English Genealogy Research Welsh Genealogy

Researching Your Family History for Free: Resources for England and Wales

Photograph 047 by Lauren Mancke found on minimography.com
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Written by Anne Sherman

Can family history research be free?

When I first started to research my family history over 30 years ago, I was told it was a very expensive hobby as you had to purchase many birth, marriage and death certificates and you MUST go to London to do it properly.  Well I did not do any of that, so it only cost me the relatively small amount for the certificates I actually needed to progress my research.

Today there is, in my opinion, an over reliance on the Ancestry website, which proves how good their advertising is. Such subscription websites are also quite expensive for many, but can you research your family history without it costing a small fortune?

In many cases the answer is yes, you can do your research without buying a subscription. Undoubtedly these sites do have a very important role to play especially as they start to include more images of parish registers and other documents, but what should be remembered is that your local library and archive centre are likely to have the Ancestry Library Edition (which covers worldwide), and/or Find My Past and some may even have access to The Genealogist website.

Rather than paying for access see if you can get it for free first. In addition, some subscription sites also have free access to certain records, such as the 1881 census and the GRO indexes supplied by the FreeBMD website. Find My Past also gives free access to the newspaper indexes, but not the images. To access these all you need to do is register.  Watch out for free weekend offers, especially over bank holiday weekends.

Besides the better known subscription sites, there is also a large range of free websites you can use.  One of these is the FreeBMD website which is transcribing the birth, marriage and death indexes in England and Wales from the start of civil registration in 1837 and currently covers up to the mid 1970’s. This site is important if you wish to order a certificate from the General Register Office (GRO) as it gives the reference numbers you need to place the order.  The indexes from 1911 onwards are especially useful as they list the mother’s maiden name on the birth indexes, so it is possible to search for any children with a specific surname and their mother’s maiden name.  Please note these are indexes only, if you require more information you may need to purchase the certificate.

The sister sites to FreeBMD are FreeCen and FreeReg.  Also run by volunteers these sites are transcribing the census returns, and Parish Registers for England, Scotland and Wales.  FreeReg also covers the neighboring Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.  Although images are not included on these sites, most of the information is transcribed such as witnesses and parents details on parish registers etc.  These three sites are regularly updated and transcribed by volunteers and are not complete, so please read their coverage pages if you cannot find who you are looking for.

In addition to the FreeBMD website, the UKBMD group is transcribing the civil registrations indexes on a county basis.  Although not all counties are included, and some have their own independent projects, these can give you more information than the FreeBMD site as marriages can also show in which church/venue the marriage took place.

Another locally based project is the Online Parish Clerks (OPC), which is another group of volunteers who are recording the parish register entries for their area.  You may need to register with each site, but registration and access is free.

The FamilySearch website is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have recorded a range of free indexes mainly based on census records and parish registers. This site covers different parts of the world, so could be useful if your ancestors migrated elsewhere. In many cases these are just indexes but they do hold a number of images of parish registers that have not been indexed but which you can browse through yourself. Those with a camera symbol identify images attached, but be aware than some images are on subscription websites such as Find My Past and will need a subscriptions to access. Look for the camera images without the square background for those that are available on this site.

The Latter-day Saint Church also has a number of Family History Centers which can help you with your research and access different records worldwide for you to view in their Library. You can find your nearest library on the FamilySearch website https://familysearch.org/locations/.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (CWGC) gives details of not only British servicemen who were killed during WW1 and WW2, but also members of the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, South African and non-commonwealth forces that fought with us.  The site also records details of the 67,000 Commonwealth civilians who died “as a result of enemy action” in WW2.

Another free but perhaps lesser known website is a project started by the University of Leicester, which has digitized many Post Office and Trade Directories in England and Wales. These have not been indexed but can be searched using a system called Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This is not always accurate, however you can manually search through each book, as you would in a library, and you may find the address or occupation of your ancestor.

Searching the internet for free websites that may assist you in your research should always be recommended. The sites mention above are just a small selection of what is freely available online.

At some stage we all need to pay something for our research whether it is buying certificates, paying for a subscription website, or using a professional researcher to help with those dead ends in your research. If you would like more information on specific free websites please contact me and I will try to help.


Want help with your research? Contact researchers like Anne or post a request to our community of experts today!

About the author

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Anne Sherman

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