Welsh Genealogy

Welsh Genealogy

by Bruce Durie

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Welsh genealogy is usually included with its English cousin, but there are significant differences between the two, and anyone wishing to trace their Welsh ancestry will encounter peculiarities that are not covered by books on English family history. There is a separate system of archives and repositories for Wales, there are differences in civil registration and censuses, Nonconformist registers are dissimilar to those of other Churches and Welsh surnames and place names are very different to English ones. Welsh Genealogy covers all of this as well as the basic Welsh needed by family historians; estate, maritime, inheritance, education and parish records; peculiarities of law; the Courts of Great Sessions and particular patterns of migration. Written by Dr Bruce Durie, the highly respected genealogist, lecturer and author of the acclaimed Scottish Genealogy, this is the ideal book for local and family historians setting out on a journey to discover their Welsh ancestry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752479170
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/30/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 610,727
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Bruce Durie, a former neuroscientist, is Course Director for Genealogical Studies at the University of Strathclyde, Archivist & Historian to the Chief of the Durie Family and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is the author of the acclaimed Scottish Genealogy (THP, 2009, 2010, 3rd edn forthcoming 2012) and is writing a guide to documents for family and local historians.

Read an Excerpt

Welsh Genealogy

By Bruce Durie

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Bruce Durie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7917-0


An Introduction to Genealogical Research

If you are new to family history, please read this chapter. If you are an experienced family history researcher, please read this chapter. Whether you agree or disagree with the techniques and tips in here, it may make you think about your existing practices. This is not a 'how to do it' menu so much as recipes born of years of experience in researching, teaching and writing about genealogy and local history. Nor is it the only way to approach research, but it is intended to help readers avoid some of the common pitfalls, and get the best out of their time and energies. Individual chapters may suggest a research strategy or source not previously considered, or a new approach to a long-standing problem.

Why are we doing this?

History is the great destroyer – it destroys reputations, illusions, myths and vanities; it reminds us that we are all mortal and passing; it teaches us that we have little control over our actions and their consequences, our destinies and even our motives. We have no hand in choosing our ancestors, and little over our descendants' choice of friends and spouses. Each of us is the product of our genes, our immediate family environment, our society and the influence of the wider world. Even our deepest-held beliefs, prejudices and bigotries dissolve when put under the microscope of history, and our seemingly complex human world is much like an ant colony when viewed from a sufficient distance. But where genealogy differs from history per se is that it moves the focus away from the grand sweep of civilisations and larger social groups to the lives and actions of individuals and immediate families. It is often as far from the 'Great Man' view of history the way it used to be taught (lists of kings and battles) as a cat is from a queen. Those interested in history itself often find it is best illuminated when seen through the life of one person, an ancestor with whom we have some commonality of feeling by virtue of no more than a shared surname or location, or a half-remembered family story.

However, the majority of such people led quiet, blameless lives and left very few traces, and almost all sources of biography come from collision with the authorities. This tends to be for purposes of registration (birth, marriage, death, census, taxes, poor relief etc.) or for legal reasons, whether criminal (arrests, trials, executions, witness statements) or civil (law suits, divorce, wills, property transfers). All of these generated records, which may still exist in some form, or at least as indexes or abstracts.

Being a small country, the set of records available in Wales is approximately one-twentieth of that of England, and is therefore of manageable proportions. Welsh genealogy is, to that extent, easier. However, there is far more to Welsh genealogy than merely searching for vital data in the old parish registers (OPRs – baptism, marriage and burial records from the 1500s to 1836), statutory records (births, marriages and deaths from 1837) and the decennial censuses from 1841).

The parish registers, by definition, only start with the birth of the Reformation in the 1500s, and only deal with the Established Church. Catholics, Episcopalians, the many Nonconformists in Wales and those who simply chose not to take part in parish registration (the nobility, often) are completely ignored until much later. Those registers that exist may not be easy to access. Equally, records of burials were not considered important until well after the Reformation, since it was only after that time that bodily resurrection at the last trump became an issue – before this, the location of physical remains hardly mattered except for royalty or anyone likely to achieve sainthood (and therefore be a source of relics and an object of veneration). Even then, the parish registers are incomplete.

So, before the 1500s, family history can become murky. However, names were often recorded in charters, especially when feudally held lands were passed on, or where grants of land, titles or other inheritances held of the sovereign had to be recorded. There were also records of pedigree and coats of arms in heraldic records, which are a rich source of name and place information.

Most genealogical research stalls somewhere in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Between the 1500s and the 1830s to 1840s (the beginning of statutory registration, the censuses and much else, as the Victorians set about organising a secular society) not everyone will be recorded, especially Nonconformists and the poor, particularly in both the sparsely populated areas and the densely packed centres of very large towns and cities. Remember that it was mainly baptisms (not births) which were noted in the parish registers, and the same goes for the other sacraments – proclamation of marriage (banns) rather than the marriage itself, and burial or mort-cloth (shroud) rental rather than death.

