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London is the premier city in all of Britain. It’s the centre of government, and has major museums and galleries, plus the head offices of international companies. It also holds centuries of records in a range of repositories.
Modern London occupies over 620 square miles. It comprises the City of London and the 32 boroughs. This is ‘Greater London’, an entity created in 1965.
Before the creation of Greater London, the County of London was a considerably smaller area, roughly covering what we would now call Inner London. This was itself only created in 1888, carved out of the counties that surrounded the City of London itself. These were Middlesex (north of the River Thames), Surrey and Kent (both south of the Thames).
Record keeping is based on the situation immediately prior to the formation of Greater London. So, the Administrative Counties of London and Middlesex are represented by the London Metropolitan Archives. The City of Westminster has its own archives, and the City of London has Guildhall Library and the Corporation of London Record Office. The county record offices of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey, meanwhile, were made responsible for the most important records relating to the parts of those counties that were taken into Greater London.
Like the rest of the country, from 1837 Londoners registered their children’s births, and had deaths and marriages recorded, by local registrars – although perhaps with more indifference than rural areas in the early years. You can search these here.
As for census returns, it’s not surprising that some have avoided the system. There are patches where the relevant records simply don’t exist: for example, the 1841 Census for Paddington and the 1861 Census for the Pimlico and Belgravia areas of Westminster. Where records do exist, look out for particular anomalies. For example, you might see ‘London Middlesex’ in the birth column, which indicates that although the individual knew they’d been born in what was officially Middlesex, it was nevertheless in the metropolis.
It’s more difficult to identify earlier vital events, because of the sheer number of parishes, particularly within the ‘square mile’ of the City itself. At its peak, there were over 100 parishes plus other non-parochial districts, liberties and peculiars. Most parish registers for the City itself are held at Guildhall Library. You can find those for Inner London and Middlesex at the LMA. Most parish registers for the area south of Oxford Street are at the City of Westminster Archives Centre (CWAC), with the exceptions of Marylebone and Paddington, which are at the LMA.
Tracing marriages in London can be fraught with difficulties. The Pallot Marriage Index covers over 100 City parishes, mostly for 1780 to 1812 (some to 1837). However, some of the original registers didn’t survive World War II. The Index is particularly strong for the Middlesex parishes in Inner London. The Pallot Baptism Index is much smaller but still useful. You can search both on Ancestry.co.uk.
Many Londoners were married by licence rather than by banns, so if you’re having trouble, use the licences to identify the date and place of the marriage. There were several issuing authorities, of which the most important was the Bishop of London (records for 1521-1685 are at the LMA; 1597-9 and 1601-1982 at Guildhall Library).
Londoners also made particular use of the Faculty Office and the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you should certainly check the records of those two authorities. You can find microfilms of the Vicar General’s allegations, 1694-1850, and Faculty Office allegations between 1701 and 1850 at the Society of Genealogists.
Historically, burial was essentially a church function. By the early 19th century, the burial grounds of London churches couldn’t cope with the increasing population and high death rate. Various Acts allowed for the setting up of private cemeteries on the outskirts of London. In the mid-1850s, burials in churchyards within the metropolis ceased. If you’re looking for a burial after that, you need to identify where this may have taken place, which is no easy task. Many of the burial registers have been transferred to local borough archives, while others are still held by the cemetery authorities.
In 2008, Ancestry announced that it was going to digitize a whole raft of genealogical sources in partnership with the LMA and Guildhall Library Manuscripts. These will eventually include: more than 10,000 Greater London parish registers dating from the 1530s to the 20th century; nonconformist records; bishops’ transcripts; Poor Law and Boards of Guardians records; workhouse registers; marriage bonds and allegations and much more.
The results are gradually being included on Ancestry.co.uk. In order to access them, you need to have a Premium or Worldwide membership.