Researching London ancestors

A couple of years ago, I had no knowledge of how to search for London ancestors as I didn’t have any as far as I knew. But recently, with DNA assistance, I now have a few lines through dad’s finally found father.

As tonight’s #ANZAncestryTime chat was about resources for London research, I could actually mention some sources I have used.

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What general resources have you found the most helpful or what are your favourite resources for researching ancestors from London and its surroundings?

I’m hoping to gain some inspiration on ancestors who lived or moved through London.

Looking forward to hints about ways to find my London ancestor pre civil registration when I have no idea of location

Research sites I’ve used include Genuki, Pallots Index, Family Search, Ancestry and census info as a guide to places of birth. Booth’s poverty maps are great – if you have a specific address

I have found the London Metropolitan Archives very useful and also the London Encyclopedia which I purchased recently

I struggle with having any confidence that I have found the correct birth or marriage when there’s a city of a bazillion people

Yes, it can be difficult especially if researching a common name … So many Browns in North London

Censuses, directories and parishes records! Huguenot society for sure too but also French/international collections at @MyHeritage because a lot were French or Belgian/Dutch emigrants or refugees 🤩

Because I focus on 1800s and early 1900s I find the census and church records most useful for the basic starting point for my London ancestors. They moved to NZ and Essex so I can follow they with the census to Essex

For London #FamilyHistory there are some excellent Family History Societies who offer resources, talks and publications! There is an excellent guide by @LWMFHS

LMA have a great website with many rabbit holes to disappear down. I could easily spend hours there

Westminster Archives would be another great place to research in person and the Society of Genealogists. And London Lives

Re London parish registers and the LMA…

I don’t have any ancestors anywhere near London, and looking at my DNA matches tree, the location is mentioned only 17 times.

the @LdnMetArchives has a number of useful guides to its resources although record sets like Land Tax Returns which I find useful for 1770-1830 are often held in Borough Libraries. So much of the LMA data is now online which is really helpful.

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Do you use London specific resources? Are these available online? Is it a good place to visit for research?

Yes – mostly. I find maps very useful too and books e.g. A guide to London’s churches by Mervyn Blatch and Tracing Your London Ancestors by Jonathan Oates

Spent a few days at LMA when I was in London many years ago. So much to look at.

Can you tell us a bit about the London Encyclopaedia?

It’s one of those wonderful books that you can dip in and out of. The best kind of reference book. It’s a massive volume – 1116pages and covers anything and everything – buildings, people, organizations, streets, embankments, turnpikes etc etc

I have found it enormously helpful when tackling #52ancestorsin52weeks on my blog this year. I have a few families who originated from London.


Yes it was great when my cousin was in Hammersmith. Plus she was very interested so we visited national archives and LMA. Found some wonderful and totally huge maps that were impossible to look at the middle sections without both of us rolling it up together.

A blog about London history via walking tours

some background on 1890’s London , glad I wasn’t living there then…

Just bought an Unlock the Past book on London and Middlesex family history resources online from Gould Genealogy by Alan Stewart

no London ancestors that I know of but looked in our catalogue, quite a few resources… may or may not be useful

I found Robsons Trade Directory, as part of Ancestry’s London City Directories collection, useful in placing a bricklayer ancestor in 1819. The occupation tied in with his convict indent & newspaper notices entered by family trying to track him in NSW.

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In a large city ensuring you have the right person can be hard. What suggestions or techniques do you use that can help? What about pre-census and pre-civil registration? Or dealing with people and families with common first and surnames?

I think perhaps sometimes you may never know although if they had an unusual occupation that might help. I guess I look for common names in siblings or common churches for baptisms. But sometimes it’s just like looking for the proverbial needle…

Coming to terms with never knowing is difficult Alex. As family historians we want to know it all

We do want to follow them back but when it comes to London I throw my hands up and give up.

Just remembered when I started I had to use elimination to get down to a more manageable list before expanding out to look for other records. Found my great GM this way. This technique required sometime, logic and keeping good records.

Looking for consistencies across records e.g. other family members, occupation etc.

This is my major conundrum: how can you be sure pre-civil Reg and if they die before census? Do they move between parishes? Also married in London but lived elsewhere. Seems impossible when names are not unusual. Tips much appreciated.

