Hands-on in the archives


Having exhausted the Internet indexes and records, we must turn our attention to other sources of data on our ancestors. Using my local County Record Office; Cambridgeshire Archives as an example I’d like to highlight records that may help you tell the wider story of your family tree. The records your local archives hold may never appear on the Internet, or if they do they may be charged for, so visiting your local archives could hold the key to accessing these. Your local archives are a hidden gem in your community, one that tends to be forgotten in the rush to gather information on our ancestors from the Internet. Don’t overlook this important resource, you’ll find a visit exciting, enlightening and eye opening!


Visiting your archives

Before you visit, your first step is to identify the archive that is suitable for your family history research. Which part of the country and which county are the ancestors you are interested in located? Accessing the County Record Office is your best choice. Visit The National Archives (TNA) website and access the ARCHON Directory. This lists record offices across the UK that hold a substantial collection of records suitable for our family history research.

Contact the archive you have identified first, via their website or by telephone to confirm their opening times, the types of records you’d like to access, equipment you may wish to reserve to access these records and any information you need to bring with you. Many will ask for some form of identification, particularly if you haven’t visited before. Having seen this they will issue you with a card or pass, which can be used on subsequent occasions to identify you.

Cambridgeshire Archives, at Shire Hall in Cambridge preserves and promotes the use of historical records from the old county of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Huntingdonshire Archives, in Huntingdon holds historic records for the old county of Huntingdonshire. A little historical knowledge of past counties and boundaries can help you find the right office and save a wasted journey. Cambridgeshire Archives, like County Archives across the UK holds records of local government, churches, schools, trade, agriculture, charities, families, manors, estates, local historians, courts, hospitals and much more. These historical records have helped me numerous times to discover my ancestors stories, and revealed further information for clients on their ancestors. All of this information is laid out for you, in original form giving you a direct connection with records made at the time your ancestor lived in the community. And best of all access is free. This connection doesn’t quite work via the Internet I find; you can’t touch, feel and smell the history!


Parish Baptism

On visiting Cambridgeshire Archives this year I accessed a number of records to help reveal the wealth of information available. My search started before I arrived at the archives, with a search of their catalogue CALM . This enabled me to assess the type of record available, in the time frame I was looking for. I was then able, by email to contact the archive to confirm the particular records I was interested in and reserve a seat.

Arriving at Cambridgeshire Archives I signed in, showing my County Archive Research Network Card (CARN). I put my coat and bags in a locker, retaining some note paper, a pencil (no pens allowed) and my laptop. The County Archive Research Network Card is accepted at a number of County Record Offices. For Cambridgeshire Archives you can obtain this for free on a visit to Cambridgeshire or Huntingdonshire Archives. Provide identification with your name and address, which can be a driving licence, gas or electricity bill or a Cambridgeshire Library card. The card is then valid for 4 years.

Having recently discovered an ancestor from Cambridgeshire, I was keen to track down their baptism in the indexes. These aren’t online yet with either subscription or free to access websites so a visit to the archive itself was necessary. I had located the marriage of Mary Hart to George Parker in Ely Trinity, September 1847. Through the census I was able to confirm Mary’s stated age, and that she was born in Prickwillow, a small, linear settlement in the Fens, 4 miles east of Ely. So this became my starting point. An almost complete set of Parish Registers is deposited at Shire Hall. A number of indexes, produced by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society are available at the archives, so I started with those for Ely Trinity. Finding no sign of a baptism for my Mary Hart in the Ely Trinity registers I turned my attention to Ely St Mary, and then to non conformist registers. Tip: a brick wall isn’t a brick wall until you have exhausted every record available. Mary appears (as Heart) in the Wesleyan Chapel Indexes for 1827:

Heart, Mary, 5m[onths], Prickwillow, Ely Trin[ity]. d[aughter of] Thomas & Harriot, Ely, Wesleyan C[hapel].

It is interesting to consider that if Ely Trinity registers had been online, I may have been tempted to have given up the research here, looking for records in adjoining parishes, or assuming the baptism didn’t exist. Only through accessing all indexes, for all parishes in Ely plus the non conformist indexes (covering Prickwillow), was I able to confirm Mary’s baptism.



