For the millions of Americans with English ancestry, researching family history can be a bit easier than some other nationalities. After all, the records are written in English! Americans can search many English records without traveling across the Atlantic, thanks to all the records available on microfilm and microfiche. However, at some point you might want to make the leap "across the pond" yourself and seek out ancestors in England. A trip to look up one's family tree in their homeland can be combined with a sightseeing vacation to create a time that you will never forget. Thanks to today's very low airfares, a trip to England is now cheaper than ever.
Before you pack your bags, you should gather all the facts you can. Note your family traditions, and get as much information as possible from living relatives, family Bibles, and any papers that may have survived, particularly the dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, and details of occupations. A preparatory visit to a local library or Family History Center may uncover more helpful details. You may locate some census listings or vital records about the known family either online, on microfilm, or on microfiche. This will let you use your time in England for the bigger challenges.
In England, there are two major locations and hundreds of smaller ones where you can find records of genealogical interest. For records of 1837 and later, centralized indexes of births, marriages, and deaths have been compiled by the Family Records Centre, part of the United Kingdom government. Almost every individual in the country has been documented in these books, starting in 1837. The records are available to the public in large, handwritten books. You'll find these books at the Family Records Centre of the National Archives at 1 Myddleton Street in London. If you're not prepared to lift weighty volumes from shelves and back for several hours, you might prefer to seek out any transcribed summaries online or on microfiche or microfilm. Knowing the date and place of the event you're seeking will help you go right to the book you need. Once you find your ancestor's record, you can ask the Family Records Centre for a copy of the full original paper. Placing your request in person will save you both time and money. Details are available at http://www.familyrecords.gov.uk.
Once you've worked back to 1837, the real fun begins. The government did not keep track of births, marriages, and deaths before 1837; so, these older records are not compiled in any one location. Fortunately, most churches religiously recorded christenings, marriages, and funerals. The local church may still have the original records, or they may have transferred them to a regional facility of some sort. Thanks to the efforts of the Society of Genealogists and many local genealogy societies, many of these records have been transcribed, and you can find them in book form as well as on microfilm, CD-ROM disks, and online. The next step is to locate the records you need.
The best place to start looking for these earlier records is in the library of the Society of Genealogists. This gem is located at Charterhouse Buildings, tucked into a cul-de-sac at the junction of Goswell Road and Clerkenwell Road in London. It is within walking distance of the Family Records Centre, the London Metropolitan Archive, and the Guildhall Library. It also is close to two stations of London's famous underground, or subway. You can reach this location within minutes from almost anyplace within metropolitan London.
The Society of Genealogists' library contains a wealth of material, including: compiled parish records from many churches throughout England, census records for all the British Isles, city directories, poll lists, school registers, lists of the landed gentry, wills, and much more. The same library is also equipped with computers you can use to view a wide variety of records on CD-ROM as well as online resources.
The library is open to members and non-members alike. The fee for non-members varies from £4 (about $7.00 in U.S. money) for a 1-hour visit to £18 (roughly $30.00) for a full day. If you plan a multi-day visit, you may find it cheaper to join the society, which gives you unlimited free access to the library.
A day or two at the library of the Society of Genealogists is an excellent way to start your genealogy research in England. The education you get there will enable you to discover even more genealogy resources spread throughout the country.
You can fill any gaps in these details by searching the Family Records Centre and finding as much additional information as possible about the family households and whereabouts from the Census Returns 1841-1891. Some of these records have been indexed, which always speeds up your efforts. You can find many of these records on microfilm, which you can seek out in your pre-trip preparations.
If possible, you might also plan your vacation to England to include the Society of Genealogists' annual Family History Fair. This event is held the first weekend in May, a time when off-season discounted airfares are easy to find. Almost all the major genealogy vendors in England have stalls, or booths, at this event, as do most of the regional genealogy societies. Hundreds of books are available for sale, as well as computer CD-ROM disks and records on microfiche and microfilm. By attending the fair, you can examine the products before you buy. This is also a great place to pick up some tips for making your search easier and more productive; the Society of Genealogists staffs an "advice desk," with several of the best genealogists in England. They delight in giving advice on how to break through your "stone walls." Of course, the library at the Society of Genealogists is closed that weekend since the entire staff is working at the Family History Fair. Every year, this Fair attracts attendees from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as from all over the British Isles. I have attended this event several times and can vouch that it is a great event.
You can contact the Society of Genealogists at:
14 Charterhouse Buildings
London EC1M 7BA
Telephone +44 20 7251 8799
Once you've discovered your British ancestors' whereabouts, your trip can branch out to the county or shire where they lived. Be sure to check the location and address of the genealogical society for your destination shire. Even if you don't care to drive on the left side of the road, you can take advantage of well-run trains and buses and see some lovely countryside as well.
With a little planning for your trip to England, you can pick up some souvenirs: a few postcards, a t-shirt, and even a few newly-discovered ancestors. There's no time like the present to start that pre-trip research. In fact, this might be a great time to contact your travel agent about a vacation you will never forget.