What’s available online and in the archives
There were 250,000 farms in England and Wales in the 19th century, yet only a small number of records survive. Search with the name of the farm on discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk or try catalogue.nrscotland.gov.uk/scancatalogue for Scotland. The specialist collection in England is the Museum of English Rural Life ( MERL) in Reading ( reading.ac.uk/merl), but local record offices may also have some farm records.
First published at the end of the 18th century, county directories flourished from the mid-19th century onwards. Local studies libraries and record offices have directories for their area. The Guildhall Library, London has the nation’s biggest collection. The University of Leicester has digitised many directories of England and Wales specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/landingpage /collection/p16445coll4 and a similar collection
for Scotland is at digital.nls.uk/directories.
Poor law records
Local poor law records may mention rural ancestors who hit hard times. Local record offices hold many records of the Boards of Guardians (post 1834) and parish vestry records (pre 1834). Search discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk to see what survives for the area you are interested in. Subscription sites Ancestry and Findmypast are starting to digitise records held at some archives.
Quarter and petty sessions
Records of the county sessions are mostly in county record offices. Some offices have digitised their collections too in association with Ancestry and Findmypast and local newspapers (britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk) often reported on cases.
People who lived or worked on landed estates may feature in rentals, surveys, accounts, and correspondence. Directories reveal who owned the land in the parish and a search on discovery.
nationalarchives.gov.uk will show whether any records for that estate survive. A useful guide for tracing Scottish estate records can be found at nrscotland.gov.uk/ research/ guides/ estate-records.
From the 1870s onwards agricultural trade unions started to grow, but few documents survive. There is a big archive for the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, which traces its origins to 1908, at MERL. They can be useful for tracing an ancestor who was a union official, but there are no general membership records. The same is true of the agricultural section of the Transport and General Workers Union, the records of which are at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick ( www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc). The National Farmers’ Union was founded in 1908, and a good collection of archives for the first 40 years or so is at MERL. Records are mainly administrative, so members who were on committees feature most.
Maps and plans
Maps can show where our rural ancestors lived – if we’re lucky right down to the exact cottage! Enclosure maps, tithe maps and estate maps are among common types to be found. The collections in the British Library and The National Archives are large, but local record offices are often a good starting place. Online sources include Old Maps ( old-maps.co.uk) and Old Maps Online ( oldmapsonline.org), while some record offices have digitised map collections.
Explore directories using the Special Collections Online page at the University of Leicester
Search union records at the University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre