My ancestor was from London – where do I start?

I’ve concentrated mainly on Nicholas Delaney, Sarah Marshall and John Simpson in this blog so far. They are three of my earliest Australians, all convicts. And because convicts tend to be well-documented, they are easier to trace.

And I’ve been given some wise advice – don’t jump around your family tree, concentrate on one line. (Do you agree?)

But this time I’m going to take a leap onto a far-away branch and look at the background of the man who is the fourth convict I’ve found (so far). James Thomas Richards was a Thames waterman, transported for theft on the Royal Sovereign in 1835. That makes him a Londoner.

Or does it?

On Friday I went to the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) headquarters in Farringdon for a day of workshops dedicated to researching London ancestors.

Map of London

Tudor London (viaWikipedia)

The first thing they said was that looking for Londoners was far from easy. (Great, I thought, having come up against all the well-known brick walls there are for Irish research.)

But they gave us a lot of tips to make the task easier and, since there will be plenty of people with London ancestor, I thought I’d share some of these while they’re fresh. I won’t put everything down here or it would be a huge post and dull reading, but I hope there will be enough tips, pointers and links to make looking for your Londoner a little easier.

What is London?

Map of London in 1806

London in 1806 (via Wikipedia)

That’s the first question. The City of London, as seen in the Tudor map above? The bigger city, now taking in Westminster, in this 1806 map – made just as London’s huge and fast population explosion was beginning, leading to the old London County? (The green area to the left is Hyde Park, then jutting out into countryside, now in the middle of town.) Or modern Greater London?

In other words, what is now in London may not have been part of it when your ancestor lived. My James  Thomas Richards was from Deptford; central London, you’d think. No – in 1835 it was part of the county of Kent. You can just see it as a small jumble of dockyards in the bottom right of the map.

So first find a map and see where your ancestor was at the time they lived there. Some excellent online maps include Horwood’s of 1799, with fantastic detail, Greenwood’s of 1827, fairly detailed, and Charles Booth’s poverty maps. Warning – it’s very easy to spend a lot of time playing researching on these sites. And another warning – your ancestor may have come to London from another town or village, so their birth details may not be found in your London region searches.

Registers and indexes

Now you’ve found where your ancestor lived, you’ll be able to work out which parish they were in, which you will need if they were alive in or before 1837. Why that date? Because that is when modern Births, Marriages and Deaths registers began in England. You won’t find James Richards on Free BMD – he was in Australia before those records began. (You may need to use Phillimore’s Atlas to find the name of the ‘old’ parish, as this post explains.)

A cobbled slum street in a Deptford, London, C...

A Deptford street, circa 1900 (via Wikipedia)

Here are some places you can find BMDs and their older counterparts, baptisms, marraiges and burials. You’ll probably find that will crop up a lot in this post. This isn’t because I’m endorsing it, but because LMA have a partnership with them to digitise all their records.

Parish registers are online at Ancestry under this arrangement. You can also look at the International Genealogical Index (IGI) on Family Search, though not all parishes have been transcribed. I’ve heard it said that the transcription on FS is better than on Ancestry, but of course I couldn’t possibly comment. You could also look at the appropriate National Index of Parish Registers booklet, published by the Society of Genealogists.

Pallot’s Marriage Index and Boyd’s Marriage Index are just what they say and again don’t cover all of London, but if you’ve got a subscription to Ancestry (Pallot’s) or (Boyd’s) they’re worth looking at. FMP also has London Docklands baptisms, which is great for James Richards.

Kensal Green cemetery in London

Kensal Green cemetery (CCL)

As for burials, those conducted under the rites of the Church of England are on Ancestry. The City of London Burials Index (also on FMP) covers 1813 to the 1850s, but earlier dates are being added. In 1852 the old London burial grounds were closed and new, larger ones, the ‘Magnificent Seven’, including Highgate and Kensal Green, were opened.

