Explore Your (Digital) Archives: 4 Amazing Websites to Broaden Your Genealogy Horizons

It’s the last week of November: the time of year when we celebrate Explore Your Archive week. If you’re a keen user of social media, you may have noticed a number of posts using the #ExploreYourArchives hashtag in recent days. This initiative from the Archives and Records Association aims to raise public awareness of the value of our archive and heritage sector, and encourage us to engage with all the wonderful resources they have to offer.

Website photo. Archival setting with a number of parchment rolls on a shelf.
Homepage for the Explore Your Archive initiative, a public engagement drive by the Archives and Records Association

For Explore Your Archives week this year, I’ve been busy creating a short educational video about maps for Inspire, Nottinghamshire’s county archives. Visit most archive websites and you’re likely to find a range of (mostly) free resources and talks to help you with your genealogy research and point you towards useful archival materials to push your family tree further back in time – or flesh out its characters.

Your Weekend Task: A Digital Ramble

With commercial providers such as Ancestry, FindMyPast and TheGenealogist expanding their digital offerings all the time, it can be easy to overlook the vast collections held elsewhere. Public archives, universities, independent heritage groups and social organisations usually have their own archives, full of interesting material. It’s these places which Explore Your Archives week aims to highlight.

Filing system cards in drawers
Across the Pond: card indexes at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.; photo by John Collier, Jr.

So why not use some time this week(end) to check out the resources available in archives across your country of choice? Pandemic shutdowns might mean that we can’t visit in person right now, but digital archival offerings are ripe for the picking! You’ll find some real gems to expand your research horizons – all from the comfort of your own home. So while we’re on the subject, let me introduce some magnificent collections from across the UK which you will love to explore.

Four Fascinating Sites for Digital Resources

Military awards and foreign wars; public health and London poverty; psychiatric institutions and seaside breaks; Methodism; testamentary disputes; tithes, and the Caribbean slave trade: whatever your research loves, there should be something in my list to pique your interest.

Given the sheer volume of material available, I’ve restricted myself to only four archives here, highlighting several offerings from each. I hope this list will provide some good historical wandering and get you enthused about the wealth of archival riches that’s out there, if you know to look for them.

So in no particular order, here are four amazing archival websites, with the orange headings highlighting some of their key collections:

1. Bishopsgate Institute

Frontage of the Bishopsgate Institute in London
Bishopsgate Institute, London. Photograph by Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0.

What’s the Organisation? Established in 1894 to facilitate debate and learning amongst the general public, the Bishopsgate Institute is a cultural organisation, housed in a stunning Grade-II listed building near Spitalfields Market in London.

What Digital Offerings Are Available? A large number of photographs and a wealth of material about the labour movement and co-operatives, plus more general material relating to London. Digitised items are available as downloadable PDF surrogates.

Only a small portion of the Bishopsgate’s key collections is currently available online, but the ones which are could really enhance your research. Visit their Our Archives Online page to explore further…

Garibaldi Excursion of 1860

The Bishopsgate’s Muster Roll of the British Legion in 1860 lists the 800 or so men of England and Scotland who joined up to fight abroad as part of the Garibaldi Excursion for the unification of Italy. You’ll be delighted to find an ancestor here: many entries include address, rank and even details of height or appearance, as shown in the image below.

Handwritten page from the Garibaldi collection, detailing names, addresses, heights, ages and corps of newly enlisted men.
Extract from the Muster Roll of the British Legion, compiled in 1860. Names, addresses and even height and age information are included in some entries. Image supplied courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute.

Bethnal Green: the Woodroffe Journals

And if you have ancestors who lived in Bethnal Green in the late 19th century, then the Woodroffe Journals are a must-see. These diaries are named for the then-curate of St. Matthew’s, James Joseph Woodroffe, and detail the support given to needy parishioners, sometimes even alongside notes on their medical conditions.

Handwritten entry from one of the Woodroffe Journals
Entry from the Woodroffe Journals of Bethnal Green, dated 11 October 1887. Not only do we have an address and a surname, but we also gain insights into the story of Mr. Olsson’s toe amputation at the London Hospital. Image supplied courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute.

If you can find your ancestors here, then you may strike genealogical gold: these details of daily life or medical events are not the kind of thing which you’d ever find in census or civil registration records.

Handwritten entry from one of the Woodroffe Journals
Entry from the Woodroffe Journals of Bethnal Green, dated 10 June 1887. ‘Charlotte Elizabeth Barrett. 66 Fuller St. Sent her brother (boy) “for a ticket for a bit of bread” – sent him with note to Wm Forrest’. Image supplied courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute.

Investigating the Victorian Labour Movement

Or perhaps you’d like to explore the Victorian labour movement through the Minute Book of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association? This resource typically provides social context rather than genealogical information, but does include some names in amongst the proceedings.

