International research
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!

5 ways to find out about your Jewish roots


5 ways to find out about your Jewish roots

We do a great deal of research into Jewish families, and encounter a lot of people who think they have Jewish ancestry but don’t know where or how to find out more. Given that the vast majority of Jews in England are descended from   late nineteenth and early twentieth century Eastern European immigrants, it is amazing how quickly that heritage has been lost. In many cases, in just a 3 or 4 generations, only the sketchiest details of a family’s ‘Jewishness’ survive.

319143_973534886490_36921826_46780212_2098142940_nCuriously, the pressure on British Jews to assimilate seems to have been at the expense of their Jewish identity in a way that it was not amongst their cousins in the US.  While one of the challenges of researching Jewish families all over the world is the habitual translation and adoption of new names, American Jews seem to have maintained closer ties to their previous identities. Within a few years of my great-grandparents’ arrival in the UK, they cut ties with the past by calling themselves ‘Leon’, whereas siblings in New York held onto the family name of ‘Lefkowitz’. Indeed, it was only through researching American records that I was able to access details about my Lewkowicz great-great-grandparents back in Poland.  Having researched a great many other families subsequently, this is a familiar story amongst Anglo-Jews.

I’ve previously posted some golden rules for researching your Jewish roots.  The best way to start is usually by asking your relatives.  However, if you are still not sure whether you have Jewish ancestry or would like more detail than your relatives can provide, it can be quite straightforward to find out, if you know where to look and how to read the signs.

1.  What’s in a name?

The rigour of British Jews’ assimilation can often obscure the clues that lead us back to our roots.  My surname leads most people to suspect I’m Spanish rather than a mischling Jew.  Even if your name is not Cohen or Levy or a variation thereof, bear in mind that many Jews chose English surnames that alluded to their tribal identities: Lewis/ Louis, Daniel(s), Benjamin, Jacob(s), Simon(s), Isaac(s), Nathan, for example.  It’s also worth noting that names that were chosen for their similar sounds – Cohen to Coleman for instance, Pollak to Pollock, Warszawski to Warshaw – or simply shortened Vallinsky to Vallin, Zuchowitsky to Suchoff.  It’s helpful to pay attention to the sounds of names.

In other cases, the reasoning is not so clear and names seem to have been selected arbitrarily, which can make families difficult to trace – just this week I’m researching a family called Michalowski who became Foster!  Sometimes surnames were derived from personal names, as in another current research project: three brothers became Isaac Isaacs, Simon Simons and Jack Jacobs.  Whatever the scenario, chances are that there will be a name change somewhere along the line if you are dealing with a Jewish family.  Search indexes of vital records and look out for announcements in the index of the London Gazette.

2.  Jewish trades and occupations

At the risk of oversimplifying, and to paraphrase Bernard Kops’ wonderful memoir The World is a Wedding, “Jews were not dockers, they were furriers and tailors”.  Census records (available up to 1911 and often for free) are a great place to look for clues about your Jewish ancestry.  Of course Jewish people carried out a wide variety of occupations in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Britain, but they were especially strongly represented in the garment trade, and as tobacconists, cabinet makers, shopkeepers and merchants.  Many Sephardi families especially were associated with international trade and export.  Jews are often listed as ‘journeymen’ in censuses and other official documents – less because of any association with a professional company guild, but more literally to indicate their migrant status.  As well as looking for clues in occupations, scrutinise census records for details of where your family lived and who their neighbours were.

3.  Order a marriage certificate

If members of your family were married in a synagogue, they were Jewish!  Marriage authorisation certificates were required in Britain from the mid-eighteenth century to satisfy the rabbi and the synagogue authorities that both parties were halachically Jewish or that they had an acceptable certificate of conversion.  These certificates can in themselves be a rich source of genealogical information.  Yet, even if your relatives married in church, it doesn’t mean that they were not Jewish.  Anglican churches did not require the same burden of proof.  Of course, registry office marriages do not indicate anything one way or another, but sometimes certificates indicate that the marriage was conducted under the auspices of the Jewish religion.  If your direct ancestors did not marry in church, look into marriages of their siblings.  Often you find inconsistencies within families.

