Professional Family History

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Starting Family History: Census records of England and Wales 1841-1911

This forms the third part of my beginner's guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death, Part 2 considered birth, marriage and death certificates in detail.

A census of the population has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, the most recent having been taken in 2011. The census records are used alongside birth, marriage and death certificates to create the family tree, providing information as to an ancestor’s birthplace, place of residence, an idea of the social conditions in which an ancestor lived and information regarding other family members.

The early censuses contain little information of interest to the family historian, as there was no requirement to record information specific to individuals. Whilst some questions were asked regarding the number of people employed in a particular trade and the age ranges of the household occupants, names of individuals were not, for the main part, recorded.

The 1841 census was the first census to record names of individuals and was also the first census to be administered by the (then recently created) General Register Office. It was not without problems. There were errors caused by householders not understanding what information to include and many young children were omitted. There was significant mistrust as to what the information was to be used for, specifically people feared additional taxation, and some gave false information.

For the 1851 census more information was made available in the period before the census concerning the correct completion of the schedules. However, more questions were asked than for the 1841 census so there were still errors and omissions caused by lack of understanding. In general terms the number of questions asked and level of information collected increased as the census continued. The information collected in the 1841-1901 censuses is summarised in Table 1 (click on on the table title link below for a larger version of the table). The 1911 census, the most recent census currently available to the public, reflected increasing concerns regarding the nation’s health and infant mortality. In addition to the type of information provided by the earlier censuses, the 1911 census also provides information as to the length of time a couple had been married, how many children they had had and how many were still alive.


The enumerator collected the schedules the morning after census night. If the schedule was incomplete he was supposed to ask additional questions and complete the missing information. There will have been occasions where the enumerator completed the information based on his own knowledge or assumptions and introduced his own errors. If the householder had been unable to complete the schedule e.g. for reasons of illiteracy or illness, the enumerator completed it on their behalf. The information recorded in these cases is therefore written how the enumerator thought a name or place should be spelt. When all the household returns had been collected they were copied by the enumerator into an enumerator schedule or summary book.

The original householder schedules for the 1841-1901 censuses have since been destroyed. All that is available are the pages of the enumerator books that contain copied entries of all the householder schedules in the enumeration district. It is likely that some transcription errors will have been introduced at this stage, some families missed and some even entered twice. The original household schedules are available for the 1911 census. The original enumerators’ books for the England and Wales 1841-1901 censuses and the original householders’ schedules for the 1911 census are held by The National Archives. These have been digitised and indexed and are available on websites such as freecen.rootsweb.com, www.ancestry.co.uk or www.findmypast.co.uk.  

It should be noted that the online indexes contain transcription errors resulting from the volunteer creating the index misreading the original image. In some cases this is due to the quality of the handwriting, in some the quality of the image used to produce the index. The censuses were not taken solely for the purposes of family history research; as the individual pages were categorised and processed a number of annotations were made and lines were crossed through the text. This can make some images very difficult to read. In other cases the errors may be attributed to the inexperience of the volunteers in reading the style of handwriting typical at the time of the particular census. If a family is not immediately found, it is usually possible to find them using a variety of “lateral thinking” methods as to how their name may have been misspelt on the transcription. Alternatively the census records for the address at which they were last known can be fruitful.

An important point to note when searching the 1841 census is the instructions regarding ages. Adult ages were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years (not all were) with exact ages being recorded for those under 15 years. A wider range of birth years should therefore be employed when searching the 1841 census than the later censuses.

The administration of the 1841-1911 censuses was organised by the registration districts and sub-districts defined for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Each sub-district was further broken down into enumeration districts. When the enumerators books had been completed they were organised into “pieces”. Whilst there were some subtle differences in how these were handled for the 1841 and 1911 census, for the 1851-1901 censuses, a piece is a bound volume containing a number of enumerator books. As each enumerator book will have contained the same page numbers e.g. 1-10, the bound volumes were then stamped on the right hand (recto) pages with an individual reference or “folio” number. One folio number refers to the numbered page and its reverse (versa). Each page of the enumerator book thus has a unique reference of the form:

RG9                                                               / 1206                 / 85
Call number (applied to the whole census)   / piece number    / folio number

The dates of the censuses and their associated call numbers are:



Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to info@professionalfamilyhistory.co.uk.



