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More Advanced Sources for tracing Family History
in England and Wales

by Angela Petyt



Directories and Newspapers

Directories: trade directories are of enormous benefit to family history research, as they give detailed descriptions of communities, listing private residents and tradespeople. They can provide, in the form of a printed book, a quick and convenient means of finding information about a person and the environment he or she lived in.

Directories began in the late 17th century, but it was not until the 19th century that individuals were mentioned - gentry and professionals at first, but later descending through the social scale, accepting at the same time smaller and smaller businesses, and later, self-employed tradesmen and some craftsmen. From the later 19th century street directories were published, mainly for large towns. The topographical survey, which precedes the lists of traders and residents for each town, village and hamlet, is a mine of information about the community in which your ancestors lived and worked. It describes the local history, important people and buildings, local agriculture and industries, charities, recreations, churches, schools, transport systems, and population statistics.

The major directories were: Kelly; Pigot; White; Slater - with many local publishers as well.

Newspapers: These are a marvellous source of information about your ancestors. Births, marriages, deaths, tradesmen`s advertisements, perpetrators and victims of crime, wartime heroes, local events and sporting teams.

The first newspapers began in the 17th century, with mainly official announcements or news from abroad. the relaxation of restraints in the 1690`s heralded a plethora of new London titles and the earliest weekly provincials. Throughout the 18th century Stamp Duty tried to curb the growing power of the Free Press. Stamp Duty was finally abolished in 1855 and the cost of paper was reduced by changing from rag-based paper to wood-pulp newsprint. Improvements in machinery enabled newspapers to be produced faster. All this resulted in a wave of new national and local papers, and the standard prices were 1d or 1/2d, meaning that the working class could afford to buy them. The local press included increasingly more articles about their own community.



If you can locate the will of an ancestor, you may find it contains a great deal of genealogical information, about both the person who made the will, and the persons included in it. A series of wills relating to your family can therefore supplement gaps in the parish registers, sort out problems of identification, prove links with families elsewhere, and show how the family moved and prospered.

What is a Will?

A Will is a written instrument providing for the disposition of a person`s real estate (land and buildings), while a Testament disposes of his personal property (money, furniture, tools, leasehold land etc.). The two are usually combined and can only take effect on the testator`s death. This last will and testament had to be dated and made while its author was of sound mind, had property worth at least five pounds, and signed in the presence of two witnesses. Additions (codicils) could be affixed in the same fashion. Often, if there was no will, there could be a Letter of Administration (admon), a document authorising disposal of the property by the next-of-kin. Alternatively there might be a deposition - a statement made by the dying person before witnesses in lieu of a proper will. Wills were usually taken to be proved (probate) in order for the executors to carry out its instructions. A will might be proved in the year the person died, or several years later.

Before 1858

Responsibility for granting probate or letters of administration was largely vested in the Church courts. These were, in order of importance: the Archdeacon`s Court; the Bishop`s Court (consistory or commissary); and the Perogative Courts of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. In addition, certain parishes enjoyed probate juristiction within their own boundaries, and these were known as Peculiars.

If a man had property in one archdeaconry, it was proved in that court; if in two, then in the Bishop`s court; if in two dioceses, then in the P.C.C. or P.C.Y; if in both provinces, then in the P.C.C. (Often wills were proved in the P.C.C. - which was in London, not Canterbury - as a status symbol. All wills were proved there in the Commonwealth period when bishops were abolished). The Probate Act attached to the will was in Latin before 1733.

After 1858

Juristiction over wills and admons was taken over by central government. A Principal Probate Registry was established at Somerset House, London and District Registries set up throughout the country. Original wills were kept in the District, and copies sent to the Principal Registry, where indexes were made.

Location of wills

For wills proved before 1858, many are in the Borthwick Institute, York, for the counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Flint, Isle of Man, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottingham, Westmorland and Yorkshire. For southern counties of England, many are in the Public Record Office, Kew. However, a lot of wills are held elsewhere in County Record Offices. For wills proved after 1858, enquire to the Probate Department, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP.

Consult the book Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for Wills by Jeremy Gibson for further details on England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.



