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Simon Fowler explains how to find records that aren’t available online yet… and the internet can still help the process.

Header Image: The Essex Record Office.

Simon Fowler, Professional history researcher and writer

Simon Fowler

Professional history researcher and writer

The proportion of records online at local record offices is rather lower – perhaps 2-3% per cent. However, this is changing rapidly, as the big data websites index and scan parish registers and related material in the parish chest.

But there are always going to be records that the commercial data providers will never copy, because they are too difficult to digitise and index. Court records at local archives, for example – particularly quarter and petty sessions – are name rich, but are hard to use, so won’t necessarily be copied.

It can be hard enough to find what you want online, so you’d think it would be much harder to discover what records are available where at Britain’s hundreds of archives. But in fact it is dead easy – and it can all be done online.

Did I say hundreds of archives? I meant thousands, from internationally important places such as The National Archives and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland to tiny repositories such as Barings Bank Archives, where you share a desk with the archivist. There are 400 alone in London.

Details of virtually all of them are available through ‘Find an archive’ at TNA’s website . This will give you an address, a link to the archive’s website, and details of opening hours. It is also up to date.

There are also separate databases for Wales, , and Scotland, See also The National Register of Archives for Scotland

But remember that if you’ve searched and can’t find anything about your ancestor, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything about them. It’s just that their name hasn’t been picked up in the indexes.

ARCHON directorySeaxSeax
Online resources can help you home in on the records you need: here, the ARCHON directory provides details of Essex Record Office, where the catalogue can be searched for specific records, even by name

There are also several more specialist databases. If you are interested in ancestors who worked in hospitals (or who were patients) and know which hospital they were in, check out Manorial Documents Register – has details of manorial records, which can be very useful if your forebears were farmers.

The excellent Army Museum Ogilby Trust provides links to regimental museums and archives. Lastly the Archives Hub has details of university archives. Even if you haven’t got a don on the family tree, the Hub has lots of very interesting articles on the use that can be made of archives in general.

Every record office has a website. Most provide downloadable guides to their holdings, usually written with family and local historians in mind. And many now provide online catalogues, which enhance and improve upon Access to Archives mentioned above.

That’s the good news. The bad is that they can be difficult to use. In part because they are generally designed by archivists for use by archivists rather than the rest of us! The best I’ve come across is SEAX at the Essex Record Office, where you just type a name or phrase into the search engine and it goes away and finds the answer.

More often you need to think about exactly what you are looking for and use modifiers to try to find the answer. To prevent a great deal of frustration it is always a good idea to read the instructions before starting out.

But remember – and it is a point worth repeating – just because you’ve done a search for a particular ancestor in the search engine and nothing comes up, it does not mean that there is nothing about him.

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As an example from my own research, take Charles Gretton, who was an officer in the West Essex Militia. SEAX shows there are no documents about him – but a lot can be found about him in the many records of the militia at the Essex Record Office.

Clearly, if the records themselves are offline, then you have to visit the archives to look at them for yourself. If you can’t get there you might want to use a professional researcher to do the work. There’s a list of reputable researchers who are members of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives .

As well as The National Archives, each English and Welsh county has its own record office. But many Welsh records are also with the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. There are fewer local record offices in Scotland so you may wish to start with the National Records of Scotland. In Northern Ireland almost all archives are with PRONI (the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland).

Each record office is different. As well as leaflets and catalogues their websites should provide advice to visitors: simple things like opening hours and parking. The important thing is to allow plenty of time to find your feet – particularly if you have never been to a record office before.

Do talk to the staff about your research interests. Don’t be bashful – they have heard all the stupid questions already. More seriously, they can give tips and pointers that can save you hours of wasted time.

But it is worth persevering. There is nothing like the thrill of handling a document written or signed by an ancestor. And this thrill can never be replicated by a digitised scan, however good!

Visiting an Archive

If you’re making your first visit to an archive, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the setup – there is usually information available at the record office’s website. Some general pointers:

  • take a pencil: most archives don’t allow the use of pens to avoid risking damage to old books and documents
  • bring some small change if you are likely to need photocopying services. Many archives will have dedicated machines for copying pages from microfilm or microfiche – the staff can help you get started with them
  • many archives allow you to bring a digital camera to take pictures of documents you find, but there may be a charge – make sure you know the rules before you start snapping!
  • don’t forget to turn your phone off or put it in a locker
  • check beforehand whether you need to book: at most larger archives and record offices you can usually just turn up, but visiting smaller archives or special collections within the larger centres may require an appointment
  • allow extra time for administration when you arrive: you may not just be able to dive into the records! Many record offices will require you to fill in a form for a reader’s card first – and you may need identification such as a driving licence and bank statement
  • look into the CARN (County Archives Research Network) scheme. Around 60 record offices in England and Wales support this: one card gets you into all of them.

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