The Society of Genealogists, London Be Sure to Visit – in Person or Online

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

If you have English ancestors, The Society of Genealogists (SoG) in London is an essential resource. I first learned of the society a number of years ago through my friend, Joe Brickey, who has visited the institution’s library in London several times in the course of her research. I visited the SoG web site soon after her conversation with me and during one of my frequent (and as yet unsuccessful) attempts to document the birth of my “brick-wall” great-great grandmother, Kate Duncan. During that first virtual visit, the Internet was still in its infancy, and I became discouraged by the lack of information available, including the essential information about how to become a SoG member.

A few months ago, in developing a list of topic for upcoming blog articles, I thought I’d explore what information was now available concerning the SoG and its resources. What a difference! My research for this article clearly illustrated that the Internet has matured and that the availability of content has expanded exponentially since my early visit to the SoG online. Celebrating its centennial, the society has created a web site that has become an essential resource for English research (along with the National Archives, Findmypast, British Origins, and others). This article, then, explores some of the online resources of SoG, and shares Joe Brickey’s observations from visiting the society in person.

Founded in 1911, The Society of Genealogists describes itself as “the National Library and Education Centre for Family History.” Its mission is “to promote, encourage and foster the science and knowledge of genealogy” by “creating a safe depository for pedigrees and other manuscripts,” and its collections are particularly useful for research in the period prior to the inception of civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths in 1837. “The Society has many unique unpublished manuscript notes and printed and unpublished family histories. Its library contains Britain’s largest collection of parish register copies and many nonconformist registers. Along with registers, the library holds local histories, copies of churchyard gravestone inscriptions, poll books, trade directories, census indexes and a wealth of information about the parishes where our ancestors lived.”

The society’s library catalog is now available to everyone online, having previously been restricted to use in the library itself, and provides access to about 120,000 books, microforms, CDs, audio cassettes and videos. Please note that the catalog does not include the society’s documents collection. A simple search for “Barclay” yielded thirty-one entries as well as a see reference to “Allardice,” a surname connected to the Barclays of Urie. I was delighted to find, among the first group of entries, a copy of Leslie’s Barclay’s History of the Scottish Barclays, which I republished with a new index (Willow Bend Books, 1995). How exciting to find my own name in the SoG library catalog! From the main page, you can complete a free surname search across all of the resources on the site. My “Barclay” search yielded a list of twenty-eight resources containing the surname Barclay, including such titles as “Solicitors and attorneys’ career details,” the Baptist Magazine, “Occupations – railway workers,” the “Index to Lifeboat Gallantry Medal Recipients 1824-1997,” “Boyds Marriage Index,” and “Index to Crisp’s post-1837 Marriage License abstracts.” A figure to the right of each source entry specified the number of matches for the search term in that source. The number of matches ranged from one to 110 (Prerogative Court of Canterbury). To the left, a “£” or “view” icon indicated a membership requirement or free access to the full record. The only online icon in my list of Barclay entries was for the “Apprentices of Great Britain series,” with twenty-three matches (twenty apprentices and three masters).

If a source is preceded by a £, you have to be a member to see the full record details. There is, however, another option. To celebrate its centennial year, SoG has entered into a partnership to make all of its collection available at findmypast.org. While this site is subscription based, SoG records are available if you are a current findmypast.org subscriber (or you may use the PayAsYouGo credit process). The initial group of records available at findmypast.org included “Boyd’s Marriage Index,” “Boyd’s London Burials,” Faculty Office Marriage Licence Allegations,” St. Andrew’s Holborn Marriage Index,” Vicar-General Marriage Licences Allegations,” “St. Leonard Shoreditch Burials…and Workhouse Deaths,” and the “Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills Index.” These sources were followed by access to “Bank of England Wills Extracts, and “Apprentices of Great Britain.”

