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Essex Record Office
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Essex, CM2 6YT

Telephone: 01245 244644

  Researching family history

25 April 2013

If you are intending to research your family history, the leaflets Family History in Essex and Getting Started on Family History provide in-depth information about best practice when researching. The information below offers a brief outline.

Researching family history

Prior to beginning your research, it is advisable to ask family members for details they can remember, such as names and dates of birth of family members. Information about where relatives lived is important, and any documentary evidence, such as photographs with names on, certificates, or a family bible, can be invaluable. The more information you can gather from family members before beginning your research, the easier it will be.

Civil registration documents

The best place to begin your research is with the General Register Office certificates of births, marriages and deaths. The ERO does not hold copies of these certificates. These records began in 1837, and can be accessed in a number of ways:
  • Microfiche copies of the indexes for the years 1837-2001 are held by the Essex Society for Family History at their research centre in the ERO building
  • Microfiche copies of the indexes up to 2008, and including overseas births, marriages and deaths, are held by the London Metropolitan Archives, City of Westminster Archives Centre and several other large libraries.
  • Paid online searches can be made at a number of websites including Find My Past and can be accessed free from the ERO Searchroom and Essex Libraries
  • Many indexes are available online for free at FreeBMD.
Copies of birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered from the General Register Office. Local register offices can also supply duplicate certificates.

Church of England registers

Church of England registers of baptisms, marriages and burials for Essex survive for some parishes as far back as 1538. Attendance at Anglican churches was compulsory, and these registers provide approximate dates for births, deaths and marriages in families before 1837. Microfiche copies of parish registers for the whole of Essex can be viewed at the ERO and at Archive Access Points.
Digital images of parish registers can be viewed on the Essex Ancestors subscription service (please check the records you need have been digitised before subscribing).

Census records

The ERO in Chelmsford holds microfilm copies of the census returns for the period 1841-1901. Information on accessing the ERO microfilms is contained in the Getting Started on Family History leaflet. 

These copies can be viewed at the ERO building and at the Local Studies Library in Colchester. Copies for small areas of the county are often accessible in local libraries.
From 1841, census returns contained information about individuals, arranged household by household and street by street. Census returns are not available to the public until they are 100 years old.
The information contained in census returns can be inaccurate for a number of reasons, but the place of birth information, if accurate, provides an essential link to parish registers, which can be searched back as far as the sixteenth century.

Census information

The census is taken every ten years and contains the following information about everyone in the household:
  • Full name;
  • Relationship to head of household (not included in 1841 census);
  • Exact age (except 1841 census, where ages 15-60 are given to the nearest 5 years, and ages over 60 are given to the nearest 10 years);
  • Marital status;
  • Occupation;
  • Place of birth (except 1841, where it is simply stated whether the birth place is within the county).

The 1911 census

Copies of the 1911 census are not held by the ERO. It may be accessed online through a pay per view or subscription website. 


The ERO holds wills proved in ecclesiastical courts in Essex from 1400 to 1858. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury also proved Essex wills. These can be searched and viewed at The National Archives.

For wills after 1858, check the probate indexes for 1858-1943 on microfiche at the ERO. To research wills after 1858, contact the National Archives.

Further information about wills in Essex is contained in the Wills in Essex leaflet. 

Newspaper archives

Newspaper archives can provide a range of additional information that brings a family history to life. Newspapers can also be a valuable source of information where official records do not survive. The British Library Newspaper Library has titles for the whole country. Copies of some Essex newspapers can be seen in the ERO and at libraries around the county. See the ERO Newspapers leaflet for more information. 

Other records

The ERO holds a variety of additional records, including tax returns, poll books, electoral registers, marriage licences, manorial documents and estate collections, which can provide valuable information. Staff at the ERO are available to provide assistance on material held on Seax, and can give advice on other documents or repositories.
We also run regular short courses on family history research, which provide a good basic grounding in research methods, note keeping and best practice. See the workshops, classes and services for schools page for more information.
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