 onwards:  available on-line through various subscription websites, with incomplete indexes available free of charge through .  


Once you’ve found an entry in the BMD indexes, you’ll need to buy a copy of each certificate to see the full details recorded.


You can order GRO certificates on-line


or, if you prefer, you can


ask me to order certificates for you . 


Birth certificates give both parents’ full names - providing they were married –  also the mother’s maiden name, place and date of birth, usual residence and name of the informant.  


Death certificates record the date and place of death, occupation and usual residence of the deceased and the name of the informant and may refer to a post-mortem or inquest (so never ignore deaths).  


Marriage certificates from 1837 give the date and place of marriage, full names and ages of the bride and groom – although sometimes the age column simply says “full”, meaning they were over 21 – as well as the usual residence of each, the signatures of bride, groom and two witnesses (if they were able to write).  Marriage certificates also give the names and occupations of the father of both bride and groom – although sometimes a father may be referred to as “Deceased”.  If a father isn’t noted as Deceased, never assume he was still living at the time of the marriage.



Census records:  From 1841 onwards, a census was taken in England & Wales every 10 years (except for 1941).  Census records for 1841 to 1911 are now publicly available and can be searched on-line via various subscription websites (some of which may be available in local public libraries or record offices) or via pay-per-view websites:


1901 census


1911 census 


Some local record offices also hold the census for their own areas on microfilm (take a magnifying glass).


The census schedules for 1851 to 1901 were completed by the census enumerator and give the following information for family members:  address (often just a street), district, parish (usually), names and ages of family members (treat ages with caution), the relationship of each person to the head of the household, marital status, occupation, places of birth.  The 1911 census was completed and signed by the householder and includes all the details previously recorded plus the following:  the number of rooms occupied by the family (check the schedule to see which rooms were supposed to be included in the calculation); additional details regarding occupations (e.g. the name of an employer may be recorded); the number of years a married couple had been married and how many children had been born to them (and how many were still living and how many had died).  The 1841 census is briefer:  addresses are usually vague; households are recorded separately by the inclusion of  small diagonal marks, but relationships of family members are not shown; ages are recorded to the nearest 5 years (for adults over 15) but are generally more accurate for younger children; the place of birth of each individual is recorded simply as "in County" or "out of County".  


Can't find your family in a census?  I have found numerous transcription errors in some of the on-line indexed versions. For a free initial assessment of your difficulty, please e-mail details of the census of interest and the family you are seeking, with any known locations.  Bear in mind that other sources may provide an address.  For instance, obtaining the birth certificate of a sibling born in or close to a census year may give you a more precise location; a death certificate or will should record the address of the deceased and may give the address of another family member in the same area.  Note:  unfortunately the 1861 census does not survive for certain streets in London.


Some early local censuses for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 survive, as well as a few for the late 18thC. These early censuses contain varying amounts of detail ranging from predominantly statistical information to entries which give some personal information, particularly for heads of households. Pre-1841 censuses (where they survive) are generally held at local record offices.  If you've found your family in the 1841 census, contact me for advice as to whether pre-1841 censuses are available for the district.




Before paying for a subscription, visit your local library or record office to see whether a basic edition is available for you to use free of charge.  You may find their resources are sufficient for your needs.  Subscription packages do mean you can research at home at whatever time suits you. However, bear in mind that you may need to subscribe to more than one package to see the range of records which interest you.  Before purchasing, try to visit a record office to try out different providers to see which one you prefer.  



Baptism, burial and marriage records:  Civil registration in England & Wales did not commence until 1837, so for the preceding period it is necessary to search for life events in parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.  Usually original registers have been deposited in county record offices; some are retained at individual churches and some have found their way to local record offices.  (Always contact a county record office to confirm they have the registers you need before making a special trip and to check their opening hours and whether you need to bring ID.  Some record offices will allow you to use your digital camera on payment of a fee.)  


