HOW TO DISCOVER YOUR LONDON FAMILY
Dr Jonathan Oates shares his expert tips for tracing forebears who lived and died in the capital
London dominates England, indeed the United Kingdom, because of its great size, wealth and population. Because of this, newcomers who find that their ancestors spent time in the city might be dismayed. It is estimated that the capital’s population was about 200,000 in 1600 and, despite fire and plague, 400,000 in 1700. By the time of the 1841 census it was almost two million, which had doubled again by the end of the century, reaching nearly nine million in the late 1930s. The population fell only to rise again in the late 20th century as a result of mass immigration. All this time, the city expanded in all directions from the Medieval heartland of Westminster and the City of London on the north side of the Thames. In 1889 the administrative district known as the London County Council was formed, spilling over to the south of the river to include parts of what had been Surrey and Kent. In the later 20th century the adjoining county of Middlesex was abolished and absorbed into Greater London, which existed from 1965. The same went for parts of Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey.
Perhaps it is best to consider that London is a collection of villages which have grown and merged together. These changes were often bewildering to contemporaries as well as to researchers. This has resulted in the raw materials for genealogical research for London being scattered. The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), essentially the county record office for Greater London, was in
existence as an archive collecting and cataloguing organisation (albeit differently named) before most of London’s boroughs were doing so. Therefore the majority of London parish registers and other records were transferred from the parishes to the LMA. The good news for family historians is that many of the parish registers held at LMA have been digitised by ancestry.co.uk and so are available via that website for subscribers, or freely available at libraries or archives that offer Ancestry Library Edition.
Not all London parish records are held at LMA though. For instance, Ealing was once part of Middlesex, but it became part of Greater London in 1965 and the bulk of its parish records are with the LMA. But not all: some of the records of what is termed the ‘civil parish’, such as rate books (but only those from 1678-1835) and vestry minutes are with Ealing’s repository. For those counties which possessed county record offices, such as Surrey, the archives for parishes which are now part of greater London will be held by that record office not the LMA. Many parish registers for Westminster have now been digitised and are available to findmypast.co.uk subscribers.
This may sound complex, but you can get around the issue by checking the appropriate record office’s website (those of county record offices are easily searchable at collection and item level; those of the boroughs are variable) or by contacting the repository in question.
Another problem common to large cities is that individuals can easily become anonymous – sometimes purposefully so. A significant number of people go unrecorded by the censuses and do not register births and marriages with either civil or ecclesiastical authorities. Generally poorer people were more likely to go unrecorded unless they sought assistance from the Poor Law authorities in the 19th and early 20th centuries or fell into crime and
London is a collection of villages which have grown and merged together
were arrested. Some will not appear on the electoral registers if they were immigrants or arrived during the world wars.
There are a number of ways to try and solve mysteries of this type. One is to ascertain if there are alternative spellings of names and try all these variants. A married woman separated from her husband may revert to her maiden name or may not. An immigrant might anglicise his name so as to seem less foreign and by reading up generally on the relevant community there may be clues there. Registering deaths is a must, however, as corpses must be buried and so it may be possible to work backwards using the address and other details on the death certificate. It is also worth tracing other family members, who may have been less anonymous as perhaps he or she lived with them under an assumed name. Did they have any children? If so, and if they are still alive you could try contacting them, but do take care. Blanks and dead ends will occur, but it may be a case of searching again in a year or so when more material is available.
Death and burials
Death exercised the minds and actions of our Victorian ancestors greatly. Until relatively recently, everyone had to be buried in the consecrated ground of a parish churchyard or burial vault under the church. Yet in the early 19th century, London’s population was rising rapidly and so was the death rate. Churchyards in inner London were becoming overcrowded and extensions were difficult due to the increases in construction. Public health fears were based on the fact that typhus and cholera were killing thousands and the parishes had to take action. Land was purchased, often in outer London which was
still relatively rural and where land was cheaper, and cemeteries sprang up. Some religious denominations, such as nonconformists and Jews, had their own cemeteries and some cemeteries were run by private enterprise. Churchyards in outer London had fewer burials as the 19th century wore on, too, yet bodies were buried in some in the mid-20th century, especially if their ancestors had been buried in family plots there. By this time, crematoria were increasingly popular.
