Family History in Southwest England
Your Genealogical Roots

Is your heritage and family history in southwest England, in that enchanting ancient yet so modern toe of the British Isles? Devon. Dorset. Hampshire Isle of Wight, Somerset and Wiltshire. For just these family history pages we will add Cornwall, although it was never a part of Wessex as such. When going to Devon from Cornwall one is going into England – ask a Cornish local!

Was your ancestor on the Mayflower? Did your ancestor go to Australia or New Zealand? A must could well be Plymouth, a city that could be arguably called the city that formed the modern world. So many ships made Plymouth their last port of call. Go to the quay and see the Mayflower Steps, or the inscriptions on monuments on the quay to the First Fleet and other incredible adventures of our ancestors. Walk in their footsteps.

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The Region and YOU

The south west of England is a lovely region it is a wonder your ancestors could tear themselves away. Yet they did. Probably better prospects elsewhere, religious feelings or a brighter future for their families of which you are a part. You probably agree they did the right thing at the time and you, later down the track, have benefited.

Are you curious about the area they came from? Do you wish to see what they saw and walk in their footsteps for a while? Well why not! It is not just curiosity it is a feeling of empathy with them, your family. A bit like when you saw the marriage certificate for the first time of your great grandparents perhaps that you hardly knew anything about, that feeling in the throat and the heart, very hard to describe but if you are reading this you will know! An incredible feeling isn't it – takes over.

The places may have changed since their day. The cities of Plymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth in particular were badly bombed and were rebuilt. Their city centres have really changed. Many other places have grown. But it is not all change, there is a lot still there to explore.

In many cases you may be able to find where they lived - Find My Past is a good starter for this. The Genealogist has old maps!! Local Public Record Offices in Wessex are a wonderful source. In the area? Why not take a photo of the house perhaps.

A camera is going to be a must have for this trip!!!! There is the church where they were baptised and/or married. There may be gravestones in the churchyard or cemetery. Did they go to a local school – is it still there? What about where they worked – you might be lucky.

Walk in their footsteps through the streets they walked. Visit that old pub that was likely to be the one your ancestor had his pint and played darts. (Many English pubs these days do great meals and not expensive.) There just might be a corner shop still, not many now with all the supermarkets. That park there – did they play there as children? Or did they play in the streets, it was safe to do so then. Imagine them there playing together with a ball. a hoop or hopscotch perhaps.

May be it is a village or hamlet where they lived. You could well be luckier here for they are less changed. Well except that those lovely old chocolate box cottages that are now just one cottage. That could well have been cottages for two or three agricultural labourers families. Farms do not need the amount of labour these days with modern machinery for the jobs that were once done with horses.

Stand in the gate of a field and gaze at the land they worked. They grew grain and root crops, kept sheep and cattle, perhaps planted and tended those hedges beside you. Are there birds singing there in those hedges? They are the descendants of the birds that sang when your ancestors were there. Perhaps they are singing to you.

Imagine children running along those footpaths playing chase or hide and seek. Those footpaths tend to call you - come and explore.

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Public Record Offices

Visit a Public Record Office, there is nothing like it! There is the one we all know about, the National Archives in London, but there are county record offices too all over the country.

They can reveal that local ambience, what was going on in that particular county. Local people in their time. An estate record in the 1800's perhaps reveals a name and where they were living, maybe their role in the estate. Were they a tenant, a copyholder? What work did they do?

Miles of shelves of documents are in Public Record Offices just begging for you to come and look! Records of your ancestors, their vital records, wills, the history of their homes, estates, ancient documents, local newspapers, legal documents, court proceedings. The things that happened to them was recorded and you are the one that finds that special document.

There is a thousand years of history in archives all over the country.

Although a great deal of information is online these days it is only a fraction of what is available hidden on old dusty shelves. Yes, really, only a fraction!! It will be decades before even half of it is online, if then. 

There is nothing like that moment in your heart when you hold that document in your hand about your ancestor.

Be prepared for your visit, plan and let the Record Ofice know in advance you are coming so they know what you are looking for. The staff are your best friends.

Remember those miles of shelving!! There is so much it may not be stored in the main archive and have to be brought in for you to see.

