Approaching the records
Researching immigrant ancestors


They say ‘write about what you know’ so thanks to popular demand, I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts focusing specifically on one of my key areas interest of interest: researching immigrant ancestors to the UK. In this and subsequent posts, I intend to use Jewish immigrants (my specialist subject) as my touchstone but of course, a lot of what I’m going to say applies to other immigrant minorities, national and ethnic groups.

I’ve applied many of the lessons I’ve learned researching Jewish families to researching other immigrants, so I know from personal experience that much of what holds true for one group is equally relevant to others.

So, how to find historic UK immigration records? Well, the truth is, they are relatively few and far between and certainly, we have no real equivalent of Ellis Island or other port manifests and passenger records available in the US. Similarly, historic British naturalisation papers (which will be the subject of another post) don’t seem to place as much emphasis on date and place of entry as US equivalents which usually have designated fields for date, ship and port of arrival.  However there are some key places to look for details of an ancestor’s arrival in Britain, depending on where they came from and when…


The vast majority of intra-European shipping records have not survived so unless your family came to Britain from outside of Europe, you will be lucky to find a record for their arrival. The only significant collection of passenger records relating to immigrants to England from Europe (with particular relevance to Eastern European immigrants) are the Hamburg Passenger Manifests (1850-1934) available via Ancestry.  These come from a collection held at the Hamburg State Archive and are in German but can be searched relatively easily.

If you are looking for ancestors arriving from outside of Europe, you may have more luck using the UK Incoming Passenger Lists (1878-1960) which again can be searched through Ancestry.

And that, unfortunately, is pretty much it!  Unless you are lucky enough to find your ancestors listed in one of these collections, it is unlikely you will be able to find our the exact circumstances of their arrival on British shores in the way you might have hoped/expected. You might like to check out this useful overview of UK passenger records from the National Archives.


Don’t completely depair, however!  You might not find the answers you are looking for in quite the form you expect, but there are a number of go-to sources which may help supply more or less circumstantial detail.

The Poor Jews Temporary Shelter on Leman Street in Whitechapel was often the first destination from the port for many Jewish immigrants to London, so if your ancestors were Jewish this may be well worth a look.  It provided support services for new immigrants with finding accommodation, work and family members already in England (read more here).  The Shelter’s database spans a fairly limited 18 year period from May 1896 to July 1914 but it can be a gold mine if you are lucky enough to find your relative listed. I first encountered the database when I was looking for my great-grandfather’s arrival in London and it reaped rich rewards in my case, including the exact date and ship on which he arrived from Rotterdam, details of a previously unknown cousin he was travelling with, as well as the address of the sister with whom he intended to stay the night of his arrival.  By researching the name of the ship, I was able to find out quite a lot of circumstantial detail about what his journey involved. Remember to try wildcards and variant spellings and always tick the soundex search function available on the database.

Although relatively few passenger manifests survive in the UK, if you know where your ancestor sailed from in ‘the old country’,  it may be worth checking whether departure records survive there.  You never know, you might get lucky.  Sadly no shortcuts for searching for the records – Google is your friend – and always start by approaching the relevant National Archive or State Archive if you know it.


Often the only way to discover details of your ancestors’ immigration to the UK is to find naturalisation papers or records relating to their status as aliens.  These may not tell you exactly how they arrived or with whom, but they often give you an indication of the date and sometimes a surprising amount of narrative detail.

You can search for records of a naturalised ancestor for the period 1801 -1968 on the National Archives Catalogue here.  For each ancestor you may expect to find separate index entries to a naturalisation certificate and a more detailed set of naturalisation case papers.  It is usually the case papers than contain the real juice! Case papers for the  period 1801-1870 can be searched a viewed online for a small fee. Later records have to be ordered via the National Archives Record Copying Service or viewed in person.  You may need to submit a Freedom of Information request for records less than 100 years old. Remember to search using initials rather than full names, different spellings and wildcards if you are have difficulty (names do not always appears as you expect).

Ancestry also has two important ‘Alien’ Collections spanning roughly the period 1810-1869:
Alien Arrivals, 1810-1811, 1826-1869 can be searched here.  Alien Entry Books 1794-1921 may be browsed here (you may need to set aside some time!).

Always also consider regional and specialist sources. For example, the National Archives has a small collection of London alien registration cards (1918 – 1957) on its website.  The Manchester Police Museum also has an invaluable collection of Alien Registers dating from the First World War to 1969 which I found to contain an amazing amount of detail. I have also been surprised by the narrative detail available about Hugenot immigrants through the records of the Huguenot Library.


Bear in mind other sources that may help you piece together a picture about the circumstances of your ancestors’ immigration to the UK:

Census returns – occasionally census records will explicitly someone had been living in the UK (usually in the birthplace column and whether or not they were an alien (‘resident’) or naturalised (‘British subject’). Although these details can’t always be relied on 100%, they may help direct next steps.

