Using Local Archives

Time Travel Guides Resources for local and family history

Using Town and County Archives for Local and Family History Research

Time Travel Guides: Resources for Local and Family History » Using Local Archives

Local archives collect all kinds of material relating to a particular town or county, so they are invaluable for local history research. Local archives can also be helpful for family history research, as more people left a mark on their local areas than are mentioned in the national-level documents preserved at the National Archives.

How to Access

Local archives are available across the UK, holding documents related to specific towns, regions, or counties. Most archives will have a website where you can find out what they hold. You will usually be able to search their catalogues and some documents may be available to download. Many UK archives can also be searched via the National Archives catalogue, which can be a useful tool for identifying which local centres hold the documents you need.

You can also visit a local archives in person. The archives may have a library with useful local texts such as directories or poll books, computers with free access to genealogy websites, michrofiche and microfilm readers, and reading rooms where you can look at original documents. You will usually need to sign up for a reader’s ticket to access these documents. You may also need to book a place or order the documents you want to see ahead of your visit.

Shropshire Archives covers Shrewsbury and the surrounding area. Shropshire Archives has digitised some of its collection, including many photographs and other images, which can be viewed online. The Advanced Search function on the website has some useful features, such as searching by location and you can order documents online before you visit. The website also has some useful guidance on using the archives and the materials they hold.

Other local archives that might hold relevant material (especially for families who crossed county borders) include Powys Archives, Staffordshire Record Office, and Herefordshire Archive and Records Centre. The services offered by these archives can vary. Some have lots of online resources and digitised records, while others still need to be visited in person to access any documents.

What Material is Available?

Local archives hold collections that are related to the area that they cover. Most documents will have been created locally, but there will also be material linked to families or businesses that have local connections. Sometimes, documents from distant places can be held in unexpected archives because of these connections – this is why searching across all the archives listed on the National Archives site can be helpful.

Most archives will hold copies or original versions of the local parish registers, official documents from the local government (including ancient boroughs, town corporations, and councils), local court records, and documents deposited by local families and businesses. Maps, photographs, and pictures of local people and places are often available too. Each archive has a unique collection that will be shaped by local history, so there can be all kinds of material to uncover.

Some archives focus on a specific topic rather than a particular area. For example, the Wellcome Collection has an archive relating to the history of medicine. If your research interests coincide with any specialist collections, you could find a lot of useful material.

When to Use Local Archives

Local archives are most useful when you need lots of information from one area, whether you’re researching the local history or looking into long family roots in one place. Some material, such as parish registers, may also be available through genealogy sites, but archive collections can take you further back in time and provide a lot more depth.

The types of documents included in archives often relate to trade, land ownership and tenancies, legal disputes, criminal trials, and the parish welfare system. If you’re investigating these activities or someone who was involved with them, there’s a good chance of finding some useful information. Many individuals did not leave these kinds of records, but it’s often worth checking for surnames of interest in the archive covering the area as there can sometimes be unexpected results. You might find that an ancestor was called as a witness, acted as a town or parish clerk, or signed a tenancy agreement with the local landowner.

Tips on Using Local Archives

1. Finding the Right Archives

The first step to finding the information you need is to identify the archives where you should be searching. In some cases, this is easy to do. Shrewsbury is the county town of Shropshire and lies in its centre, so most of the relevant material is likely to be in the county archives. However, it can be harder to know where to look if you’re investigating a location nearer a county border or a family who lived across a wider area.

In most cases, you will simply need to find the county archives for the location(s) you’re interested in, but there can be some exceptions. Some archives cover cities or other regions, rather than an entire county. Others cover areas where the counties or their borders have changed. For example, Powys no longer exists as a county, but there is still an archive covering this area. If the counties or borders have changed, you will need to check which county the location was in during the period you’re researching. Documents from different periods could be held in different archives.

In some cases, the records you need can turn up in unexpected places. Records can be in the neighbouring county (especially for people who lived near the border) or even in a completely different part of the country. For example, a landowner may have leased out properties in Shropshire while living in London and keeping their records at their ancestral home in Scotland. The records you need could now be in any of these locations.

The National Archives online catalogue can help you to identify the right archives. More than 2500 local archives have added their own material to this catalogue, so one search here can tell you which archives you need to visit.

2. Searching in Local Archives

Most archives will have a searchable online catalogue, but the amount of detail in the entries and the search functions that are available can vary. Some sites only have a basic search function, while others give you more control. It can be worthwhile checking any guidance on the site to see what search options are available as each archive has its own way of doing things. If the search functions are limited then you may be able to use the National Archives website instead as many local archives have added their material to the Discovery catalogue. You can restrict the search to a specific archive.

3. Support from Local Archives

Town and county archives often offer more than the material in their collections. Some archive websites have detailed advice on using their collections and conducting different types of research. You can also ask the archive staff for more specific advice if you need it. Many archives offer research and copying services too, although there will usually be a charge for these.