4.  Find burial records

Again, for your relatives to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, the authorities would have to be satisfied that they were halachically Jewish.  Jewish cemeteries, especially the large London metropolitan ones such as Edmonton, Bushey and Rainham (all Ashkenazi), tend to be well maintained and indexed.  Cemetery caretakers are usually helpful and knowledgable.  Again, bear in mind that being buried in a non-Jewish cemetery is no proof that your relatives were not Jewish – you may simply need to look for other clues. See here for more information about researching graves.

5.  Explore Jewish sources

Here are some suggestions of free sources which may help you find out more about your Jewish roots.

The Knowles Collection

Synagogue Scribes

Anglo-Jewish Family Trees at the JGSGB Library

Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry

Consolidated Jewish Surname Index

Expect that you may need to employ a combination of tactics to uncover your Jewish roots.  Jewish genealogy demands a high level of creativity and much tenacity.

Happy hunting!

While the focus of this post is British Jewry, we can offer help and some free advice with Jewish research in many other countries.  Please give us a call on 01273 558728 or get in touch here.
Research your family history


Discovering my grandfatherThis post has been generously contributed by recent client, Christine Glover, who we have helped to trace the life of a grandfather she never met. If you would like help exploring your own family stories, please contact us for further information.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been curious about my paternal grandfather, William, a British citizen living in Egypt, who was expelled during the Suez crisis in 1956. He left behind my grandmother and their two young children; my father, aged ten, and his five year old sister. Already in his late fifties at the time, and having lived abroad for all his adult life, he returned to England, where he lost contact with the family. They eventually heard of his death in 1965.

My grandfather was born in 1897 in Yeovil, Somerset. I had been told that he was an only child, orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. He left England as soon as he could, and after travelling the world, settled in Egypt, at that time a colonial outpost. I knew from my father that my grandfather had been previously married to an Italian lady, and that they had a daughter before divorcing. My father didn’t know his half-sister’s name, though, or what had happened to her after her parents’ divorce.

Wanting to find out more, I had at various times tried to look for official documentation relating to my grandfather and his parents. Despite having the details of his date and place of birth on my own birth certificate, I could never find any trace of a birth certificate for him, or anything confirming the existence of his parents, whose names I’d been told were Walter and Hilda. When public records including census returns started to be made available online, I searched again, but still nothing appeared. I wondered about his mysterious daughter, my father’s elder half-sister who had disappeared without trace; what had happened to her, and whether she had any inkling that she had other family. She could be anywhere in the world, and I had so little information about her that I had no idea where to start the search.

Getting help

Occasionally I made some headway, but every time I found some information that I thought might lead me to my grandfather, the link was too tenuous. I suspected that he was illegitimate; in my over-active imagination, I toyed with the idea that he was a bigamist, perhaps even a criminal, an elusive character hiding a dark secret, who escaped all my efforts to track him down. I eventually realised that I would need professional help to dig deeper, but work and family commitments meant that I kept postponing looking into things further.

At the beginning of this year, I heard that Naomi Leon, a former colleague, had set up Research Roots. This spurred me to renew my efforts; I spent the morning typing up everything I had ever been told about my grandfather, and emailed it off to Naomi, not expecting to hear back for a few days. I’ll always remember the moment I emerged from the darkness of the tube station on my way home from work that January evening; the most incredible email from Naomi flashed on my phone screen, outlining the first twenty or so years of my grandfather’s life in amazing detail. Since then, I have read and re-read this document too many times to count.

My grandfather’s story

Naomi confirmed what I suspected; the reason I had never been able to find a birth certificate for my grandfather was because he was born under another surname, the illegitimate son of a 21 year old glove maker. A year after my grandfather’s birth, his mother married his step-father, a railway platelayer, with whom she went on to have eleven more children. Walter was my grandfather’s step-father, and presumably the only father figure he had ever known, but for some reason, my grandfather had concealed the first name of his mother, who was not called Hilda, but Jane. Hilda was actually one of my grandfather’s younger sisters; strangely, despite the confusion about her first name, Jane’s maiden name was correct.