Military service records – if your ancestor served in the British armed forces, it may be possible to glean an amount of detail about their arrival in the UK from service papers. Please see here.

Criminal records – if you know your immigrant ancestor fell foul of the law, don’t forget that court papers and other criminal records may contain an amount of background detail about the circumstances of their arrival.  The British legal system (historically?) loved to be able to attribute fault for criminal behaviour to ‘foreign elements’ and sometimes discussed their background in forensic detail.  Use the Old Bailey Online and the National Archives guide to criminals and convicts as a starting point.

Newspaper records – whether your immigrant ancestor was a criminal or noteworthy for some other reason, never neglect newspapers as possible sources of information.  At a time when newspapers were the most important vehicle of news, it is often surprising how much anecdotal detail reports contain. Start with the British Newspaper Archive and The Times Digital Archive, available via subscription or your local library.

If you would like help searching for your immigrant ancestors, please don’t hesitate get in touch.  Please feel free to leave questions and comments below.

Happy Hunting!

6 cheeky tips for searching the census


6 cheeky tips for searching the censusAlongside birth, marriage and death records, census returns are likely to be amongst the first records that you encounter when researching your family tree – and are incredibly useful sources of information. 

Lots of background info about the censuses of individual countries is available online.  To give a potted overview of census records in the British Isles:- The first national census of England & Wales was taken in 1801, but records were not kept until 1841.  UK census records remain confidential for 100 years so currently only records from 1841-1911 are available.  Several genealogy websites including Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch allow you to search England & Wales census indexes for free, although there is usually a charge to view full transcriptions and download documents (alternatively check whether you can access these sites via your local library).  Scottish census records from 1841-1911 are available via Scotland’s People.   Whilst a national Irish census started as early as 1821, records are much more patchy.  Only the 1901 and 1911 censuses have survived in complete form, accessible free of charge on The National Archives of Ireland website.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to extract a great deal of detail from the census about your family history.  The  research tips suggested here apply not just to the national census records of the British Isles, but can also be used to get the most out of regional, city and state censuses as well as those in other countries, including the United States.

In general terms censuses are useful because they provide details about individuals within family groups or households.  They tell you where your ancestor lived and what they did for a living, sometimes in quite a lot of detail.  Searching the census is a lot easier if you know roughly what you are looking for, so keep on hand a list of names, nicknames and pseudonyms, approximate birth dates of birth, places associated with your family members and any other circumstantial information you have.  With a few notable exceptions (such as Jewish and other migrant families), it is surprising how often ancestors are found exactly where you expect them to be.

Start big, go small

Unless you are dealing with an extremely common name, it generally works best to keep your initial search as broad as possible. Enter the name of the person you are searching for but avoid ‘exact matches’ in the search engine, and enter an age range rather than an exact age. Keeping things open helps avoid being tripped up by variant spellings, transcription errors and the outright fibs our ancestors sometimes told census enumerators!  Searching by county is usually the most manageable method.  Avoid limiting the search too specifically by place, unless you know for sure where your ancestors were living.  Tracking down the right record is often simply a process of elimination.  If you can’t find someone where you expect them to be, check neighbouring counties; ancestors living near county boundaries can be a real stumbling block.  It is also a good idea to keep a note of where you have looked.

Experiment with different search engines

Bear in mind that though only one census was taken, different organisations have over the years produced different indexes to the same census records, which can vary quite considerably. Each index is only as good as the transcriber.  Unusual or foreign-sounding names, or simply poor handwriting can cause problems.  For this reason it is sometimes worth doing the same search on a couple of different websites; for example, Ancestry and Find My Past have different search engines.

Go wild with wildcards

Sometimes it is possible to locate hard-to-find relatives by second-guessing transcription errors in the index, or the original mistakes a census enumerator might have made. Ancestors did not always have the opportunity or literacy to be able to correct mistakes.  In England & Wales, it was not until 1911 that families were left to fill out census forms for themselves and so are prone to error, even with common names: Stephens mis-transcribed as Stevens, for example. In these cases, difficult-to-find ancestors can sometimes be located using wildcard searches. I am currently researching a family called Slavotinsky but could only find records using the wildcard search: Sl*v*t*nsk*. Equally, it can be helpful to leave first names open; often people go by middle names and nicknames which can confuse census searching.

Play Sherlock

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a census record is right, even when certain details seem to match. This is especially relevant when searching common surnames: Davies in Wales is especially problematic! It is crucial to analyse the record carefully for circumstantial clues and consider the balance of probabilities. Don’t be put off if certain pieces of information in a census return don’t seem to fit. A missing child, an inconsistent age, even a different name does not necessarily mean the record is not right. For a variety of reasons, accidental and non-, census information can be wrong. If you can, cross-check problem records against censuses from other years and vital records. Information from vital records should be considered more reliable.