Usually I look to a family’s children’s names to see if I can detect a pattern for the earlier generation eg why I’ve “decided” my William Partridge’s maternal grandfather was likely William Thompson.

I have an ancestor who was a journeyman carpenter but the marriage records labourer. All else “fits”.

clues for my Partridge family (then living in Gloucestershire): Eliza (mother) and son William both shown as born Westminster on 1851 census, daughter shown as St Pancras. My husband’s ancestors married in London, lived in Notts. she was from East Sussex

I have looked for wills and letters of administration as they will give names of people involved and addresses often.

I got a great will earlier in the year. It has a row of houses in London and my grandmother left different ones to different children. I just have to find it as I forgot to file it on my computer properly.

I think luck has a lot to do with getting the correct persons. I was lucky to have families that used unusual second names & less common maiden names reused down the generations. 3 cheers for Freeborn, Collis, Myhill, Frith, Grout, Tarbet & more.

Finding my 3x g grandfather Thomas Jones in London pre civil reg has been impossible, not knowing his location

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What maps and mapping sites have helped you understand London and its surrounds? Do you find ancestors relocate and return to London? Any ancestors with interesting capital-based roles? In parliament, for example?

I tend to order maps from Gould Genealogy as I find it quite difficult looking at maps online. My Dad’s old AA guide to London from the 1960s came in quite handy when I was doing research recently ! It doesn’t have just maps but also guides to churches et al.

My dad’s side of the family were mainly from London, Surrey, Kent area so comparing google maps with the poverty maps and ordnance maps from Scotland site have been great.

National Library of Scotland has some digitised London info.

I sometimes use Google maps to check out the relative proximity, and distance, between 2 places that an ancestor has lived. However, my Brown line has pretty much been in the Tottenham/Edmonton area for generations and generations

I often use street view on google. Even though it is fairly recent I find it gives a different perspective. I had a go at layering a while back and stripping back to older versions can be enlightening.

When writing up my biographies, I try to include addresses as well and hope they are in close proximity. My great grandmother…

Another biography showing mapping great grandfather…

I have a family member who was a grenadier guard. One of his duties was Gold Stick IN Waiting to the King. Gold Stick is a bodyguard

I was lucky my ancestors were coachmen and boot shop managers or similar and were easy to follow through censuses

Readers: What sources have you found useful when researching London ancestors?

Surnames and naming patterns

I seem to have been on holiday quite often when twitterchats occurred this first half of the year.

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What naming patterns have you found in your family tree? What country or culture were these from?

I have 9 Daniel, 8 Thomas and 6 John all with Horgan surname and only a few with second names in my database

And Duncan1, Duncan 2 etc etc. Mind you, an early death of Patrick Callaghan and his wife taking over after the father led me to the grandfather’s name and DNA nailed it down.

Lots of naming babies after siblings who had died amongst my Buckinghamshire families

The Scottish naming pattern was followed for many generations. I have used it extensively to find missing family members. I found my paternal 3xg grandparents that way.

These Scottish traditions continued in various forms even to me. I have my grandmother’s first name and my great grandmother’s maiden name. And now my great niece is named for me

given my heritage – Traditional Irish naming pattern although it was present in Europe pre 19C, the more rural the family the more likely it was to persist into early 20C. In English branch, use of maternal ancestors’ surname as given name particularly helpful

there has been a son named George born in my mothers family every generation since 1784, the current George in the family is now aged 30

Parents who name a child after a deceased sibling. In my paternal line I have one family who named three sons Isaac – the first died at 2 months, the second at 5 years, the third lived to 89!

Had to remind myself re Scottish pattern: 1st son named after father’s father, 2nd son named after mother’s father, 3rd son named after father, 1st daughter named after mother’s mother, 2nd daughter named after father’s mother, 3rd daughter named after mother

Lots of William, Edward, John, George on one side, and Rose, George, John on the other! (These ancestors are from England.) Catherine/Kathleen were also popular names (great grandmothers – Australian born).

Another interesting pattern is that some babies were called the same name as a previous baby in the family who died (infant death). Saw examples of this on both sides of the family in particular generations.

