It’s there, but not online

Are you in a situation where you are certain you have examined or found all possible records online and your research is now stuck? There is no need to be despondent or to give up.  What you need is available but is simply not online.  In fact, not even half of what you could be looking at is online. 

You have an exciting time ahead planning a trip to the county record office to begin the fascinating task of poring over original documents.  Of course, this will be the record office in the area where your ancestors lived, rather than the archives local to where you live now.

An archive or record office for each county gradually developed after the county councils came into being at the end of the 19th century.  Other local authority archive offices also exist, for example most London boroughs maintain an archive, and other areas of local government may do so too.  All county record offices now have a website and most an online catalogue.  You can search for any archive in the UK, including the county record offices via The National Archives Discovery catalogue.

Records held by the county archives cover a very wide range, and are being added to all the time. Pre-1837 records fall broadly into a number of categories:

  • Parish records are the most well-known. They  include registers of baptism, marriage and burial which may exist back to when they were first established in 1538, and other records of parish administration known as ‘parish chest’ records, including records of the tithe and records of the poor law administration such as settlement examinations and payments made to the poor. Rate books containing the rates paid by all parishioners and minutes of the vestry are also in these collections, most of which are rich in names and vital to genealogy;
  • Records deposited by local solicitors and businesses, including many deeds and land transfer records which are important for tracing property history. Deeds are often indexed by surname;
  • Records deposited by individuals and local families; often large land-owning families.  These can include documents relating to other geographical areas. For example, the records of the estates in Surrey belonging to Princess Diana’s family are at Northamptonshire Record Office, not Surrey History Centre.  There are often manorial records among these collections;
  • Records relating to a particular borough or city or port which can contain useful lists of names, such as burgess or freemen rolls;
  • Records of local courts, Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions, and prison calendars;
  • Records from the council, including education and school records.
  • Special collections, for example local diaries, describing conditions from the personal point of view of local people, or other records of particular local interest.  

In addition, a county record office may also be ‘a place of deposit’, and hold the records of the relevant Church of England diocese. The most important of these for family history are probate records and they can exist from the 15th century up to 1858.  There will also be Bishop’s Transcripts and records from the church courts, known as the ‘bawdy courts’.

County record offices usually have a useful collection of maps, sometimes very old maps, as well as the Ordnance Survey and Tithe maps to help you locate places and put your ancestors in a geographical context.  Most record offices also have a library collection of printed material relating to the county, these will include village and parish histories, county histories, histories of important families and businesses, all of which could be important to your research, and available for you to browse.  Published records in book format make up another useful research short-cut.  County record societies often publish useful sets of records, such as settlement examinations, or documents from Quarter Sessions in a printed version, with a name index.   There may be books about local industry and historical features of the landscape, such as mills, or mines. On the open shelves you may also find trade directories and local gazetteers.

In all cases it is a good idea to find out how to search the record office catalogues in order to make the most of what is there.  Most archives have guides and indexes in paper format available for personal visitors, some of which may not be online.  Remember that useful clues for your family will be found in many places, and you may need to draw together threads from many different documents, records, books and maps.

When looking for people prior to 1837, there are three major record groups to try first. Firstly, check the information you have already found from online indexes and transcriptions of parish registers  by looking at the originals.  Also seek out any parish baptisms, marriages or burial material you have not already been able to look at.  Burials are often not online, so be sure to check them.

Secondly, look for parish chest material from the parishes where ancestors were living.   Records relating to administration of the poor law are often extremely useful.  You may find people being listed receiving ‘out-relief’ paid from the rates, or charity monies.  Churchwarden’s and overseer’s accounts can provide much useful detail. 

Thirdly, look for original probate documents.  There is often an index to probate material held by the archives, and if you cannot find one, make sure to ask for it. Bequests in a will can give you more information about a family than any other source.  Look for administrations and probate inventories as well as wills. If the record office is not the diocesan record office, normally there are still indexes and microfilm copies of more heavily used items, such as wills and probate registers, which can provide clues to follow up elsewhere.

In your search for further information, don’t forget to build up a complete picture of the locality, so make use of maps and be sure to browse the library collections. Record offices are accessioning material all the time, therefore if you are searching for particular information relating to a place or well-known family, it is worth searching accessions (records coming in to the archives each year) in case the items you need have not yet been catalogued.  Most record offices have a back-log of cataloguing, so this is not uncommon.

If it is impossible for you to visit an archive in person, consider hiring a professional researcher to help you identify likely records and act as a remote pair of eyes.  This can be just as satisfying as making your own visit, save you time, and even money if you might have to work in an overnight stay after a long journey.  A professional will also be very familiar with the record office and be able to work quickly and efficiently.   There is a list of researchers at

FACT – Most records held by a County Record Office or local archive are not online and can only be accessed by a personal visit. 


Have a clear idea of what records you need to see. Visit the online catalogue for preliminary research into what the archives hold.  Use place name searches as well as surname searches, as only selected records will be name-indexed. You can search online catalogues either directly with the archive website, or via TNA’s Discovery catalogue which now provides access to many other archives’ record holdings. 

Find out the opening times, whether you need to book a seat and what you will need to bring – only pencils will be allowed in the search room, no pens.  Do they have facilities for food and drink? Can you order documents in advance?  Are you allowed a camera? What identification will you need?

Gather your research materials together and prepare a research plan to remind you what you intend to look at.  It is easy to get distracted in a new setting and forget what you came for.  It is also easy to leave behind  vital details of the people you are supposed to be researching, so make a simple and quick fact sheet for each person or family you want to research.

This article first appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in 2015.

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