Look for the stories

If you can’t find a particular individual you expect to see in a family census record, seek out other records to explain the possible reasons why. Have they died or got married? Are they in service? Are they in the military or in prison? Or have they simply moved away? Looking at census records for one family over a span of 10, 40 or 70 years can tell you a huge amount about the shape of their lives and the key events that took place in them.

Spy on the neighbours!

Don’t forget that families were, by and large, not so widely spread as they are today. Sometimes by looking at neighbours’ entries on a census, and a page or two either side, you can find details of other relatives living nearby. In this way, census records tell us quite a bit about the social conditions and kinship groups in which ancestors lived.

Happy hunting!

Please contact us if you would like help researching your family tree.
Research your family tree using local libraries


Research your family tree using local librariesSo yesterday, I put on my specs and my best brown sandals and headed out on an exploratory visit to Brighton History Centre to reacquaint myself with local records.

I have to confess an interest and an affinity with the place.  My mother worked in what was then Brighton Reference Library when I was a child and I have vague memories of it, seen from behind her skirt and tinged with the smell of the long, polished wooden trestles that used to be there.  While the old desks have long gone, the History Centre for the time being is still recognisable.  A grand, airy room, housed in the Dome next to the lovely Brighton Museum & Gallery (and convenient tea room!), adorned with ornate cornices and plasterwork – and shelves upon open shelves of genealogical material, ready for the picking.  A veritable sweet shop…

With the great wealth of material now available online through sites like Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch, it’s easy to forget what amazing and accessible resources local libraries and history centres are for family history research.  From the novice to the experienced genealogist, it is incredibly helpful to be able to browse for relevant material without having to contend with sometimes complex and incomplete catalogues.

Typical of many other local reference libraries, Brighton History Centre’s resources include:- City and professional directories, census returns and electoral rolls, newspapers dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, parish registers, rate books, maps and surveys, criminal records, workhouse registers, muster rolls and much, much more.  There are also a number of collections of photographs, and private research projects, donated by people who took the time and trouble to observe the city around them and give back to it.  It is nothing short of a treasure trove and invaluable to our house and pub histories of the local area – see here.

It is then a great shame that the History Centre, currently easily accessible in the bustling heart of Brighton’s North Laines, is set to close in the next couple of years.  Having already been granted several reprieves, its collection is due to go behind closed doors at the soon-to-be-opened ‘Keep’ at Falmer, an outpost of East Sussex Record Office.  That is, unless the efforts of the Friends of Brighton History Centre are successful.  The collection will still be available for public use but no longer on its joyous open-shelf basis.   I will be joining the Friends petition.  For more details of how to get involved in the campaign, please contact the History Centre.

For the time being, we must make the most of what we have.  Here are my top tips for making the most of local library resources…

Tips for getting the most out of your local library visit
Plan ahead

Work out what information you want to gain from your visit, so as to make sure you make the most of your time. Have a good look around the library’s website and online catalogue (if there is one) in advance, so you know roughly what you can expect from the visit. Prepare a list of questions to help focus your visit. Check whether you need to be a member to access records and what ID is required before you go; sometimes membership applications have to be processed in advance of your actual visit.

Take the right kit

Alongside any ID you need for membership, make sure you take along materials for making notes, a good quality camera (you will need to check whether photos are allowed!) and change for photocopying. The latter is likely to be the only cost you incur.

Ask for a guided tour

You may want to arrange this in advance at a time when the library is usually quiet. If you are new to the library, it is really helpful to be given an overview of the library’s range of records and resources before you get started. Librarians may not thank me for this!

Make use of librarians’ knowledge

Reference librarians may not know the answers to your questions but their detailed understanding of how records are kept should help you to find them. Many librarians are incredible repositories of local knowledge so make sure you ask them for help and guidance.  They may also be able to tell you where you can find other records to answer questions your visit may have raised.

Allow time for specialist resources

Bear in mind that a variety of (expensive) specialist resources may be accessible through the library, that can be used alongside original records. Many libraries, for example, subscribe to key newspaper archives such as The Times Digital Archive and the British Newspaper Archive, electoral information through, the Dictionary of National Biography Online, as well as key genealogical websites like Ancestry and Find My Past.

Happy hunting!

Order a UK birth certificate


Order a UK birth certificate

It sounds obvious (and it is), but as you begin to research your family tree you can save yourself a lot of time, money and effort by familiarising yourself with the sources of specific pieces of genealogical information.  This is the first in a series of posts designed to help acquaint you with the types of information you can expect from key records, and how to get hold of them.

