The Public Record
The Public Record Office (P.R.O.) is a vast repository of records, deeds and documents, on of the finest archives in Europe. The documentation is housed in two separate buildings, one in Chancery Lane in London which holds the Medieval and early modern records and one in Ruskin Avenue, Kew, which holds modern deparmental records. The Census Returns Office, also at Chancery Lane, is the third part of the Public Record Office.
Although many famous documents are on view in the meseum of the P.R.O., such as the Doomday Book, Shakespeare's Will and the log book of HMS Victory, those most likely to be of interest to you are the ones that record events in the lives of ordinary people, such as divorces, Army, Navy, Air Force and Merchent Seamen records. Additional documentation relates to court cases, goverment department records including maps and plans, Home, Foreign and War Office, and Special groups of people such as Civil Servants, bankrupts, clergymen, criminals, emigrants and many more.
It is necessary to obtain a readers ticket if you wish to engage in research at the Chancery Lane and Kew departments of the P.R.O., either at the Enquiry Office at Chancery Lane or at the Reception Desk at Kew. Existing but expired tickets can be also renewed at those desks. No charge is made for the readers tickets which will be issued to you on the production of formal proof of your identity such as a drivers licence, passport or bankers card or a letter of recommendation from a suitable professional person (doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, etc). The same ticket can be used at either branch. The times of openings are regular but it is always worth a telephone call to ensure that no changes have been made and also to enquire whether the records you wish to see are at Chancery Lane or Kew. The P.R.O. usually closes for two weeks at the beginning of October for stocktaking, making a telephone call at that time of the year most essential.
The rule of using only a pencil applies in all areas of the P.R.O. Readers are requested to take care of any fragile documents entrusted to them and not put their notebooks on top of documents nor trace from them. Readers are allowed to request up to three documents at a time and there is no limit set on time you may keep the documents. A request in advance for documents to be available on a certain day can be made by telephone the day before or by written request. This is particularly helpful if you know what documents you will require as it saves waiting time, which can be up to thirty minutes. A Photo-copying service is available at all branches of the P.R.O. and a leaflet giving their fees and charges is available at the enquiry desks.
Allow a whole day for your visit to the Kew department of the P.R.O., which is a short distance from both the Underground and British Rail stations, has ample parking space and is also served by several bus routes. In most cases you will find your one day will extend to many others. The main reading room is on the first floor with a smaller room for maps and large documents on the second floor. The Enquiry Desk, your first port of call is in the Reference Room which also houses idexes, list and reference books. There is a self service resaurant and drink vending machines on the premises of the P.R.O. No food or drink may be consumed in the reading rooms.
Documents at Kew are ordered by computer in the Reference Room and it is necessary to have a seat number. When you have obtained your readers ticket apply in the search room for a bleeper which will also give you a seat number. Search the indexes for the reference numbers of the documents you require and enter the documents and reference numbers together with your seat number on one of the computer terminals. If you have never met a computer before or feel a little bewildered, seek assistance from an attendant. You will soon find out how things work once they are explained to you, and if you make notes, you can practice on your own. Remember you can request up to three documents at a time. When your documents are ready for collection from the desk, your bleeper will bleep.
The Chancery lane branch of the P.R.O. has two reading rooms on the ground floor. There is a reference room on the first floor together with the probate reading room and the reading room for large documents and maps. The reading rooms are known as either the Round Room or the Long Room. It is not necessary to obtain a seat number at Chancery Lane. The ordering of documents is again by computer, but instead of a seat number you quote "Round" or "Long" according to which room you use for your research. Hopefully by the time you get to the desk in the room you have chosen, the documents will be ready for you. If not, use your waiting time to investigate the books on the open shelves. There are drink vending machines but no restaurant; however readers may eat their own food in the public waiting room. Chancery Lane is in an area surrounded by the law courts, newspaper offices and comercial offices. There are many self service restaurants, expensive executive restaurants, sandwich bars and "pub lunches" available.
