Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Celia Her­itage is a pro­fes­sional ge­neal­o­gist. Her first down­load­able video on us­ing wills has just been re­leased at her­itage­fam­i­ly­his­

The ge­nealog­i­cal re­sources that can fill in de­tails about the demise of your kin

Fail­ing to trace our an­ces­tors’ lives right through un­til their deaths may lead to se­ri­ous omis­sions in our fam­ily his­to­ries! If we fail to find their deaths, and the records that re­sulted from them, we are po­ten­tially over­look­ing a trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion about our fam­ily as a whole. Know­ing ex­actly when an an­ces­tor died is also im­por­tant, so that you can rule out any ref­er­ences to peo­ple with the same name in other sources af­ter this date.

Death records cover a wide range of sources, in­clud­ing death cer­tifi­cates and burial en­tries, wills, obituaries, grave­stones, in­quest records and also other less-well-known sources.

Death cer­tifi­cates

Fol­low­ing the cre­ation of the Gen­eral Reg­is­ter Of­fice (GRO) – which was es­tab­lished to reg­is­ter all births, mar­riages and deaths in Eng­land and Wales from 1 July 1837 on­wards – each death should have been recorded in the reg­is­tra­tion district where it oc­curred and there should be a death cer­tifi­cate for ev­ery­one. To get a copy of a death cer­tifi­cate, you can search the GRO in­dexes from the main fam­ily his­tory sub­scrip­tion sites or from

Once you have found the en­try that you be­lieve refers to your an­ces­tor, make a note of the nec­es­sary de­tails and or­der the cer­tifi­cate from­tent/cer­tifi­cates for £9.25. You can also or­der copies of death cer­tifi­cates from the rel­e­vant lo­cal reg­is­ter of­fice (see ‘Eight tips for find­ing miss­ing deaths’ on page 26).

You can learn a lot more about a per­son us­ing the key pieces of in­for­ma­tion on the cer­tifi­cate: place and date of death, age, oc­cu­pa­tion, cause of death and the de­tails of who­ever reg­is­tered the death. Th­ese can also lead to fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about your fam­ily as a whole.

The cer­tifi­cate for my great great grand­mother Mar­garet Bow­ness, who died in 1874 in Cart­mel Fell, Lan­cashire, showed her ex­act place of death to be ‘Tower Wood’. Us­ing maps I dis­cov­ered that this was the name of a house on the shore of Lake Win­der­mere, which turned out to be the home of her son Ge­orge. This led me on to dis­cover Ge­orge’s will, from which I learned a lot more about him and other fam­ily mem­bers, too.

In Mar­garet’s case, the de­tails of the per­son who reg­is­tered her death helped me find out more about an­other branch of the fam­ily. Her death was reg­is­tered by ‘John Bow­ness Wat­son’ who clearly had to be a rel­a­tive and, had she died a year later, the re­la­tion­ship would have been recorded on the cer­tifi­cate. Us­ing census records I dis­cov­ered that he was the son of her daugh­ter Mar­garet and I was quickly able to ex­tend Mar­garet’s branch of the tree.

Ages on death cer­tifi­cates can be in­ac­cu­rate, de­pend­ing on the knowl­edge of the per­son reg­is­ter­ing the death. De­spite this, the age recorded can be ex­tremely help­ful for pin­point­ing the bap­tism of any­one who died be­fore the 1851 census, which was the first to give a fairly ac­cu­rate state­ment of a per­son’s age. Even af­ter 1851 the age at death should be used in tan­dem

with census re­turns to con­firm a per­son’s sup­posed year of birth.

The oc­cu­pa­tion col­umn may show your an­ces­tor changed jobs or had an ad­di­tional job to that recorded in other sources. My hus­band’s an­ces­tor, Charles Curl­ing, was a tai­lor but his death cer­tifi­cate is one of only two records that show he was also an ac­tor.

Women’s oc­cu­pa­tions are rarely recorded be­fore the 20th cen­tury. In­stead you will find de­tails of their hus­band or their father. If a woman is recorded as a widow this will help you nar­row down a time pe­riod for the hus­band’s death and lo­cate that in the in­dex too. This can some­times be tricky if trac­ing a pop­u­lar sur­name be­fore 1866 when ages were not in­cluded in the death in­dex.