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837.  Before that records were kept locally by the church, or other religious bodies.  The new system, in which events were officially recorded by local District registrars, who reported to the General Registrar Office (GRO) in London, means that today we have a central, publicly accessible index of births, marriages and deaths.  Although prior to 1875, the registration of events was not strictly enforced (and a few were never registered), this index records with a fairly high degree of accuracy the key rites of passage in our ancestors’ lives.  We are lucky that in England and Wales, unlike in many other countries, the GRO’s index can be accessed free of charge.

What will a birth certificate tell you?

A birth certificate is the foundation of any family historian’s research into an individual, primarily because it will help take you back to the next generation.  Specifically, it should tell you:

  1. When and where a birth took place (including the date of registration and the district in which the birth was registered)
  2. The full name and sex of the child
  3. The name, surname, occupation and often the address of the father (the occupation and circumstantial information may help you determine you have got the right record, especially if the name is a common one )
  4. The name and maiden name of the mother
  5. The name and address of the informant (usually the father or mother, or both).

See this useful guide to birth certificates in England and Wales provided by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

What information will you need to order a birth certificate?

In order to order a birth certificate for a relative, you will need a few key pieces of information:

  • the full name of the person on the certificate (as it was recorded, not what you think it might be)
  • the year and quarter in which the birth was registered (indexes are organised by quarters – Jan-Mar = Q1, Apr-Jun = Q2 and so on)
  • the registration district
  • the volume and page number of the relevant entry (more…)
Research your family tree


Research your family tree
Working as a family historian and probate researcher in Sussex, I come across a lot of people who are interested in researching their family history but don’t know where to begin.  While research can sometimes be tricky, and every family is different, there are a number of free, simple steps you can take to get started.

Think about what you what to find out

This might sound screamingly obvious but in order to get some answers, you will need to spend some time thinking about the questions you have about your family.  What is it that want to find out?  This might be as general as ‘I want to know a bit more about my mother’s/ father’s family’, or as specific as ‘I would like to know what grandma’s dad did for a living’, or ‘I would like to know about Uncle Bob’s naval career.’  It’s generally helpful to have an overall sense of where you want to go, bearing in mind that questions tend to lead to other questions!

Write down what you know

Equally obvious, and again mainly for your own benefit, it is useful to set down on paper what you already know.  Start by plotting a basic family tree (see below) and then note down what you know about each of your relatives such as the dates of birth, marriage and death (BMD), occupation, interesting facts, stories, theories and puzzles.  It is often surprising how little you do know about quite close relations!  This exercise will probably raise extra questions to add to your list.  Over time, you are likely to build up quite a sheaf of notes, records and photos for each person in your tree.

Create a basic family tree

Starting with yourself and your siblings in order of birth, begin to plot your family tree including key BMD dates, where possible.  Add your parents and their siblings and your grandparents.  Chances are at this point, you may begin to struggle.  If not, you’re doing well!  If you know the names of your grandparents’ siblings, add them in too.  Ditto your great-grandparents.  If you are drawing your tree by hand (often easiest at this stage), use a big piece of paper and try to leave yourself as much room as possible for each generation.  For clarity, each generation should ideally be horizontally on the same line.  Alternatively, you can download and print a template family tree chart from one of the thousands available on the internet (see here) or start an online tree by registering a free account at a site such as Ancestry.

Interview your relatives

Chatting to your nearest and dearest is initially likely to be the most effective way of building your family tree.  The key thing is to think carefully about what you want to know and prepare a little in advance.  Click here to link to a separate blog post about interviewing your relatives.

Copy and label old photos

Hopefully contacting your relatives will lead you towards family photos and documents.  As well as really bringing your ancestors to life, photos are vital records and can provide lots of clues about your ancestors lives.  Ask your relatives’ help to identify them, including when and where they were taken.  No doubt, doing this will give rise to more stories and anecdotes for your file.  You may wish to build your own collection of family memorabilia.  Ask your relatives if you can make copies.  Sometimes a high quality photo of an original will do (so take along a camera); otherwise you might ask to borrow items in order to make high-res copies or scans. Remember you may only get the one opportunity, so copies must be as good as possible. Take special care of old photos and documents in your possession.  If possible, return borrowed items by hand rather than by post.

This should all give you a good general overview of your family history.  It may take you several weeks, months, even years to complete.  To some extent, it will probably always be a work in progress and you will revisit these tasks again and again as you research your family history. In the process, you will find out more about what your ancestors did, where they lived, what they were like and hopefully what they looked like. You will probably also have a whole lot more questions!

And, probably sooner, rather than later you will want to dig into some original records!  To get you started, here is a list of top free family history websites in the UK which allow you to search for birth, marriage, and death records and census records free of charge.  Also, check out our blog guidance about approaching the records.

Happy hunting!

Top 5 genealogy websites with free content & resources

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