Archives for Family History

Archives provide wonderful sources of information for family historians you can’t carry out family history research without using archives.

Get the best out of using archives for family history

Are you just beginning to trace your family tree? Starting points, certificates and censuses

Next steps – parish and nonconformist registers

Moving on – explore the wealth of sources in archives

Are you an experienced family historian, but new to research in Wales?Two children photographed in a Butetown studio about 19?? (Glamorgan Record Office)

Are you just beginning to trace your family tree?

Start by asking relatives (especially the older ones) what they know about the family. Then look for any family documents and photographs kept by family members. Note down all the information, sift it to extract the really important stuff (names, dates and places) and draw yourself a rough family tree. Don’t discard the rest of the information – you may find that you need it later.

Now you’re ready to start your research! Find the place on your tree where you have really definite information, backed up by documents. This may not be very far back, but it’s your starting point – work backwards from here generation by generation, checking your information at every step.

There are two really important sources for those who are just starting to trace their family tree. These are records of births, marriages and deaths, and the census returns.

Photograph of a man using a microfiche reader

Records of births, marriages and deaths.

A bit of background

From July 1837 all births and deaths and marriages in England and Wales had to be registered with the local Superintendent Registrar. Local Registrars kept (and still keep) records of all the registrations for their own areas, and also sent copies to the Registrar General in London. Here an enormous national set of registration records was created, and index volumes were compiled so that individual entries could be found easily. These indexes, arranged in quarters for each year, are now known as the Registrar General’s Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages (sometimes called the GRO Indexes).

How to get certificates

Family historians can obtain copies of certificates in two ways: if you know where an ancestor was born, married or died, and know fairly precisely when the event took place, you can apply directly to the local Superintendent Registrar for the area. Usually, however, you won’t know ’where and when’. In these cases, you will need to start by searching the Registrar General’s Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages. When you’ve found an entry, take a note of the information (date, place and reference number) and send off to the Registrar General for a copy of the certificate.

Where can I find the Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages?

The indexes are available online, on several different websites.  Some of these websites are free to use, but some are subscription or pay-per-view sites.  One of the subscription sites is Ancestry, but you can access it free of charge at almost all archives and libraries in Wales, thanks to funding by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to use the indexes online, you can look at microfiche copies of the original index volumes. These are available at the National Library of Wales and at some local authority archives.

Remember – record repositories don’t have the actual certificates. Once you have found an entry on the Indexes, you need to apply to the Registrar General for a copy of the certificate. You can apply online, by phone or by post, and a small fee is charged for the certificate. You can find out more on the Registrar General’s website.

Census returns


Censuses have been taken every ten years from 1801, with the exception of 1941. Before 1841, no names were recorded – the censuses were just a head-count. From 1841 names were recorded, and the census returns list every person present in every dwelling on census night, giving their age, occupation and other information – a fantastic source for family historians. The latest census which is fully available is the one for 1901; the 1911 census is being made available in stages during 2009.

Where can I look at the census returns?

There are two ways to look at the census returns – online or on microfiche copies of the original returns.

Using the census online is easiest, as you can search directly for a specific individual, and you should be able to find them wherever they were on census night. There are several different websites which provide access to the census returns. All are subscription or pay-per-view sites. One of the websites, Ancestry, is available free of charge in almost all local authority archives and libraries and in the National Library of Wales. It provides access to the censuses 1841-1901, but not 1911.

If you use the microfiche copies of the original returns, you will need to start with a good idea of where the person you are looking for was living. The returns are arranged by area (usually by parish and then by street), not by name, and you may need to search through a number of pages to find the entry you are looking for.

The National Library of Wales holds on microfiche the census returns for all of Wales, 1841-1901. Many local authority archives hold the census returns, on microfiche, for the area they cover, for 1841-1901.

The 1911 census returns are not yet available on microfiche – at present they can only be used online.

Next steps – parish and nonconformist registers

Parish Registers

These record baptisms, marriages and burials which took place in the parish church.