Death cer­tifi­cates may turn up some sad sur­prises, such as that for my rel­a­tive Ed­ward Dick­in­son, who died in 1906 in Stave­ley near Ken­dal, West­mor­land. Ed­ward was found drowned in the lo­cal river and (as will al­ways be the case if a death was sud­den or un­ex­pected) there was an in­quest. In­quests were nor­mally held be­fore the lo­cal coro­ner and a jury.

From 1875, de­tails of when and where the in­quest took place are in­cluded on cer­tifi­cates. Even be­fore this date you will know if there was an in­quest be­cause the coro­ner will be recorded as the in­for­mant on the cer­tifi­cate. From the 1850s, de­tailed in­quest re­ports of­ten ap­peared in lo­cal news­pa­pers, many of which can now be found at british­news­pa­per­ar­

or on Find­my­past, as well as at lo­cal li­braries and ar­chives. Oth­er­wise, you may find ac­tual in­quest records at the lo­cal county record of­fice. Sur­vival rates are patchy, but a good find­ing aid

is Coroners’ Records in Eng­land and

Wales by Jeremy Gib­son and Colin Rogers (pub­lished by The Fam­ily His­tory Part­ner­ship). Oth­er­wise check the on­line cat­a­logue of the record of­fice in the area where your an­ces­tor died.

I found two news­pa­per re­ports of Ed­ward’s death, one in The Lan­cashire Evening Post, but a much more de­tailed one in The West­mor­land

Gazette, which re­ported Ed­ward’s in­quest at length. This ac­count gave me a far bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of his life. The beauty of th­ese records is that they fre­quently re­veal things about our an­ces­tors that were never recorded else­where. I learned that Ed­ward had the habit of reg­u­larly walk­ing along the river to look for eggs and it is lit­tle things like this that re­ally bring our an­ces­tors to life. I also dis­cov­ered that Ed­ward, who was a coal mer­chant, had fi­nan­cial wor­ries and had been de­pressed. He suf­fered from dizzy spells too, which, with hind­sight, may well have been caused by stress.

While it is easy to as­sume that he com­mit­ted sui­cide as a re­sult of th­ese prob­lems, he left no note and did not in­di­cate in any way that he wished to end his life. He may sim­ply have suf­fered a dizzy spell and passed out while he was by the river, fall­ing face down and drown­ing as a re­sult. The jury passed a ver­dict of ‘Found drowned’.

Parish reg­is­ters

Be­fore 1837 burial en­tries in parish reg­is­ters are the near­est equiv­a­lent of the death cer­tifi­cate.

The amount of de­tail given varies greatly de­pend­ing on the parish and date but, if it gives an age, which they all should from 1813, it can help you track down a bap­tism or help iden­tify the cor­rect death cer­tifi­cate in the GRO in­dex.

Some pre-1813 reg­is­ters also give a cause of death, al­though the ter­mi­nol­ogy used may leave you won­der­ing ex­actly what your an­ces­tor died of – such as the term ‘Teeth’, found on sev­eral oc­ca­sions in 17th-cen­tury reg­is­ters for St Giles Crip­ple­gate, Lon­don. If you find that you have more than one pos­si­ble bap­tism for your an­ces­tor, use burial en­tries to see if any of the chil­dren bap­tised died as in­fants. There is no cen­tralised data­base of buri­als but the Na­tional Burial In­dex (NBI) is a grow­ing pro­ject that cov­ers 18.4 mil­lion en­tries and can be bought from The Fed­er­a­tion of Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­eties on CD ( Part of the NBI can also now be found on Find­my­past.


Al­though it is gen­er­ally true that only our wealth­ier an­ces­tors left wills, you may be sur­prised at just how many labour­ers and other peo­ple of sup­pos­edly lowly sta­tus did in fact do so, and it is a source that should never be over­looked. Wills may help you progress your re­search when in­for­ma­tion in parish reg­is­ters is too sparse for you to be cer­tain you have found the right fam­ily. In coun­ties such as Kent, where many early wills sur­vive, they may ex­tend your fam­ily tree be­fore the time of the first parish reg­is­ters in 1538.

Wills are not only won­der­ful sources for build­ing and ver­i­fy­ing a pedi­gree, they can also en­lighten you re­gard­ing your an­ces­tor’s wealth, oc­cu­pa­tion and any con­nec­tions with other parts of the coun­try. Many wills record

rel­a­tives re­sid­ing far from home and some­times over­seas, pro­vid­ing a vi­tal clue as to the where­abouts of other fam­ily mem­bers.

