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Research your family history

  1. Civil registration
  2. Parish registers
  3. Bishops' transcripts
  4. Nonconformist registers
  5. Roman Catholic registers
  6. Census returns
  7. Marriage licences
  8. Wills
  9. Electoral registers
  10. Tax and rate records
  11. Poor Law records - accounts, settlement
  12. Militia
  13. Other sources
  14. Copying and searching documents

1. Civil registration

In 1837 a system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced to England and Wales. You can buy a certificate for every birth, marriage and death from this date onwards. Certificates may give you more information than a parish register entry and can make tracing your family history easier. 

The central set of records of civil registration is held by the General Record Office (GRO). You can search the GRO indexes online at subscription sites like Ancestry or FindMyPast - both of which can be searched for free if you visit the Essex Record Office (ERO) or any library in Essex. An ever-increasing proportion of the index can be searched free of charge at FreeBMD.

The Essex Society for Family History has microfiche copies of the indexes which can be seen in their Research Centre in the Essex Record Office searchroom. Booking is necessary to use the Research Centre (telephone 01245 244670).

If you know the registration district where an birth, marriage or death occurred, you can normally apply for a certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar. The GENUKI website for each county allows you to identify the registration district for each place and gives contact details for the local register office. In Essex, however, the certificate-issuing service has been centralised at the Essex Record Office: for details, and an online certificate application form, please see our registration certificate page.

You can also order paper copies of specific certificates direct from the GRO.

2. Parish registers

For the years before 1837, Church of England parish registers are the main source for family history. The earliest parish registers start between 1538 and 1598, but many of the earliest registers have not survived and in some parishes the first date of the registers will be much later. Where early registers do survive, they may have gaps in the years where records were not kept.

All the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials deposited in the ERO can be found on this site.  Registers later than those held by the ERO are usually still held in the parish church. 

Digital images of the registers held by the ERO, with the exception of marriage registers after 1957, can be seen in the ERO searchroom free of charge, and are also available to view online if you register and buy a subscription.  This service also includes images of parish registers held by our partners at Waltham Forest Archives. To find out what registers we hold from any parish, and to identify images available online to subscribers, visit our Parish register page.  For more details of the subscription service itself please see the subscription service page.

Most parish registers are also available on microfiche, and copies of the microfiches are available at Colchester Library and Southend Library. Copies of registers for the north-west of the county can be seen at the Saffron Walden Archive Access Point. The Harlow Archive Access Point has the Harlow area only.

Where registers have been digitised, microfiched or microfilmed, the original registers are not normally produced except with the specific authorisation of the searchroom archivist.

3. Bishops’ transcripts

Annual returns of baptisms, marriages and burials were made by each parish to the diocese. Many counties have long series, but the Essex bishops’ transcripts are very poor, with few surviving before 1800 and many gaps for each parish. They can be found by searching this site for the words bishops transcripts and the name of a parish.  They are not available online, and need to be viewed in the original in the ERO searchroom.

4. Nonconformist registers

The first nonconformist congregations appeared in the second half of the 17th century. From the late 18th century they were joined by Methodist churches. Nonconformists do not share the Church of England's legal obligation to deposit records in record offices, but the ERO does hold records from most of the various denominations.

Before 1837 all nonconformist marriages should be found in Church of England registers. Burial registers may also contain entries for nonconformists where there was no alternative burial yard. Often a Church of England incumbent may have made a note of nonconformists in parish registers. Remember that not every parish would have had a nonconformist church and people may have travelled some distance to another parish. Nonconformist churches have not always kept registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in the same way that Church of England parishes have done. However, church books and other records may record individuals and be useful for family history.

After 1837 most nonconformist churches surrendered their registers to the Registrar General. These records are now deposited at the National Archives and individuals in these registers can be found on the International Genealogical Index (IGI) compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). This can be searched on FamilySearch. Digital images of the registers can also be seen on the subscription site bmdregisters.co.uk.  A CD copy of registers from Essex churches is available in the ERO searchroom.

Nonconformist records deposited in the ERO can be found by searching this site for the word nonconformist and a place name, or the name of a specific denomination - for example Methodist - and a place name.  They are not available online.

5. Roman Catholic registers

A very small number of registers from Roman Catholic churches have been deposited in the ERO. Until 1837, as with nonconformists, all marriages should have taken place in the Church of England parish churches. Lack of alternative burial places may also mean that Roman Catholics were buried in parish churchyards. Consequently Roman Catholics may appear in some Church of England parish registers.

A search for the word Catholic will find all references to Roman Catholic records deposited in the ERO.

Most Roman Catholic churches retain their registers of baptisms, marriages and burials and you should apply directly to the church for copies of entries.

6. Census returns

The first census in Britain was in 1801 and has been held every ten years since, with the exception of 1941. All census records are closed to public access for 100 years. Until 1841 the census recorded only totals of populations in different areas. The first to record names, ages, addresses and occupations of individuals was in 1841. From 1851 the census also included family relationships within a household and a place of birth.

Census returns are indexed and can be searched on Ancestry or FindMyPast - both of which can be searched for free if you visit the Essex Record Office or any library in Essex.  We also have microfilm copies of the Essex returns for 1841-1901. For 1851 no returns survive for the Dunmow registration area.

A few pre-1841 census returns for individual parishes have survived and have been deposited in the ERO.  A search for the word census and a date or a place-name will find them.

