Introduction and key records

This unit will build on your existing knowledge of the core sources with which all family and local historians should be familiar. It will explain what information can and, more importantly, cannot be gained from the civil registration records: the indexes of birth, marriage and death registers, along with associated records such as those relating to adoption. Websites allowing access to the indexes tend to minimise the difficulties involved in finding information from this source. The background to the decennial census will be discussed and the various pitfalls explained. Programmes such as ‘Who do you think you are?’ do not make it clear that the census, although a wonderful source, has a number of deficiencies. The rest of the module will point you to sources that can make up for this.

Church records

Records of baptisms, marriages and burials (not births, marriages and deaths) can be found as early as 1538 although it is rare for them to survive in an unbroken series from this date for any given parish. The earliest records relate to the established churches in the UK as, although some nonconformist denominations existed from as early as the 16th century they often worshipped in secret and there was no requirement for them to keep records. The Disruption of1843 in Scotland, when many Church of Scotland ministers left the Church and established new denominations, impacted on the records produced. Someone once summed up many of the frustrations felt by family historians – ‘nomadic nonconformist’ and there will be few people who have not encountered this problem!

Wills and testaments

Wills and Inventories are among some of the most interesting documents a family or local historian will encounter and provide a wonderful picture of the lives of our forbears. Other similar documents include letters of administration and probate accounts. Increasingly, access to these are available online, for example, over 600,000 of Scotland’s wills and testaments have been indexed and digitised.

Old and new poor laws

The system of poor relief can provide some of the most fascinating and poignant documents for a study of the past. The ‘old’ and ‘new’ poor laws in Scotland and England generated one of the best sources most family and local historians will use. Documents such as poor law applications and poor house and workhouse admission and discharge registers are gems which while they do not survive as well as one might wish give unrivalled information.

Military records

Before the First World War few of us will have had ancestors who fought for their country, but the Great War involved thousands of ordinary men (and women). Although some First World War records were destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War, the personal files of many combatants survive in The National Archives and are being made available online. Institutions such as regimental museums are also good sources of information.


Before very long, and certainly as you go back to the 18thcentury and earlier,you will need some help in reading the documents! Styles of writing such as the elegant ‘Secretary Hand’ are actually much easier to read than something written now, but students will have to learn the‘code’ in order to understand them. Palaeography is a skill that most people learn easily, and in which they take great pride.