Before the start of civil registration, baptisms, marriages and burials were recorded in parish registers. Usually only a minimum of information was recorded, but at least the maiden name of women in marriage entries were usually recorded. Occasionally, a minister will be very diligent and record extra information such as the maiden name of a mother on a baptism record. So, copies of records should always be obtained in case there are some additional nuggets to be found.
If available, other church records should be sought out. Kirk Session Minutes in Scotland, for example, may record a suspected father of an illegitimate birth. These particular records are held by the National Records of Scotland. They will eventually be available online on the Scotland’s People website.
For more information on English and Welsh church records see: A Guide to British Parish Registers. For Scottish records see: Scottish Genealogy: Making the Most of Scotland’s People. And for Ireland: How to Find Irish Parish Registers.
Newspapers can be really useful for tracking women, especially if they were socially active in the 19th and 20th centuries. They may appear in announcements, reports of meetings or in news articles.
Even if your female ancestors were ordinary working women, they may still appear in newspapers in:
- Family notices – birth, marriage and death announcements
- News articles – for example in a criminal court case as a defendant or a witness.
The largest collection of British and Irish newspapers online is the British Newspaper Archive. Access to this collection is also available with some Findmypast subscriptions.
For more on British and Irish newspapers see: Online British Newspapers and Find Your Irish Ancestors with Online Newspapers.
Wills and Probate
A lot of information about women can be found in Wills. Often when a property-owning man died, he made a provision for his wife so that she had an income during her lifetime. If she inherited property outright, she probably also made a Will herself.
Many Wills are available online including on Findmypast.
From the late 19th century onward, after the reforms of Florence Nightingale, nursing became a respectable profession and one of the few available to women. There is a good chance that you will have at least one nursing ancestor in your family tree.
For more on the nursing profession see: How to find your Nursing Ancestors.
Women would sometimes run a small business such as a shop. If they were single or widowed, their name and business may be listed in a trade directory.
Historical directories, known as trade or street directories first appeared in London in the 17th century. They were later published in the larger cities such as Leeds and Manchester before becoming common in smaller towns.
For more information, see: Use Historical Directories to find your Ancestors.
The fight for women’s votes in the UK became very intense in the early part of the 20th Century, especially after the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Members of this movement became known as Suffragettes.
If you have Suffragette ancestors, check out the Suffragette Collection at FindMyPast, in conjunction with the National Archives. Included in this historic collection are arrest records, parliamentary papers, watch lists, personal statements, reports of force-feeding, transcripts of speeches and much more.
See also: Was Your Ancestor a Suffragette?
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