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Peter Bennett
Letter from England
from The Genealogist
by Peter Bennett
Published in the December 2015 Edition

Each time I turn to write my ‘Letter’, I like to have a good list of new records to help with your research. Over the years it has become usual to have most from the Ancestry and findmypast sites, which are among the most popular online sources for researching families with origins in the United Kingdom. But I noticed last time, and more so this, that Ancestry are adding American records regularly, but very little from this side of the Atlantic. In fact, over the last three months there have only been three new titles, although many have been updated.

I do not know the reason for this, and I would never suggest that researchers restrict themselves to only one source for information. But some unusual places have come to my rescue with what I think are interesting records.

I will start off with Ancestry then, as there is so little to say. Not that their additions are unimportant. The main one consists of the records of Merchant Navy apprentices. These are recorded in large volumes at The National Archives, and are fairly easily searched if you are at Kew, but they are all the easier now. The records run from 1824 to 1910 and although they are just single line entries, you do get name and age of the apprentice, and the name of the ship. From about 1835 there will be crew lists for these ships, so places of birth can then be found.

Ancestry’s other offerings are for a large cemetery in Leeds, with records from 1845, so that is going to help some researchers, and the Frith collection of photographs of towns and villages in England. They will be of interest to some, but of limited help in our research.

It is to findmypast that I turn for a regular flow of new records. They are making new releases every Friday, and while the pickings are often fairly scanty, there have been some real gems.

We have had the City of London freedom records on Ancestry for some time, but now findmypast have given us records of apprentices and freemen from two of the larger companies, the haberdashers and the ironmongers. These are taken from volumes held by the companies and list people from the 16th century. The real value comes in the late 1700s, when fire destroyed many of the records at Guildhall, but these volumes were spared, so they are likely to fill the gaps in records held elsewhere. These are just two of over one hundred guilds in the City of London, so there is a long way to go, but any advance is to be welcomed.

There are also additions to the records of criminals, which I mentioned last time. All of us with convicts in our family need to search again and hopefully find new records. Those who until now had not thought of a criminal lurking around the family tree might also get a surprise.

Parish registers are also being added, but I was disappointed with this collection. Findmypast have put up a large group of registers from Norfolk, which sounds promising. They are going to help some people, but a quick search that I made revealed registers that were almost illegible. That is not unusual of course in records going back hundreds of years, but in this instance it seems to be poor quality scanning. At least in the case of the parish of Diss.

I did not search more parishes, but I hope there are not too many which are like this one. I noted an announcement, though, that an agreement has been reached between the Norfolk Record Office and The Genealogist to digitize and place online the parish registers for the county. Perhaps that will be a better job.

A major addition on findmypast which will interest many people are the records of prisoners of war. These are from volumes at The National Archives here dating back to 1715 and running right through to 1945. There should be some, like me, who have a parent or grandparent who was a prisoner of war in one of the world wars and you might well find something in this collection. There are many Australians included, as the records cover all theatres of war and all nationalities who fought alongside the British.

The last addition from findmypast to catch my eye is a series of county and city directories. Many are from the 20th century, but there is a large group of Yorkshire volumes for the 1800s.

Military records have long been a staple of family history sites, and we have had service and medal records available for some time. With the anniversary of the First World War the Forces War Records people have been loading up admission and discharge records from military hospitals. These are obviously going to include a vast number of servicemen and will add useful information to a soldier’s career. Forces War Records is a subscription site, and with over 250,000 records available, increasing all the time, it will be good value for many people.

I have not come across many online records from the Channel Islands, but a new collection has been put up by Jersey Archives. These are registration cards from the German occupation 1940 to 1945 and include full personal details, and a photograph. Access is via the online catalogue at Those with Jersey connections will find other records, and plenty of guidance to the archives.

Copies of individual documents can be purchased, and there is a subscription option which will suit those who discover more than the odd record of interest. Links to Jersey probate records, and the registration cards, are also provided from the Ancestry site. There might not be too many readers with Jersey family links, but I am sure there are plenty who are searching for Catholic ancestors in Ireland.

The National Library of Ireland holds copies of most of the surviving Catholic parish registers. These can now be searched at, a huge bonus for many family historians.

All you have to do is work out the name of the relevant parish. The National Library site includes a useful booklet on using the records, and specifically, a page titled ‘Searching for a Parish’ which should answer most questions. There are no indexes with the images, so searchers should allow plenty of time for working through the pages. I have not tried a search, but it all looks possible.

Those with Merchant Navy ancestors in 1915 will be happy to see the index to crew lists for that year. This can be searched at The National Archives catalogue, Discovery. It is probably easiest to look for TNA’s guide, ‘Merchant seamen serving 1858-1917’ and use the search box. The results come as a transcript, but giving full details from the lists. It is reckoned that there are some 750,000 seamen in this batch!

Records of the slave-owners in the West Indies have been on Ancestry for some time, and now the same records form part of a project by University College, London, to identify these people. The database is at The compilers have trawled various records in an attempt to discover the fates of the owners, and these have been added, so it is a useful site for those with such people among their ancestors.

There is the usual caveat, in that the biographical information has been researched by people not familiar with the individual families, so there might be errors, but it is useful information all the same.

To finish up with a bit of interest which will help no-one with their research – a visitor to Tyne and Wear Archives in Newcastle on Tyne made a discovery. It was an 18th century quill, left right where the writer put it down all those years ago, in the margin of a court judgement book. We can never quite tell what discoveries will be made in our researches. And as long as the flow of new records keeps on coming, then there is every chance of a new ancestor the very next time you look.

Peter Bennett

Ed Note:

  Ancestry and findmypast are among the subscription services offered free to members using the AIGS Library.  


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