Family History

Starting off on original documents

As has been said, the best place to start your family history is at home - asking your relatives if they have any facts or recollections which may be useful; looking at photograph albums, family bibles, letters or journals with relevant information, etc., and all the time bearing in mind that information based on memory alone cannot be counted on as fact.

However, when you have exhausted the above avenues, there are four main sources you can try consulting.  This page gives a brief outline of these sources and provides links to pages with more detailed information on Devon sources and where to find them.

Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials

Parish registers are simply records of baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded by the rector, vicar or curate of the Church of England parish church. They can date from 1538 to the present day.

Baptism registers are especially useful as they record the names of the child’s parents; marriage registers from 1754 onwards give the signatures of witnesses, who may be relatives of the married couple. These kinds of connections make parish registers especially useful.

These are available for most of Devon on microfiche or microfilm, although some registers have been deposited too recently to have been filmed yet.  

Parish registers which are no longer in use are now generally deposited in local record offices in England and Wales.  Original parish registers for the North Devon area are held at the North Devon Record Office, Tuly Street, Barnstaple. Other original registers for Devon, where deposited, are held here at the Devon Record Office in Exeter, and at Plymouth & West Devon Record Office in Plymouth.

Microfiche and film of filmed Devon registers are now gradually becoming available in family history research centres outside Devon, including those overseas, and can also be purchased by individuals for their own private research from the Devon Record Office.

Census returns

The first official census of the population was taken on 10th March 1801. Censuses have been taken every ten years since then, but the earliest censuses records statistics only. From 1841 onwards, details about individuals are recorded.  Censuses have been closed to public inspection for one hundred years from the date they were taken.  This means that at this date, the 1901 census was the latest to become available, on 2 January 2002.    

Census returns for the whole of England and Wales, including Devon, for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 are accessible on-line at the Devon Record Office through the AncestryLibrary Edition database, on the public access computers in the refreshment room.   Devon Library Services has made this database available through public access computers in local libraries in the county as well. Torbay Library Services and Plymouth Library Services also offer this database through the public access computers in their libraries.

Some library services in other counties and cities, both in England and overseas, have made the same database available to their users.

Ancestry and other on-line resources are also available to researchers at the Devon Family History Society's Tree House Research Centre in King Street, Exeter.

The 1901 census was the first to be made available in the form of scanned returns on the Internet, as well as on microfiche. Now there are several web sites which have scanned images of census returns and they all have a facility to search by name, but the indexes vary from site to site.

The Latter Day Saints FamilySearch website includes a free indexed transcript of the 1881 census for England and Wales.

The 1891 census for Devon has been transcribed and is also available on-line for free through the FreeCEN – UK On-line Census Project website.  Other census years are gradually being added.

Other websites provide scanned images of the census by subscription or as pay-to-view images.

For those who prefer to search the census in other formats, some census years for Devon are also available on microfiche or on CD-Rom in the Devon Record Office searchroom.  Ask at the searchroom desk for these.  Devon censuses on film or fiche for all years, 1841-1901, are also held locally at the Westcountry Studies Library, Castle Street, Exeter (tel. (01392) 384216). The Local Studies Libraries at Plymouth and Torquay, and Exmouth Reference Library, hold census returns on microfiche or film for their own areas.  North Devon Local Studies Centre at Barnstaple, which incorporates the North Devon Record Office, holds filmed census returns covering the North Devon area.  

For those who do not use the Internet, the 1851 and 1881 censuses are indexed on microfiche by surname, birthplace and as enumerated.  This index is also available in CD-Rom format. There is also an older index to the 1851 census, produced in booklet form by the Devon Family History Society.  There are microfiche indexes to most other years of the census for North Devon parishes.   Indexes are found locally in the Westcountry Studies Library, North Devon Local Studies Centre at Barnstaple and Devon Family History Society's Tree House Research Centre in King Street, Exeter.  

Researchers living in other parts of Britain or overseas who do not have access to on-line census databases, can order Devon census microfilms or microfiche through their local Mormon Family History Centre.  

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Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths

Civil registration began in England and Wales in July 1837.  General Register Office indexes to birth, marriage and death for England and Wales can be searched on-line at the Devon Record Office through the AncestryLibrary Edition database, on the public access computers in the refreshment room.   Devon Library Services has made this database available through public access computers in local libraries in the county as well. Torbay Library Services and Plymouth Library Services also offer this database through the public access computers in their libraries.

Some library services in other counties and cities, both in England and overseas, have made the same database available to their users.

Ancestry and other on-line resources are also available to researchers at the Devon Family History Society's Tree House Research Centre in King Street, Exeter.

Other websites provide scanned images of the General Register Office indexes by subscription or as pay-to-view images.

The General Register Office indexes are being made available on-line for free through the FreeBMD website.  The indexes on this website are not yet complete, but 19th and early 20th century coverage is good, and each month more entries are gradually being added.

For those who prefer to search the same indexes in other formats, microfiche can be found at the following Devon locations:

  • Mormon Family History Centre, Wonford Road, Exeter (01392) 250723
  • Devon Family History Society's Tree House Research Centre, King Street, Exeter  (01392) 433212
  • Mormon Family History Centre, Mannamead Road, Hartley, Plymouth (01752)  668666
  • Plymouth Library - Local Studies Section at Drake Circus, Plymouth  (01752) 305909
  • North Devon Athenaeum, Local Studies Centre, Tuly Street, Barnstaple (01271) 388607

Many main libraries, genealogical research centres and record offices in other counties of England and Wales, and in overseas countries, also hold microfiche copies of the General Register Office (GRO) indexes.  You can use these before applying for certificates from the General Register Office at Southport, or from a District Register Office.

The certificates themselves can be ordered from the General Register Office, at Smedley Hydro, Southport, Merseyside.   More information is found on the General Register Office website.

International Genealogical Index (IGI)

This index was compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) and for the UK includes mainly baptisms and marriages from about 1538 to about 1837.  It can therefore be used as a finding aid for entries in original parish registers.

However, the IGI only covers about 60% of parishes in Devon.

It is available on-line on the FamilySearch website.

For those who prefer to search the IGI in another format, the IGI for Devon is available on microfiche locally at the Devon Record Office as well as the following places:

  • Westcountry Studies Library, Castle Street, Exeter (01392) 384216
  • Mormon Family History Centre, Wonford Road, Exeter (01392) 250723
  • Devon Family History Society's Tree House Research Centre, King Street, Exeter (01392)  433212
  • Exmouth Public Library, 40 Exeter Road, Exmouth EX8 1PR (01395) 272677
  • North Devon Athenaeum, Local Studies Centre, Tuly Street, Barnstaple (01271) 388607
  • Mormon Family History Centre, Mannamead Road, Hartley, Plymouth (01752) 668666

It is also held at many other libraries and family history research centres in other parts of the British Isles and overseas.  Most local studies libraries or reference libraries in England and Wales have the IGI for at least their own county.  

There are a number of other sources which may be useful to the family historian.