Using British and Irish Online Family History Records in Your Research

Alan Stewart, author of the forthcoming Online Routes to your Roots, highlights some of the websites which might help with historical research.

The increasing popularity of family history has had a beneficial side-effect for biographers and historians. Public bodies like The National Archives (TNA), commercial companies such as, and enthusiastic amateurs have been creating websites large and small to provide access to digitised or transcribed wills, census returns, parish records and other genealogical information.

Access to these sites can be free-of-charge, subscription-based or ‘pay-per-view’. With the latter method, you pay about £5 for a number of credits, some of which are deducted each time you obtain information from the site. Searching is often free-of-charge at pay-per-view sites, however.

Births, marriages and deaths

Online indexes mean you can now obtain birth, marriage and death (BMD) certificates without a trip to central London, or even visiting your local reference library. In the last few years, volunteers at have been building up a free database of index reference numbers.

The database covers the period from the start of civil (as opposed to church) registration in England and Wales in 1837 up to 1910, but isn’t expected to be completed until 2007.

For the period 1837-1983, digitised versions of the paper BMD indexes are searchable free-of-charge at, as well as at the pay-per-view site

Having found the relevant reference number from one of these indexes, you can order a certificate online from the General Register Office ( for £7. The certificate will then be sent to you by post.

Many regional register offices now have websites from which you can also order certificates (at £7 each). You can find these sites through by clicking on the ‘Local BMD’ button on the left-hand side of the home page.

In Scotland, civil registration didn’t start until 1855, but more information was collected than in England and Wales. Not only are the Scottish indexes (up to 1905 for births, 1930 for marriages, and 1955 for deaths) online at the pay-per-view website, but also digitised copies of the actual records.

Census returns

To find the whole family of the person you’re researching, you need to look at the enumerators’ returns for the censuses that have been carried out in England, Scotland and Wales every ten years since 1801. These are open to public view up to and including the 1901 census. From 1841, individual names were collected, and from 1851, birth-places and relationships to the head of the family.

You can view digitised images of the 1851-1901 censuses of England and Wales at, and those for Scotland at In addition, images of English and Welsh censuses can also be seen at the following pay-per-view websites: the 1901 census at and parts of the 1841 and 1871 censuses at

There’s a free transcription of the 1881 census of England and Wales at the website of the LDS Church, commonly known as the ‘Mormons’. (The site also provides access to the International Genealogical Index of baptism and marriage entries from the majority of British parish registers, some going as far back as 1538.) Transcriptions of parts of the 1841-71 and 1891 censuses of England, Scotland and Wales are accessible free of charge at

The Irish censuses for 1821-91 have all been destroyed, but Griffith’s land valuation of Ireland (carried out from 1848-64) acts as a census-substitute and can be seen on a pay-per-view basis at The 1901 and 1911 censuses of Ireland are being digitised and are to be made available free of charge, with the first part of the 1911 census (for Dublin county and city) scheduled to go online in December 2006.


Not only the well-off made wills (or had their property disposed of through administrations when they didn’t). You’ll find all sorts of people listed in the online index of probate granted by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), which covered England south of Yorkshire and Cheshire, as well as the whole of Wales.

The index is at, spanning the period 1384-1858, while you can find Scottish wills and inventories from 1513-1901 at Both sites are free to search, with digitised PCC wills costing £3.50 each and Scottish wills £5 each.

Documents Online has a section of 103 ‘famous’ wills, including those of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lord Horatio Nelson, Lady Emma Hamilton, Maria Fitzherbert, Henry Purcell, Thomas Gainsborough, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Winston Churchill and William Penn.

Military records, etc.

At Documents Online, you can also search in the registers of the 935 recipients of the Victoria Cross, the half million ratings (ordinary seamen) who joined the Royal Navy between 1873 and 1923, and even the inmates of Wandsworth Prison in 1872-73 (complete with photographs).

Other military records online include the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Debt of Honour Register at This database provides information free of charge on the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth Forces who died during the First and Second World Wars.

More modern records at Documents Online that you can download free of charge include Cabinet minutes & memoranda from 1975, the war cabinet notebooks of Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook from April and November 1942, and selected releases under the Freedom of Information Act from December 2004.


Both The Times and The Scotsman newspapers have digital archives that are accessible online. Although The Times archive (1785-1985) is available only through public and other libraries, many local authorities offer access via their own library websites.

The county I live in (Bedfordshire) provides local residents with free access not only to the The Times archive, but also to The Times and Sunday Times from 1985 to the present, as well as the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Independent on Sunday and Observer from 1996.

At, you can search the newspaper’s archive from 1817 to 1950 free of charge, although the cost of access to full articles ranges from £7.95 for 24 hours to £159.95 for a whole year.