7. Marriage licences

Original marriage licence bonds and allegations are available to view in the ERO searchroom, with a hardcopy name index. A search of this site for the words marriage licence and a date will locate them.

Individual bonds and allegations are currently (2016) being indexed directly on this site, and in these cases a search for a personal name will also work.

8. Wills

Until 1858 wills were proved in church courts, and records of the local courts in Essex are deposited in the ERO.  You can find wills on this site by searching for the word will and a surname, occupation or place-name. 

Alternatively, the published 3-volume index Wills at Chelmsford, edited by F.G. Emmison, lists the wills in surname order.  The references in the index volumes are abbreviated and need to be converted in order to find the will on Essex Archives Online.  Place D/A in front of the two letters shown in the index and move the first number to the end (e.g. 21 EW 13 becomes D/AEW 13/21 and 58 CR 6 becomes D/ACR 6/58).  Some wills are from the Peculiar Courts of the Deanery of Bocking (A or D/APb), Good Easter (GE or D/APg), the Sokens (D/APs) and Writtle and Roxwell (D/APw) and their references need further conversion (e.g. 49 AW 2 becomes D/APbW 2/49).

Wills whose references include the letter W are original wills. Digital images of these can be seen in the ERO searchroom free of charge, and are also available to view online if you register and buy a subscription.  For more details of the subscription service please see the subscription service page.

Wills with the letter R in the reference are registered wills.  These are available on microfiche in the ERO searchroom, with copies at the Colchester, Southend and Saffron Walden Access Points. Here the second number in the reference is the folio number, which can normally be seen at the top right of alternate pages, e.g. D/ACR 6/58 is folio 58 of register D/ACR 6.

Not all pre-1858 Essex wills are deposited in the Essex Record Office. Essex was originally in the diocese of London, and wills from the diocesan courts are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. There were also other peculiar courts whose records may be held elsewhere.

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was superior to the local and diocesan courts. Many of the more important Essex people chose to have their will proved there. The original PCC records are deposited at the National Archives; use the National Archives' Discovery tool to search the indexes online and view the image of the will for a charge.

From 1858 a centralised system for probate was introduced. For a name index and online ordering system see Wills, probate and inheritance pages on Gov.uk.

Microfiche copies of the annual probate indexes from 1858 to 1943 are also available in the ERO searchroom. Having checked the indexes you can order a copy of the will at any district probate registry. Alternatively, you can write to the Postal Searches and Copies Department, The Probate Registry, 1st Floor, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York YO1 9RG.

9. Electoral registers

Electoral registers can be used to find further details of the owners or occupiers of a property. The earliest registers date from 1832, but it is only since 1929 that all adults have had the right to vote.

Electoral registers can be found by searching Essex Archives Online for the phrase electoral register and the place name. You can specify a date or date range if you wish.  ERO's holdings of registers for 1833-1867 (incomplete), 1918 and 1929 are available as digital images.  The images can be seen in the ERO searchroom free of charge, and are also available to view online if you register and buy a subscription.  For more details of the subscription service please see the subscription service page.  

10. Tax and rate records

Land tax assessments (references Q/RPl ...) are available on microfiche in the ERO searchroom and at the Colchester, Southend and Saffron Walden Access Points. They cover the years c.1780-1832 and list owners or occupiers, with a brief description of the property and the tax payable. The records of the hearth tax (Q/RTh), 1662-1673, have also been deposited. These list the name of each owner or occupier and the number of hearths in the house. Both the land tax and the hearth tax are arranged by hundreds (ancient divisions of the county).

Rate books list all those paying rates and can be useful to identify people in a parish. From the late 19th century they can be found with other local authority records. Before this, individual parishes were responsible for collecting poor, church and highway rates, and these rate books are in parish collections (D/P). A search for the word rates and a parish name or local authority area name will locate any rate books held by the ERO.

11. Poor Law records – accounts, settlement

Parish records include records of the poor who were supported by the parishes.  These records include overseers’ accounts, settlement certificates and examinations and removal orders.  A search for the type of record - e.g. overseers accounts - and a place name will identify any records held.  A name index to settlement records is available on microfiche in the ERO searchrom.  

From 1834 responsibility for poor relief passed to Poor Law Unions (G/), which were groupings of several parishes.  Each union built one large workhouse where the poor would be accommodated.  Few workhouse records survive in Essex but a search for the words workhouse and union will identify those that do. Microfilm copies of records of the Saffron Walden Union are available at the Saffron Walden Archive Access Point.

12. Militia

Muster rolls and lists give names and other details of men serving in Essex militia and volunteer units from c.1775-1865.  A search for militia and a place name will identify any records that survive.

13. Other sources

Transcripts

As well as original registers the Essex Record Office holds transcripts of registers.  A search for the words transcript register and a place-name will locate them. The ERO searchroom also has a copy of the Essex section of Boyd’s Marriage Index, which is an incomplete name index to marriage registers, 1538-1837.

Monumental inscriptions

The Essex Society for Family History has a continuing programme to record monumental inscriptions in the county. Copies of their surveys have been deposited in the ERO, as well as some surveys compiled by others. A search for the words monumental inscription and a place-name will identify them.

14. Copying and searching documents

If you are unable to visit the ERO in person, our search service can search documents deposited here.  Our Reprographics service can also provide copies of entries or documents where they are not available in Essex Archives Online.