At some point, my grandfather had informally adopted his step-father’s surname; he used both his first and second names, William and Reginald, interchangeably, so he was known by a combination of four names. No wonder I had found it so hard to track him down. I had chanced upon this family in my previous census searches, but too much differed from what I had been told, so I had never made the connection. The key had been in his army records; Naomi had managed to put the next-of-kin information from these together with census information and birth and marriage records, to corroborate that she had found the right family. With eleven half-siblings, my grandfather was obviously not an only child as we had been led to believe, and he was not orphaned young either; he was a grown man serving in the army when Jane died of heart disease in 1918 shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child at the age of 41. Walter lived to quite an old age, dying in 1945.

I had suspected that my grandfather might have been institutionalized as a child, as I could never find any trace of the uncle he said had raised him. But what Naomi uncovered in the 1911 census was even more shocking. At the age of nine, with his mother and step-father living in Yeovil with their other children, my grandfather was in Bath, detained at an industrial school, a semi-penal institution set up to take in children who were destitute or in danger of falling into bad ways. I wondered what terrible deed a child of nine could have committed to be sent away to such an institution. Had he been abandoned by his family?

With Naomi’s help, I wrote off to the Somerset Archives for the school’s records, and spent several weeks anticipating the worst. When the records arrived, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His character was described as “good” and his “sentence of detention” until the age of sixteen was for “non-attendance”. I obtained a copy of the school rules; discipline was harsh, and children were allowed little contact with their families. My grandfather was an inmate there until the age of fifteen. He was released early, with a much better education than he would have received otherwise, and a glowing reference (“he should do well in life”) to join the army as a boy soldier in 1912.

This could have been the best thing that ever happened to him; he escaped the horrors of the trenches, having been already stationed in India and China when the First World War broke out, and was eventually posted in Cairo. Army life was not for him though; a series of incidents including “improper behaviour before the band president” and kit going missing, culminated in him being court martialled for going AWOL. He eventually bought his way into a civilian job with the Cairo police for £35 in 1920, and settled in the country that was to be his home for the next thirty five years of his life.

Now I knew that my grandfather’s first marriage probably took place in Egypt. After doing some more research, Naomi managed to locate the marriage in 1921; the information about his first wife being Italian proved to be correct; her name was Maria, and I was shocked to see that she was only sixteen at the time of her marriage to my twenty four year old grandfather.

Finding Aunt Nelly

Then followed a period of tracing different leads; after a couple of false starts ordering birth certificates of girls with the same surname born in Egypt, Naomi found the birth certificate of their daughter, my father’s half-sister, Nelly, who was born in 1922; strangely, her birth was only registered when she was thirteen years old. My father then remembered that following their divorce, my grandfather’s first wife had subsequently married an RAF pilot before leaving Egypt, so we tried to find this marriage certificate in the hopes that this would lead us to where Maria and Nelly had eventually settled.

Naomi managed to locate Maria’s second marriage to a pilot called Jim, in of all places, Barnsley, Yorkshire. But Jim’s job meant that they moved around, and it was tricky to trace them. Naomi made some contacts from Jim’s family through a genealogy website, and was told that he and Maria had moved to Wales. In August this year, Naomi told me that she had traced Nelly. Sadly, we were too late as she had passed away some years ago. However, Naomi had made contact with Nelly’s daughter, my first cousin, Lydia, who now lives in Canada.

Approaching my relatives

I wondered how Lydia would react to my contacting her. After all, I didn’t know under what circumstances her grandparents’ marriage had broken down, and what she had been told about our grandfather. I had nothing to worry about, as Lydia was delighted to hear from me and fascinated to hear all about the information Naomi had uncovered. She also had some amazing stories of her own to share, including how Maria had married our grandfather to get away from her controlling father, and how after their separation, our grandfather had taken Nelly away, and she was found several days later in an Arab tent. Apparently, the disappearance even made the press!

Aside from Lydia, I have made contact with several other cousins, the children of our grandfather’s siblings. Poignantly, the first cousin I made contact with, told me that his mother Lillie’s last memory our grandfather, her elder brother, was of her running in the field waving goodbye as his train pulled out of the station to take him to join up. Apparently, he kept in touch with Lillie for some years, but the letters eventually petered out. After their mother’s death, Walter didn’t remarry, and Lillie raised the remaining younger siblings. My grandfather never returned to Somerset, settling in Portsmouth when he was expelled from Egypt in 1956.

