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!

About the author