The keeping of parish registers was first ordered in 1538, but only one register in Wales survives back to this date, and many date back only to the eighteenth century or later.

Early parish registers were simply blank parchment books in which the vicar or rector wrote the names of those he baptised, married, or buried. Pre-printed marriage registers were introduced in 1754, and pre-printed baptism and burial registers followed in 1813.

Where can I find parish registers?

Parish registers are usually held by local authority archives. Most hold the registers for the area they cover, but for historical reasons some registers – especially those for ’border areas’ – are held by neighbouring offices.

Parish registers are very heavily used, so many archives have made microfilm or microfiche copies in order to preserve the original volumes – so when planning a visit to use parish registers, check whether you need to book a microfiche or microfilm reader.

In many areas, local family history societies have compiled indexes to parish registers. These indexes are extremely useful, and are often available in local authority archives.

Nonconformist registers

Parish registers only record events which took place in the parish church – that is, the churches that belonged to the Church of England (from 1927 the Church in Wales). In Wales, a lot of people chose not to attend the parish church, but became members of nonconformist denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, or Congregationalists. Baptisms and burials which took place in the nonconformist chapels would be recorded in the chapel registers (Baptists, who did not practise infant baptism, often kept registers of births). Marriages however were different: between 1754 and 1837, all marriages (except those of Jews and Quakers) had to take place in the parish church, and the marriages of nonconformists will therefore be found in parish registers during this period.

Where can I find nonconformist registers?

The survival of nonconformist registers is very patchy. Some chapels kept very careful records, and ensured that they were properly cared for; but others did not see the need for keeping records, or registers were kept but later lost. Some nonconformist registers have been deposited in local authority or university archives, and some in the National Library of Wales. Some are still with the chapels, or are in private hands. For registers before 1837, however, there is another very useful source. In 1837, the Registrar General asked all nonconformist chapels to send in their registers to him. These registers were never returned to the chapels, and are now held by the National Archives. They have been microfilmed, and many local authority record offices have bought copies of the microfilms containing registers for the area they cover. The National Library of Wales has copies for all of Wales. These registers are also now available online.

Moving on – explore the wealth of material in archives

Move beyond the well-known sources of census, certificates and parish registers, and explore the wealth of material held in archives. It may help you resolve problems, take your research much further back, or enable you to fill in details about the lives of your ancestors. Here are just some of the sources you could use:

image of a page from a school logbook, noting events for 23 December 1891, and with sketch of a sprig of mistletoe
  • Trade, Street and County Directories list trademen and the principal inhabitants of various towns and villages. They date mostly from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries. For large towns, the directories may list most of the heads of households. Almost all archives (and many libraries) hold copies of directories.
  • Registers of electors list all those eligible to vote. Most series of registers start in 1832 and continue up to date. Until the early twentieth century, the right to vote was restricted to men (no women) who owned or rented property of a certain value. In 1918, all men over 21 and all women over the age of 28 were given the right to vote – extended in 1928 to women over 21. Registers of electors are usually held in local authority archives.
  • School records may contain useful information for family historians. Registers list all the children in the school, and usually give their ages and addresses and their parents’ names. However, not many registers have survived. School logbooks have survived better – these only mention pupils if they were very good or very bad, but give a fascinating insight into daily happenings in the school. School records are usually held in local authority archives.
  • If your ancestor left a will, it may provide you with useful information about his relatives and descendents, as well as an indication of the property and goods he owned. Before 1858, wills were proved in church courts; all wills proved in Welsh church courts are now held by the National Library of Wales. Wills after 1858 were proved in civil probate courts, a national system which covered all of England and Wales. Indexes to wills from 1858, which give brief details of the will, can be found in the National Library of Wales and in some local authority archives; the wills themselves are held centrally – find out how to get copies.
  • Local newspapers can sometimes be really useful for family history research. They may contain reports of accidents and inquests, announcements of births, weddings and deaths, and detailed funeral reports and obituaries. They also provide a fascinating insight into life in the past. Newspapers for the whole of Wales are held by the National Library of Wales, and some local archives hold local newspapers.