Even after the 1840s, the records are incomplete. Not everyone was captured; there were considerable movements into, out of and within Wales; surname and place name variants and Welsh spellings were commonly recorded haphazardly – so they give a partial picture of an individual's life. At best, the researcher can get a person's given name at birth plus a date and place, and the names, address and (possibly) occupations of the parents and their date of marriage; the announcement of banns (pre-1837) or registration of a marriage may include the place, and the names and occupations of both spouses, and those of both sets of parents, plus names of witnesses; and at death, the place and time of death are given, and often the cause, with the names and occupations of the deceased's parents and of the registrant (witness). Such scraps can be filled in with census information from every decade between 1841 and 1911. For example, someone who was born in 1850, married in 1870 and died in 1920, will usually be able to be identified, along with their parents, spouse and spouse's parents, from BMD records; and all of these people can be further identified in the snapshots from the censuses of 1841 to 1901. This may take us back to the birth of that person's parents in the early 1800s and of their parents (if alive in 1841), that is, to 1780 or so.

But such scraps of information leave much to be told. Were they rich or poor? Owned land or rented it? Had children or otherwise? The accessible vital records give a very bare-bones account. Precisely because much of these data are digitised and available online, it is possible to imagine, as is often claimed, that 'all of genealogy is on the Internet'.

This is where most people stop looking. In truth, it may be enough for them to start building a family tree with a reassuringly complete and impressively precise set of dates and places. But there are many pitfalls: a child born a year or more after a dead sibling might be given the same name; there may be inconsistencies in ages across the various censuses, leading to inaccurate linkages of completely separate individuals; children of 'irregular' marriages may not be recorded; anyone could be away from home on census night; there is emigration and re-immigration; and we find seemingly identical individuals, stemming from the understandable but infuriating practice of naming children after parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, leading to complete families with children of the same names, married to other people of the same names, probably their near relatives, and living in the same parish.

Fortunately, that's not all there is to it. There are other sources of information, which fill out the details of individual lives, and allow the grouping of individuals by family group, locality or occupation. These include: charters; wills; dissenting and Catholic church records; lair records (for churches or municipal cemeteries); local electoral and valuation rolls; court records; military lists; Poor Law records; registers of professions, trades and guilds; and many others. Then there are landed individuals. They may be of the nobility (whether of the English, Scottish, Irish or British peerages), manorial or baronetage (which is a kind of hereditary knighthood), or be merely landowning persons. Often, these people will have had coats of arms, so heraldry is a useful adjunct to 'standard' genealogy.

Finally, there is DNA evidence, which may indicate surname links and deeper ethnic ancestry, but can also help in cases where documentary evidence is lacking. It can, furthermore, hold surprises – welcome or otherwise.

This book is intended to show researchers how to get beyond the standard BMD and census search, and dig deeper into genealogy and the social history surrounding an individual or family. Necessarily, there will be some discussion on other archives outside Wales: TNA in England; Scottish and Irish records; US and Canadian census data, ships' passenger lists and so on.

Is genealogy the same as family history?

Not really, but they have a lot in common, and each informs the other. Genealogy (as the term is used in this book) is the study and construction of familial relationships, mainly from vital records – birth, marriage, death, censuses etc. Family history concerns itself more with events and their social context. To that extent, genealogy is the Who and Where, while family history is the What and When. Sociology would doubtless claim to be concerned with the Why, although much sociological investigation centres on the collection of the sort of data used by family historians and genealogists, and then tends to turn it into statistical summaries. Perhaps it is better to think by analogy to the sciences – genealogy is more like mathematics while family history is chemistry, and sociology is nature study or population biology. Or, genealogy is the bones, and family history is the flesh on the bones, and each needs the other.

Frankly, such hair-splitting is rather fruitless. We all know a straightforward piece of genealogy when we see it (a pedigree, for instance) and a family history (such as a biography). It is rather pointless, or at least unilluminating, to collect only the dates of birth, marriage and death, and the locations of these, for a family tree or pedigree, without understanding something of why great-grandfather gave up the pastoral life to work in a coal mine, grandfather was a grocer in a different county, and father left for Australia but came back. Equally, it is difficult to understand a complex family history without a simple table of relationships and dates. A good example of this is the intermarriages of European royalty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of whom were related by descent from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But just having the rather useful charts at the back of such books tells us little about the politics or the social conditions of the time.

It is generally agreed that family history is more about who people were and how they lived, why they did this job or married that spouse in that place, the circumstances in which they were born, worked, loved, fought, died, and the wider social and economic milieu of the time. Like all narratives, family history is open to speculation and interpretation. Genealogy is, in a sense, more precise, as it deals largely with concrete parameters – dates and places, for example. Genealogy is about tracing (and proving) ancestry and descent, sometimes called 'pedigree' or 'lineage'.

The two interact, of course – the observation that one generation was Anglican (Church in Wales) and the next 'chapel' (Nonconformist) not only says something about changing social, family and even political conditions; it is also a clue as to which records to investigate.


Properly, pedigree charts start with one individual and trace the ancestry backwards through time. These are sometimes called 'birth-briefs' and end up looking like an ice-cream cone (if laid out vertically) or a megaphone (if set down horizontally). Descendant charts or trees take the other approach – from one pair of ancestors at the top fanning out to a confusing tangle of distantly related nth cousins at the bottom. Each of these is a useful visual aid – but no more than that. The end point of any research project is information, not merely a diagram.