A third pattern I’ve seen is that several ancestors (particularly the women) were known by their middle name, rather than their first name, to such an extent that no-one seemed to know their actual first name!

Or by a nickname that doesn’t seem to correlate to the baptism name. Of course with all those repeated names it’s not surprising really. I think the Irish used names that reflected hair colour, height etc

Yes, I’ve seen that too. An Amelia known as Martha (or a Martha known as Amelia). And there are lots of examples of this among the males too. I’m extremely fortunate that both of my parents are alive and have been able to tell me some of these nicknames.


Are family names a tradition in your immediate family? Do you, parents, grandparents or children have inherited family names?

A2 (with a dash of A4) my middle name is a Scottish ancestral surname, albeit one whose spelling was changed three or four generations ago to match that of an apparently unrelated famous person – an explorer

In my family we have all the Williams and all the Davids!! Hubby’s family have an unusual middle name which one of them adopted to scam their way into an inheritance. He hoped it would make him seem more connected to someone with pots of money. It didn’t work.

Also, in my father’s family they are all called Patrick, Thomas, Michael or John. That’s it. The girls have a huge variety of names, but the boys… take your pick of the four, and lump it.

We have lots of Williams in the family. if it’s not a first name its a second name. My husband is David William and my grandson is Digby William. A cousin is William and another Nicholas William…..

I named my daughter after my mother’s mother Kit and her twin sister Belle. Belle was named by her mother Kate Amelia ELLIS after her grandmother Isabella SINCLAIR who was named after her mother Isabella BIRRELL who was named after her mother Isabella MENZIES.

my children not named after grandparents etc. had great difficulty agreeing on boys name after teaching the odd few ratbags! Didn’t know about naming patterns at that stage 😅

I love finding connections between names. One of my granddaughters aged 16 months is named Clementine and I found I have a 6th g grandmother named Clementine born 1722 in Polstead, Suffolk.

have you found ancestors whose second marriages are to partners who have the same first name as wife#1?

yes! And how about wives who have the same name as mothers or sisters. I guess that is somewhat predictable with names like John or Mary but sometimes I do wonder if there is a psychological element to it.

Don’t need to go back far. My younger brother has had two wives with the same first name. My 2xg grandfather had two wives called Janet

I am still trying to find missing family members based on the naming pattern. If a name is missing, then what happened to that child?

My father was named for his grandparents, his grandfather’s first name and grandmother’s maiden name.

I find it interesting to discover who people were named after. often it is someone who died in infancy a generation earlier. My maternal grandmother I found was named after an aunt who died aged 7 years of Scarlet fever

My mother was named Jean after Robert Burns’ wife and Annesley as a variation of Ansley, her 2xgreat grandmother’s maiden name.

I wish I had know more about family naming traditions when trying to think of a name for our son. My Father and Uncle have Scott middle names however I did not know its relevance to previous people.  My Mum’s middle name is after my grandfathers sister and my Aunt’s middle name is after one of my Nana’s sisters. Their 2 brother, my uncles follow many of the Dawson male names so they have a kind of a system.

In my father’s Bos family, through the centuries, the unusual name Cent was inherited. My aunt married someone from another branch of the family, and he still had a brother named Cent. The name is probably short for VinCent. The first one was a woman Centje.

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Do you have family surnames that are occupational, place or geographic feature names, patronymic/matronymic or unusual names?

No occupational or place that I can see in my direct line – mainly Scottish names in my pedigree, lots of Macs and others.

The worse surname is Farish which I have found in about a dozen different variations. Now descendants have different names.

My generation 12 ancestor was named after the Hoitink (then spelled Hooijckijnck) farm in the Winterswijk, Netherlands where he lived. In that area, people named themselves after the farm and often changed names when they moved.

Most of my Irish lines have surnames that are ma/patronymic, (Mac – son of, O’ – daughter of), some are Norse origin e.g., Ballesty, and are occupational. In English branch, locational e.g. Melhuish, Quance, or Skey, and occupational e.g. Gardener, Baker

One of my ancestral surnames is Tunnecliffe (and variants thereof), which is a locational name.  It’s useful to look at spelling variants of your surname when researching.

forgot to mention husband has CULLINGTON THIRTLE and CAMPLING in Norfolk not sure of origins

I have a few names that are not so much unusual as odd. BUGG. DITTY and SPRICKS

Occupational: There’s a “Farmer” family…that’s the only one I can think of at the moment. ‘Soady’ is a fairly unusual name. That family came from Cornwall originally.