Some parish registers have been digitised and made available on-line through subscription websites, on CD and fiche through family history societies and on CD through genealogical research companies.  Family Search is a useful resource; records which are “extracted” have been systematically extracted from parish registers or Bishop's Transcripts, those which are member-submitted should be treated with caution until you have checked the original entries.  Likewise, always follow up entries found in published indexes and transcripts by obtaining a copy of the original parish register entry to double-check the details and to look for any additional information.


Whichever resource you use, be careful to check from which document the information has been taken and always check the original source yourself, or request a copy from the appropriate record office or via myself or a local researcher, as transcription errors can occur and, in any case, the original register entry may include extra detail.




Wills:  indexes to wills proved in England & Wales from 1858 to date are available at the Principal Probate Registry in London.  Partial indexes are also available on-line via subscription websites.  Wills proved in England & Wales before 1858 could be proved in one of a number of different Courts.  Searching for a pre-1858 will can be complex, so consult research guidance available at local and county record offices or a family history society.  Alternatively contact a local researcher and request a cost estimate for a search.  Wills can be difficult to read.  I offer a transcription service for post-1750 documents.




WW1 service records have been digitised and are available on-line via subscription websites, although a substantial proportion were lost in a fire caused by enemy action during WW2.  WW1 medal cards have been digitised and are available on-line via and subscription websites.  WW2 service records remain with the appropriate service:  contact details available on my website at WW2 Army, Navy & Air Force page.  WW2 Home Guard records are in the process of being digitised and the first batch became available last year.




The National Archives is the first place to look for records relating to army, Royal Navy and merchant navy service in the 19th century.  If you decide to pay a visit to the National Archives, bear in mind that it is closed on Mondays and that you will be required to produce two acceptable forms of ID before you can be issued with a reader's ticket to order original documents. More information at:




Directories, telephone books, electoral registers, rate books:  can be used to establish how long a family was at a particular address or to search for an elusive family member.  Absent Voters’ registers can be useful when trying to identify WW1/WW2 servicemen.  For searches of historic electoral registers of Absent Voters' registers, please enquire .

Local newspapers:  copies are available at the the British Library. From March 2014, a new newspaper reading room will open in the British Library building on the main St Pancras site.  For those unable to visit in person, I offer a newspaper search service.  Local record offices also hold collections of newspapers for their area.


Local newspapers covered inquests, accidents, suicides and court cases – in fact anything which might attract local interest – as well as publishing notices of births, marriages and deaths, obituaries and coverage of funerals.  


Early 20thC coverage of local funerals and marriages can be extremely detailed, sometimes with lists of mourners (in which case, relationships are often mentioned) and details of bridesmaids and the best man - even, in some cases, a list of wedding presents.




School records:  where they survive may be deposited at County or local record offices or in diocesan archives.  They can be useful for identifying siblings, tracing the family’s address and establishing ages of children in a family group.  School records are usually closed for between 70-100 years.  I can search London school records from c. 1880-c. 1915 deposited  at London Metropolitan Archives, please enquire.   There are many gaps in the series.



There are many, many additional resources available, too numerous to include here.  If you hit a brickwall, don’t give up!  If it relates to a family in London, Middlesex or West Sussex, I offer a professional research service (see below).  Elsewhere, try contacting a local researcher who may be able to suggest a search of locally-held records.  Consider joining a family history society in your area, as well as a local family society based in the area you’re researching (published finding aids and other resources may be available).  Local and national record offices hold talks, walks, workshops and training days; a chance to meet others with similar interests, to exchange knowledge and learn new strategies and skills.




I offer assistance with family history research in London, Middlesex and West Sussex. I can also access nationwide resources at some  archives in London.  


All enquiries welcome:  for a free initial assessment of your enquiry please include all relevant details in your e-mail.   If you don't have everything to hand right now, or feel confused by something you've found and would like to follow up, you can ask me a quick question .


Patricia O’Neill