Handwritten entry from a Workingmen's Association minute book, detailing men present at a meeting
Council Meeting notes from the Minute Book of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, dated July 2nd 1867, with several men mentioned by name. Image supplied courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute.

2. Wellcome Library

What’s the Organisation? Billed as “one of the world’s major resources for the study of medical history”, the Wellcome Library is a superb archive on the subjects of medicine, science and public health.

What Digital Offerings Are Available? Addressing all things medical, the archives of the Wellcome Library include records of institutions such as asylums, public health reports and military medicine. Navigate to their Digital Collections page to browse further.

London’s Pulse

If you have London or Middlesex based ancestors, then the London’s Pulse collection should be of interest. These reports from the Medical Officer of Health span the period 1848-1972 and provide a huge amount of detail about the health and living conditions of the capital’s inhabitants.

As well as summarising patterns of birth, death and disease, individual officers could choose to focus on their own professional interests, whether that was the uptake of child welfare, attendance levels at venereal disease clinics or provision for children with TB. These reports can be really valuable for learning about the local context of your ancestors’ lives.

Reports are delivered by district; in some cases the sanitary reports for an area are contained within a parish vestry volume, which can provide a good deal of genealogical interest (as in the example shown below).

Printed copy of vestry minutes for Moorfields Ward, Shoreditch, 1863. Page lists many men serving on the vestry that year, along with their addresses.
Address information for members of the Vestry in St. Leonard’s parish, Shoreditch. Taken from the Vestry Report of 1863; image supplied by the Wellcome Library, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Royal Army Medical Corps

Some years ago, the Wellcome Library took charge of “130,000 digitised pages of correspondence, reports, personal field diaries, memoirs, photographs and memorabilia” from the Royal Army Medical Corps. Many of these can now be viewed online – click here for the RAMC collection’s main page.

Another example of a diverse archival collection, the Corps’ records range over first-hand PoW accounts, reconstructive plastic surgery photographs, education certificates and personal memoirs of time in the services. As an example, the images above and below are all taken from the papers and photographs of Captain Jack HOILE within the Wellcome’s collection, including certificates from military academic examinations and photographs of him as band leader and in the football team. The glowing praise and assessment of character in the honours paperwork below is precisely the kind of research material we’d all love to find when working on our own family tree!

Typewritten page of a recommendation for military honours.
“His outstanding devotion to duty has been an inspiration to all ranks…deserving of the utmost praise and recognition.” A commendation for Jack HOILE in 1945. Image supplied by the Wellcome Library, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Asylum Records

Handwritten index page for an asylum register
Index to the Asylum Register of Lunatics at Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries, listing inmates’ names alongside their date of admission, discharge or death. Image supplied by the Wellcome Library under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence.

The Wellcome Library also holds a variety of records relating to psychiatric institutions and mental healthcare in the UK throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From the Gartnavel Royal Hospital up in Glasgow to the Retreat in York; from The Priory, Manor House and St. Luke’s in London to Ticehurst House, Sussex, a range of sites are covered.

You’ll find documents relating to both patients and staff, as well as photographs and ground plans. Some items, such as the letter shown below from the Ticehurst House collection, provide not just names but details of the state of patients’ health at a particular point in time.

Handwritten letter including names of men and women patients at an asylum
“The gentlemen are all very chronic cases: they are all in good health.” Report on a group of Ticehurst House patients during a visit to the coast, 1894. Image supplied by Wellcome Library, CC BY-NC-4.0.

3. Borthwick Institute, University of York

What’s the Organisation? Part of the University of York, the Borthwick Institute for Archives is the designated archive of the Archdiocese of York. It used to specialise in ecclesiastical records (especially for York and neighbouring parishes) but more recent decades have seen new acquisitions across a wide range of subjects, including social history and welfare, healthcare, records of major local businesses and family history.

What Digital Offerings Are Available? Key collections have been made available online. Some of these are only available via FindMyPast (and therefore require a subscription) but a number of other series can be accessed for free directly from the Borthwick’s own site. Highlights include the Lascelles Barbados Papers and the York Cause Papers.

York Cause Papers

Old document written in secretary hand
York Cause Papers: extract from CP.G.1307 detailing a disputed legacy case. Supplied by the Borthwick Institute under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.

The York Cause Papers (examples shown above and below) record cases heard in the Church Courts of the Diocese of York between 1300 and 1858. Case papers haven’t all been imaged yet, but are indexed for searching and many listings do include digital photographs.

Subjects can vary from matrimonial cases to testamentary disputes about the alleged forgery of a will; from defamation to the payment of sheep tithes. These papers provide a diverse and colourful slice of Northern life over several centuries: if your ancestors appear here, then your research may benefit from the lively insights which some of the cases provide.

