Advanced family history research
- Writing your own life story
- Talking to relatives
- Consulting family records
- Using civil registration records and indexes, including birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Comparing free and subscription family history websites
- Using census returns
- Tracking down baptisms, marriages and burials in parish registers
This guide to advanced family history will highlight the wide range of resources available online and in archives beyond the basic records above, such as:
- Wills and probate records
- Directories and voter lists
- Taxation records
- Travel and migration records
- Military records
In the final section we will also advise on researching family history themes such as tracing where people lived, occupations, religion, education and health. As with our intermediate research guide, a basic familiarity with computers and the internet will be necessary when using many of these sources. If you are a Tower Hamlets resident you can enrol on a beginner IT course through the Idea Store website.
After finding your ancestor’s death certificate or burial record, you might assume this to be their last appearance in the historic record. If they left a will however, you may be able to view their probate index entry online via Ancestry Library Edition or for free via the government’s Find A Will webpage.
These index entries are not the wills themselves, but short summaries which nonetheless contain useful details about the deceased, including:
- The value of their estate or personal effects
- Their death and probate dates
- Their residence when they died
- Sometimes their occupation
- Names of executors, who are often family members
You can order a digital copy of wills registered in the United Kingdom after 1858 via the Find A Will service. These contain much more information about your ancestors, including names of heirs and details about property they held.
Pre-1858 wills were proved in church courts. Originals were kept and registered in court books. The main courts which cover Tower Hamlets area were:
- The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (held at The National Archives)
- Bishop’s and Archdeacon’s courts under Diocese of London (held at London Metropolitan Archives)
Digitised images of these records are available on Ancestry Library Edition.
We hold a small number of copy wills in our archives. These are mostly manuscript or printed copies made for legal reference as part of deed collections or organisational foundation records. You can find these by searching terms such as “probate” “will”, “wills” or “will and testament” in our catalogue.
If your ancestor lived in an urban area they may have been listed in a trades or city directory. London directories had been published since 1677, but until the nineteenth century they were mostly lists of ‘gentlemen’ (men of higher social standing). In 1801 the first edition of the New Annual Directory, later known as the Post Office London Directory, was published. Its coverage included all of present-day Tower Hamlets. This first edition comprised solely of tradespeople listed alphabetically by name. Street and trade indexes were added in later editions which allow you to look up your ancestors by residence or occupation.
Some key dates to bear in mind when using Post Office London Directories include:
- 1801: The first New Annual Directory is published.
- 1837: Post Office London Directories begin to be published by Kelly & Company. From this date they are often referred to as Kelly’s Directories.
- 1838: The directories start listing churches for the first time.
- 1842: Alphabetical street indexes were first introduced with selective alphabetical lists of private residents and classified trades sections all in one volume. Working people who did not own their own business were not normally be included.
- ca. 1848: From around this date the directories were often produced in two or more volumes (street and commercial, trade and court, and suburban counties).Sometimes the occasional large volume would include them all.
- 1853: The adverts section was expanded after this date following the abolishment of a tax on advertisements. You can find illustrated adverts for local business from this period.
- ca. 1857: The street indexes include postal districts for the first time.
- 1958: Coverage extends to include the entire London postal area.
- 1959: Private residents are no longer included.
- 1980: Churches are no longer included.
- 1988: Shops and street intersections are omitted, but coverage extends to include everything within Greater London
- 1991: Kelly’s ceases publication.
We hold an extensive but incomplete collection of London directories from the early 1800s to the late 1980s in our reading room. They are arranged chronologically and can be browsed on our open shelves. Guildhall Library has a more complete run, copies of which we hold microfilm for the years 1667-1889.
We also hold small local directories for:
- Bow, Stratford and Mile End Road, 1866;
- Poplar, Limehouse and Stepney, 1866;
- Bow, Bromley and Old Ford, 1867; and
- Hackney (including part of Bethnal Green) 1872 and 1888.
You can now search many historic directories online, including through the University of Leicester’s Special Collections Online. Since 2010 Ancestry Library Edition has added London directories for 1677-1940 to its genealogical database, however its coverage is still patchy.
Another excellent source of information for family historians are voter lists, sometimes referred to as electoral registers or electoral rolls. They show where people lived. In theory, these should record any of your ancestors who were eligible to vote in United Kingdom elections, however it is worth remembering that before 1918 this excluded all women, and for most of the nineteenth century a property qualification excluded many working class men too.
