England Orphan Trail Resources 1838-1957

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England Project | England Orphaned Profiles Team | England Orphan Trail Part One | England Orphan Trail Resources 1838-1957


England Orphan Trail Resources 1838-1957

Sources to use in this period

Only use the sources listed below for Births, Marriages and Deaths, and Census records.

Births, Marriages, and Deaths (BMDs)

Before 1837, events such as baptisms/christenings, marriages and burials were only entered into the parish register. On 1 July 1837, a law was passed that births, marriages, and deaths (BMDs) were to be recorded as part of Civil Registration and kept by the General Register Office of England and Wales (GRO). In the early years Civil Registration was patchy and it did not become compulsory until 1875.

BMD's were recorded in four quarters: Jan-Feb-Mar, Apr-May-Jun, Jul-Aug-Sept, and Oct-Nov-Dec (the name of each quarter is in bold type); thus a birth in July would be recorded in the September quarter. Cities, towns, and villages were grouped together in Registration Districts; thus South Pool, a village in Devon is the district of Kingsbridge even though it is several miles away.

This is an excellent site which lists all the registration districts and which cities/towns/villages they cover: Registration Districts Index

An entry in the GRO registration index may look like this: Kingsbridge [district], Volume 5b, Page 100, March quarter 1853.

The Registration Indexes are indexes to the certificates, which cannot be viewed directly by the public but can be ordered for a fee. The certificates give more information than is contained in the indexes, however the indexes can be viewed online for free by the public.

Online BMD sources

Only use the following sites for BMDs during 1838-1957

  • GRO Services: This is by far the BEST English resource site for looking up births/deaths for this era and is considered the Gold standard for birth and death sources for this time period. You will need to register and log in, but it is a free account and you will never receive any spam. The birth records are especially useful, as the mother's maiden name is given (which is great as you can check you have the correct birth entry if the mothers maiden name is known, and especially useful if a mother's last name at birth is unknown, as you can cross-reference all listed children to help determine the mother's maiden name).
  • FreeBMD: no need to log in or have an account; you can search for all events; no maiden names available until 1911; volunteer project with huge coverage, particularly useful for marriage sources as you can click on the page number to check for the correct spouse.
  • Find a will| GOV.UK: Did your profile person leave a will? This is the place to search for wills or probate records as it gives a date of death and last place of residence- you may get lucky! It is worth searching up to a couple of years after the death date, as the index has the records listed under the year of probate, rather than the year of death.
  • FreeReg parish registers Parish registers transcribed by the same volunteer group as FreeBMD and FreeCen. Free to use, no account required. The coverage can be patchy, but the transcriptions are accurate and are of the full entry for a baptism, marriage or burial, often verbatim as the vicar wrote it. Easy to use search page.


A census is a snapshot of the population of a country at a particular point in time. In England it is taken every 10 years, and in the censuses you will be looking at recorded each household, usually with each person's name, age, marital status, occupation, place of birth, and showed where the family lived. Other useful information was also recorded such as visitors or lodgers in the house, whether the family had servants, and who their neighbours were.
A census was taken in England and Wales every ten years starting in 1801, but the earliest one which is of any use to genealogists is 1841, as this is when names, ages and occupations were recorded of each individual.
The latest census in the public domain is the 1911 census as there is a 100 year closure rule. The 1921census is available by subscription, or for paying for a single copy, on Findmypast.
As the 1931 Census was destroyed by fire during the Second World War and no census was taken in 1941 because of WWII, the 1939 Register is invaluable to family historians and can be accessed on FindMyPast and Ancestry with a subscription. We don't expect you to use paysites while completing the Orphan Trail, but knowing about the 1939 Register can be useful for future reference.

  • National archives, census records This guide explains how to access the historical censuses from 1841 to 1911 and provides information on using the census returns.

Online census sources

  • FamilySearch.org: free; needs account (free also); has millions of records as well as censuses
  • FreeCEN: free; volunteer project; coverage patchy

Research with Rootsearch!

WikiTree has a really handy app called Rootsearch which can search over 20 different genealogy websites without having to keep inputting the same information. It can be invaluable when researching a profile and is very easy to use.

How do I know I have the correct record?