To lo­cate wills proved af­ter 1858, use the Prin­ci­pal Pro­bate Registry in­dex. This is cen­tralised in­dex and can be found at­bate or (up to 1966) on Ances­try. Be­fore this date, wills were proved by a hi­er­ar­chy of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal courts and there will usu­ally be more than one set of pro­bate court records for you to search in or­der to see if your an­ces­tor left a will.

Track­ing down a will

One of the de­ter­min­ing cri­te­ria as to where a will was proved was the lo­ca­tion of your an­ces­tor’s es­tate. It is log­i­cal to as­sume that the ma­jor­ity of their land and prop­erty would have been lo­cated where they lived, so use this as a start­ing point and then check to see which pro­bate courts cov­ered this area. De­spite cur­rently only be­ing avail­able in li­braries or sec­ond­hand, the best guide re­mains Jeremy Gib­son and Else Churchill’s, Pro­bate Ju­ris­dic­tions: Where to Look for Wills (pub­lished by the Fed­er­a­tion of Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­eties).

Al­though there is also a set of maps avail­able on Find­my­past show­ing pro­bate ju­ris­dic­tions

( th­ese do not show archdea­conry courts, so your best op­tion is to con­tact the county record of­fice cov­er­ing the area your an­ces­tor lived to de­ter­mine which court you should check and the lo­ca­tion of th­ese records.

A size­able por­tion of will in­dexes are now on­line, as are a grow­ing num­ber of will im­ages. An in­dex of Pre­rog­a­tive Court of Can­ter­bury (PCC) wills is freely avail­able on The Na­tional Ar­chives web­site, with down­loads of im­ages avail­able for a small fee. The in­dex and im­ages are also avail­able on The­Ge­neal­o­gist and Ances­try. The PCC was the high­est pro­bate court in Eng­land and Wales and any will could have been proved there, so the in­dex is well worth search­ing. Don’t just rely on com­mer­cial web­sites when look­ing for wills. Some county record of­fices have placed will in­dexes on­line and some also have a doc­u­ment copy­ing ser­vice for those who can­not travel to the record of­fice.

Wills proved be­fore 1858 in Wales have been digi­tised by the Na­tional Li­brary of Wales and can be searched at

Es­sex County Record Of­fice’s digi­tised wills are avail­able via (­ es­sexances­tors.aspx). You will also find in­dexes com­plied by so­ci­eties and in­di­vid­u­als.

Use The Na­tional Ar­chive’s guide to wills

at na­tion­ look­ing-for-per­son/will­be­fore1858.htm

to learn more about wills.

Mano­rial records

Few re­searchers in­ves­ti­gate mano­rial records but, sub­ject to sur­vival rates, th­ese can be a won­der­ful re­source. Court rolls are the most use­ful type of mano­rial record. Th­ese de­tail the pro­ceed­ings of the lo­cal ‘court baron’, which dealt with a wide range of mano­rial ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing de­tails of the trans­fer of copy­hold land.

Copy­hold land tra­di­tion­ally passed to the next of kin af­ter the death of who­ever held it. The court roll recorded the name of the per­son who had died, the land they held, the name of the heir, their re­la­tion­ship to the de­ceased and some­times (in the case of a child) their age.

If a suc­ces­sion of court rolls sur­vives for your an­ces­tor’s manor, you may be able to trace your fam­ily back in time through suc­ces­sive land trans­fers. In some cases, de­tails of the de­ceased’s will can also be found among the court rolls.

Up to the 1700s, mano­rial records can be hard to read – most are in Latin – but af­ter this date the ma­jor­ity are in English and many

are in­dexed by sur­name, so they are not so hard to use and well worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing once you have got to grips with the eas­ier sources in this ar­ti­cle. To learn more about mano­rial records go to lan­ mano­ri­al­records/in­dex.htm.

Al­though clos­ing a chap­ter on an an­ces­tor’s life may in­volve a bit of leg­work (and the pos­si­ble cost of order­ing some in­cor­rect death cer­tifi­cates), it’s cer­tainly worth do­ing. Not only will it give you an­other date for your fam­ily tree and a fresh per­spec­tive on your an­ces­tor’s life, but it may open up new doors in your re­search that lead to fur­ther dis­cov­er­ies.

Vic­to­rian fish­er­men re­cov­er­ing the vic­tim of a ship­wreck, 1897

School­girls at the fu­neral of a Folk­stone air-raid vic­tim, 1917

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