Have an Irish Smyth and a son became a blacksmith in early 20thC in SA

The English surnames in consider most unusual in my family are Ollerensha and Glayahorne (later Gleghorn) (Northumberland) and Gotobed (Bedfordshire)

Those are wonderful surnames Sharn. Have you found much about their origins? Are they dialectical for places or events, or for physical attributes like Moylan (bald) and Maguire (son of the dark coloured one)?…

Tara I am not yet certain of their origins. Glayahorn was a surname in Northumberland so I’m wondering if it is Norse. Ollerensha is an old Leicestershire name only recently discovered so I am still looking into that one.

That will be half the fun Sharn – what delicious names for research!

My great grandfather’s middle name, Welfare is a mystery. It isn’t a family surname. He was born in 1878. This name hasn’t appeared anywhere else in the family either before his birth or since

Unusual surnames TUDGEY GINGELL CROWSON not sure of origins first 2 probably Wiltshire

while a couple of surnames have derivative meanings, I treat these with a large grains of salt and believe they go back many, many generations…unless my Partridge ancestors were birds…lol.

Names which reflect geographic and nature features in my family include Ash, Berry, Birch, Bird, Brook. Bullock, Ferns, Field, Finch, Fox, Marsh, Woods

I’ve noticed over the years when trawling parish registers that abandoned babies are sometimes given the surname of the place where they were born/found.

My mc and mac patronymic surnames from Scotland and Ireland include McDade, McCleary, McGonigal, McClusky, McCulloch, McDeraid, McAdams, McKenzies, McIver, McMurray, McAllister, McDonald, McEwan, McGourlay, McGowan, McIndoe, O’Brien

I have McEwans @SharnWhite also known as McQueen/McQuien/McQuinn/McQuane Had a terrible time following them through the spelling variants

Occupational names in my family include Turner, Baillie (Scotland meaning a Bailiff) Baker, Beedle, Binder, Miller, Carter, Cook/Cooke, Cooper, Farmer, Gardener, Smith

pretty sure the FORFARs in my family tree are named after FORFAR in Scotland. Most unusual name award goes to my husband’s family tree which contains a family with the surname PROVERBS. #Barbados.His GRIEVES were also farmers.Grieve means overseer on a farm.

The English surnames in consider most unusual in my family are Ollerensha and Glayahorne (later Gleghorn) (Northumberland) and Gotobed (Bedfordshire)

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Have you found instances where your family have changed a surname due to war, immigration, political or for other reasons?

My 2nd husband’s great grandparents changed their names when they went from Tasmania to New Zealand – forced emigrants from the UK!

Dickson has been changed to Dixon at times so that I have to look for DNA matches and records with other spellings

on a distant branch of my Bone family from Cornwall who moved to Lancashire, they then emigrated to Australia and changed their surname to Bowen, I wonder whether it may of been the accent that caused the change, got fed up repeating its Bone not Bowen

In Hubby’s family one Byrnes sibling changed his name to Burns after a family feud.

Besides the great-great-grandfather who changed his surname to evade the collapse of Caroline Chisholm’s loan scheme, the Hornery/Honnery family name turned out to be an over-anglicised Huguenot “Honoré”

Surname change? Apart from the reattachment of “O’…” not for those reasons, at least as far as I know right now. Most of my surname variations are due to language issues, listener/scribe recording phonetically what they hear and that’s influenced by accent.

The first one that comes to mind is O’Regan (in Ireland) changing to Regan (in Australia). James Regan, who found gold at Ballarat, was my ancestor.

I have not found name changes except for spelling variation. Or name changes for step children. Even then they sometimes reverted to their biological fathers name later in life.

My g uncle by marriage was from Lithuania. When his family travelled through Scotland on route to the US they changed their name from Utella to Smith. but passed the original surname down as a middle name

I had ancestors who changed their surnames to hide from deserted wives, police or MI5. These were hard to track down just as they had intended!

