England & Wales Genealogy Guide

Trace your English and Welsh ancestry back to the 18th century and beyond with this simple, step-by-step guide.

If you want to begin tracing your ancestry in England and Wales, it is advised you read the entirety of this guide, following the steps provided with your own ancestors.

This short but concise guide will give you all the information you need to trace your ancestry in England and Wales back to the 18th century and beyond. It provides background information on sources and step-by-step instructions that will have you quickly and confidently researching your ancestors.

Researching your family history is an experience like no other. It is a paper-based adventure, where every new leaf can expose something terrible, exciting, or totally unexpected. You will find out details, maybe about ancestors and relatives you knew, that you would never have guessed; likely discover you had ancestors from places you did not know and maybe find you are a descendant of someone notable. Immersing yourself in the available sources, you will not only build up a picture of your own ancestors, but the places they lived and what it was like to live in times past.

Genealogical Method

Tracing your ancestry consists of the search for three pieces of information: age or date of birth, place of birth and parents' names. These co-ordinates are used to locate birth records; though birth records are not always necessary or available they are the easiest and most reliable source. These three details are generally readily available throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. This means it is quite likely you will be able to find all your ancestors back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

How Easy is it?

It can be a bit daunting when beginning, but researching your ancestry in England and Wales can be achieved with just a handful of records. Once you have successfully used a source once, it will be easy to do so again. Many of the records that you will use are available or indexed online, with more becoming available each year. Many more records are located in archives or repositories, usually at a county level.

How Far Can I Get Back?

Wales has genealogical traditions that stretch back as far as the Roman period (43-409 AD). As they were recorded centuries after their subjects lived, their accuracy is questionable; though numerous individuals mentioned in them are known to be historical. Some people will be able to reliably trace their ancestry to these traditions. England's genealogical record stretches back as far as the 8th century, with some earlier legendary traditions. Both England and Wales have considerable records relating to their land-owning families. Even relatively minor families can have pedigrees extending back to the Norman conquest.

Everyone will be a descendant of royalty at some point, but the records will often be lacking to trace a reliable line of descent. Although an exact figure could not be put on how many people can reliably trace 'noble' ancestry it is likely a modest minority.

Records of baptism, marriage and burial (equating to birth, marriage and death) stretch back as far as 1538 in England and Wales. This will typically be the furthest back you will get for families who did not hold any considerable lands. It may be possible to continue research using court records; particularly manor courts, local feudal courts whose records can stretch back as early as the 12th century.

However, due to numerous factors it is generally not possible, or easy, to trace a family back to the early 16th century. Following a family back to the 18th century will be straight forward in many cases. From this point it becomes increasingly likely you will hit a brick wall with each generation.

There are several factors that influence how far you can get back:

Record survival: Although baptism, marriage and burial records (parish registers) have been kept since 1538, many have been lost or destroyed. Typically the more developed parts of England and Wales have better rates of survival. Many places in Wales have no parish registers from the 17th or 18th centuries. As well as outright loss, many records contain gaps or damaged portions. However, most registers begin some time in the 17th century. Other types of records suffer from the same losses.

Wealth: Wealthier families are more likely to be mentioned in many types of records, particularly histories, court and land records. Many landowning families also had their pedigrees recorded from the 15th century onwards. Conversely, considerable genealogical and biographical information can be found for the poor, but many records concerning the poor have been destroyed.

Location: Where your ancestors lived will have a significant impact on how far you can get back. For example, it many be easy to find a birth record for a Lionel Cornelius Whittingham, of unknown age and place of birth; but it may be impossible to find the correct birth record for a John Smith, born 1850-1 in London, son of John and Mary Smith. Wales offers a similar problem, in that around 50% of the population had one of ten surnames. As you reach the 18th century, your John Jones of unknown age, place of birth and parentage will become a needle in a haystack. On top of that many Welsh didn't adopt fixed surnames until the 18th century. Migration also offers a problem in that there will generally be no record of where your ancestor moved from, or if there is it will not be easy to find.

Names: The more common your family's surname, the more likely they are to get lost amongst others with the same name. Adding to this issue is the relatively small number of forenames people typically used from the 16th century to the early 19th century.

Religion: The primary source of birth, marriage and death records from 1538 to 1837 were kept by the Church of England. Although attendance at church was mandatory for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, a growing minority of people did not attend, and records of their baptism, marriage and burial may not be found in the records of the Church of England. Such individuals were known as dissenters or non-conformists. They may have taken service at another church or meeting house, but records of baptism, marriage and burial may not have been kept or survived.

Illegitimacy and adoption: Loosening moral standards in the 18th century brought a dramatic increase in illegitimate births. Although the fathers of these children were generally not recorded in birth records, they may be found in various civil and church records. But if they are not, this can put a permanent brick wall in your tree. Adoption was less common, and typically not recorded until the late 19th century.

Wildcards: There are a number of other issues that can end your research, including immigrant ancestors, changes of name, lying and variations in spelling.

How Much Will it Cost?

It is possible to research your family history for nothing, but in doing so, you will limit the information you will find, be more likely to make mistakes and hit brick walls.

To research your ancestry you will need:

Access to one of the major genealogy sites: This will cost around £12.50 / month or £100 year. Many libraries and archives provide free access. The major genealogy sites are: FindMyPast, Ancestry and The Genealogist. GenesReunited contains the same records as FindMyPast with the addition of private user-submitted trees.

Budget for certificates and wills: Birth, marriage and death certificates cost £9.25 each at, time of writing. However, it is possible to use church baptism records in place of these, which can be accessed for free at archives and in some cases on FindMyPast, Ancestry and a small number of other sites. Some wills are kept in archives where they can be viewed for free, while others are kept by probate registries, from where they can be ordered for around £10.

Visit archives: England and Wales is spanned by a number of archives or record offices. The majority of records of use to genealogist are held at county or metropolitan archives. They are free to visit and view records at, but can be be costly to use if they are not located near your home.