For information on how to trace your ancestors using voter lists see our Electoral Register Guide.
Although not all your ancestors are likely to appear in a directory or voter list, almost all of them will have been liable to pay local taxes or rates at some point. For that reason, taxation records like land tax assessments, rate books, valuation lists and inland revenue lists are a useful resource for family historians. Many taxation records begin before the first modern census in 1841, and in addition to names and addresses they can often tell you if your ancestor was a homeowner or occupier, plus the rateable value of their home.
Few taxation records have been indexed or digitised so they are not as easy to navigate as census returns, but you can find out how to get the most out of these resources in our guide to Taxation Records for Family and Local History. A small selection of local rate books for our collection can also be viewed via our Archives online webpage.
If you have ancestors who arrived in the United Kingdom from overseas, or who were born in the United Kingdom but migrated elsewhere, you may be able to find them in ships’ passenger lists and migration records. We have few original records in our archives relating to travel and migration. These are usually administered at a national level by the Home Office, whose records are held by The National Archives.
You can search digital copies of key Home Office series via Ancestry Library Edition, including:
- Aliens Entry Books, 1794-1921
- Alien Arrivals, 1810-1811, 1826-1869
- Naturalisation Certificates and Declarations, 1870-1916
- Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960
- Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960
The information recorded in these varies but can include:
- Names of the travellers
- Their date and port of departure
- Their date and port of arrival
- Their proposed United Kingdom address
- Travel class
If your ancestors arrived in the United Kingdom before the mid-nineteenth century or after 1960 any surviving records may be more difficult to track down. For a more in-depth guide to researching migration the different communities who settled in Tower Hamlets see our guide to Migration and communities in the East End, as well as the National Archives’ How to Look For Immigration and Immigrants.
Historical maps provide an insight into how our ancestors’ lives would have been shaped by their environment. With the right map it is possible to trace how your ancestors would have got to work, who they lived near, and where they would have prayed, drank and purchased their groceries.
We hold a large collection of rare and unique maps in our local history library, many of which are now catalogued and can be browsed via our online catalogue. To find maps relevant to your family history research, select ‘Map’ in the type field in and enter any keywords and date ranges which you think will help narrow down your results (for example, ‘Limehouse’ ‘1850-1900’). To get a broader idea of the types of maps we hold and their uses, see our Maps research guide.
A small number of our maps have been digitised are made available online via Layers of London. A list of links to other digitised historic maps, including those produced by the Ordnance Survey, can be found on our Local historical maps webpage.
The United Kingdom’s colonial history and participation in two World Wars means that many researchers tracing their East End ancestry will encounter some connection to the military. The majority of pre-1920 military records are open to the public, however most later records are still held by the Ministry of Defence. Significantly, this includes all World War II service records, although certain information can be obtained with the permission of the deceased’s next of kin plus proof of your relationship to the person you are researching.
By contrast World War I service records are held at The National Archives, are relatively easy to obtain, and are the among the most informative and widely used military records for family historians. They are typically several pages long and their contents can vary greatly from soldier to soldier depending on their experiences during the War, but generally include:
- The soldier’s name and address
- Their exact age in years and months
- Civilian occupations
- A physical description, including height and chest measurement
- Next of kin
- Particulars as to marriage
- A chronological account of their service, including movements on the battlefield, transfers between units, promotions and demotions, admittances and discharges from hospital
Sadly, only around 40% of WW1 service records have survived, the other 60% were destroyed during the Blitz. The surviving records have been digitised and are available to view online through a number of websites including Ancestry Library Edition.
If you cannot find your ancestor's WWI service record but you are sure they served, their name should still appear on the WWI Medal Roll. The Medal Roll is effectively a list of almost every soldier who fought in the War because the vast majority who took part were awarded both the Victory Medal and either the 1914, 15 or 16 Star Medal. Even if they were killed on active service they received them posthumously. For every soldier on the Medal Roll, there exists a medal roll index card in their name which includes basic details including their name, rank, regiment, and theatre of war, and these can be accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.
