What’s available online and in the archives
Tracing ancestors in the 18th century might not be as easy as the 19th century because there are no census returns or complete centralised national indexes. However, a little bit of sleuthing can go a long way. Here are some of the larger collections of records that can help structure your research into ancestors during the 1700s.
Prior to civil registration, we have to rely on registers of baptisms, marriages and burials to join up the dots between branches on our family tree. Unfortunately these records are not particularly detailed, and it was up to the presiding clergyman whether the names of both parents were given on a baptism register, whether occupations or addresses were recorded, and whether ages were noted on burial registers, so proceed with caution. On the plus side, many parish registers held in county record offices are now available to search online at FamilySearch. org and the other big genealogy websites.
Hardwicke’s Marriage Act stipulated that all marriages, regardless of religious denomination, legally had to take place in a licensed Anglican church from 1753, with the exception of Jewish and Quaker weddings. Nevertheless, initiations into one of the many nonconformist faiths may explain why you can find a marriage for your ancestor in the local parish church but no baptism. Increasing numbers of parishioners abandoned the Anglican flock during this period to follow dissenting ministers. TheGenealogist.co.uk and Ancestry.co.uk have scanned registers submitted to the GRO by Protestant nonconformist congregations, and some regional collections are on Findmypast.co.uk.
These are among the most informative sources for piecing together a picture of a family, since they usually mention the names and sometimes addresses and occupations of next of kin and extended family. If your ancestor wrote a will, the executor could take it to an ecclesiastical court to have it ‘proved’, and a copy may survive. Check the records of the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York, as well as local consistory courts, archdeaconry courts and peculiar courts to ensure a thorough search. If nothing is found using the probate indexes on the three principal genealogy websites, try searching indexes at the county record office local to where your ancestor died, and the Borthwick Institute in York.
Poor Law records
A surprising amount of information can be gleaned about less fortunate members of society who went cap in hand to the parish overseers, or, worse still, ended up in the workhouse. Unmarried women found to be pregnant were examined by parish officials to determine who the father was, and attempts were then made to have him sign a bastardy bond securing the child’s maintenance. These records, along with settlement examinations enquiring into a person’s origins, plus removal orders, apprenticeship indentures for pauper children, and rate books are all held in county record offices, though some regional collections are now online.
You can search many 18th- century parish registers online for free at FamilySearch.org