Sunday, 7 August 2011

Book review: Tracing Your London Ancestors

Tracing Your London Ancestors: a guide for family historians, by Jonathan Oates, 2011. Published by Pen and Sword Books Limited, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, S70 2AS.
ISBN 9781848841307. Paperback, 183pp, illustrations, index. £12.99

The population of Metropolitan London grew from near one million at the beginning of the 19th century to seven million at the beginning of the 20th. London is now the focus of a sprawling area of some 14 million. If you have English ancestry branches of your family tree are likely to have strayed to, if not become rooted in, London. Researching your London ancestry is a topic unto itself, which is highlighted this year as a theme for the BIFHSGO conference.

Dr Jonathan Oates, Archivist and Local History Librarian for the London Borough of Ealing, already has several books on aspects of the history of London to his credit. Several relate to criminal activities. This is the first aimed at the family historian.

Twelve short chapters form the bulk of the work, starting with an overview of the population and administrative history of London. The explanation would have been helped by a map showing the arrangement of London’s boroughs.
In chapter two, Lists of Londoners, Oates mentions sources more widely applicable,  the census, directories, voters lists and those less familiar sources such as Protestation Rolls.
Criminal London, chapter three, given surprising prominence, likely because it’s one of Oates’ particular interests, explains the courts, police, newspaper and prison records that exist where you may find your criminal, and also your victim and witness ancestors.
Chapter four, ecclesiastical London, describing the records of the Church of England, nonconformists and Catholics, Jews and other religions.
Chapter five, taxing Londoners, is a short overview of the taxes, to which residents have been subject including – hearth tax, tithes, ship tax, window tax, game duty, poll tax, land tax, income tax, and death duties.
Chapter six, educating London, looks at school, university, and other educational records including those of private schools and the apprenticeship system.
Chapter seven, social and cultural London, explores Londoners at leisure, in ill health, poverty and the orphaned. As ever, those administering and delivering the service are more likely to be found than those receiving them.
Chapter eight, on business and working London, guides you through the variety of often less explored business records.
Chapter nine, on medieval London, deals with the time before the census, civil registration, and  most parish records which is typically over the horizon for most genealogists whose illiterate and impoverished peasant ancestors escaped the written record. This chapter may help you in finding any more prosperous antecedents.
Chapter 10, London under attack, is the London slant on military records.
Chapter 11, London's Incomers, explores resources for immigrants to London, "that cesspool into which all the idlers and loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained" quoting Sherlock Holmes' Dr. Watson.
Chapter 12, House History, explores sources for those looking to go beyond the history of individuals and the family into the places they inhabited and knew.

The bibliography includes useful lists of London-wide institutions, county record offices and London Authority archives with postal, e-mail and website addresses and the area covered.

Inevitably in a book of 183 pages, even though of a slightly larger 23.2 x 15.6 cm format than other books in the series in my library, some things don’t get detailed coverage. I found the treatment of cemeteries and burial records rather sketchy. Given the huge number of newspapers now being digitized a more comprehensive treatment would have been warranted.

Oates personal interest shows in the especially generous treatment of criminal London. Tracing Your London Ancestors is a convenient and very readable guide through the maze of London area records.

Although the book has no more typographical errors than normal one did strike me as particularly amusing. Oates makes frequent reference to Jack the Ripper, the elusive East End serial murderer of 1888. In one instance this becomes Jack the Stripper – who was presumably not so elusive.

Tracing Your London Ancestors is listed at $17.36 on although it is not presently available. Nor will you find it at Global Genealogy.

This review is based on a copy received from the publisher.


Ian Barker said...

I purchased my copy at Global Genealogy, who featured it in a newsletter, several weeks ago.

JDR said...

It looks like it must be out of stock at They have been known to take items out of their catalog when they can't give reasonably prompt service.

turner said...

It is, however, available at the bookstore of the National Archives at Kew. Open the home page, click on Shop Online (at the top of the page),then on Bookshop on the lower part of the page. Put London Ancestors into the search feature at the upper left and click search. I have found TNA very quick in mailing their books off to us in Canada.
Used copies are also available on
Brenda Turner

WJM said...

Thanks for plugging ABEbooks!