As always, records for cemeteries are scattered, although many are now being digitised. Ancestry has recently added the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Registers, 18411966, to its website; cemetery subscription website Deceased Online ( deceasedonline.com) has digitised records for Highgate, Brompton, Kensal Green and Nunhead cemeteries as well as records from a number of London councils including Brent, Islington and Southwark; Wandsworth Council has digitised its cemetery and crematorium (Putney Vale) records that can be accessed from burials.wandsworth.gov.uk for a fee of £12. Burial registers for Westminster Cemetery are on Findmypast and its Greater London Burial Index can also be a useful tool.
If you can’t find an ancestor’s burial records online, then check the relevant record office although the records are often still held by that borough’s cemeteries’ department which may or may not allow them to be inspected and might charge a fee. There should also be plans for where graves are located in the cemeteries, which are laid out in rows with a code of a letter and a number. Remember that not everyone buried there will have a grave; generally the poorer the individual in life the less likely there will be a physical memorial. The wealthy Florence Nightingale Shore buried in Westminster Cemetery in 1920 is marked on a tomb, but in Acton Cemetery the former rubbish collector Percy Rush lies under the earth unmarked.
This brings us to the question of the poor. Being impoverished was not a permanent state as many drifted in and out of work, but would need assistance from the state at local level when they fell on hard times. From the 16th century to 1834, paupers were assisted at the parish level – the lowest rung of local government. This was the Old Poor Law which stated that a pauper be relieved by their own parish or ‘settlement’. The key records are disbursement books, settlement certificates, removal orders and county quarter sessions (the next tier of local government which could arbitrate between the parishes in case of disputes) records. Disbursement books often list the amount given to a pauper, often in kind rather than in cash. These may be one-off payments, for medical bills or to tide a workman over a period of illness, or may be regular sums given to the elderly or disabled. Settlement certificates were given to someone working in another parish, which was not his/her place of birth/ marriage (known as their place of settlement), stating that his place of settlement would take him back if he fell on hard times, and would provide brief biographical details. Removal orders concern the sending of the pauper back to their parish of origin. Parish vestry minute books also deal with the poor, often mentioning individuals, payments and reasons why they be paid or stopped. Finally, if two parishes clashed over who should foot the bill, the matter would be decided in the county quarter sessions, detailing the individual/s concerned. Most of these items are to be found in county
Churchyards in outer London had fewer burials as the century wore on
record offices among parish archives, but in the case of the former county of Middlesex, some parish archives are held in the borough repositories.
From 1834 to 1930, the New Poor Law transferred responsibility to Boards of Guardians who ran Poor Law unions; a group of adjoining parishes who clubbed together to raise money for the upkeep of the poor and then disbursed it. This chiefly took the form of building workhouses where the poor would be housed, though the older form of outdoor relief often still occurred. Poor Law unions created many records and for our purposes the most important are the registers of inmates (often divided by type of inmates). These give name, age, date of entry and discharge, creed, parish of origin and sometimes extra details. These are held at the county record offices, although those held at LMA have been largely digitised and are available on Ancestry. Most have not yet been indexed so you may need to browse by parish to find your family. Poor Law records for Westminster can be viewed on Findmypast.
London maps can be found online at many online sites. Some maps can
be found on the websites of borough and county record offices. The East London History website ( mernick.
org.uk/elhs) includes a number of maps of the East End from 1703-2002. These show the streets in which your ancestors lived and what was nearby – many of these streets and features may no longer exist. The Charles Booth Poverty maps ( www.booth.lse.ac.uk/map) of inner London streets from the late 19th century indicate which streets were resided in by the wealthy (shown in gold), by the poor (shown in black) and those in between these two extremes, in various shades of red and blue. The National Library of Scotland has digitised the Ordnance Survey five-feet-to-the-mile maps of London from the 1890s ( maps.nls.uk/os/
London-1890s) and these are free to view, giving detail at building level. Even more detail about buildings and their use can be gained from the late 19th century fire insurance maps for the City of London available via the British Library’s website ( bl.uk/ onlinegallery/onlineex/firemaps/ fireinsurancemaps.html).
