For family historians who are researching Welsh ancestry, the tradition of patronymic Welsh surnames presents unique problems. This system meant children were given the father’s first name as a surname – meaning the family name could change with every generation. It means that if you’re researching Welsh ancestry, the further back you go, the more likely it is that your progress will be halted by the custom. More recent Welsh ancestry research can also be challenging due to the relatively small pool of common surnames, and the shifting anglicised spellings of place names. Thankfully, there are lots of Welsh ancestry websites with useful guides to help you navigate these common problems and pitfalls and locate common Welsh ancestry records.
Welsh ancestry: The best websites
The main homepage of the National Library of Wales signposts all kinds of information aimed at beginner Welsh ancestry researchers, plus descriptions of the library’s vast holdings – it’s home to around 950,000 old photographs, 1,500,000 old maps, 5,000,000 digital images and e-resources, and 15km of archives. It holds the Church in Wales Archive, preserving vital Welsh ancestry records such as registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.
One of several important online tools is the Welsh wills probate database, which provides digital images of wills proved in Welsh ecclesiastical courts before the civil probate system was introduced in 1858.
As well as now offering access to the millions of Welsh parish baptism, marriage and burial records that were previously exclusively on Findmypast, Ancestry also offers an index to the Cardiff Police Constabulary registers (1904–1920), Glamorganshire County Asylum records (1845–1920) and more than 35 million electoral register records for Glamorganshire (1832–1978). In addition, the website has gaol records for 1877–1922 (pictured), Poor Law union records (1836–1916) and electoral registers (1839–1966) for Swansea and the surrounding area, as part of an agreement with West Glamorgan Archive Service.
This is the single-search hub to more than 7,000 Welsh ancestry collections across 21 archives in Wales – the equivalent of The National Archives’ Discovery – and also the body which leads all kinds of cross-archive projects. The ‘Find your archive’ tab leads to a list of contributing archives from Aberystwyth University Archives to Wrexham Archives and Local Studies, with descriptions of key collections, contact details and links.
Another excellent source for tracing Welsh ancestry is old newspapers. Your ancestors may be mentioned in the local newspaper if they were prominent in the community, if they got into trouble with the law or if they simply appeared in a birth, marriage or death announcement. This website grants access to around 15 million articles and 1.1 million pages from a huge range of Welsh- and English-language titles. Unlike the British Newspaper Archive, access is completely free. There’s also the NLW’s sister website Welsh Journals, which provides access to journals published in Wales during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Further sites for Welsh ancestry
To find out more about where your Welsh ancestors lived, start with Welsh Tithe Maps on the NLW website. It holds over 300,000 Welsh tithe maps records and their accompanying apportionment documents. The People’s Collection Wales is a project led by the NLW, National Museum Wales and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. It’s a place where anyone can upload images and stories relating to the past. Material includes records, artefacts, films and audio files drawn from national collections, as well as personal items.
Findmypast has millions of Welsh parish records, although its exclusivity deal with the National Library of Wales has now elapsed.
North East Wales Archives is another good county archive website if you’re tracing Welsh ancestry in the north-east. It has digital collections of Denbighshire borough charters, photographs and enclosure maps.
Many of your Welsh ancestors may have been miners, so try Welsh Coal Mines, a catalogue of mines situated within Welsh coalfields. It also has a database of over 6,000 accidents where there were five or more fatalities. Other resources for Welsh mining include Coalfield Web Materials, Digging up the Past, the Welsh Mines Society and the National Coal Museum for Wales.
Popular ancestry website Genuki has county guides to resources, societies, archives and pitfalls caused by boundary changes and the Welsh naming system. The FamilySearch Wales Genealogy wiki offers Welsh ancestry advice and links to free records on FamilySearch and North Wales BMD.
Other handy Welsh ancestry websites and bodies include the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, the Association of Family History Societies of Wales and the Welsh Family History Archive. To find out more about your Welsh ancestry, don’t miss local family history society websites, such as those covering Clwyd, Dyfed, Gwent, Gwynedd and Powys. There’s also Welsh Mariners, which has an index to around 23,500 merchant mariners active between 1800 and 1945, making it an unmissable source for tracing nautical Welsh ancestors.