The P.R.O. publish many leaflets giving details of the records they hold including a general Information Leaflet and their staff are helpful. They will advise what records are available, how the coded reference system works and how to obtain documents for research. They cannot however, assist with personal research. There is a published guide available in several volumes from HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationery Office). It is possible that your local reference library or County Record Office will keep copies of this guide. The following are some of the records available at the P.R.O. which may be of most interest to the family historian.
Up to date divorces, like census returns are not available to the public. A rule exists restricting the availability of files for 75 years from the date of the divorce. The indexes nevertheless are available for inspection. Application to see recent papers can be made to the Family Division of the Registry in some cases. Divorce records open for research are from 1858.
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen.
Almost everybody had somebody in the family who became a member of the armed forces, whether a Cavalier or Roundhead in the civil war of 1642-1649, a regular soldier serving in the South African war or a Royal Marine serving in the Second World War.
The war office records held in P.R.O. are by no means complete, but they are extensive. There was no regular army in England before the civil war. Earls, Barons and Kings raised armies as their needs dictated and no formal records were kept. Any records that were kept were in the hands of the regiments raised which were usually ally named after their colonels. There are some records relating to the civil war with regiments listed together with their officers.
Wills and Probate
Such records as exist relating to wills and probate prior to 1858 are held at the P.R.O., Chancery Lane. Few Wills of the probate Courts where wills were proved by the executors in order that they could legally act in accordance with the instructions fiven in the will. Most will prior to 1858, were dealt with by ecclesiastical or church courts, mainly Prerogative Court of York (P.C.Y.). Where each will was dealt with depended upon the place of death and the size of the estate of the deceased. After 1769 a Legacy Duty became payable on a grant of probate and the Legacy Duty Registers are held in the P.R.O. These Registers which are unfortunately closed to the public for 125 years from the date the duty was entered in the Register state in which court the probate was entered. The Registers for 1854 were opened to the public in January 1980. There are also records of litigation relating to wills. A preliminary search of the indexes relating to wills and probate will give some idea of the material available.
Emigrants and Immigrants.
There is no complete index of the names of foreigners entering England for the purpose of immigration, but there are many records held in the P.R.O. There are documents relating to alien clergymen, strangers in London, and documents from German, Swiss, French and Dutch churches. There are also Treasury records, Certificates of Aliens, Lists of Immigrants made by ships' Masters and Registers of Passanger Lists.
Those Leaving England to emigrate are also well represented in the records of the Colonial Office, the Home Office, the Board of Trade and the Treasury. There are lists of criminals departed to America, army pensioners who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. If your ancestors emigrated, it may take you a long time, but you could find him or her somewhere in the records at the P.R.O.
You may have heard stories from your relatives of money due to the family but lost due to lack of evidence, or because "Uncle George married again and we never found out what happened to the money". The stories are various and inventive. There is a department of the Chancery Court that since 1876 has dealt with money deposited by solicitors who were unable to trace the next of kin or beneficiaries of an estate. If you can provide evidence of benificial interest, the details of such accounts can be inspected free of charge. There are also lists published by the London Gazette which can be seen at the P.R.O. It may be worth a try if you think your family story is founded on facts which you have substantiated by your researches.
Certain documentation relating to the Metropolitan Police is available at the P.R.O., such as certificates of service from 1889-1900 and registers giving names of those who joined the police and those who left between 1829-1947. If you have a family tradition of fathers and sons joining the police force, you may be able to trace several generations using these records.
There are many other categories of records in the P.R.O. available to you, to help you trace your ancestors, including Change of name deeds, Shipping records, Private Conveyances or sales of land, Manorial Court Rolls and Maps, Apprenticeship Records, Railway Companies before nationalisation to name but a few. All you need is time, patience and perseverance.
Pay a short visit to the branch of P.R.O. which is nearest to you to collect as much literature as is available giving details of all the records and familiarise yourself with the layout of the building. At the same time you can obtain a readers ticket and possibly spend a little time finding out how to use the computer ordering system. When you have sifted through information in the leaflets, make a list of any records that you think might assist you and then spend a full day, using all your time there to best advantage by preparing thoroughly for your visit before you go.
If you have any information, Just E-mail me, and I'll check it out.
This Page is always under Construction
Last updated 17/8/2000
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