Old document written in secretary hand, with substantial tears at the top edge
Papers from a matrimonal validity case at the Church Courts of York, 1530 — 1560; CP.H.5210, page 4. Supplied by the Borthwick Institute under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.

Lascelles Slavery Archive

The Lascelles Slavery Archive arose from the Lascelles family seat of Harewood House, as a result of the family’s close involvement with the Caribbean slave trade over many years. Digitisation is ongoing but many papers have already been made available (viewable here); the online indexes include notes flagging content relating to the names of the enslaved or the enslavers. Unfortunately the visualiser doesn’t operate at a large enough scale for you to read the original directly, but full transcriptions have been provided alongside the images.

4. Methodist Collection, John Rylands Library

Lavish Gothic interior of the John Rylands Library
Interior of the main building of the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester – and home to the Methodist Archives and Research Collection.

What’s the Organisation? The John Rylands is the main library of the University of Manchester, and the current home of the world’s largest collection of manuscripts relating to the founders of Methodism, documents which it has housed since 1977. This specific collection was originally established in 1961 as the Methodist Archives and Research Centre (MARC) to preserve the historical records of the Methodist church.

What Digital Offerings Are Available? This is a substantial collection and I’d recommend downloading the 54-page official guide, provided by the University of Manchester (file downloads as PDF). Many of the records have been digitised and you can access these via Luna, the John Rylands’ online platform for digital content – just click here and start exploring!

The Methodist Archive

The MARC papers contain a substantial amount of correspondence, mostly taking the form of letters from or to the founders of Methodism. If your ancestors were dedicated Methodists then these are worth investigating – I know of a few people who have discovered their forebears in amongst these pages!

Website page from the digital collections explorer for the Methodist collection at the university of manchester
Exploring the Digital Methodist Collection at the John Rylands Library, which includes circuit plans, historical volumes and a great deal of correspondence.

Circuit plans can also be invaluable for understanding the local and regional dynamics of Methodist services – useful information if you’re attempting to track down baptismal records for your non-conformist ancestors. An example for Watlington is shown in the image above.

What Are Your Favourite Digital Resources?

The most difficult part of writing this article was in restricting myself to only a handful of sites. In truth, there are a multitude of organisations out there offering superb digital resources: if you truly love history and genealogy, you’ll gain so much enjoyment from exploring what they have to offer. So my challenge to you this week is to sail beyond your comfort zone of your usual sites and into new archival waters.

Some quick tips before we’re done:

  • Curiosity Pays: The more curious and creative you are in thinking about your research, the more places you’ll find to look for fresh sources. Get into the habit of looking beyond Ancestry and FindMyPast and the new sources you locate could really breathe life into your genealogy research.
  • Take It Steady: If you’re new to digital archives, then just dip your toe in the waters a bit at a time. Exploring the webpage of your local archive or museum might be a good place to start. Not all archives will offer digital materials online but even if this is the case you’ll still identify interesting items to consult in person in the future.
  • Tell Other People: Inevitably, there are many factors determining the allocation of funding and manpower within archives (and I’d really appreciate an archivist’s view on this) but my suspicion is that it’s generally a good thing when resources are accessed a lot. Good uptake of existing digital resources can help to make the case for further digitisation – and that helps us all. So if you find a good collection, pass on the news and encourage other people to use these collections too.
  • Ringfence Time for an Archive Meander: If you are able to, try setting aside a small amount of time every week or month, to browse a website for an archive, museum or other heritage institution which you haven’t visited before. Discover if they have any digital materials available and make the most of what you find. Over time your discoveries will accumulate and blossom into a broad knowledge of where to locate records off the beaten track.

What Do You Suggest?

Do you have a favourite digital archive which isn’t in this list? If so then please share your suggestions below and help others discover new troves of genealogical and historical riches to uncover for Explore Your Archive week and beyond!

Card filing drawers. Photo by Carolina Prysyazhnyuk via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

4 thoughts on “Explore Your (Digital) Archives: 4 Amazing Websites to Broaden Your Genealogy Horizons

  1. Here in Canada one of my favourite digital repositories is that of the British Columbia Archives where I can access Birth, Marriage, and Death certificates. I also love the British Columbia Newspaper Archives, which has digital copies of many of the smaller local newspapers. Very useful for researching my husband’s family.

    1. I am a big fan of newspapers too – especially wonderful when our ancestors appear and we can see them set into the context of their social and occupational world. Thanks so much for sharing your own experience of these resources! Locating digitised copies of those smaller newspapers can be a really instrumental step in pushing our family history research forward, can’t it? (This brings to mind a trip I made a few years ago, when I had to resort to a long detour whilst away on holiday – all because we were near an ancestral location of mine and the local newspapers have yet to be digitised anywhere. That visit to see the microfilmed newspapers in the one location they were available for viewing was a highlight of my holiday in the end!).

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