Finally in our ancestor’s life cycle, the will, or rather the court that dealt with probate. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury covers relatively wealthy individuals living mainly in the south of England and most of Wales and can be seen at the National Archives and online. There were 10 probate courts in London, all indexed on Ancestry. The Court of the Peculiar of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster is separate, and can be found on FS and, recently, has an arrangement with FMP.

Huge numbers of London men were apprentices, like James Richards, or members of trade associations known as guilds or livery companies. The Guildhall Library holds their records at the moment, while the London Apprenticeship Abstracts are on

Old Bailey or Central Criminal Court

Old Bailey, C18th trial (via Wikipedia)

And then if you were like James and got caught committing a crime, there are the records of the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey). I found him in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, which are online and free (and another wonderful way to spend too much time), but these are not the original records, which are kept at the National Archives in Kew.

This is a long post, and I’ve only written about what I learned at LMA. I’ve checked most, but not all, online. I wanted to post while I could still see the workshops in my mind’s eye. And there’s so much more to add about researching Londoners, I’m sure.

Other places to go to for tips on finding your London ancestor include London Lives. GENUKI has an impressive list of London links, and Ron Lankshear has some more links on his page, which leads with the cheerful message: ‘London – a difficult place to research’. I think I can agree, Ron. But it’s also fascinating and fun.

If I’ve missed any important London resources please let me know – and if any of the information needs correcting, tell me that, too!

• Update, May 19th – since I wrote this post at the end of April, the best (in my view) site for detailed views of Horwood’s and Greenwood’s maps has become unavailable. The account at has been suspended. I’ve changed the links in the text to the next best I could find. There is also a huge list of links to old London maps online here.
• Ancestry or FMP for UK research? Peter Calver of LostCousins has a useful overview here, about half way down the page.

• BBC Television screened A Picture of  London on Saturday, May 26 2012 at 2115 (BBC2). The programme-makers say about it: “Architects and social engineers have strived to organise London, but painters, writers and many more have revelled in its labyrinthine unruliness.

“This is the story of a city that tried to impose order on its streets, but actually discovered time after time that its true character lay in an unplanned, chaotic nature.”

I  enjoyed it – catch it via iPlayer if you can. It was a historical and pictorial tour from the Tudor map above to the present skyscrapers and some imaginary future Londons too. The beauty, squalor, disasters and recoveries of the always-changing city were well illustrated through paintings, maps and photographs (though I’d have preferred to see more of these and fewer of the shots of 21st-century people rushing around, but that seems to be the fashion this year). The people of London, past and present, were there, too, and just as interesting to me.

August 18th update: Map lovers – here’s a fascinating post about using a C17th map (1658, by Wenceslaus Hollar) and Google Earth.

And (September 4th) a new book, London: A History in Maps has just been published by the British Library. If you’ve got £30 to spare…

Read about the wonderful Visscher Panorama of London in 1616

Plus (September 19th) a post about digital mapping of London with some useful links



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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24 Responses to My ancestor was from London – where do I start?

  1. Pingback: The Bloggers’ Geneameme – my answers | A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798

  2. Pingback: Two today! | A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798

  3. Pingback: Back to Blog – death and renewal | A Rebel Hand

  4. Pingback: Deep down in Deptford (and thumbs up for archives) | A Rebel Hand

  5. rebelhand says:

    Thanks for the reminder! I’ve found some great leads there, too.


  6. Joan says:

    Great post —just wish I had read it before I leaped into the abyss, would have made some of my twists and turns easier. Looking forward to more of your tips and posts.

    BTW, I have never been able to stick to just one line — or one project for that matter. I guess I just like to keep multiple balls in the air — it does keep it interesting.


    • rebelhand says:

      Hi, Joan, thanks for your kind comments. I’m just lucky because I had the opportunity to learn this at the beginning of my research into this line. I have a feeling there’s much, much more to learn…


      • Joan says:

        BTW, I have become a fan of RootsChat—what a bunch of dedicated genealogist and researchers — and they know their resources. It certainly makes it easier for this Oregonian to search English and London sources.