Get your Reader's Ticket in advance. Wear white gloves and use a pencil for taking notes. Yes, the old way! Still the best in an archive. Those documents deserve your respect, they have lasted this long and they want to last longer. Your great, great grandchild perhaps may hold them too.

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Online data bases

Good News!

Find My Past releases thousands of local records online, each week there seems to be more. Besides all their many other records there are military records, the 1939 Register and now the 1921 Census.

Forces War Records There are over 10,000,000, yes ten million records in their data base. Many of those men and women are from the southwest of England, navy, army and airforce. They have taken part all over the world, many making the final sacrifice and many living on with the impact of that service. They deserve pride of place in our family history for without them our world would not be free.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Genes Reunited are a friendly lot. It has many strengths in that it does have the census records and other databases, but perhaps its strongest is the fact that it is people specific. Put a name in their search field and see what happens!

The Genealogist starts where the other data bases finish!!! It is another excellent search engine for family records. Their maps are incredible and brings to life the area where our ancestors lived. They are also useful for non conformist records. There were a lot of non conformists in the south west. Bit of a rebellious lot at times!!!

Ancestry  is perhaps and arguably the most famous online data base but rather due to their advertising. They are very similar to Find My Past. It is often a good idea if you cannot find something in one of them to try one of the others! Very good for DNA searches.

They are all great sources and make wonderful starts and archives, but they do not beat holding that document in your hand!

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How to get there

Your trip will need planning!!! There will be so much you will want to cram in. Explore the pages of this still growing site. Your place may be there and it will be a start.  Coach travel can be booked online, quite good and inexpensive actually! Hand your luggage to the driver and get on, sit back and relax! Trains speed between cities. Traveline is also a handy site to check for public transport times.

One must have is to allow time. It cannot be rushed, too precious.

Happy Hunting.

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Return from Family History in Southwest England to Home

Or if you would like to browse around the site and see what you can find about the places your ancestors came from please do. There are navigation buttons above on the left.

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In these centenary years of WWI Forces War Records and other genealogical data bases provide excellent resources for finding our military ancestors who fought so bravely under appalling conditions.

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RH FH  Wessex John Temple

1939 Register on Find My Past

The United Kingdom's 1939 register of everyone in the country taken at the outbreak of World War II is on Find My Past. This is a register, not a census but still contains a great deal of information. It was used for the ration books and call up for the 1939/45 War. It was also the basis of the National Health Service.

Find My Past also has the 1921 census.

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Useful Information

County Record Offices


Devon Heritage Centre 

Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Exeter, EX2 7NL

North Devon Record Office is a branch of the Devon Heritage Centre.

Barnstaple Library, Tuly Street, Barnstaple, EX31 1EL

The Box. Tavistock Place, Plymouth, Devon PL4 8AX Not just an archive but a museum and a gallery as well.


Dorset County Public Records. Dorset History Centre,

Bridport Road, Dorchester, Dorset, DT1 1RP


Hampshire Archives and Local Studies

Sussex Street Winchester SO23 8TH    not far from the railway station.

Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight Record Office Hillside, Newport, PO30 2EB


Somerset Heritage Centre Brunel Way, Norton Fitzwarren, Taunton, TA2 6SF

Bristol Archives

B Bond Warehouse (via Create Centre)
Smeaton Road


Wiltshire and Swindon Archives

Cocklebury Road
SN15 3QN


Kresen Kernow,            Little Vauxhall, Redruth TR15 1AS

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This is a developing map. Some areas have better coverage.

To find the nearest Electric Vehicle Charging Point please click here.

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Public Transport

Getting to and around Wessex

There is a lot of information regarding airports, ferries and public transport on this link. Useful read, particularly if you are coming in from overseas as many family historians will be.

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Travel by coach

If you do decide the leave the car at home and help the environment too, why not go National Express. They run coaches all over the country. Some pretty good fares too.

Just imagine - sit back and relax, no hassling with the traffic!!!

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Travel by Train

Try the National Rail Journey Planner for rail routes to and from the southwest.

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Otherwise most public transport - trains and buses - can be found on this most useful site Traveline  Whatever did we do without it!!!

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Things change. Always check out the external links for the latest information.

These are just helpful suggestions only.

There is only one affiliate link, SBI.

Travel Wessex is a Guide.

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