Discovering German ancestors

With a long history of German immigrants coming to Britain, many family researchers may find they have some Germanic ancestry. There are plenty of ways to find out more, as Peter Towey explains.

Aerial view of harbor along Elbe River, Hamburg

The North Sea has always been more of a highway than a barrier and, over the years, many groups of German-speaking people have made their way to Britain in the hope of a better life. When George I, the Elector of Hanover, came to the British throne in 1714, he was followed here by large numbers of Hanoverians and Brunswickers.


The 18th and 19th centuries saw a huge influx of German-speaking immigrants from all sectors of society. These included bankers and merchants, who came to the City of London, such as the Rothschilds and Barings; artists – Angelika Kauffmann and Johann Zoffany; musicians like Sir Charles Hallé, founder of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, and the numerous German bands that played in British cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There were also craftsmen such as piano makers, cabinet makers, tailors and furriers; shopkeepers, particularly hairdressers, pork butchers and bakers; sailors, soldiers and even labourers – especially in the sugar refining industry, which was largely German-owned, -run and -manned until the mid 19th century.

States of flux

Germany as a state did not exist until the German Empire was formed in 1871. Until then, the German-speaking parts of Europe were divided into many separate states ranging from the tiny Schaumburg-Lippe and the city of Hamburg to major European states such as Prussia. The European wars over the previous 100 years led to many smaller domains being incorporated into larger ones.

As Prussia conquered less powerful regions including Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, and much of Hesse in the mid 19th century, many of their citizens fled to Britain. The crack-down by the rulers of the larger German states on the attempt to set up a democratic German Confederation in 1848 also led to many political refugees – among them Karl Marx – fleeing to London.

The inpouring of poor Central European Jews from the 1880s onwards, however, did not include many Germans; most came from Russia. It was in the 1930s that German Jews, escaping from the Nazi threat and the Holocaust, started coming to the UK.

Why Britain?

But why did they come here? Until 1914, there were few controls over immigration. People could set up in business anywhere they wished and Protestantism, the faith of many of the incoming Germans, was openly accepted in the UK.

Also, Britain was the centre of the Industrial Revolution and the Empire, which meant there was a growing market and demand for willing and skilled workers. But in many cases – especially in the mid 19th century and the 1930s and 1940s – the principal reason to come here was to escape tyranny.

If you want to find out more about your German ancestors, your first move should be to join the Anglo-German Family History Society and/or the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, both of whose members have many years of expertise.


Town and local archives

There are large numbers of records kept in local archives in Germany, which should gladden genealogists’ hearts. The organisation of these varies in different parts of Germany but look for the local Stadtarchiv or town archive to start with. If there isn’t one, try the local Kreisarchiv or county archive.

The kind of information they may hold includes detailed records of everyone who lived in the town or village. These Einwohnermelde (inhabitants’ listing) records were required to be kept from 1876, though many areas have similar records from much earlier; Leipzig holds them from 1811. The records (on cards) list each family, where they came from and went to, their politics and even any suspected criminal activities.

There are no national census records, but many individual states did hold headcounts similar to the British censuses at various times. Few are indexed. The 1819 census for the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, however, is particularly detailed and has been indexed by the Immigrant Genealogical Society in the USA.

A very useful source in the former Kingdom of Württemberg is its Familienregister or family registers. By legislation in 1807, the local Catholic priest was required to keep a detailed register of everyone living in the parish – whatever their religion. This recorded everyone alive in 1807 – organised by family – and lists, with dates, the birth, marriage and death of everyone.

It also holds records for immigrants to the parish including where they had come from, as well as where anyone leaving the parish went to. So it could include family details back to the mid 18th century! Most of these have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Church and are available in Salt Lake City.

As each town or city in Germany has a unique administrative history, it is worth asking what other goodies your ancestral archive may hold. You never know!


Church registers

Germany was more or less 50/50 Catholic and Protestant after the 30 Years War ended in the mid 17th century.

Most parishes will have registers that go back at least that far; though some have been destroyed in wars, fires and other disasters. Some are still in the parish but most will be in the local archives or, especially for places now no longer in Germany, in one of the specialist church archives.

The entries are usually very much fuller than you would find in the equivalent English register. In a baptism record, you will normally find both parents’ names, places of origin and the father’s occupation. Marriages will give even more information.

Many such registers have been microfilmed by the LDS and are available in Salt Lake City. You can find researchers based there who are willing and able to transcribe the register entries for a fee. If your Latin or German is not so good, this beats corresponding with a German archive

There were several German Protestant churches in Britain from the 17th century onwards, and a Catholic church in London from the 19th century. The surviving registers have been indexed by the Anglo-German Family History Society and can be searched by post. Many entries say where the immigrant came from in Germany.


Civil registration

There are no national indexes of births, marriages and deaths. All records are kept in the local civil registration office, the Standesamt, and the indexes are not available for searches.