Photograph of a reader looking at an old newspaperUsing a newspaper in Anglesey Record Office

  • Workhouse and asylum records may contain information about ancestors who had the misfortune to be sent to one of these institutions. Records have not always survived, but where they have they are usually in local authority archives.

Part of a page from a workhouse register showing names of those admittedPart of a page from the admission register for Neath workhouse, 1868 (West Glamorgan Archive Service)

  • If your ancestor was in trouble with the law, you may be able to find out about their crime in the records of Quarter Sessions (which tried lesser crimes) or of Great Sessions (which tried more serious crimes). Quarter Sessions records are held by local authority archives, while records of Great Sessions are held by the National Library of Wales. Sometimes police records can be found in local authority archives, too, so you may be able to find a criminal ancestor’s ’mugshot’ or fingerprints in a register of criminals.

An entry from a Carmatheshire’s Register of Felons, which gives details of those sent to Carmarthen gaol for felony. (Carmarthenshire Archive Service)An entry from a Carmatheshire’s Register of Felons, which gives details of those sent to Carmarthen gaol for felony. (Carmarthenshire Archive Service)

  • Some records of employment have survived. Archives may hold police personnel records, lists of council staff, or ships’ crew agreements, for example. Occasionally, a collection of business or estate records will include information on staff. For many types of occupation, however, little or nothing has survived – for example hardly any employment records have survived for the coal industry, a major employer in south Wales.
  • If your ancestors were tenant farmers, try looking at the land tax assessments (1780s to early 1830s) which list owners and tenants of properties. Estate records are also a really useful source – they may include leases, or rent books or estate maps which list tenants and the land they farm. Land tax assessments are usually to be found in local authority archives, while many archives hold estate records.

The land tax assessment for 1795 for part of the parish of Ystradyfodwg in Glamorgan – the area now known as the Rhondda Valleys. (Glamorgan Record Office)

  • If your ancestor was very poor, he or she may have received ’poor relief’ from the parish, and this would have been recorded in the parish overseers’ account book or the vestry minute book. They may even have been asked to prove their ’settlement’ in the parish, telling the parish officers their life story. Unfortunately, not many of these records have survived, but some may be found in local authority archives and the National Library of Wales.

Part of a page from the Llantrisant parish overseers’ account book , 1815 (Glamorgan Record Office)

Are you an experienced family historian but new to research in Wales

If you are used to tracing your family history in England, you will find that carrying out family history in Wales differs very little. In the mid sixteenth century, Wales was united with England, and since then the laws and most legal and administrative systems have been the same in both countries. With very few exceptions, official records were written solely in English until the mid twentieth century.

Most records are the same in Wales as in England. For example:

  • The records of registration of births, deaths and marriages are exactly the same in Wales as in England, and the Registrar General’s indexes cover both England and Wales.
  • Census records are the same for Wales as for England, except for an extra question which was asked from 1891: all those aged 3 and over were asked whether they both English only, Welsh only, or both languages.
  • The Church in Wales has been separate from the Church of England since 1927, but parish records are the same as those for England, and are kept in local authority archives in the same way.

There are some differences, however:

  • Most English local authority archives are diocesan record offices and therefore hold all the records of the diocese, such as Wills, bishops’ transcripts and marriage bonds and licences, as well as parish records. In Wales, the National Library of Wales is the diocesan record office for the whole of Wales, and therefore holds all the bishops’ transcripts, marriage bonds and licences, and Wills proved in Welsh church courts.
  • Nonconformity was more important in Wales than in some parts of England, so you may find that your ancestors didn’t go to the local parish church. In many chapels the language used was Welsh, and some of the records may be in Welsh.
  • Until 1838, serious criminal offences in Wales were tried in Great Sessions – the equivalent of the Assize Courts in England. The records of Great Sessions are held by the National Library of Wales. After 1838, the English Assize Court system was extended to Wales.