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Using your local record office

Part of the fun of family history is getting out and about and one of the best places to visit is a local records office. These can be found in counties across England, Wales and Scotland, and in all the London boroughs. If you don’t live in the same area as your ancestors, maybe you’ll have to travel and perhaps even spend a few days doing your research at the archives most relevant to your family tree.

It may sound intimidating at first, but chances are you’ll soon feel at home. Family history is so popular that many councils have refurbished their record offices in recent years, or have created brand new, purpose-built, history centres. The expert staff are usually very friendly. Ancestry.co.uk’s Library Edition is available in libraries and record offices around Britain, so you’ll have access to all our records if you need them during your visit, plus all the resources they have to offer.

One of the most important sets of records to look at are the parish registers – nearly all local archives have the register books from the established church for baptisms, marriages and burials. These will be for the jurisdiction covered by the records office – the county, city or locality it’s in. So, if you’ve traced a family line prior to 1837 to parishes in Shropshire, and you can’t find them in the Parish Records on Ancestry.co.uk, the best place to look for their baptism, marriage and death records (BMD) is the Shropshire Archives in Shrewsbury.

Parish registers are usually kept on microfiche. You probably won’t be able to look at the original pages, but sometimes this is still possible. Fiche is normally kept in card-file fashion, sorted according to parish and date. At some facilities you can go through the files yourself, removing the fiche pages from the collection to look at, but you have to return them to their correct location when done. At bigger archives you’ll need to request sheets of fiche which will be retrieved for you by staff.

Records offices are great if you want to flesh out your family’s story beyond census and BMD information. They usually hold street directories for the area, which show who lived in each property in a town or city in most years from the early 1800s right up to the 1970s. There will be workhouse and school records, and often registers from local hospitals and asylums as well. Try to find your family’s properties in parish and corporation rate books, and you can see how much tax they paid each year. A local archive will also have old maps of the area so you can look at where your ancestors lived, even if the buildings are no longer standing.

How in-depth you go is up to you and in some places you’ll find very unique records such as vaccination books, regimental records, or playbills from the local theatre. You’ll get a special feeling when you page through a workhouse register from the Victorian period, or look at a hand-written rate book from 1766 that shows just how much tax your great-great-great-somebody was paying.

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