At present, only proven direct descendants of the person registered are allowed copies of the certificates. You can write or call in for these. However, you do need to know exactly where your German ancestor was born or married to search.

As Germany was not a single state until 1871, civil registration began in different areas at different times. In Bavaria, it started in 1876; in much of Prussia in 1874; and in the areas influenced by France during the French Revolutionary Wars – such as the Rhineland and Baden – in 1792.

If you are not sure when it started in your area, you need to ask. The earlier records are very detailed, but German certificates after 1876 are only as informative as English ones.


World War internment

At the outbreak of the First World War, the UK had a large German population – particularly in London and the other principal ports.

Men of fighting age, roughly 18 to 50, were interned from 1914 to 1919. They were kept in camps around the country, but mainly at Douglas and Knockaloe (near Peel) in the Isle of Man.

All the British records of internment were destroyed by bombing during World War Two. However, the International Committee of the Red Cross holds returns of all internees in both wars and should be able to provide you with details, including their date and place of birth, for a fee. The First World War records held by the ICRC have recently been digitised, although they haven’t been fully transcribed so searching can take a while.

For World War Two, the British records are at The National Archives at Kew and include records of each enemy alien taken before a tribunal to determine whether they were to be interned or set free. Again, these include the date and place of birth.

A guide to records held at The National Archives for both wars can be found here.


Emigration documents

Most German states required those who wished to emigrate to first obtain official permission.

The individual had to show they had performed their military service, their parents were dead or adequately provided for and that all debts had been settled.

Even then, permission was not automatic. Many just chanced their luck and left – especially those who did not want to do their national service or were avoiding the political police. If they did request permission, their details should be in the local archives under Auswanderung (emigration).

There are no records of passengers leaving Germany or other North Sea ports except Hamburg and then only from 1850 to 1934. This information is available on

Many immigrants naturalised in the UK after some years – especially in the late 19th or 20th centuries. However, the proportion doing so was tiny up to 1914. The process was expensive and not necessary to stay here.

Those who did naturalise will have given their date and place of birth and their parents’ names and you can find these details on their naturalisation certificate and in their Home Office file at the National Archives at Kew.


Military records

Sadly for researchers, the German and Prussian Army and Navy records were all destroyed in the Battle for Berlin in 1945.

Some military records of the formerly independent states, such as Hanover (pre 1867), Hesse (pre 1867), Bavaria (pre 1919), Württemberg (pre 1919) and Baden (pre 1919), are kept in the relevant state archives.

When the Electorate of Hanover, George III’s home state, was conquered by Napoleon, the former Hanoverian Army escaped to England where they were reformed as the King’s German Legion in the British Army.

The full records are partly at the National Archives at Kew and partly in the archives in Hanover. They cover 1806-1815 and include many volunteers from other German states who fought the French invaders.


Visiting Germany

Before you go to Germany to search for the records of your ancestors, you must know exactly where they came from.

You can use British sources to get that information – naturalisation records; German churches in the UK often recorded the place of origin of members; internment records; obituaries; military records; adverts in the local and trade press; and family papers.

Before you go, check which archive or archives the records are held in; what the opening hours are and whether they are open to the public. In some cases – for example, in Bremen – you may be better off going to the offices of the local family history society, Die Maus (the Mouse), as it holds copies of many records – saving you countless trips to many small village archives.

If you do not speak German or have problems with reading the script, you will need expert local help. You should contact the archives and ask if there is an English-speaking researcher willing and able to help.

On the other hand, if you know your family came from a village or small town, try contacting a local historian or newspaper there. You will probably find large numbers of cousins happy to welcome you ‘home’!


Further resources

There are plenty of resources available to help you get started tracing your German ancestors – below is a guide to some of the most useful.


Anglo-German Family History Society
20 Skylark Rise, Plymouth PL6 7SN

Publishes several books on how to research German ancestors and on Germans in the UK. It has a large database of surviving records of German churches in the UK, WW1 internees and other sources. It publishes a quarterly magazine and has meetings in London.

Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain

Excellent website with databases. The society also publishes a quarterly magazine and newsletter.

The German portal site for family history. It has links to many useful sites, and the detailed index pages are available in English.

Fedaration of Eastern European Family History Societies

US-based portal site for societies researching family history. Includes Germany and Austria and their former territories.

Die Maus

Website of the Bremen genealogy society, with access to databases mainly covering Bremen and the parts of Hanover adjoining.


US-based portal site covering all genealogical matters. Go to Germany/Deutschland for access to many useful sources.

Sugerbakers’ database

Bryan Mawer’s useful database of thousands of people, mainly German, involved in sugar-refining in the UK. Useful background history too.

The German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge)
Werner Hilpert Strasse 2, 34112 Kassel, Germany

The website (in English) of the organisation responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of German war graves across Europe and North Africa.


An Introduction to Tracing Your German Ancestors by Peter Towey

Available from the Anglo-German Family History Society.


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