Crea and Co Genealogy

Where the past comes to life!

How to find your Orphaned Ancestors


Finding ancestors can be a tricky process, and finding ancestors who were orphaned can seem like a mammoth task. However if you follow these simple steps, it will seem like a walk in the park. To start with Institutions which looked after children who were orphaned, abandoned or in need of care due to other reasons date back to the 17th century. Children were a major inhabitant of those work houses, and during the 19th century these workhouses gained in prominence. Inspired by the work of Banardo’s, many others set up charitable organisations to care for destitute children.

1. Get the basics right

Before you do anything, make sure you have the correct information. Ask your family if it is a recent event, (i.e there is still someone alive who might remember that a family member was an orphan.) but remember it still may be a sensitive issue and stories may have been invented to cover up illegitimacy for example. Hopefully you will have a birth certificate for the child which will help find the person you are looking for in census records. You can find census records on many commercial sites such as Ancestry, Findmypast, and the Genealogist. There are some free sites you can use too, such as UK Census Online, so have a good look around if you are on a budget. Just remember that being a ophan didn’t always have the same connotation as it does now, just having one parent who was either dead or permanently absent could make you an orphan.

2.  Identify the Institution they lived in

I know it seems obvious but it can be tricky. For example the institution could have changed names or even it’s location. If you know the town in which the home was located have a look at trade directories such as Kelly’s Directories. When looking for directories, a little gem for genealogists and family historians is Historical Directories or you can of course use your subscription site if they have directories listed to search, I know Ancestry does.If the orphanage was run by a workhouse it will usually include workhouse or union in the title and not orphanage.

3. Workhouse Children

The poor law authorities encourage workhouses to have separate children’s accommodation away from the main workhouse from the 1840’s. This was apparently to spare to children the taint of the main workhouse. As every workhouse board kept their own records, you will now find them in the relevant county or metropolitan record office. In London you may find the records in the local history library, If you have identified the union that held the records you can find more information on The Workhouse website which has information on all the poor law unions. After they were disbanded in 1930, many of these institutions were taken over by the local authorities and continued to operate as orphanages.

4. Dr Barnado’s

Thomas Barnado opened his first children’s home in 1870, and was located in Stepney. These homes eventually numbered into the hundreds and even though the last one closed in 1989, the records survive. Barnado’s as a charity still exists; as you are probably aware, and offer various services to look up records. You can find more information on the Barnado’s website.

5. Religious Organisations

Many religious organisations offered their own versions of charitable organisations to help unfortunate parishioners. Here are some starting points.

  • For the Church of England check out Hidden Lives or email the Children’s Society at about records you think they hold. The Children’s Society was once The Church of England’s Waifs and Strays Society from 1881 and by 1905 they run 93 homes so definitely worth a shot really!
  • Action for Children was once the National Children’s Home founded in 1869 by the Methodist minister TB Stephenson and run roughly 50 children’s homes. For information on NCH records click here
  • Roman Catholic homes tended to be organised within the Catholic Diocese area. Some were run by branches of the Catholic Children’s Society. If you Google it, many different society’s will come up. Others were run by religious orders such as the Sisters of Nazareth. This website may help you identify religious orders which may be able to help as some premises are still occupied by the order and the records may still be on-site. Alternatively the order’s present day head quarters may be able to help, this site will help you identify the correct diocese.

6. Other Homes

The records for other types of homes are very limited and could cause a bit of a stumbling point for you. A very useful resource to track down these records is available on-line at the Access to Archives. Just type in a search term such as railway orphanages to see the results. The most complete records will be where the organisation which run the home is still in existence such as Coram which formally run the London Foundling Hospital.

I hope this information helps you, however if it all seems a bit daunting or you just don’t have the time just remember i do offer professional services to help. Please contact me for more information.

Author: creageneolgy

I am a former History Graduate who has a passion for genealogy and the research this entails. Along with my BA History I also have a MA Historical Archaeology. I live in Bristol with my husband, baby boy and two cats. Please feel free to use the free info provided and if you wish, i also offer a number of research services which are invaluable for those who love family history but do not have the time to do their own!

5 thoughts on “How to find your Orphaned Ancestors

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