Look for listings of Londoners, other than in census returns from 1841-1911 (bear in mind there are earlier censuses for some parishes which list names – ones for Ealing exist for 1599, 1801 and 1811, for example). There are directories and electoral registers, too. As noted elsewhere some of these latter are available online via Ancestry, but by no means all. For others, county and local repositories have them for their jurisdiction, and some are held at The National Archives (TNA) and the Guildhall Library. London telephone directories, many available on Ancestry, exist from 1880 onwards, but only a minority of households were connected until well after the Second World War. These annual alphabetical listings will let you know when an individual was listed at an address. The whole of London was initially covered by one directory, but by the 1950s directories were produced for different parts of London as more and more people were connected.
Other directories exist for London from 1638-1990, listing businesses and householders. Initially these covered
the whole of London or of each county, sub-divided by parish. They listed prominent residents and traders only. By the later 19th century, these were produced for many of London’s districts and boroughs as well, with the more middle class districts such as Bromley or Uxbridge being covered. Working class areas such as Deptford or Whitechapel did not have any directories (names may appear in the general London directories especially if in business). These did list most householders by street and by surname and were produced annually. Some ceased in 1939, but others carried on until the 1970s. They are an excellent way of tracing individuals’ movements. The Historical Directories of England and Wales website ( specialcollections.le.ac.uk/ cdm/landingpage/collection/ p16445coll4) holds some free examples and the main subscription sites also offer some London directories, otherwise a trip to the appropriate county or borough repository will be necessary. Finally, there are listings of those eligible to vote; known as poll books from the early 18th century up to the mid 19th century and electoral registers thereafter. The former were published only on election years and give a listing by parish and stating which candidates they voted for. They only include a small percentage of adult male householders (mostly the propertied). However, by the end of the 19th century, electoral registers were produced annually except during wartime and include more householders (women included by 1884), giving addresses and, after 1918, non-householders. The information is usually organised by address not name. Those held at LMA are searchable on Ancestry but others can be found via Findmypast or at the appropriate borough repository. London is made up of many different racial and religious communities and has been so for centuries, though more so after 1945. Many of these have formed associations, both secular and religious, to preserve their identities and to act as self-help bodies. Welsh, Irish and Scottish people have formed clubs and their own churches in those parts of London where their presence has been strong. Irish and Polish immigrants frequently attend Catholic churches and schools; both types of organisations producing archives. Huguenots (Protestant French refugees of the 17th century) and Jews in the 19th century East End have been prominent and established their own churches and synagogues. Many of these institutions kept records, which list names of members. These are variously held at local and county record offices, and in some cases at the institutions themselves.
Many traders operating in the City of London from the Middle Ages to date have been members of the appropriate guild (mercers, glaziers, leather sellers and so on), of which there are over 100. In order to trade, a man had to become a liveryman of one of these guilds. Membership could be gained by apprenticeship or patrimony. Most of the records for guild entry are to be found at the LMA, though a few of the livery companies have retained theirs. Some of the records are available on Ancestry.
London has always held a magnetic pull for potential newcomers. In the 18th century deaths always exceeded births yet population constantly grew due to the level of internal immigration into the capital. The opportunities were many (as were the pitfalls). Most came in search of a better life, especially where employment opportunities were concerned, but also because they knew people, whether friends, family or fellow nationals, who were already established there. London provided markets and workforces for the entrepreneur. For the potential employee there was a great concentration of employers and headquarters of private and public sector bodies. For students the number of colleges and universities were vast. There were countless opportunities for pleasure and leisure, too. As Dr Johnson famously wrote: “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”
Danny Dyer’s kin can be found in a burial record on Ancestry Inmates at work at Pentonville Prison, c1870
People queueing for admission to Marylebone Workhouse, c1901 Able-bodied paupers were often made to sweep the streets A page from the LMA’s workhouse collection, now on Ancestry, showing Barbara Windsor’s ancestor, John Deeks, being discharged from the...
Goulston Street in London’s East End on a Sunday morning in 1901 A basket seller carrying his wares along the street in 1804