I’ll never know why he lost contact with all his family, but exactly a century since he left, it has been an incredible experience for me to connect with them. I now know the names not only of my great grandparents, but also of my great-great grandparents, what they did for a living, how many children each generation had, and where they are all buried. I hope to visit Somerset soon to see my new-found cousin Ann, who will be the first member of my extended family on my grandfather’s side I have ever met in person.

Photos reproduced with thanks by kind permission of the family.

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Jewish genealogy specialists


Jewish genealogy specialistsSeveral years ago when I began researching my own Jewish ancestry, an elderly relative sent me a scuffed piece of paper with a list of unfamiliar names.  These, I was told, were my great-grandfather’s siblings – the Lewkowicz family – from Lodz, Poland.  Then, I knew little more than my great-grandfather’s name and that he had died aged 52 in Kensington Infirmary, of tuberculosis aggravated by his tailoring work.

Fast forward to the present day, and I not only know what became of each one of those siblings, their children, and grandchildren – but, I am in touch with more than thirty 2nd and 3rd cousins in the US.  I know exactly where my great-grandfather grew up, what his street and his synagogue looked like, the names of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as 1740, how and when he came to London, the family he left behind…

The point of this story?  With a little persistence, everything is possible.  Do not assume that your Jewish ancestry cannot be uncovered! I have since researched a number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have learned a few clear lessons along the way.

Chuck out the rule book

The usual principles of genealogical research do not apply.  Clearly, you cannot rely on your Jewish ancestors staying in the same place, as most English families traditionally did, or using the same names.  Even in “the old country” our ancestors typically went by a variety of names and epithets in several languages, and spelled surnames in multiple ways.  These challenges are compounded by translation and adoption of new names in new countries.  It is wise to keep an open mind when searching records and not to discount sources too quickly if certain details appear inaccurate.

Assume nothing

It is surprising how many Jewish records survive in Eastern Europe and beyond, despite best efforts to obliterate them.  Do not assume there is no information to be had.  It may be possible to find birth, marriage and death records; books of Jewish residents; business directories; cemetery records and much more.

Ask the questions

You won’t get answers if you don’t ask the questions!  Use the internet to research which archives might be helpful to you. Write or email, explain what you want to find out, ideally in bite-size chunks, and ask what records are available.  Though archivists are employed to retrieve records, not to do the work for you, they often provide an amount of informal research.  It pays to do your homework first.  Be prepared to chase! If you do not know where your ancestors came from, use old census returns and vital records to locate them.

Muster your resources

Use every tool at your disposal – a larger toolbox is required to research a Jewish family tree, though it need not be specialist.  Start by contacting relatives and ask them what they know.  As well as genealogical resources online (many of which are free, see below), use Google translate to help communicate with overseas archives, XE.com to calculate currency conversion fees. Utilise Facebook, the Israeli telephone directory, US White Pages…

Expect nothing… and everything

Obviously there is no guarantee you will find what you are looking for.  However, the particular challenges of researching Jewish ancestry make the fruits all the sweeter.  And, often, the stories uncovered about our ancestors’ rich past are of a peculiarly fascinating scope.

Where to start?

Start with the present and work your way back logically, making notes of significant names, places and dates.  You may wish to make use of the following resources:

JewishGen – the most comprehensive repository of Jewish genealogical information.
Ancestry – register a free subscription to build a tree, and explore its vast records, including the Jewish Online World Burial Registry, Jewish family history collections, passenger and immigration records.
Yad Vashem – trace relatives in wartime Europe using the Shoah Names Database, which draws on personal testimonies and WW2-era records.
Avotaynu – investigate the extensive resources of this leading Jewish genealogical publisher, including the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, a gateway to 700,000 Jewish surnames.

Happy hunting!

A version of this piece appears in the Rosh Hashanah 2012 issue of Amuse, the biannual magazine of Edgeware Synagogue and Sussex Jewish News
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…)

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