Tons of examples of their surnames being given different spellings at different times…down to accents, illiteracy etc.

But I suspect that my husband’s ancestor Robert James DAW changed his name after his 2nd spell in the big house for failing to pay maintenance on his children in an orphanage after their mother Jane Daw nee SILCOCK died in 1901

My name-changers are my Irish family who arrived in Australia with the surname SHERRY (consistent with their Irish records). After arrival, parents & accompanying “children” changed the surname to McSHARRY. Eldest son & family, a year later, to McSHERRY

My McCorquodale name has a bazillion different spellings incl Macquorquodale. I search using M*or*dale which gets most of them. It has Norse background.

No surname changes other than due to the recorder not knowing how to spell before any standard spelling especially the unusual my ONS has alternative spellings

My Kunkel name has remained unchanged across the generations despite wars and immigration. Not even a missing umlaut over the u. I’m quite proud of them for not succumbing to pressure of wartime mania.

My German g g grandfather changed his surname from NERGER to NARGAR in the later 1890’s in Qld. I believe given that an E in German sounds like A in English, that the name was incorrectly written and he adopted the English spelling


Blog posts and books:

Maggie and the surname Tunnicliffe

Alex and did her ancestor change his surname from Daw?

Carmel wonders how some people got their names.

Looking for my John Davey

Back in 1990, after 10 years of teaching full time, I earned the right to Long Service Leave so took off for three months around the world. West coast America to see Disneyland and the canyons, Alaska to fly above the Arctic Circle and visit an inuit town, Europe to see the large towns and famous buildings like Eiffel Tower and Leaning tower of Pisa, sail in the Greek islands, travel down the Nile and climb in the Pyramid of Giza but most of all visit the country of my ancestors Great Britain.

Very little was digitized at this time, many records were on microfilm or in original records. So I spent a few days at the Devon Archives when they were located in the middle of Exeter. I was trying to find out who my John Davey was, where he came from, who were his parents and siblings. I stayed in a B&B in Clyst Honiton.

What did I know about John Davey before I left?

  • John was my great great grandfather who married Annie Dixon in 1859. He was 26, she was 18. Until his death in 1888, they raised seven sons and five daughters to adulthood. They lived in English Town, near Evandale, Tasmania
  • John was born in Devon, England. He was brought out to Tasmania as a farm servant to George Meredith on the East Coast of Tasmania.  John was Church of England and could read and write. He arrived in Hobart Town aged 20 on 13 February 1855 on board ‘Wanderer‘.  John was occasionally mentioned in the ‘Meredith papers’ which are housed in the State Library Archives in Hobart.  He was recorded last at ‘Cambria‘ in January 1857.  His wages at this time were 7 pounds and 10 shillings per quarter.

By the time I had finished my research at the Devon Archives, I had the feeling that my John Davey was born in Coffinswell in 1836. In fact, I started with a list of 50 John Davey born around 1835 in Devon and by the end of my research was down to 7 possibilities but the most likely being the one born in Coffinswell. I added this to my tree on Ancestry and of course, it has now been copied by many relatives onto their trees.

I now know better than to do this.

Since that trip to England 30 years ago, I have been to New Zealand to visit cousins there – one of John Davey’s daughters married and moved to New Zealand. She had a birthday book which she handed down through her family so I asked the current owner if they could send me any names relating to the Davey surname.

One of these was John Davey born 21 January 1834. Could I assume this was my John Davey? But the Coffinswell John Davey was born in 1836? How to prove who was my real John Davey?

Thirty years have now passed

If only I had checked those John Davy (note different spelling) births in Devon, I would have made an immediate hit but instead it has taken me 30 years until a match in mum’s DNA linked back to a person who had an ancestor Luke Davy in Devon. How was this Luke Davy related to my John Davey?

They were siblings. So mum and her DNA match named Ivor are 3rd cousins sharing 99cM across 5 segments.

This John Davy was born  21 January 1834 in Clyst Honiton, Devon, England. He was one of  12 children born to John and Mary Anne Davy nee Jennings in Heavitree area of Devon, England.

My reminder from this is to search all probable spellings of a surname. Sometimes my John was a Davey other times a Davy.

Readers: Have you made a mistake with a person on your tree? How did you go about fixing it?