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How to get old school records online in the UK

Old school records can be a great family history resource - here's how to trace them online

Old school records

How to get old school records online in the UK

Throughout the 19th century, children in the UK slowly secured the right to an education. Schooling was made mandatory in England and Wales in 1880 (for children aged 5 to 10) and in Scotland in 1872 (for children aged 5 to 13). Prior to this schools were run by churches, charities and burghs. The Anglican National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor was established in 1811, and founded many schools over the following years that became known as National Schools. Conversely ‘British Schools’ were run by a nonconformist organisation formed in 1808 that promoted the Monitorial System, where older children helped teach younger children, while ‘ragged schools’ trace their history back to John Pounds, who in 1818 set up a free school for poor children.

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This means that survival of old school records depends on the specific school. Finding your ancestor in old school records provides a fascinating glimpse into their childhood and precious proof of where they were living between census records. Fortunately, there are some surviving collections of old school records online for you to search.

Old school records: The best websites

1. National School Admissions Registers & Log-Books 1870-1914

Findmypast old school records

Some of the most important old school records are logbooks and admission and discharge registers which, if they survive, tend to reside in local archives. Findmypast’s centralised source for England and Wales first launched in 2014 and now boasts more than seven million old school records from 41 counties. In total there is data here from over 1,500 schools. Admission registers were usually kept from around 1870 and give the name of the child, date of birth, date of admission to the school, plus father’s name, address and sometimes occupation. Logbooks can tell you more about the community, often mentioning bouts of sickness, harvests, civic celebrations and national events, and sometimes children’s reports and reasons for absence.

2. Rugby School Digital Archives

Rugby School Digital Archives old school records

Founded in 1567, Rugby is one of the oldest independent schools in Britain. Not only the official birthplace of rugby football, it was also the stomping ground of influential educator Thomas Arnold, who also features in Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). This digital archive is an excellent example of the kind of old records that might survive within school archives, containing registers, photograph albums, account books, minute books, school magazines, programmes, reports, bills, exam papers and house records. Digitised highlights include in-school magazine The Meteor and school registers from 1675 to 1946.

3. The National Library of Wales

The National Library of Wales old school records

Wales was a hotbed of social unrest during the first half of the 19th century, and the quality of education on offer was seen as an important factor. In 1847 a survey of all Welsh schools was carried out, and the resulting books have been digitised by the National Library of Wales. Although pupils are not named, the books give a fascinating insight into the education that your ancestors would have received. Powys Archives has also added three transcribed school logbooks from the 1870s to 1900 to its website.

4. London School Admissions And Discharges

Ancestry old school registers

Although Findmypast rules the roost elsewhere in England and Wales, Ancestry dominates the landscape in London. This collection has records from 843 London schools, containing references to about one million students, mainly from admission and discharge registers – children could be discharged from schooling if they needed to work to help support the family. The details vary between schools, but at the very least you should be able to discover parents’ names and occupations, address and the child’s date of birth. Make sure that you check this Card Catalogue page listing the many other UK schools.

5. Lambeth Palace Library

Lambeth Palace Library old school records

The Church of England Record Centre, located at the Lambeth Palace Library, has various categories of records created by the Church, including records of the National Society, founded in 1811 to promote elementary education. The collection includes indexes of schoolteachers, as well as material relating to the first generation of National Society schools. The homepage includes a link to the wider ‘Collections’ page which will lead you to the research guides in PDF format, including one on education sources. There’s also this Building on History page on the Church in London.

6. Expert’s choice: The National Archives

The National Archives old school records

Chosen by Gill Blanchard, author of Writing Your Family History and Tracing Your House History:

“Old school records can be such an enlightening source. Not only can they offer you a record of your ancestor’s education, but also provide a window onto the local community. Many schools existed as parish, Church of England or voluntary schools, and records of nonconformist churches may also contain information about schools.

“The website of The National Archives at Kew (TNA) forms an excellent starting point for finding out more about this subject. This very concise guide should be used in conjunction with the site’s related guides to education records, education inspectorate and teacher training.

“The guide has links to some of the most useful online resources, many of which are mentioned elsewhere in this article. And once you have the name of a school, an approximate date range, and the county or local authority, you can also dive into TNA’s online catalogue Discovery to search for where the original records may survive.

“If your forebear was a teacher, unfortunately TNA does not have any records of individual teachers or training colleges. However, there is material about the administrative or policy files relating to teachers and teacher training in England and Wales, plus links to where records may survive.

“As a professional house historian, my other tip is to approach your research from the perspective of the school building. This can lead to information about the origins of the school, the kind of education it offered, and its place as a focal point for the local community.”

Old school records: More websites

7. National Records of Scotland

This National Records of Scotland guide explains how to research old school records in Scotland, and the Virtual Vault on the website of the defunct Scottish Archive Network project includes a headteacher’s logbook from Pitsligo School.

8. Family and Community Historical Research Society

The society has run research projects into schoolmistresses and school logbooks.

9. Hidden Lives Revealed

Explore the lives and schooling of children in the care of the Children’s Society (formerly the Waifs and Strays’ Society) from 1881.

10. History of Education Society

The society’s twice-yearly bulletin includes a digest of major accessions to UK repositories.

11. Manchester High School for Girls Archive

Search letters, governors’ minutes, newspaper cuttings, programmes, magazines and reports from this progressive school, founded in 1874.

12. Radley College Archives

The digital archive from this Oxfordshire school includes registers, staff records, photographs, newsletters and manuscript collections.

13. Sheffield Indexers

Search transcribed admission registers from the city’s schools, many reaching back to the 1870s.

14. GenGuide

This page of Peter Humphries’ website GenGuide describes some of the most useful resources for researching the teachers in your tree, many of which are now available online.

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Jonathan Scott is a freelance writer and family history expert. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.