The legal right to live in a parish and receive poor relief was closely guarded by our ancestors and the parish officials. Starting with the Settlement Act of 1662, overseers of the poor could remove strangers to their rightful parish of settlement, if they were out of work and did not rent property worth £10 or more per annum. Removal orders were obtained from the Justices of the Peace, who had first examined the person concerned. A settlement certificate was required to be carried by migrant workers, proving their native parish would take them back if they became unemployed. The act of 1662 was updated in 1697, 1795 and 1834 only being repealed in 1948 (although it hadn’t been used for tens of years before this).

These settlement records survive in the Parish Records, and are indexed by Parish and name in the Cambridgeshire Archives indexes. It is certainly worth searching these for the county your ancestor lived in, and if you have time, search for any settlement examinations and removal orders for the adjoining counties. I noted the reference number in the index which leads the archivist to the collection of documents. Completing a paper slip, I ordered the item and waited for it to be delivered to me. Check the system in use at the archives you visit by speaking with the reception desk.

In the records for Ely Trinity, John Woodcock, wife and family have a settlement certificate dated 12 August 1699. Signed by the overseers of the poor and two church wardens, one named gloriously as ‘Cornelius Gay’.



Now I’m sure, like me, you have a couple of birth certificates or baptism entries with the name of the father missing. There are various tips and techniques for tracing the father including the use of the real fathers surname as the child’s middle name. Last year I contacted an archive (not Cambridgeshire I hasten to add) to identify the range of bastardy records they held. The ‘helpful’ person on the other end of the telephone suggested it wasn’t worth following this lead as no one had ever found any evidence of a father. Luckily I ignored this advice, sticking to my rule of ‘not gaining a brick wall until I had exhausted all the appropriate records’ and persevered. I visited the archive and found the evidence I needed of the real father for my client in the Bastardy Bond records.

The idea of a father providing maintenance for their illegitimate children dates back to an act of 1576. By 1732 the parish was pursuing the mother to name the father, so they could agree a maintenance payment through the issuing of a bastardy bond.

These bonds (with affiliation orders and examinations) are recorded and held at the County Record Office. Cambridgeshire Archives holds an index for these, with the names of both parties and the relevant parish within the Parish Records Index. Examples include an affiliation order in 1750 identifying Henry Hills, a bricklayer as responsible for the child of Ann Patrick, a widow. The bastardy bond later that year required Henry to maintain the child.

These early records can be a challenge to read as handwriting is very different to our style today. Individual styles of handwriting still existed, but letter forms tend to differ, with spelling tending to be phonetic rather than standardised. As the materials for writing were scarce or expensive words are closely written making the document hard to read. Useful guidance and examples can be found on The National Archives website (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/).


Military Records

There has been a great deal of interest this past year in World War One, especially since the centenary. This year the 2nd World War will be in the spotlight as well. Whilst important, our ancestors military records pre date 1914-1918.

I came across a fascinating set of records for the Cambridgeshire militia in Shire Hall recently. The Ely and South Witchford Militia are detailed in records from the Napoleonic emergency period (1803-1815), including the names of individuals picked by ballot and their nominated substitutes. Militia certificates are occasionally found amongst parish overseers’ records. In the overseers book for the Parish of Sawston in Cambridgeshire a notice is glued into the inside front cover detailing provisions under the Additional Force Act of 1805. This includes the age and height of men to be recruited, their remuneration and money that will be paid to the overseers of the Parish for the relief of the poor.

Just as fascinating was a photograph album of the Cambridgeshire Militia. Seeing ancestors in a photograph for the first time always leaves a powerful impression. Although the majority of photographs that survive tend to be of officers, it may be possible to identify your ancestor in group shots, or gain a sense of the period and conventions from these shots. The album dates from 1864 and includes group shots, individual shots and shots taken on training camps, including Aldershot.

So having exhausted the Internet indexes and records there is a wealth of other sources of data on our ancestors. Using your local County Record Office will help you tell the wider story of your family tree. Furthermore you’ll find a visit exciting, enlightening and eye opening; you’ll be able to touch, feel and smell history!


For the full article have a look at Family Tree Magazine, April 2015.

All images courtesy of Cambridgeshire Archives


Other Blogs:

Hands on in the Archives 2

Parish Registers

My Talk: The Shire for Men who Understand (Cambridgeshire Archives)


Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.

What stories might your ancestors tell?

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