Sources & further reading

1.  M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
2.  J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
3.  P. Christian & D. Annal, Census: The Expert Guide, TNA, 2008
4.  E. Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited, Institute of Historical Research in
     association with TNA, 2005
5.  C. D. Rogers, The Family Tree Detective, 4th ed., Manchester University Press, 2008

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Starting Family History: Birth, marriage and death certificates

This forms Part 2 of my beginner's guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month's blog will consider census records.

On 1st July 1837 legislation took effect that ordered the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Certified copies of these entries from the registers form birth, marriage and death “certificates”.

When embarking on a journey into the history of your family the most fundamental building blocks from 1837 onwards are birth, marriage and death certificates. These provide evidence as to the places of birth, marriage and death of your ancestors but also provide a variety of information about where they lived, other family members and how they earned a livelihood.

The detail of the information contained in each type of certificate has changed over the years but is considered in general terms below:

Birth certificates
·     Date of birth
  -      If a time is provided this is usually an indication of a multiple birth.
·     Place of birth
  -      Before c.1880 it was common for just a village name to be entered. Later entries 
         tend to have more detail.
·     Forenames
  -      Some children were registered as simply “male” or “female”. This may have been 
         because the parents had not yet decided on a name, the baby was to be given up 
         for adoption or the baby died shortly after birth.
·     Sex
·     Father’s name
  -     Illegitimacy: Between 1837 and 1850 there was some confusion as to whether the 
        name of the father of an illegitimate child should be included and so sometimes it 
        was sometimes it was not. From 1851 to 1874 the father’s name and occupation 
        should not have been recorded if the child was illegitimate. Following the 
        Registration Act of 1875 and up to 1953 the father’s details could only be included if 
        both parents signed as informants.
·     Mother’s name including maiden surname
-      An entry such as “Mary Smith late Jones formerly Johnson” indicates that the 
       mother’s maiden name was Johnson and that she married a Mr Jones before Mr 
       Smith.
·     Father’s occupation
·     Signature, description and residence of the informant
·     Date of registration
-      Births were required to be registered within 42 days of the birth, thus a birth on the 
       2nd  December may not have been registered until January of the following year. 
      There are exceptions to this requiring authorisation of the Superintendent Registrar 
      or Registrar General.

Marriage certificates
·     Date of marriage
-      Note that there is no separate column for date of registration as marriages were 
       registered as they occurred.
·     Names of bride and groom
-      These are the names at the time of marriage and may not necessarily be the names 
       given at birth. Some certificates will include wording such as “otherwise known as” 
       but not all.
·     Age of bride and groom at date of marriage
-      In 1837 the legal ages of marriage were 12 years for a girl and 14 years for a boy,  
       with parental consent required for those under age 21 years.
-      From 1929 the legal age of marriage was changed to 16 years for either gender 
       with parental consent still required for those under age 21 years.
-      From 1969 the legal age of marriage remained 16 years for either gender but 
       parental consent was only required for those under age 18 years.
-      “Full age” indicates someone to be age 21 or over.
·     Marital status of bride and groom
·     Occupation of bride and groom
·     Residence at the time of marriage of bride and groom
·     Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom
·     Names of witnesses

Death certificates
·     Date and place of death
-      As with birth certificates the level of detail increased with time. Note that someone 
       could die some distance from home and that place of death does not indicate place 
       of residence.
·     Sex
·     Age
-      As this was provided by the informant it was not always accurate.
·     Occupation
-      For wives, widows and children the occupations was usually given as “wife / widow / 
       son / daughter of ….”
·     Cause of death
·     Name and surname of deceased
·     Informant’s details
-      From 1875 the informant’s details included the relationship to the deceased and their 
       qualification to be an informant, e.g. present at the death.
·     Date of registration
-      Deaths were generally required to be registered within 5 days, though longer periods 
       were allowed where a post-mortem and / or inquest was carried out.

Many believe that the internet sites provide access to images of the birth, marriage and death registers. Unfortunately this is not the case: What can be searched are the national or General Register Office (GRO) indexes of births, marriages and deaths for each year (see previous blog post). Once a GRO reference has been found a copy of the certificate may be ordered from the General Register Office via: http://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/ or phoning 0300 123 1837. Copies are available elsewhere but tend to be more expensive than the standard £9.25 per certificate charged by the GRO. An alternative source of information is to obtain the certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar.

Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to info@professionalfamilyhistory.co.uk.