  7. Celia Lewis says:

    What a fabulous post – interesting, timely, detailed, with all the links as well. It’s clear you love doing the research (or is it playing?), and you’ve found some fascinating details. Thanks again, for such a great post.


    • rebelhand says:

      Thank you very much, Celia. I’ve added a few extra links as the genealogy blogging conversation takes off around the blogosphere.

      I do love doing the research. Perhaps I should have added – warning! It’s very addictive!


  8. rebelhand says:

    For map fans, The Family Recorder has just written about The National Archives Labs’ new tool which provides map-based resources for researchers Collections on a map.


  9. Shelley says:

    Excellent post, thanks! I’m sure I’ll be coming back to refer to this.


  10. Anne P. says:

    Apologies for duplicated posting – gremlins! 🙂


  11. Catherine says:

    Thanks so so much for providing all of these useful links.
    I would go “loopy” 🙂 investigating only one line at a time. When hitting those “brickwalls” or waiting what seems like endless weeks for BMD certificates to arrive in SOz, I find it useful to divert to another family line and keep the spark alive. Wouldn’t suit everybody though and it’s easy to be over-whelmed. Thannks again for the info. Cheers.


  12. Anne P. says:

    I would agree that the transcriptions are better on IGI than Ancestry, though not infallible – their process has every entry indexed by two people and then checked by a third – the one advantage Ancestry has is that they allow you to post corrections and give a reason why your version is the right one (as does FMP).
    I have found the Ancestry London parish records wonderful for pre-19th century and the fact that you can view the digital scan not only lets you check spelling, but sometimes provides additional information on address or occupation. And it means you can search page by page if you have a date but suspect the name may be mis-spelled.
    As for maps if you can afford the outlay I have found the ones from on CD really useful – John Roque’s 1746 10 miles round London, John Cary 1786 15 miles around London and Richard Horwood 1799 which is detailed right down to house numbers. The street names are indexed and I have the files loaded onto my laptop for quicker access. Fascinating to watch London swallowing up the surrounding villages and filling in the surrounding fields – quite scary really when you think how relatively recent it all is!


    • rebelhand says:

      Thanks for your comments about IGI and Ancestry – it’s great to have another, experienced view of them. I’m looking forward to getting hold of the parish records, though I think I’ll be looking in Kent after all. I was also told at LMA that it’s a good idea to get as much as you can from Ancestry post-1837 and only pay for a certificate if you need to (every little £9.50 helps). Thanks also for the additional information about maps. I love Horwood’s and spent far too much time ‘researching’ with it before posting – the detail is breathtaking, isn’t it?

      As for the huge expansion of London, it’s so fast and so all-consuming it really is scary. Of course now Londoners think of themselves as living in ‘villages’ in London (eg “I’m from Pimlico”, or even from as small an area as eg Notting Hill). The huge sprawl seems to be just too big. I expect the day will come when London means everything inside the M25…


  13. Anne P. says:

    I’d certainly agree that IGI transcriptions tend to be higher quality than some of Ancestry’s (records are indexed by two different people and then checked by a third), but the one advantage of Ancestry is that if you do find an error you can post a correction and the reason why you think your version is the right one.
    For London and especially for pre-19th century I have found the Ancestry parish records a wonderful resource – being able to see the originals of the parish records will also sometimes give you an address or an occupation as well.
    If you are going to need London historical maps often enough to make the outlay worthwhile the 1746 John Roque map 10 miles around London, 1786 John Cary 15 miles around, and Richard Horwood’s 1799 map are all available from on CD and I loaded them onto my laptop so as to have them readily available. Fascinating to watch the capital swallowing up the surrounding villages.


  14. I enjoyed this post. I agree research is more productive when you remain on one line, but sometimes, you have to switch between lines!


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