Family historians who can trace their ancestors back several generations in the same village are, firstly, very lucky, and secondly, very much in the minority. Our forebears were more mobile than we think, whether moving from one neighbouring parish to another, or from the country to the town. Migration has always been a fact of life, and people moved for several reasons, the most common being:

to find work, or job relocation; marriage; to escape the authorities

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries created the most dramatic increase and shift in location of the population in the whole of British history. By the beginning of Queen Victoria`s reign the towns of the English North and Midlands were acting like magnets, drawing in thousands from the depressed agricultural areas who were hungry for work. For example, the metal-working town of Birmingham attracted workers from as far away as Wales. There was plenty of opportunity for labourers, textile workers, artisans and clerks to work in the factories and mills, and staff the shops and offices, as well as a great need for domestic servants to attend to the new middle classes who gained their wealth through trade and industry. This geographical mobility was possible due to the improvements made to roads and the new railways. The 1841 census revealed that although there were still over 1 million agricultural workers, there were now 2 1/2 million men and women working in industrial and trade occupations. Towns were growing at a massive rate, with Manchester`s population rising 53,000 since 1831 to reach 235,000.


Some sources which may help in tracing origins and movements of migrants

N.B. Extended families and neighbours often migrated together and subsequently lived near one another.





All children have a father and mother. If the couple are not married at the time of birth, then the child is illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Illegitimacy is not new or shocking; sooner or later, most family historians come across it among their own ancestors.

`It`s a wise man who knows his own father`, so the saying goes. Nowadays, blood tests and DNA profiling can prove this beyond reasonable doubt, but our ancestors were often skilled in the art of concealment - many a child grew up unaware that his big sister was really his mother. However, a number of documents can reveal the truth:





Today, all British children are provided with free schooling up to the age of 18. However, there was no universal system of elementary education in England and Wales until as late as 1870; and no free basic education until 1891.

The Development of Education


Establishment-based School Records


Pupil-based School Records

Not all school records have survived. What has will either be at the school itself or the local County Record Office. Many schools have published Histories. 


Manorial Records

To the manor born?

The manor was the ancient unit of land tenure, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. It was based on the estate of the Lord of the Manor, who held the land by the grace of the King, under the feudal system. The manor was both a political and an economic unit. The lord`s powers were considerable. The lesser inhabitants of the manor were in effect his subjects, and they were tied to him by a complex system of customary duties and obigations. The lord`s juristiction was enforced by the manor court, which met once or twice a year, presided over by the lord`s steward and attended by all the tenants of the manor. There were two courts, which in practice were combined: Court Baron (which dealt with land tenure), and Court Leet (which dealt with crimes and misdemeanours). The proceedings were written up on Court Rolls.


Therefore it can be seen that the manor was an institution that affected almost every aspect of the lives of our ancestors. Yet manorial records are greatly underused by family historians. They are seen as `difficult`, not least because, up to 1733, they are written in Latin. However, manorial records stretch from the 13th century to as late as 1925. Practice in reading later English court rolls can help enormously in understanding the earlier Latin documents as the phrases are the same.


It is uncertain how many manors there were: estimates range from 25,000 - 65,000. There were only about 11,000 parishes so there might have been several manors in one parish. Conversely, there might be a number of parishes, or parts of parishes, in a single manor. Many manorial records no longer exist - up to a third. Only about 4% have records before 1500 and about 20% have records from 1500-1700. About half of the manors have records from 1700-1900.

The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1HP, can advise on which manors were in a given parish and where records of these manors may be found if they survive. These range from the Public Record Office and County Archives to private individuals.


What you will find in a Court Roll

The name of the manor, the lord`s and steward`s names, place and date of the court

A list of essoins - excuses for non-attendance by tenants

A list of the homage - the jury: 12 respected local men

Presentments for the court to consider:

a) land transactions e.g. transfer to the next heir under the copyhold system

b) view of frankpledge - the tenants reported on misdeeds in their area and named the suspects to be tried by the court

c) custom breach and variation - i.e. the ancient customs of the manor




  © Angela Petyt 2002. All rights reserved.

 Permission is granted for all free personal and non-commercial uses.

Commercial use of any portion contained herein is expressly prohibited.


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