Sources & further reading:
1.   M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
2.  B. Dixon, England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information, web based version (http://home.clara.net/dixons/Certificates/indexbd.htm)  
3.   J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
4.  C. Heritage, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records – A Guide for Family  
     Historians, Pen & Sword, 2013    

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Starting Family History: General Register Office (GRO) indexes of birth, marriage and death

As we have just entered 2014 I thought I would start the year with some beginner's guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looks at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month's blog will consider birth, marriage and death certificates.

Civil registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. The General Register Office (GRO) was set up in London and England and Wales was divided into just over 600 “registration districts” for ease of administration, each district under the supervision of a “Superintendent Registrar”.

Birth and death registers were completed at the time of registration by a local Registrar. Marriage registers were completed at the time of marriage by a clergyman (Church of England marriages), local Registrar (most nonconformist and all registry office marriages) or nonconformist minister (some nonconformist marriages after 1898). At the end of each quarter (March, June, September, December) the local Registrar (or clergyman) was required to copy out the births, marriages and deaths that had taken place in his sub-district during the preceding three months and send them to the district Superintendent Registrar. The Superintendent Registrar, in turn, forwarded the copies to the Registrar General.

Once the quarterly returns had been received by the GRO they were grouped according to locality and bound into “volumes”. Originally returns were ordered alphabetically by registration district within a volume but in 1852 the volume organisation was changed such that the districts were ordered by proximity to neighbouring registration districts. To form the “GRO index” the details of each birth, marriage and death from all 600+ districts were copied again noting the volume number and page number formed within the volume by that page of returns. After this process had been completed for all returns from all districts the individual entries were sorted into alphabetical order before being copied again to form the GRO indexes for that quarter. Until 1984 this process was repeated four times a year and a separate index exists for each quarter e.g. the index for March 1878 includes all the entries for Jan, Feb and Mar 1878. From 1984 onwards the GRO index was compiled annually. A GRO index reference thus consists of five parts: the individual's name, the year and quarter of registration (month from 1984 onwards), the registration district, the volume number and the page number. 

As is seen above, there were a number of copying stages involved in the creation of the GRO indexes and, inevitably, there were some transcription errors. Some names were misread on the register copies, some missed completely, some indexed under an incorrect district. All of these factors need to be considered when conducting a search of the index. Not finding e.g. a marriage in the GRO index does not mean that it did not occur.

The GRO indexes of births, marriages and deaths are the records that the family historian may search on websites such as www.freebmd.org.uk, www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk. Unfortunately the indexes do not include all of the information from the birth, marriage and death certificates. The only way to establish whether the correct reference has been found is usually to order the certificate. The information included in the GRO indexes up to 1984 is summarised below:


Birth indexes:
Sep 1837 - Dec 1865:
·    Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1867 – Jun 1910:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
Sep 1910 – Jun 1911:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
Sep 1911 – Dec 1965:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of mother’s maiden surname
Mar 1966 – Dec 1983:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, mother’s maiden surname


Marriage indexes:
Sep 1837 - Dec 1865:
·    Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1867 – Dec 1911:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1912 – Dec 1983:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of spouse surname


Death indexes:
Sep 1837 - Dec 1865:
·   Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of age of the deceased
Mar 1867 – Jun 1910:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, age of the deceased
Sep 1910 – Mar 1969:
·   Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, age of the deceased
Jun 1969 – Dec 1983:
·   Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, date of birth replaces age of the deceased

The most important dates to note are the inclusion of mother’s maiden surname on birth indexes from September 1911, the inclusion of spouse’s surname on marriage indexes from March 1912, the addition of age at death to the death indexes from March 1866 and the addition of date of birth to the death indexes from June 1969.


Sources & further reading:
1.     M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
2.     M. W. Foster, A Comedy of Errors or The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899, Michael W Foster, 1998
3.     M. W. Foster, A Comedy of Errors Act 2, Michael W Foster, 2002
4.     J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003

Monday, 30 December 2013

Reflections on 2013

Christmas wishes from Professional Family History


I do hope that you have all had a lovely Christmas break with your families. I have been lucky enough to have my family to us this year. Christmas is always a little bittersweet, celebrating with those that are here whilst thinking of those now absent. There is, however, little time for melancholy in our house with an incredibly excited six year-old counting down "How many sleeps?"   

As we approach the end of the year I always find myself reflecting upon the year just coming to an end. The last couple of months have contained some unpleasantness for Professional Family History as my last blog post detailed, partly due to my hoping to avoid unpleasantness for so long. However, there have been many more positives to counter the negatives.