This is where it's really useful to use research notes. The best way to check you have the correct record is to compare the information in that record with other records you already have. Look at the occupations, ages, birthplaces, where they lived, other family members, mother's maiden name and so on. Remember there may be some variation in ages (year of birth), the spelling of names, and birthplaces. A great method for determining you have the correct record and especially useful for breaking down brick walls is the FAN club method (Friends, Associates and Neighbours) the term was coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills. You can read more about the FAN club method in the articles below:

Using Wildcards

A way to search for spelling variations is by using wildcards in your searches.
A wildcard is simply a symbol used to replace a character or characters (think of the blank tile in a game of Scrabble).

Typically the & or ? symbol represents a single letter and the asterisk * can be used to specify up to five characters in a word, which is particularly useful for finding variations of names where there may be one or more characters next to each other that could be different.

For example when searching for a surname such as McBride, using the * wildcard like so: M*Bride
would return both McBride and MacBride.

Another name which has multiple variants is Ann. Adding the * at the end like so: Ann*
would return Ann, Anne, Annie, Anna etc.

The question mark "?" is used to represent just one character in a word, which can be useful if you are getting too many results, or know that only one letter is likely to have changed (for example Sm?th would return Smith and Smyth).

Most databases are set up for searching using wildcards and they can also be used in search engines such as Google. Some have their own symbols to insert in a search - read the instructions on the search page first. If you are struggling to locate a record give wildcards a try!

How to add sources to a profile

There are two ways to add sources to a profile:

  1. List the sources at the bottom. This is the simplest method. If you are new to WikiTree, we encourage you to begin with this method.
Sources are added below the ===Sources=== heading, using an asterisk (*) to create a bulleted list item.
== Sources ==
<references />
* [insert source here]
  1. Use inline sources. This is a more advanced method. We encourage you to use this method once you become more familiar with WikiTree,
Sources are embedded in the text wrapped in <ref> ... </ref> tags. You can click on the "C" symbol in the profile editing toolbar to automatically generate the <ref> tags.
<ref>[Insert source here]</ref>

You can learn more about adding sources to profiles here.

For examples of how to cite some common types of English records, see England Orphan Trail: Citation templates.

Example Profiles

Follow this link to view a list of example profiles worked on by the England Project: Orphan Trail Example Profiles.

Trailers Index

An Index of the guidance pages used throughout the Trail can be found here: Trailers Index.
It also has useful links on it. Please bookmark it so you have easy reference to all the relevant guidance pages.

England Project | England Orphaned Profiles Team | England Orphan Trail Part One | England Orphan Trail Sandbox 1838-1957

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Comments: 9

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I notice that the references to the 1921 Census are out of date.

It is available now on FindMyPast, which can be consulted free in many public libraries and archive centres in the UK,

posted by Christopher Dickson
Regarding Find a Will, two questions: 1. Is there a guideline for citing the page that shows the listing of the will, i.e. the result of searching for the will you want? This seems like a good source for the death date which is in the description of the will, and I don't have another source for that yet. 2. I'm buying a copy of the will - can I add that to a profile as a source and/or biographical note?


John Hodgson

posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by John Hodgson
I have requested that Find A Will is added to https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Space:England_Orphan_Trail:_Citation_templates. See example citation at the bottom of the page. The record that you purchase is not permitted to be uploaded to a website. It may be referenced as a source.
posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by [Living Ford]
Many thanks, Leandra. I don't know how likely it is but do you also have any examples of profiles with wills or similar documents (if any) being referenced as a source?
posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by John Hodgson
Perfect, thanks again Leandra.
posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by John Hodgson
If supported, the links embedded on this page should be changed to open in a new tab/window. As a new student I found navigation back a bit messy, but the content is great. -Chris
posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by Chris Gorman
Right click on the link and select open in new tab.
posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by Traci Thiessen
Hi, a few suggested changes for this page:
  • FreeBMD does contain mother's maiden name for births from Sep 1911 quarter onwards. It also allows a search across both genders and for a much wider date range.
  • FreeBMD has births up to the 1980s whereas the GRO search is only up to 1918 (I guess it's a 100 year restriction).
  • Worth noting that GRO search results contain middle names where FreeBMD just has an initial.
  • Ancestry also have the 1939 Register.
  • The help link in the "A Word about Ancestry Sources" section is broken.


posted on England 1838-1957 (merged) by James Sutcliffe