How to find your ancestors' school records

By Guest, 5 September 2016 - 3:18pm

As children across Britain trudge (or skip) off to their first day of school, Michelle Higgs takes a quick look at the records available for genealogists researching their forebears' school days

Back to school genealogy records
Your ancestors may have left the classroom long ago, but records of their education may still survive online and in the archives

It's back to school this September but as we pack our children off with shiny new shoes and an over-sized blazer, it's worth thinking about our forebears whose school records are now easier to trace then ever before.

The creation of board schools from 1870 led to large numbers of records being generated; primarily admission and discharge registers, and logbooks. The registers are the most valuable for family historians as they provide personal information about pupils while logbooks give an overall picture of life in one particular school. They may contain references to school trips, sickness, inspections and individually named pupils. The records of schools which were founded prior to 1870 may also be extant, although coverage can be patchy.

Until recently, it could be a laborious process to search for a particular person in these sources, especially if you’re not sure which school your ancestor attended. Now a landmark project between schools, record offices and archives in England and Wales – the National School Admission Registers & Log-books online collection – 
has been created in partnership with Findmypast. If you don't have a subscription to the website, you can access the collection by visiting any of the archives that have participated in the project.

In addition to the admission registers and logbooks, there are a number of other school records to try in search of your ancestors...

Public schools

If your ancestor went to a public school, many of their histories and registers have been digitised and are available for free at or on subscription sites such as Ancestry, Findmypast or TheGenealogist. They include Eton, Harrow, Marlborough College, Repton School, Charterhouse and Malvern College.

Industrial schools

The main purpose of industrial schools was to help vulnerable children before they committed a crime. Meticulous registers were kept that can provide detailed information about your kin. The records of some industrial schools are included in the Findmypast collection, including the Manchester Industrial School registers 1866-1912. Alternatively, contact the archive or library nearest to the school you’re interested in to ascertain whether records have survived.

Workhouse or Poor Law schools

If your ancestor spent time in a union workhouse as a child, it’s worth finding out if school records still exist for the institution. Check on Discovery for workhouses in England and Wales or on the Scottish Archive Network for Scotland. Some workhouse records are online: Ancestry has digitised those for London, Warwickshire and Dorset; Findmypast has published some of Monmouthshire, Cheshire, Bury and Manchester’s records online; while FamilySearch has Kent and Manchester. These may not include school registers so a visit to the archives may be required.

Schools in Scotland

In Scotland, local authority schools funded partly by rates and partly by pupil fees were set up under the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act. From 1873 onwards, headteachers were required to keep admission registers and logbooks. Sadly, in large numbers of cases, records disappeared or were destroyed when schools closed. Many surviving Scottish school registers are still kept by the schools themselves, while some are held by local authority archives. You can find out which records are available for a school by searching the Scottish Archive Network catalogue.

Schools in Northern Ireland

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) holds the records of more than 1,500 National Schools in Northern Ireland, mainly from the 1860s to the 1940s. There is a useful online searchable index of these records in a PDF format. Just press Ctrl+F (Cmd+F on a Mac) to search by school name, parish or county.

The index includes the PRONI collection reference number, which can then be used to search the online catalogue to ascertain which records are available for a particular school. The original records can be consulted in the PRONI Reading Room in Belfast.

The National Archives

The National Archives also offers a couple of useful guides for finding school records: one on elementary and primary schools and another more general article here.

A version of this article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.


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