Although the majority of family history resources relating to WWI were created by the War Office and are held by The National Archives, we hold a number of locally significant records such as the Poplar Military Service Tribunal Register (L/PMB/B/6/1), a digital version of which is available on our website.
Historic local newspapers are an excellent family history resource. Once you know your ancestors' names and where they lived you can used them to flesh out the details of their day-to-day lives. In them you can typically find:
- Birth, marriage and death announcements
- Advertisements for local businesses your ancestors may have owned
- Trials and coroners’ inquests
- Activities of local societies, like political or religious associations
- Musical and theatrical performances
- Sporting events
We hold historic copies of many local newspapers in our collections, mostly on microfilm but also bound newspapers and periodicals from the mid to late twentieth century, which can be consulted in our Reading Room.
On microfilm we hold the following titles:
- Bethnal Green Times: 1862-1869
- East End News: 1869-1963
- East London Advertiser: 1866-1995 (also bound and loose paper copies up to the present day)
- East London Observer: 1857-1944
- Eastern Argus: 1877-1912
- Eastern Post: 1868-1938
- Hackney Standard: 1877–1907
- Eastern Times: 1859–1864
- Eastern Times: 1859–1864
A full alphabetical list of our newspapers and periodicals with covering dates is also available on our website.
More local newspapers can be accessed via the British Library, who have digitised and made available online many historic titles through the British Newspaper Archive. The BNA is the most comprehensive searchable collection of British newspapers on the web, containing over 40 million pages dating from the 1700s onwards. Crucially, it allows users to search for their ancestors’ names across their entire database without having to check issues manually.
Some titles with strong Tower Hamlets connections available through the British Newspaper Archive include:
- East London Observer: 1857-1928, with plans to continue adding issues up to 1944)
- Jewish Chronicle: 1896
- Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser: 1866-1912, with no current plans to extend beyond this date
- Woman’s Dreadnought: 1914-1924
The BNA is a subscription website but can be accessed for free in all Tower Hamlets libraries and Idea Stores.
The further you get with your family history research, the more likely you are to find yourself needing to investigate sources beyond the frequently consulted record types outlined in this guide. While it would be impossible to list every potentially useful source, the list below suggests some useful starting points for a few common family history themes:
- Tracing where people lived – If you want to learn more about where your ancestors lived or are researching your own house history, see our guide to collections relating to the built environment, taxation records guide and title deeds user guide, plus London Metropolitan Archives' guide to The Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1709-1938. COLLAGE the London Picture Archive contains thousands of images of long-vanished streets so their database worth checking for photographs of your ancestors’ homes.
- Occupations – See section on directories in this guide plus our local government guide if you are tracing council staff or officials. Outside the council, you can find an excellent collection of summaries to the types of records available for researching different occupations on the Working Class Movement Library website. London Metropolitan Archives also have a number of useful research guides, including one for the City of London’s livery company members and apprentices. If your ancestors were mariners or worked on the River Thames you can find further information at the National Maritime Museum, Museum of London Docklands, and the British Library for East India Company employees.
- Religion – See our places of worship guide.
- Education – See our guide to education in Tower Hamlets if any of your ancestors went to school or studied in the borough.
- Crime and punishment - See The National Archives for records of the Chancery Division, London Metropolitan Archives for Middlsex Sessions, and Old Bailey Online for the proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913. Prison records are also held at The National Archives and London Metropolitan Archives.
- Care and health – See our health and welfare guide. The Workhouse website provides detailed histories of all known workhouses in the United Kingdom and is an essential resource for researching ancestors who became inmates through poverty, age or disability.
Links to further resources can be found on our useful websites page.
The following books are recommended for advanced family history researchers:
Denise Bates. Historical Research Using British Newspapers. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016.
Charles Masters. Essential Maps for Family Historians. Newbury: Countryside Books, 2009.
Gill Blanchard. Writing your Family History: a Guide for Family Historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014.
Jane Cox. Tracing Your East End Ancestors: a Guide for Family Historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2011.
Bruce Durie. Understanding Documents for Genealogy & Local History. Cheltenham: The History Press, 2013.
Simon Fowler. Tracing your First World War ancestors: a Guide for Family Historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013.
Jonathan Oates. London's East End: A Guide for Family and Local Historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018.
Stuart A. Raymond. The Wills of our Ancestors: a Guide for Family & Local Historians. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2012.