In July of this year I was proud to be awarded the IHGS (Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies) Higher Certificate in Genealogy. There are a number of routes to this qualification but for me it followed three years of intensive learning and assignment writing with the constant support of my fabulous tutor +Les Mitchinson. I was immensely pleased to be given the added award of a Distinction especially when I discovered that myself and fellow genealogist, Julia Henderson, were only the third and fourth individuals to have ever achieved this.

November marked my third year of trading as Professional Family History. Over this time I have had some wonderful clients. Some have been with me since the beginning, some I have only met recently. We have had some frustrations during research this year but also some wonderful successes. 


It is not appropriate here to mention all the cases worked on this year but as a couple of examples: A report to one of my longest standing clients triggered a long-forgotten memory of a family story in her elderly mother, from many years ago, and this has confirmed the particular research area to target next. 

One of my favourite research moments was a "brick wall buster". I have a lovely client who came to me with many years research and a "hunch" as to where earlier ancestors originated. I'm sure we all have moments like this in our own research during our continued search for missing information: "I have possibilities A, B and C but I have a strong feeling it must be C". I am simplifying things here, there was some supporting information in favour of C but no EVIDENCE. As professionals we must counsel against such feelings and advocate thorough research to prove or disprove theories. My client and I have been on a journey looking at records for two parishes in Suffolk some distance apart. Towards the later part of the year I found the document confirming that the individual who had been living in parish B was born in parish A. There is more to consider but it was a wonderful breakthrough.

There have also been some interesting sources used this year. One I must mention as it is so often overlooked are the records of Freemen. One of my clients has ancestors who were admitted as Freemen to the Borough of Sudbury. Freeman records are often overlooked as “unlikely to contain my relative” but when they do they can provide a host of information.

In general terms there were four means of being admitted as a Freeman to a borough or guild: servitude, via apprenticeship, patrimony, by being the son of a freeman, redemptionby purchase, and honour, granted on an honorary basis.

An example of an entry in the admission registers is “…Samuel Godfrey of London Baker son of Thomas Godfrey late of the said Borough Butcher deceased is a freeman of the said Borough and Hath the right to vote for members to serve in Parliament for this Borough…. [07 March 1733]”. It is readily observed how the one entry provides information on family relationships, occupations and places of residence and, in this case, provides a date by which the father had died.

As I look forward to 2014 it is with some excitement. I have research planned over the first few months, some on continued cases, some with new clients. I also have a few professional "firsts" in the pipeline that I am very much looking forward to.

To close, I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope that 2014 brings you everything you wish for.


Monday, 18 November 2013

The Copycat Stalker


In the world of professional genealogy when someone talks about a "copyright issue" it usually refers to identification of copyright holders, for the supply of copies of original documents to clients or publishers, not our own copyrighted material.

However, I have recently been subjected to an issue of website plagiarism. We all look at the websites of other genealogists when starting up a business, gauging what we like and do not like and how to position ourselves in the market. I have found a few pages in the last few years where a paragraph or two has been lifted and reworded. This in itself was frustrating but not to a scale that I felt warranted any action on my part.

The issue I have had that has prompted me to write this piece was with a so-called fellow "professional" repeatedly taking ideas from my website and passing them off as their own. 

Sections of my website were lifted and reworded slightly on a regular basis over the last eighteen months or so. Paragraphs were not necessarily lifted intact but the ideas, page names, page content, my approach to research and the way I have laid out my background all featured on the "other" website. This happened on a regular basis. Each time I updated my website I would wait with baited breath to see changes on the "other" website within a couple of months. I had a copycat stalker!

To be honest, when it started I thought I was imagining it. It is only when I started looking for changes after I had updated my site that I realised it was a real issue. I also started noticing similarities in the social networking profiles of the website owner. My fairly recently created Google+ page was apparently used as the basis for my competitor's later page, right down to an almost identical background image, until I had a mini moan on Twitter about plagiarism. 

Things came to a head when last month changes were made such that a single page of mine had been almost exactly copied and a photograph I had taken was reproduced. The point that concerned me the most was this: with the level of similarity on the pages concerned, how would a potential client know that it was not me that was the copycat?

My professional reputation was now at risk and it was time to take action. Even so, I felt like I needed confirmation that it was not all in my head so asked some trusted fellow genealogists to take a look at both websites. All agreed the similarities were there. Fortunately I keep copies of old versions of my website and, with copies of both websites, had a trail with dates showing "who was first".

