How to find adoption records

Actor Lesley Sharp had been raised by her adopted parents but wished to learn more about her birth family. If you too have an adoption in your family tree, read how to tackle the most common obstacles with Sara Khan's expert guide.

Row Of Orphans

Lesley Sharp had already made contact with her birth mother about 20 years ago through an adoption agency called NORCAP. She met her birth mother, Elsie Makinson, and was in touch with her for the rest of Elsie’s life.

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During the programme, Lesley decided to investigate the life of her birth father, Norman Patient, and his family as she knew that Norman was no longer alive. The star then met the other children of Norman, her half-siblings, for the first time in this very emotional journey.

She was able to learn more about her biological father through this meeting and continued to trace the Patient branch of her family tree to her great great grandfather, Charles Patient. Lesley was surprised to discover that Charles himself adopted two Barnardo’s children and then learned more about the lives of these adopted children.

Adoption has been practised for thousands of years, but only became an official procedure in England and Wales in 1927 and it is from this date that it is possible to find official documentation. Prior to that, adoption was arranged privately and there is no guarantee of finding documentation for an adopted ancestor.

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Adoption records after 1927

The Adoption of Children Act, 1926, made adoption in England and Wales a legal process from 1 January 1927.

Petty Sessions Courts would have magistrates approving adoptions and a clerk would keep a file recording the process. These surviving records would be held by the local archive and may not be open to the general public.

Adoptions were subsequently entered into an official register known as the Adopted Children Register. This is held by the GRO but is not accessible to the general public. You will need to have the adopted child’s adoptive name and date of birth to obtain the adoption certificate.

However, the certificate will not give the child’s birth name so it is not possible to cross reference – even though the child’s original birth entry will note the adoption – and you will need to have those details to be able order the original birth certificate unless you are seeking details of your own adoption, in which case the GRO can provide you with both certificates. Further details can be found at www.gov.uk/adoption-records.

The Adoption Act of 1976 was another piece of legislation affecting the adoption process. Prior to this it had been assumed that adoption was final and there would be no reunion between the respective parties.

The Act altered this and gave individuals adopted after 11 November 1975 the right to access their birth records after reaching the age of 18. Those adopted before that date could also seek their birth records provided that they saw a counsellor beforehand.

Today, the Adoption, Search and Reunion website is geared towards assisting those affected by adoption.

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Advice on tracing Scottish adoption records can be found on the National Archives of Scotland website and for Northern Ireland, records  are kept at the General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI).

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Adoption records prior to 1927

As there was no legal framework for adoption during this time there will be no guarantee of finding any adoption records.

If there was a dispute between the adopted parents and mother that found its way into a court, then it’s worth searching the British Newspaper Archive to see if anything was reported locally.Other records may surface if any adoption was organised by a local charity or orphanage. For example, the Thomas Coram Foundation (now Coram) retained a register for children admitted to their Foundling Hospital from 1974 onwards. Although their older records are held with the London Metropolitan Archives, details of their more recent holdings can be found here.

Another charitable organisation heavily involved in the care of children was Dr Barnardo’s. If your ancestor was taken in by this organisation then you can contact them to see what records they may have.

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Child migration records

Lesley’s episode also touched on another aspect of child fostering and care – the policy of child migration.

Although its earliest origins go back as far as the 17th century, it became more widespread from the mid-19th century, after the changes brought about by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (the Board of Guardians were now permitted to send children abroad) and carried up until the 1960s. It is estimated that between 1922 and 1967 about 150,000 children were resettled in Canada and Australasia.

Many charities and philanthropic organisations were also involved in resettling children. At the time it was seen as a benevolent practice offering underprivileged children a new start in their lives. It had the support of the British and host nations’ governments.

If your ancestor’s migration was organised by the Board of Guardians there may be a record among their minutes, held at the local repository. The Child Migrants Trust, www.childmigrantstrust.com, was established in 1987 with the aim of helping those affected by child migration by providing counselling and helping migrants trace their roots.

Sara Khan is the lead genealogist on the Who Do You Think You Are? BBC TV series