10 tips for tracing East London ancestors

By Editor, 6 March 2014 - 1:34pm

Our March issue is packed with tips for finding East London ancestors, here's a taster of tips from editor Sarah Williams

Thursday 6 March 2014

Sarah Williams, editor
Read more blogs from the magazine team

When I first started in family history, I thought that all my mum’s side of the family came from Norfolk. It was just received wisdom. But, as anyone who has spent any time researching their family’s roots will know, family’s never came exclusively from one area. People moved around a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. So, it is with quiet confidence that I now state that, at some time in your research, you will come across an ancestor who hailed from London.
And when it comes to London, it’s the East End of London that seems to crop up in so many people’s family trees. The sheer number of people who lived cheek by jowl in this industrial melting pot means that tracing London ancestors from the East End comes with its own set of problems. 
Here are ten tips gleaned from my experience and the current issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. In fact, if you are tracing London kin (East End or otherwise) then don’t miss out bonus downloads that come with the magazine, including baptisms from Stepney and Wapping and Black’s Guide to London from 1920.
1) Don’t trust them! I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the integrity of East Enders but don’t trust everything you read in the records. I suppose, in a small community, the registrar or vicar may have known if a couple were getting their dates or names wrong, but in the vast anonymity of London mistakes, whether intentional or not, could happen.
2) Which parish were they in? One of the big problems with finding London ancestors used to be understanding which parish they were in. Some of the inner city parishes are tiny and people could move from parish to parish by just moving a couple of streets away. Now that so much material is digitized, it is easier to search across parishes, but if you aren’t sure if you’ve got the right John Smith, because he has moved to a parish you weren’t expecting, check to see if the parishes are actually very close to each other. You can do this by going to http://maps.familysearch.org and typing in the name of the parish you are interested in. Select the parish in the left-hand panel and then select ‘Options’ and ‘List contiguous parishes’ in the pop-up box.
3) Search parish registers online. As I said above, lots of London’s parish registers are now online. Check out baptisms and marriages on familysearch.org or visit Ancestry.co.uk where you can see thousands of actual register pages from the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Remember, neither of these sources is complete. Sometimes it’s as important to know what is not included as what is. Other websites worth checking are findmypast.co.uk and parishregister.com which specialises in East End records.
4) Get to know LondonLives.org. This website has so much wonderful, free material on it, but can easily be dismissed by people who do an initial keyword search and then don’t find an ancestor. There’s lots of material tucked away here including some great parish chest records from bastardy bonds to parish vestry minutes. Even if you don’t find any ancestors here you will learn a lot about the kinds of material available to researchers.
5) Did they die? Someone disappears from the records and you think they may have died but how can you be sure? Tracing a death is often harder than tracing a birth or marriage, for which you may know approximate dates. Some East End burial records can now be found at DeceasedOnline and there are also some London burial records on Ancestry.co.uk with their LMA collection and findmypast.co.uk has some as part of its National Burial Index. If you know which burial ground you think your ancestor might be interred in, then visit www.eolfhs.org.uk/area/burials/
6) Join the East of London Family History Society. For as little as £8 per year for an online membership you will receive a quarterly journal packed with research advice as well as access to the members area of the website eolfhs.org.uk and the opportunity to post requests for assistance on the member area of their popular message board. 
7) Search electoral registers. Those researching London ancestors are lucky because Ancestry.co.uk has digitised the electoral registers held at LMA covering 1832-1965. Poorer East End ancestors are unlikely to be found in this list before 1918 but this is a great resource for locating people after the 1911 census.
8) Explore rate books. Hackney Archives has a large collection of rate books that record the occupiers of properties. They aren’t indexed by name, but if you know where an ancestor was living, perhaps from the census, you may find them in the rate books and see how long they were living at a particular address.
9) Explore archives’ online catalogues. One of the tricky elements of searching for East End ancestors is knowing which archive to visit. Although the LMA is home to the most important London-wide collections, records relating to your ancestors might be at the Local History Library and Archives for Tower Hamlets or at Hackney Archives, or you might find records of them at more unusual archives such as St Barts Hospital archives at www.aim25.ac.uk. Most of these archives now have excellent online catalogues that you can search to find records that may be relevant to your research.
10) And of course, last but not least, buy the March 2014 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. It’s only on sale for a few more days and is packed with useful advice on tracking down the right archive and websites as well as including details on how to download free data and books worth £30 – including Stepney and Wapping baptisms.


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