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How to research your family history in London

Could you be related to royalty? Here's your guide to to the best places in London to trace your family history – and maybe secure an invite to the Palace

Researching family history in London  (Peter Moore)

The National Archives (Creative Commons: Nick Cooper)
The National Archives at Kew (Creative Commons: Nick Cooper)

1. The National Archives, Kew

As the UK government's national archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, the National Archives at Kew is probably the most important site for genealogists visiting London. It holds over 1,000 years of the nation's records for everyone to discover and use.

With over 11 million historical government and public records, the archive is one of the largest in the world. From Domesday Book to modern government papers and digital files, the collection includes paper and parchment, electronic records and websites, photographs, posters, maps, drawings and paintings. 

The National Archives present talks and exhibitions focusing on different time periods and offers research guides to help you find the sources you need, as well tutorials to help you understand the documents once you find them.

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London Metropolitan Archive (Creative Commons: Justinc)London Metropolitan Archive (Creative Commons: Justinc)

2. London Metropolitan Archives, Clerkenwell

Another essential destination for anyone researching ancestors from the London area, with over 105km of archives. The London Metropolitan Archives are on Northampton Road in trendy Clerkenwell. Documents include some of the most important family history sources for London, including Parish Registers, Electoral Registers, Land Tax records, Parish Poor Relief and Boards of Guardians, which include workhouse records.

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My Ancestors were bastards (Peter Moore)

3. London Family History Centre, Kew

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are one of the major players in genealogy and their collection of records concerning London are suitably impressive. 

Their resources include Parish records from more than 9,500 parishes, non-conformist records, parish chest and poor law records, copy wills, probate records from hundreds of ecclesiastical courts, directories, school and voting records and census records. 

The London Family History Centre is currently located in the Reading Room of The National Archives in Kew. 

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Coat of Arms City of Westminster (Creative Commons:HamII)Coat of Arms of the City of Westminster (Creative Commons: Ham II)

4. City of Westminster Archives Centre, Westminster

The UK’s General Register Office has records of every birth, marriage and death registered in England and Wales, starting from July 1837. But to order or access them you nee an index reference number. You can search for these online. Or you can search for them for free at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. (You can also search at the British Library, but you have to register first, a laborious process.)

The Archives Centre also holds a wide variety of other sources to assist family historians, including parish records and registers, rate books, directories, electoral registers, census returns, local newspapers and school records. It is also home to the St Martin-in-the-Fields Settlement Examinations index, a great source for details of a person's birthplace and working career as well as the names and ages of dependent children.

Knowledgeable staff are on hand to provide advice on researching your family history too.

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Imperial War Museum London (Shutterstock.com)Imperial War Museum in London covered in snow (Shutterstock)

5. Imperial War Museum, Lambeth

While the Imperial War Museum does not hold personal service records or official documentation, their expert staff have put together useful guides to help you start researching your family history for all sections of the armed forces, including the merchant navy and those held as prisoners of war, and suggesting the exact type of records you should be looking for. 

The displays at the Imperial War Museum will also help put the wartime experiences of your relatives into context.

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Some other places to consider ...

London's Medical Museums

If you have a medical professional in your family history, there are a number of medical museums that may be able to help with your research. Some museums represent a particular field of medicine like the British Optical Association Museum or the Royal College of Surgeons, for example. Others are found in particular hospitals like the Royal London Hospital or St Bartholomew’s Hospital museums and archives.

A good place to start is the Wellcome Library on Euston Road. They offer a useful Biography and Family History guide that lists types of material and how to search them, printed matter (books, journals etc.), electronic resources (databases and websites), archives and manuscripts, pictorial works, background reading, and other resources.

The London Museums of Health & Medicine website has a comprehensive list of the museums you can visit to research your family history.

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Records of London's Livery Companies

With records of Apprentices and Freemen in the City of London Livery Companies between 1400 and 1900, this is a useful online tool to help you find where your relative learned their trade so you can visit the area while you are in London.

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London Freemasonary Museum and Archive

Got a Freemason in the family? The records held at London Freemasonary Museum and Archive may help provide vital information for your family tree. Based on Annual Returns of members compiled by individual lodges since 1768 and sent to the Grand Lodge, the record for each member includes age, address and occupation and date of joining the lodge. 

The Museum is set in the stunning Freemason’s Hall on Great Queen Street, an Art Deco gem well worth visiting for it’s own sake.

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