There are blank charts and other material to help with this listed here.

Be clear about your aims

One thing is certain about genealogy and family history – it can become an all-consuming passion. However, it can also swamp you with information, paper, file boxes and computerised data. Everything you discover will lead you onto more tantalising snippets, interesting ancestors, new connections and, ultimately, the whole sweep of human history. It is utterly absorbing, but can also be maddeningly complicated.

Every genealogist or family historian has discovered, or will at some point, that there is simply no sensible way to fit hundreds of interlinked individuals onto one chart the size of a roll of wallpaper, and no filing system that works without bursting at the seams. Even if you only search back five generations from yourself, and each generation has two siblings on each side of the family, that's over 250 people, without worrying about the children of your great-aunts and great-uncles and so on. Imagine the documentation associated with these, if you had the certificates for every birth, marriage and death, every census, military service and occupational record, and every will. You would need a library.

There is a solution, though, and it requires three things:

1. Know where you want to go and stick to it: if your aim is to track the male line back to a certain point, then do just that; if you want to find all descendants of one person, then make that your goal; if you decide to find every instance of a surname back to a particular year or in a particular place (a one-name study), then decide that's it – do not get sidetracked by interesting byways, but do note them and come back to them as a separate project.

2. The best way to swallow an elephant is one bite at a time: if it all seems too much (and it will) then concentrate on solving one aspect; if it defies solution, shelve it, move on and come back to it later.

3. Organisation is all: keep good records, have a decent but simple filing system, organise your computer files properly and buy a robust genealogy database programme (Chapter 16).

Do these things, following the recommendations in this book, and you just might save your life, sanity, marriage or whatever you value most – after your genealogy project, of course.

STEP ONE – Start with what you know

Almost every genealogy book, course and how-to guide starts with this advice. Generally, it's sensible – you and your family are already the experts on your family history. It is likely that you will be able to get reliable dates and places for births, marriages and deaths back to grandparents and even further. There may well be documents (certificates, wills, letters, inscriptions in family Bibles) as well as diaries, newspaper clippings and photographs. By talking to older relatives and family friends, and showing them photographs and records, you may trigger memories and elicit more information. Ask where deceased relatives are buried and visit the graves, to photograph or record the headstone information or lair records. But there are dangers, complications and pitfalls.

First, memory is a very good, if selective, editor. A family story, repeated by many relatives, may be wrong in detail, embroidered over time or just plain invented. What seems to be a crucial piece of information, repeated by a number of people you talk to, may turn out to be no more than hearsay, or even a carefully constructed lie. A family that has spent years trying to trace a great-uncle who had 'gone abroad to work' may be less than delighted to be told he had in fact died while serving time in prison.

Second, different family members may have very different views of an ancestor. The grandfather who seemed stern but upright to one may have been a brutal bully to another. A beloved aunt may have been an appalling mother or an ungrateful daughter.

Third, you may well discover a long-buried secret or an inconvenient piece of information that certain family members may prefer to forget or have spent years assiduously covering up, and they will not be pleased with you for bringing it into the light of day. An illegitimacy, a dead child, an earlier marriage, an abandoned family, disinherited offspring, debts, bankruptcies, collapsed business ventures, dishonourable war service, problems with drink, police records, illnesses, suspicious deaths, murders, suicides, the important job that turns out to be not what was claimed, violence, child abuse, disagreements over a will, stolen property – all of these may emerge, as well as other long-suppressed skeletons. You run the risk of alienating as many people as you delight. It is not uncommon for one side of the family to want to know something and for another side to be furious when it is out in the open. On the other hand, your researches may be the instrument for bringing together branches of a family who haven't spoken for years over some now-forgotten and irrelevant slight or misunderstanding.


Excerpted from Welsh Genealogy by Bruce Durie. Copyright © 2012 Bruce Durie. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. An Introduction to Genealogical Research,
2. The Welsh – A Genealogist's Perspective,
3. Welsh Surnames,
4. Administrative Areas and Local Records,
5. The Welsh Censuses of 1841 to 1911,
6. Statutory Registers of Birth, Marriage and Death Post-1855,
7. Parish Registers Pre-1837,
8. Nonconformist and Other Church Records,
9. Welsh Emigration and Immigration,
10. Taxation and Representation,
11. Welsh Heraldry,
12. Dates, Money and Measure,
13. Occupations and Professions,
14. Military Records,
15. Welsh Language for Genealogy,
16. Organising Your Research,
17. Degrees of Kinship,

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Welsh Genealogy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very thorough manual on doing genealogical research in Wales. Points out differences in documents found in Wales and the usual documents found elsewhere. Document repositories are located. Only problem I found was that the presentation on a Nook of large milti-column tables from the book ( about 1 column wide/ Nook page) made it impossible to tie rows of data togetner. I normally would have printed the pieces of tables and taped them together but couldn't do it! These tables typically were sources of information by area in Wales and are critical for research.