Your ancestors in Belgium
Belgium, a Country perhaps close to our hearts in the United Kingdom. Belgium refugees were welcomed into the UK during the 1st World War, looking for food, shelter and most importantly security from Germanys’ invading army. The history of this young Country makes for challenging research for UK based family historians; records may be found written in French, German, Dutch or Latin depending upon the area you are focusing your research on. Don’t dismay; this blog will help you get started.
Belgium; officially the Kingdom of Belgium was recognised as a Country in 1839, but had broken away from the Netherlands in 1831. This date (1831) is recognised as the starting date for the foundation of Belgium.
Belgium is derived from the name of a Roman province (Gallia Belgica). Before the Roman invasion in 100BC it was inhabited by the Belgae. During the 5th Century the area was bought under the rule of the Merovingian Kings. The Franks followed and enventually evolved into the Carolingian Empire. The treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the region, culminating in vassal states to the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor.
In the 14th and 15th Centuries many of these vassals were united in the Burgundian Netherlands. The eighty years war (1568-1648) divided the Low Countries into Northern and Southern Netherlands. The Southern Netherlands comprised most of modern Belgium and were ruled by the Spanish or Austrians. In 1794 following the French Revolutionary Wars, the Low Countries were annexed by the French First Republic. This was disolved in 1815 after the defeat of Napolean, leading to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Germany invaded Belgium in Aug 1914, as part of a plan to attack France. Belgium assumed control of the German Colonies of Ruanda-Urundi (modern day Rwanda and Burundi) during the war; they were mandated to Belgium in 1924. Following the 1st World War Belgium annexed the Prussian Districts of Eupen and Malmedy, creating a German speaking minority.
Brussels is the largest city and capital. Belgium is divided into 3 autonomous regions:
- Flanders (North)
- Wallonia (South)
- Brussels-Capital Region
Language is crucial to an understanding of Belgium. There is a Dutch speaking, Flemish Community (60% of the population) and a French speaking Community (40% of the population). A small German speaking population exists in the East.
Belgium being divided into three regions, is further subdivided into provinces (apart from Brussels-Capital Region which is neither a province or part of a province).
Religion is relatively diverse; 50% Roman Catholic, 2.5% Protestant and other Christian, 5% Muslim, 0.4% Jewish, 0.3% Buddhist, 9.2% Atheist and 32.6% with no preference.
Family History records are organised by locality. Civil Registration (birth, marriage and death) and church records (christening/baptism, marriage and burial) are kept at a local level.
If you unsure of your ancestors town follow the advice in the FamilySearch Wiki.
Birth, Marriage and Death records (Civil Registration) for Belgium follow a system utilised by the Dutch and are similar.
In 1796 Belgium had been conquered by Napoleon. A system of Civil Registration was introduced throughout the Napoleonic territories with the first records written in French. In 1815 Belgium was merged with the Netherlands and the Civil Registration system continued. In 1831 Belgium was independent. So records will be in either French, Dutch or German depending upon the political system at the time of record keeping.
In addition to English and Welsh Certificates, Belgium records have:
- Sometimes the ages of the parents
- Sometimes the occupation, age and relationship to the child of the informant
- Birthplaces of bride and groom
- Names and sometimes the ages of parents
- Former spouses
- Occupations of informants
- Current and former spouses
- Names of parents if known
- Residence of informant
A snapshot of a family, on one night of the year; the Census gives an invaluable insight into our ancestors lives.
The first census was taken when Belgium was under the control of the Dutch in January 1830. The first Belgian Census was taken in Oct 1846 and then every 10 years; the last in 2011.
The Census contains:
- Names of residents
- New arrivals and those requesting moves in a community
- Includes those with specific occupations such as:
- domestic servants
- laborers, etc.
- Birth dates or ages
- Birth places
- Other relatives’ names
- Previous residence
- Removal and arrival dates
- Current residence
- Occupations, and
- Citizenship status.
Emigrants and Immigrants
Emigrant and Immigrant records exist from 1500. The challenge maybe to pinpoint where you ancestor emigrated to or immigrated from.
The content of these records vary, but usually contain:
- Emigrants’ names
- Birth dates and places
- Wife’s and childrens’ given names and ages, or number of children
- Reasons for emigration
- Taxes paid
- Military service, etc.
The records are located in Provincial and municipal archives. Some are online, most notably with FamilySearch.
Before 1795 Parish Registers or (Parochieregisters, Kerkelijke registers, Registres ecclésiastiques) are a key genealogy resource to use for baptism, marriage and burial.
Records are likely to be written in Latin (for Catholics; the only legal religion before 1781), or in the local language; Dutch, French or German. The records start from 1500, however many records only survive from 1700. For records after 1795 look at the BMD section above.
The State Archives of Belgium (Rijksarchief in België/Les Archives de l’Etat en Belgique) has indexes and some images. The site can be used in English, French, German or Dutch. Some records can be searched online with FamilySearch. If you are unable to locate the records online you can request a search from, or visit the local parish priest.
Key contacts and useful websites
Research ancestors in other countries
Wikipeadia, accessed 2019
FamilySearch.org, accessed 2019
https://unstats.un.org/unsd/dnss/docViewer.aspx?docID=2664; accessed 2019
http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/belgium-population/; accessed 2019
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_and_housing_censuses_by_country; accessed 2019
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 for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
What stories might your ancestors tell?