Find vi­tal records that aren’t avail­able on­line

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Break down your brick walls and add gen­er­a­tions Get FREE ex­pert ad­vice anda tips from ar­chiv­ists

The UK and Ire­land are home to more than 2,000 ar­chives where our an­ces­tors’ his­tory is pre­served in mostly pa­per form. If you’ve only ever dipped into on­line records, you’re miss­ing out on a mul­ti­tude of doc­u­ments that could greatly en­rich the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of your fore­bears’ lives.

The 1838 Pub­lic Record Of­fice Act en­sured the safe­guard­ing of key govern­ment and le­gal pa­pers. An­cient rolls kept at the Tower of Lon­don and West­min­ster Abbey were trans­ferred to a pur­pose-built Pub­lic Record Of­fice (PRO) on Lon­don’s Chancery Lane, and in 1977 a larger build­ing opened in Kew. The Na­tional Ar­chives (TNA), as it be­came known in 2003, is now the of­fi­cial repos­i­tory of records cre­ated by the UK cen­tral

govern­ment ( na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk).

Only about five per cent of govern­ment records are deemed wor­thy of per­ma­nent preser­va­tion, but many con­tain in­for­ma­tion on ‘or­di­nary’ in­di­vid­u­als in the armed forces, mer­chant navy, civil ser­vice, or who came to the at­ten­tion of the govern­ment for some other rea­son. Whether your an­ces­tor was a teacher, crim­i­nal or spy there may well be a record of them, and the guides at

na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-re­search ex­plain what’s on­line and what’s not. The es­ti­mated 80 mil­lion doc­u­ments that have been digi­tised are just a frac­tion of the to­tal records lin­ing 185km of shelv­ing.

The Bri­tish Li­brary was formed in 1973, and in ad­di­tion to col­lect­ing a copy of al­most ev­ery book, news­pa­per and map pub­lished in the UK, it ac­quired the In­dia Of­fice col­lec­tions and holds rare manuscripts ( bl.uk). The Na­tional Li­brary of Wales per­forms a sim­i­lar func­tion, preserving Welsh cul­tural her­itage, which ex­tends to fam­ily and es­tate pa­pers ( llgc.org.uk).

The king­dom of Scot­land main­tained its own ar­chive, though some ma­te­rial trans­ferred to Lon­don dur­ing times of war with Eng­land was con­se­quently lost. What sur­vives is now held at the Na­tional Records of Scot­land in Ed­in­burgh ( na­tion­al­record­sof­s­cot­land.gov.uk), com­ple­mented by ma­te­rial at the Na­tional Li­brary of Scot­land ( www.nls.uk).

The Na­tional Ar­chives of Ire­land sim­i­larly pre­serves records that sur­vived fire dam­age dur­ing the Civil War in 1922 ( na­tion­alarchives.ie). It houses pa­per­work of the mod­ern Ir­ish State and non-gov­ern­men­tal records cre­ated by solic­i­tors, es­tates and prom­i­nent in­di­vid­u­als. The Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land, also in Dublin, holds more es­tate pa­pers, maps, news­pa­pers and manuscripts ( www.

nli.ie). The Pub­lic Record Of­fice of North­ern Ire­land (PRONI) ( proni.gov.uk)k was es­tab­lished in 1923 but some older records were trans­ferred there from Dublin.

In Eng­land, Wales and Scot­land, records of lo­cal govern­ment, busi­nesses, es­tates and fam­i­lies are usu­ally de­posited in county ar­chives and smaller lo­cal stud­ies ar­chives. We’re also lucky to have ac­cess to spe­cial­ist in­sti­tu­tions, such as the Royal Col­lege of Physicians’ Ar­chives where WDYTYA? dis­cov­ered a let­ter from Charles Dar­win to Frank Gard­ner’s an­ces­tor ( rc­plon­don.ac.uk/ar­chives-and-li­brary). Here are 25 rea­sons why you should visit the ar­chives.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?

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