Dr Jonathan Oates shares his ex­pert tips for trac­ing fore­bears who lived and died in the cap­i­tal

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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 an­ces­ 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 find­my­ 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.

Miss­ing peo­ple

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.

Ceme­tery records

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 ( de­cease­ 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 buri­ 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.

Poor Law

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. 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 ( 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 (

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 ( on­line­gallery/on­li­neex/firemaps/ firein­sur­ancemaps.html).

Lon­doner list­ings

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 ( spe­cial­col­lec­ 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.

City liv­ing

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

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