I'm fairly certain that I have not lost work over this per se but I have lost hours that I could have been working having to constantly check and collect copies of both webpages. I was so cross at the principle of it all. I spend a great deal of time writing my wording on my website, for example, my family tree packages have been honed over the years based on experience, and yet someone, clearly incapable of original thought, decided it was acceptable to come along, take what they like and pass it off as their own work.

Fortunately it has not been a long or drawn out process to effect change. The frustrating part for me is that I know that there is still material on the "other" website that is based on iterations of my own website, but for much of this the wording has been changed sufficiently that it would be difficult for an outside observer to detect the similarity. What is interesting is that there were areas of the "other" website that had no similarity to my own at all, offering different services. It does leave me wondering how much of the rest of the content was based on websites of others. I sincerely hope the individual concerned will think twice before behaving the same way again. 

Warning! This could happen to you too.

What saddens me is the more I have raised the issue on the social networking sites the more examples I have found of the same behaviour. 

One website owner has suffered so many times at the hands of copycats that he was able to send me a lengthy step by step action plan when I asked for the benefit of his experiences. Two other genealogists have detailed to me the exact same "copycat stalker" type behaviour and I was comforted to hear one of the two talk of paranoia and thinking they were imagining things until confirmed by others.

Many others have spoken of images being taken and used elsewhere, articles written and reproduced. The list goes on.  

What is particularly irritating about the copycat stalker is that the examples I have heard are all local competitors. This really makes no sense to me and I can only assume it happens due a lack of original thought on the part of the offenders. Of course we all look at our competitor websites but does it not make better business to sell ourselves as different to our competition, defining our "unique selling point" or USP?

In an environment where we all describe ourselves as "professionals" this kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable and gives the rest of us a bad name. I for one will be keeping an eye out for any new offences.

Do be warned. Watch carefully. You could be the next victim of the copycat stalker...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Killing off your ancestors

I recently blogged about Monumental Inscriptions as an underused source of information for genealogists. There are other intrinsically linked records relating to the deaths of our ancestors that are also often overlooked, even the death certificates themselves. Many of us conducting our own research leave death certificates as a luxury item to buy at a later date. Indeed if you search for a "professional" genealogist offering family tree "packages" many consider death certificates an add on item, not included as standard.

I have to say that I find this immensely frustrating. More than once I have solved a problem using the informant details on a death certificate. Personally I always include a death certificate where possible when compiling a client's family tree.


Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records
This is why I was so interested in +Celia Heritage's book, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records. Yesterday I had the opportunity for some "reading for pleasure" and I have to say I was so engrossed that I read the whole book from cover to cover in one day.

Celia's writing style is very easy to read. She talks about the major record groups but introduces examples from her own research to bring the records to life. Death certificates are covered in detail as are burial records, death duty records, coroner's inquests, newspapers, wills and other probate records and, of course, monumental inscriptions.


There many genealogy books on the market that take you through the various records, often separating beginners' records from more advanced research. There are two main differences in Celia's style to many of these works. Firstly the records are put into social context. What did this mean to the rest of the family? Did others in the village die from the same disease indicating an epidemic of some kind? 
Secondly there are many hints for good quality sound research. Not only will you learn about what you may find in different record sources that can add to the breadth of information you have for your ancestors; you will also learn why your ancestors may not be found, where record survival is patchy and what alternative searches to try.

The research techniques employed and advice presented relate to any genealogical research and are not limited to death records. Furthermore, in her fabulously detailed chapters on death certificates and burial records there is much to be learned that can be applied to birth and marriage certificates and parish registers in general. 


This is a book that provides essential reading for both the beginner to family history and the more experienced researcher who is, perhaps, looking for some alternative strategies to solve research problems. 


If you take one message, please reconsider the thought that death certificates are not required and kill off those ancestors.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

First Visit to The National Archives, London

This month I had the opportunity to make my first visit to +The National Archives UK. I have visited many local archives over the course of my own research and professional work but had not yet made a visit to Kew. 

I had actually become quite nervous about visiting. It is so much larger than any other archive I had visited. There are three different floors - how would I be able to find anything? I had heard tales of it being likely to take my half my day to obtained the treasured Reader's Ticket. As it turned out, I had a fabulous day, everything was very straightforward and the staff were exceedingly friendly. 


The entrance to The National Archives at Kew, London
Plan ahead...

