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.
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 freebmd.org.uk.
Once you have found the entry that you believe refers to your ancestor, make a note of the necessary details and order the certificate from gro.gov.uk/gro/content/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 britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
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’.
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 ( ffhs.org.uk). 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 at
gov.uk/search-will-probate 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
( bit.ly/1GI5Ga9) 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 llgc.org.uk.
Essex County Record Office’s digitised wills are available via ( seax.essexcc.gov.uk/ essexancestors.aspx). You will also find indexes complied by societies and individuals.
Use The National Archive’s guide to wills
at nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/ looking-for-person/willbefore1858.htm
to learn more about wills.
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 lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/ 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