Researching 20th century ancestors in England & Wales. When I set beginners off down the path to discovering their genealogy the tendency is for them to want to jump back as far as they can and then launch into the fascinating records of parish registers, wills written on parchment, church court records etc. They seem to want to abandon those ancestors, some of whom may still be alive, and then often regret this once their parents and/or grandparents have passed away. So let’s concentrate today on these 20th century ancestors and find out what records are available for recording fully their place on the family tree.
First, of course, you should go and interview anyone who is still with us. I have written a post “10 Top Genealogy Tips For Interviewing Family” CLICK HERE to access it. Having collected together as much information and documentation as is available, get that sorted into order. CLICK HERE to see my article 5 Steps To Starting Your Family Tree. Then begin researching your way through the records available online. I’ll work through the records giving a brief outline of each and what you can expect to find.
Researching 20th century ancestors in England & Wales – the records
General Register Office Indexes (GRO Indexes)
These indexes are the doorway into ordering birth, marriage and death certificates. The indexes are quite brief, but the earlier birth and death indexes have been recently enhanced with additional information. The indexes are online at Ancestry, FindMyPast and FreeBMD, but the best place to search the birth and death indexes is the government website. CLICK HERE to access the website. This site has the mother’s maiden name on births and the age on deaths from the beginning of civil registration in 1837. It doesn’t, at the moment, have marriages, but hopefully will very soon. The other websites don’t have this extra information on the earlier records. You have to register to search the indexes, but the only time you will be asked for payment is if you wish to buy a certificate.
The indexes will give you the bare minimum of information, but often enough to decide if this is your person. If you are documenting siblings/cousins you probably will not want to buy certificates for them and the index entry is enough. Be aware that the indexes are arranged in quarters; January, February, March = 1st qrt, April, May, June = 2nd qrt, July, August, September = 3rd qrt, October, November, December 4th qrt.
Top Tip – Remember that on Ancestry and FindMyPast there are some marriage parish registers that are identical to the marriage certificates so if you have a subscription check out if the marriage is on there and save yourself buying a certificate.
Census 1901 & 1911
I can remember the excitement when the 1901 census was released – so many people accessed the National Archives website that it crashed and was offline for weeks whilst they made it more capable of dealing with millions of family historians. I think that was the moment when online genealogy came of age!
Both the 1901 and 1911 census are a must to search for your 20th century ancestors. Both contain the usual information. CLICK HERE to see my blog post here about the census. The real difference comes in the 1911 census which was the first time forms were filled in by the head of the household and the married women were asked how long they had been married, how many children they had given birth to and how many were still alive. It’s great to actually see our ancestors signature at the bottom of the page. Both Ancestry and FindMyPast have both census in their subscriptions.
My timing for this post couldn’t be better, Ancestry has just added the register to it’s databases. Prior only FindMyPast offered online access so this is a big step forward for those with an Ancestry subscription. The register was created by the government and the one on offer online is for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland versions haven’t been released as yet. I haven’t be able to see if they survive, but it will be a great day when they are online.
Enumerators went round door to door collected the information and immediately issued ID cards. It is thought the register is almost complete because those who avoided being recorded on the various census needed to have their names on the register because they needed an ID card and also the later issued ration books. CLICK HERE to access my in depth post on the 1939 Register.
Both Ancestry and FindMyPast offer 20th century electoral registers. Of course there are no children in these data-sets, only those of an age to vote. The early 20th century ones don’t have everyone as there were restrictions on who could vote. Very basic information is given name and address, however their value lies in grouping together households. There are a great resource for the years between the census.
More baptism, marriage and burial registers are coming online all the time and they are being extended into the 20th century. Coverage can be a little patchy, but it is worth looking in the card catalog on Ancestry and the A – Z of Record Sets of FindMyPast to see if your ancestors parish has coverage. FamilySearch also has some 20th century parish registers both as indexes and as digitized images again use their catalog to see if your parish has been covered.
DeceasedOnline is a great starting place for cemetery records as well as Ancestry and FindMyPast. Find A Grave and Billion Graves are also “must search” sites for 20th century cemetery records. By the beginning of the 20th century the move away from church yard burials to cemetery interment and cremations had been almost 100% completed. So whilst you might find an entry is a parish burial register this doesn’t guarantee that the burial occurred in the churchyard only that the funeral service was conducted in the church. Also cemeteries might be some miles away from the deceases home village or town so widen the area when searching for possible burial information.
The National Probate Index is available for wills and administrations well into the 20th century. This is available on both Ancestry and FindMyPast, but Ancestry seems to have a longer run of the index. I am very fond of the probate index as I have had some good finds using it when family have been named as executors of the estate. Make sure you write out the complete entry on the index as a name you don’t recognise now might turn out to be a daughter/sister or other female relative who has married.
A FindMyPast subscription offers access to the British Newspaper Archives or you can purchase a separate subscription. Many 20th century newspapers have been scanned and digitally indexed. This type of indexing isn’t 100% so if you know when an event took place and the local paper has been scanned then take the time to work through the paper in the weeks following the event. This is how I found reports of the accident that caused my great grandfather’s death. Without the newspaper articles a lot of information would have been lost as the coroners records haven’t survived.
Ancestry, FindMyPast and FamilySearch all have other 20th century records such as the Kinder Transport records that FindMyPast holds. So it is worth scanning through the listings to see if anything jumps out at you as a 20th century database that might hold details of your ancestors life.
Researching 20th century ancestors in England & Wales – Summary
When undertaking these types of searches it is important to keep track of which databases you have checked and for which names. I have designed a worksheet for use when researching your 20th century ancestors, you can find it with lots of other genealogy printables in the MadAboutGenealogy Resource Library – CLICK HERE to learn how to access the resources.
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