Researching immigrant ancestry

Introduction

Researching immigrant ancestry can be split into two main sections: tracing your family through the UK records and then moving your search on to records held in other countries.

This leaflet is a guide to the important UK sources, many of which are held by The National Archives (TNA).

For general advice on researching your family in England and Wales, see our guide Tracing your Family Tree.

We also have guides on tracing your family in the Caribbean, Far East and Indian subcontinent, plus historic immigrant populations in Norfolk, such as the ‘Strangers’ from the Low Countries.

Alien records

Historically, if a person came from Ireland or a British Colony, they were considered British. If they came from another country they were known as aliens.

The Aliens Act 1792 required such people to register themselves with Justices of the Peace, or at the port of entry.

For a period, landlords of lodging houses were also required to give notice of aliens lodging with them to the parish constable or overseers, who would pass details on to the clerk of the peace.

Some of these registrations survive at county record offices and contain various useful pieces of information such as name, address and occupation, but TNA holds the vast majority of these records:

  • Alien arrivals, 1810-11, 1826-69. This is also available through Ancestry, which is a subscription website. However, it can be accessed free of charge at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), Norfolk Heritage Centre (NHC) and King’s Lynn Borough Archives.
  • Alien entry books, 1794-1921 (also available through Ancestry).
  • Alien registration cards, 1918-1957, London only, include:
    • Wives
    • Dependent children
    • Previous address
    • Date of arrival
    • Occupation
    • Photographs
    Some of these records can be downloaded from TNA’s website for a small fee, but only those for people born more than 100 years ago.
  • Enemy Alien Internees of the First and Second World Wars (also available through Find My Past. This is another subscription website which can be accessed free of charge at NRO, NHC and King’s Lynn Borough Archives).

Twentieth century registration cards from other parts of the country are generally held by the police, but some have now been passed on to county record offices.

Naturalisation and denization records

These are the processes by which people, previously known as aliens, became British subjects.

These were rights granted by the Crown or an Act of Parliament and the papers usually note a person’s date of arrival, and/or place of birth.

The difference between the two processes was that, for a long time, naturalisation required conversion to Christianity and the taking of oaths of supremacy and allegiance, whereas denization did not.

A third procedure was introduced in 1844, whereby naturalisation could be granted by certification from the Home Office.

However, please note that many immigrants did not bother with these formalities.

If your ancestors came from a British Colony prior to 1949, they would have already been British citizens.

TNA holds the following records:

  • Letters of Denization, pre-1509 to 1873 are enrolled in the patent rolls. The Huguenot Society has published an index for those from 1509-1800 and TNA have a typescript index 1801-73.
  • Naturalisation by private Acts of Parliament, 1700-1947. This are recorded in the parliament rolls. The Huguenot Society has published an index.
  • Naturalisation case papers 1789-1968. Please note these records are subject to 100 year closure to public access, but those of 1801-1871 can be downloaded though TNA’s website, for a small fee. They typically include address, birthplace and occupation. 
  • Naturalisation certificates 1844 -1986 (1870-1912 available through Ancestry). These records usually include:
    • Residence
    • Birthplace
    • Age
    • Occupation
    • Parents’, spouse’s and dependent children’s names

Ships’ passenger lists

TNA holds lists of passengers arriving in the UK, from outside Europe, between 1890 and 1960, with a few from 1878-88.

These lists and passengers' lists from many other countries, are now indexed and the original lists are available to view at the Ancestry website.

Further information

  • Roger Kershaw, Migration Records for Family Historians (The National Archives, 2009)
  • Roger Kershaw and Mark Pearsall, Immigrants and Aliens: A Guide to Sources on UK Immigration and Citizenship (The National Archives, 2004)
  • Moving Here, a website put together by TNA covering 200 years of immigration to the UK. It tells migration histories, has personal stories, a gallery and an excellent section on tracing the family history of Caribbean, Jewish, South Asian and Irish immigrants. It is no longer being updated, but has been permanently archived for you to view.