Membership, as they say, does have benefits (both for online use and in-person visits), including free access to the library; a member’s room with a drink machine and where you are welcome to bring your lunch; free access to the online portal (MySoG) for members only (“…membership renewal online, access to all of the SoG data published online through findmypast.com, plus more specialized data from the library including manuscripts, indexes, PDFs of books and images…”); access to free sites within the library to all key family history websites; access to free, expert help and advice related to your genealogical research; the quarterly Genealogists’ Magazine; and member discounts on courses, lectures, society publications, and short specific searches when using the Search and Copy Service. Members who live in the United Kingdom may borrow certain items from the library. Individuals who have been members for five years may advertise professional services in Genealogists’ Magazine. Access to membership forms and information are readily available on the site.

If you are planning a research trip to London, the Society is located at 14 Charterwell Buildings, Goswell Road, EC1M 7BA, and is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays. Please note that the society is closed on Mondays, bank holidays, and the first full week in January. It can be reached conveniently by train, bus or metro. The daily cost for non-members is £10.00. As with any research institution, there are rules and regulations that must be met, so be sure to read Rules of the Society.

Here are some comments from Joe Brickey concerning her visits to the society.

I took the tube and walked about three blocks to the society. There were several nice-looking sandwich shops along the way. The SoG building is at the end of a short, dead-end street, on the left side. On the ground floor are a gift shop, staff desks, locker room, and a small snack area. The lady at the gift shop desk collected the money for my membership (less expensive to join if you expect to go multiple times), gave me a map of the floors and assured me that there was staff on every floor who would be happy to answer questions.

Tempting though it was to stop and look at all of the books for sale, I headed for the history books on the top floor.

Such was the first of about a dozen trips to SoG over a four-year period. Each time I discovered something new by way of resources there, information found, and books to purchase. On that first visit, I purchased a number of SoG guides on the areas of England I was researching and read and made notes before my next visit. Some of the most helpful booklets that I purchased were the parish guides for my counties of interest.

Membership also allows you access to the manuscript collection on the lowest floor. If you are there when the annual meeting takes place, you are invited to attend. One year, Prince Michael of Kent was presiding and it was quite a treat to be introduced to him and have a brief conversation.

Do not expect to find the kinds of compiled genealogies we have here in the United States, pertaining to “ordinary” families. Do expect excellent resources for counties, with lots of printed and filmed parish records and published county histories.

Check the bulletin board on the ground floor for courses that may be offered while you are in town. I was able to attend several that greatly improved my understanding of the records I needed to use. The fee for the courses was reasonable and each speaker I heard was excellent.

After returning to the hotel, between books purchased and copies made, my tote bag was a great deal heavier than when I arrived!

Additional accounts of visits to The Society of Genealogists can be found in an article from the Bebington Group of the Family History Society of Cheshire (Cheshire Ancestor (June 2005), 37-38).

Research at The Society of Genealogists web site is valuable in its own right and definitely is a prerequisite for any in-person visit to the Society’s library in London. Perhaps I’ll even find information about Kate!

Resources to assist you in researching your English ancestors include:

Ancestral Trails by Mark D. Herber (2nd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006).

Discovering Your English Ancestors by Paul Milner and Linda Jonas (Betterway Books, 2000).

Genealogical Research in England’s Public Record Office: a Guide for North Americans by Judith Prowse Reid and Simon Fowler (2nd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). Currently on sale at genealogical.com.

Finding Answers in British Isles Census Records by Echo King (Ancestry, 2007).

The Handy Book to English Genealogy by Rachael Mellen (3rd ed., Heritage Books, 1990).

The National Archives: a Practical Guide for Family Historians by Stella Colwell (The National Archives, 2006).

The Parish Chest by W. E. Tate (Phillimore, 2000).

The Record Interpreter compiled by Charles Trice Martin (Phillimore, 1994). (Note: This title is currently out-of-print at genealogical.com. Click the “Notify Me” button to be informed when it is again available.)

Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond by Amanda Bevan (7th rev. ed,  The National Archives, 2006).

Wills and Other Probate Records by Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor (The National Archives, 2004).

Your English Ancestry: a Guide for North Americans by Sherry Irvine (Ancestry, 1993).

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