The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone about to visit The National Archives (TNA) is to plan ahead.  There is plenty of advice on TNA's website if you spare a few moments to look around. Find out about the information you are searching for. Is there a Research Guide available for the type of research you are conducting? Are the documents available online? Are the documents on microfilm at TNA or will you have to order original documents?  Pharos Tutors run a course on using TNA's catalogue, that can be undertaken remotely: The National Archives Website and Catalogue - Finding People. I am sure there must be other courses available and there are also some Video Guides available on TNA's website.

Travel woes...

The National Archives is based in Kew, London close to the Kew Retail Park. A detailed map of the area may be found on The National Archives (TNA) website in the Where to Find Us section. It is readily accessible by train but I tend to avoid travelling through central London unless absolutely necessary so I drove. According to +Google Maps the journey from Suffolk should have taken me an hour and three quarters but traffic was heavy around Heathrow Airport that morning and it took me nearly three and a half hours to get there. It is fairly easy to find even though the sign for the last turn off into Bessant Drive is somewhat understated. The extended journey time meant I did not arrive until just after 10am but there were still plenty of spaces available in the (free) car park.

Arrival...

On arrival my route from the car park took me around the lovely lake area, complete with swans and fountains, up to the main entrance (shown above). The size of the building hit me as soon as I walked in through the main entrance but, even though there is a welcome desk, the way to the lockers where you need to leave most of your belongings is well-signposted.

Archives vary on their exact policy of what is allowed into document rooms and what is not from a conservation point of view. Mobile phones, laptops and cameras are allowed in, so long as they are in silent mode. Bags, coats and any food items must be left in lockers and pens are most definitely not allowed. The point on which I was caught out is that you are not allowed to take in pencils with an eraser at the top at TNA.

Remember your identification...

If you want to look at original documents you need to obtain a Reader's Ticket. When I arrived I was not sure whether I would be looking at microfilm or original documents. I decided my best strategy was to head straight for my Reader's Ticket "just in case". This was so much easier than I expected. The stairs and lift are both very close to the locker room and I went straight up to the second floor where a fairly small room was labelled "Reader Registration". On entering, I simply sat at an available computer and filled in my details. At this point you need to enter the type of identification you have brought with you so make sure you have read the guidelines and have brought the correct documentation. When I had entered my details there was short video to watch, around five minutes, describing correct document handling. I then joined a queue to have my Reader's Ticket issued where I presented my documentation and had my photograph taken. All in all I had my Reader's Ticket in my hand about thirty minutes after getting out of my car. I did visit during the week and I imagine a longer wait would be expected on a Saturday.

Start here...

My Reader's Ticket in hand I was advised to head to the first floor to the "Start Here" area. As I had printed out the details of the documents I wanted to consider I only needed to check that none were available on microfilm and find out how to order documents. Next to the "Start Here" desk are a number of computers each with an attached card reader. A simple swipe of my Reader's Ticket logged me in. Before ordering any documents I was required to book my seat in the Document Reading Room. If you have not been before or have no preference a seat is selected for you based on whether you will want to use a camera (by the window) or are with a group of associates (not the quiet area). I then proceeded to order my first three documents by reference. It is also possible to search for documents if you have not come with references in hand before ordering. You are allowed to order up to three documents at a time but, once they have been issued, can order more.


Waiting for documents...

My document took around twenty minutes to arrive once I had placed my order. There are screens in the Research and Enquiries room that purportedly tell you when documents are ready. I may not have waited long enough for the detail to scroll through but I never saw any names listed. I found the easiest way to find out if documents were ready was to log in again and check order status.

Finding your documents...

Once my documents were ready I headed to security for the Document Reading Room and used my Reader's Ticket to swipe entrance to the room. There I found rows of brightly coloured lockers, each labelled with the seat numbers allocated at the start of the ordering process. It was fairly simple to find documents and my seat and begin researching in earnest. The use of my camera to take photographs of documents was free. One document I ordered before my lunch was still not available on my return. A quick look at the order status showed it be an oversized item, available on the second floor in the Map and Large Document Reading room. Again, it was a straightforward process to access material upstairs.

Overall, my day at The National Archives was a wholly pleasant experience. The staff were very friendly and happy to answer questions. There were some waits for documents but there was so much published material in the Research and Enquiries Room that I found the time flew by.

There is also a lovely coffee shop in which to grab some lunch and of course the bookshop, which is always a personal weakness...