British Genealogy - Articles

Using the PRO catalogue

by Peter Brown

The PRO (Public Record Office) is the central depository for national records, stored in London instead of at the local record offices. Records go back 1000 years and there is enormous potential for the genealogist. The PRO actually publishes many useful guides for genealogists. Since the old days of dust and paper slips at Chancery Lane, the new PRO at Kew is very accessible. An online catalogue now contains about 8.5 m records and is still growing.

There is a series of Records Information Leaflets for the online catalogue, which has 2 main options, browse and search. Browse allows you to search the categories and find out what they contain. Search allows you to search for documents.

The search screen is straightforward, but rather awkward. You have to use exact spellings to match the entry - it will not give you similar sounds, and you cannot use wildcard searches eg Northa* to search for Northampton, Northamptonshire and Northants. Similarly, you need to search for all possible spellings of a surname to be sure you cover everything. This can mean various permutations of names to get everything there is.

The listings in the catalogue are only abstracts - often they do not give precise dates or places. To fill in the detail, you will need to go to Kew and study the original documents. This can be difficult if you're not used to it, and certainly time consuming.

The advantages of the database are that its readily available online, possible to search, and very comprehensive. Parish Registers only start in 1538 (at the earliest), yet these documents go back way earlier. The disadvantages are that its not complete for all documents, not the easiest one to search, and only summarised for content.

The catalogue on its own can give you some ideas on people and distributions, as well as particular events. I recently checked the catalogue for someone. With an unusual name, one document deals with a family member who was involved with planning Henry V's expedition to France (and Agincourt). You won't fill in your family tree from these records, but wow!

Basically, this a powerful resource, too valuable to go unused when its all on the web. I suggest everyone checks this - for unusual names, great, but even my Northants Browns go back to the 13C in the catalogue.

This article was used with permission and is copyright by Peter Brown. (Granted Feb/15/2001)

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