National Archives UK – Search tips

John Robinson 1817 discharge

Example of Military discharge paper

The National Archives in the UK holds around 32 million “descriptions” for records, this is between what they hold and around 2500 archives around the country. That is just the descriptions, the actual records would be an even larger number.  If you are looking for information on military, immigration, probate, wills, workhouses .. The list goes on for ancestors in England and Wales, this is the place to start. The UK National Archives is similar to our own archives but also includes items that you may be used to looking through our state records and libraries for. The other difference is that some of our records in our Australian National Archives are free of charge, like military service records but they cost money to download or order a copy through the UK National Archives. Also when searching, you may be directed to the subscription websites like Ancestry and Findmypast. Don’t let this put you off as the cost may be lower then when you are paying through the state records in Australia, depending on what you are looking for. When using any website, I always start off by finding the best ways to search and navigate the website.

To find the National Archives UK website – – and search it,  use  “Discovery – search our catalogue”. That is in the middle of the page, clicking it will take you to the home page for searches. Once you are in there, a search bar will come up that you can put a keyword in. (Please note that the keyword will have to be in the title of the records. The search will not go through the entire text of a document, it only searches through title, just like looking at books on a shelf.)

Simple Search

The National Archives will list many items in the results. To get the search results down to a manageable and helpful list, use the left hand side filter options. Filters include, where the records are held, (initially it may be more helpful to only choose records held in the National Archives), then whether you want downloadable records (that means that you can view them and save them to your computer for a small fee when you click on them), the date and what collection (this is ordered in government departments, so if you are looking for military records, you would choose something like the War Office or Admiralty, Navy department). After you have narrowed down your results, you may want to sort them and this can be done by clicking in the box at the top of the page where is says the amount of results and what they are sorted by.

After you have your list of results refined, then you can choose a record by clicking on the light blue writing. It will take you in to see more details about the record and give you options for viewing it. Boxes with Download now and Order a copy may be available or a link to a subscription based website like Ancestry or findmypast may be available. Order a copy means that the record is only in paper form at the present time and needs to be copied to be sent to you. Download now means that you can download it and save it to your computer for a small fee. If the there is a link to another website, it means that you will need to pay that website a fee to view that record. For something like findmypast, you can usually pay around 10 to 15 dollars and buy credits and then view the records, you don’t have to sign up for a full subscription.

Advanced Search

For an advanced search start by reading through the numerous research guides that will help you know where to start your search. To consult these guides click on “Find guides” on the home page. From the next page you can either click on the options of searching for a “place, person or subject” or click on the alphabet at the bottom, for example if you are looking at death duties then pick D. Consulting the guides will help  you know what information is available and what department and series that you need to look at, note this down for your advanced search. Also by searching the guides, you may find free alternative sources for finding the information that you want.

Go into Discovery to the home page and under the search bar, it says “Advanced Search”.  The Advanced search allows for you to choose “All of these words” (searches for all of the words, no matter where they are in the document) “Exact word or phrase” (the words are in exact order in the document and right next to each other),  “don’t find these words” (sometimes a whole world of annoying search results come up that have nothing to do with your search, so don’t find these words will filter that out). If you are unsure of a spelling, use a wildcard, which is using the * either at the beginning, middle or end. For example, will* would cover william or willmont. Dates can be entered by you or you can click on a predetermined date. Now the magic of research comes to work if you used the research guides. The next box says “Held by”, if you click  National Archives, you have the option of putting in what government department that you want. For example HO11 will get you Home Office and 11 is the series number for convict registers. If you overlooked the research guides then head back through and have another look for the department and series number for the information that you want.

This is the sort of resource that has so much information it needs to be taken in a little at a time or it can be quite overwhelming. So checking through on a regular basis and choosing a type of record that you want to focus on would probably be a good way to start using this site. They also have lots of webinars to watch and a free monthly newsletter to keep you up to date.  I have included my example of an ancestors discharge record from 1817 as the picture for this article. The information on the records included details like what he looked like, his age, what regiments he served in and the amount of days he served. It was very exciting to read through. Good luck with your searches.

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