How to make the most of free online family history records from The National Archives

The National Archives has lifted the fee for its online records during the coronavirus pandemic - here's how they can help you discover your ancestors

The entrance to The National Archives

Although The National Archives is now reopening on a limited basis, it is continuing to offer free access to thousands of its digitised family history records.

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At Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, we wanted to share some of the highlights and reveal how you can best take advantage of this limited offer.

First of all, you have to register for an account on its website Discovery. This is free, and enables TNA to check that you are complying with its ‘fair use’ policy.

The main restrictions are that you can’t put more than 10 items in your basket per visit, and you can’t download more than 50 items over the course of a 30-day period. Fifty items may sound like a lot, but it’s important to keep an eye on what you are downloading. If, like me, you feel like a child in a sweetshop (or a panic buyer looking for loo roll) your orders can quickly mount up.

Army and military records

TNA is usually your first port of call for military records. Many have been digitised and are now hosted on the major subscription websites, but there are a good number of useful records that are now freely available on TNA’s website. Some, like the First World War Medal Index Cards (MICs), are also available on commercial websites. The Durham Home Guard records from the Second World War have just been added to Findmypast, but they are also available to view here for free.

One of my favourite military collections here is WO399, which contains the service records of First World War nurses. These can run to many pages with details of disabilities caused by war, references and family information, as well as where they served. The service records from the Household Cavalry (WO400) are equally detailed, and cover both the First World War and earlier service.

Later records can be found in WO373 (‘Recommendations for military honours and awards 1935–1990’). Although not all of the records have survived, there is a sizeable collection from the Second World War here. If you have previously found a decorated soldier in the Gazette then it is certainly worth searching WO373 to see if the original citation survives.

If you are lucky you will get a fascinating and detailed report on why they were put forward for an award. For example, Lieutenant Avtar Singh was awarded the Military Cross in March 1945 for the part he played in the Battle of Meiktila during the Burma campaign. His citation gives thrilling detail: “in spite of the heavy sniping… and bursting mines, Lieut. Avtar Singh climbed up into an adjoining house and brought down another concentration on the area where the gun flash was seen… By his initiative, disregard of danger and appreciation of the urgency of the situation and accurate shooting he… very materially speeded up the conclusion of the battle of Meiktila.”

RAF records

In our July issue we ran a Record Masterclass on Royal Air Force Operations Record Books (ORBs), but there’s plenty more here for those researching their flying ancestors (and those who served with them).

Although the strongest collections date from the First World War including about 30,000 Women’s Royal Air Force service records, it includes AIR50 which is an interesting collection of combat reports from the Second World War. This is an incomplete collection and can only be searched by pilot, air gunner or date, but is fascinating nonetheless. You can download reports from the thick of the Battle of Britain and marvel at the detail recorded, from how many rounds were fired, to blow-by-blow accounts of engagements with enemy aircraft.

Royal and Merchant navy records

Britain has a proud maritime heritage and this is reflected in the collections held at TNA, including those now digitised.

The collections include service records for both officers and ratings, as well as medal records for merchant seamen covering both world wars. We have run a Record Masterclass on the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve records in the past, and I have found my own family’s First World War service records in that collection.

Another highlight is the unpaid pensions claims from 1830–1860, because they often include supporting documents such as wills, death certificates and marriage records. I have even found pre-civil registration baptism records in the collection.

Other records useful to family historians

The main set I would include in this group is the fantastic collection of wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). Dating all the way back to 1384, these wills can be a gold mine of information if you find an ancestor in them. PCC wills are available on various commercial sites as well, but there are other records here that can’t be found elsewhere.

Two collections cover migration: the aliens’ registration cards 1918–1957, which usually include photos; and the naturalisation case papers from 1801–1870. If you see “naturalised” in the “Where born” column of a census record, then the case papers would be worth investigating.

There’s also a rare collection of First World War service appeal tribunal records from Middlesex. Tribunals were set up across the country to listen to those who appealed against conscription. Although conscientious objection was allowed as a reason not to serve, the records show that most people appealed for other reasons. This is one of the few sample collections that survive – the rest of the tribunal records were destroyed after the war.

Finally, there’s a fascinating collection of photograph albums from Wandsworth Prison for 1872–1873. Although the chances of you finding family incarcerated at this time may seem slim, while the records are free you can download one just to see how prisons used the relatively new technology of photography. You can search by name or offence, although you do need to use the contemporary legal term for the crime – for example ‘larceny’ for a theft.

Searching for records

There are two ways that you can search for records at TNA. You can either search across the archive’s entire catalogue via Discovery, or you can search specific collections by selecting ‘Search the catalogue’ from the homepage.

Type in the name of the relative you are researching, but don’t include dates at this stage. Where it says ‘Held by’ select ‘The National Archives only’. When your search results come up, there is an option down the left-hand side for ‘Available for download only’ with a number indicating how many results have been found. Select that and you have a further opportunity to filter the results by date or by collection.

This search function is great for collections that are name-indexed, but will not find records in unindexed collections, or War Diaries or operational records that need to be searched by date or battalion, for example.

If you see a collection in this article that you think is likely to mention your relative, or at least provide useful context, then you can search or browse the specific collection. There are many ways to do this. One is to go to the homepage and select ‘Find online collections’. This lists all of the digitised content (although if it says “Available on: Findmypast” or “Available on: Ancestry”, it will not be available for free on TNA). Clicking on the collection that interests you will give you valuable context, explaining what is and what is not included, and how best to search the collection.

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All in all, this is a wonderful opportunity for people to explore a small, but important, selection of TNA’s vast holdings without having to travel to Kew or spend lots of money. We would love to hear of any discoveries you make in the collections on offer here, and don’t forget to sign up to our weekly email newsletter to hear about other lockdown offers and digital releases.