Toolkit Tutorial: Search for UK Records in the Discovery Online Catalog

By Rick Crume Premium

Discovery, the catalog of the United Kingdom’s National Archives, has more than 32 million descriptions of records held at the National Archives and 2,500 other archives across the kingdom. For a small fee, you can download more than 9 million of these records, including wills, and you can order copies of other documents. The records pertain to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland—remember that all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until 1922. Follow these five steps to find family history records in Discovery.

Discovery Catalog UK National Archives United Kingdom Records

1. Start on the Discovery home page by clicking on the family history research guide. Follow the links to learn how to find and use more than 200 types of records, such as military records, wills and censuses.

Until 1858, wills were proved in more than 200 church courts. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was the highest church court in England and Wales. It dealt with relatively wealthy people, mainly in southern England and Wales. The National Archives has digitized over a million PCC wills proved between 1384 and Jan. 12, 1858. You can download a will for 3.50 pounds (about $4.61). But before you pay for one, click on “More ways to view this record” and you’ll learn that the subscription sites and The Genealogist also have PCC wills.

From 1796 to 1811, personal estates worth more than 20 pounds were subject to a death duty, like an inheritance tax. Discovery has digitized these death duty registers for country courts (church courts other than the PCC) from 1796 to 1811. Created to show whether a death duty was paid on an estate, these registers contain 66,000-plus names and serve as a partial nationwide index to wills for this period. A search for my ancestor Samuel Jones, who died in 1806, turns up an “Abstract of Will of Samuel Jones of Llanigon, Brecknockshire.” A download costs 3.50 pounds, but you can get Welsh wills before 1858 for free from the National Library of Wales.

Discovery Catalog UK National Archives United Kingdom Records

2. To search the entire catalog, start with the simple search box on the Discovery home page. Keep in mind that it finds matches in record descriptions in the catalog, not the full text of all the documents at the National Archives. Try different searches combining a last name or full name and a parish, city, county or other place. A search on the last name Toppin and the parish Upwell produces a match on the 1742 will of John Toppin, held by the Norfolk Record Office.

You can search with wildcards. An asterisk matches zero or more characters, so Rob*son finds Robson, Robison, Robinson and Robertson. A question mark replaces a single character, so Rob?son finds Robison and Robeson.

Some catalog entries have sparse descriptions, while others have a lot of detail and people’s names. Since many records are not indexed by name, it’s worth searching on just a place to see what records are available. A search on the parish and county of Upwell Norfolk turns up 824 matches, while a search on just the parish, Upwell, produces 1,310 matches. You can filter the results by century.

Discovery Catalog UK National Archives United Kingdom Records

3. The advanced search form makes it easy to form a more complex query. To find references to the Toppin family in County Norfolk, enter Norfolk in the box for All of These Words and Toppin, Toppen and Topping in the boxes for Any of These Words, to cover alternate name spellings. Limiting the results to a range of years from 1700 to 1775 produces 23 matches, including a 1727 court case, Robert North of Upwell, Norfolk vs. John Topping and Mary his wife.

Discovery Catalog UK National Archives United Kingdom Records

4. If the records you want aren’t online and you can’t visit the National Archives in person, you can request a page check for 8.40 pounds (about $11). The reply will note the cost to make copies if they can be made.

Discovery Catalog UK National Archives United Kingdom Records

5. Be sure to explore other British archives’ websites and catalogs, too. On the Discovery Catalogue homepage, click on the link to Find an Archive for details on more than 2,500 UK archives. For example, use the map or options on the right to select East of England, County Norfolk, and then the Norfolk Record Office. On its profile page, you can browse its holdings and follow a link to its online catalog.

From the January/February 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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