19th century sources
There is a general misconception that because of the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin) in 1922, there are few public records for the 19th century. However, many of the key 19th century archives for family history are in fact public records which have survived and are available in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) - valuation books and maps, the tithe applotment books and school records. Other 19th century public records of interest to the family historian are:
Surviving 19th century Census ReturnsNothing has survived of the 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 census returns and only fragments for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. The most extensive survivals are those relating to County Fermanagh for 1821, to County Londonderry for 1831 and to County Antrim for 1851 (main PRONI Ref MIC/5A). An alternative source for 1841 and 1851 census information are the Old Age Pension claims which PRONI holds for the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. These claim forms, which are bound into volumes, record details for the claimant but often record information on the entire family of the claimant.
Further information can be found in Family Tree Leaflet 5 - Census Records (19th Century) (27KB) .
The Poor Law Records (Records of the Boards of Guardians)Poor Law records are the archives of the Boards of Guardians (main PRONI Reference BG/), the administrators of the Poor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948. PRONI holds extensive records for the 28 Poor Law Unions (the administrative areas for the Poor Law, each of which had a workhouse) that originally operated in the area now covered by Northern Ireland.
The original aim of the poor law system was to provide relief to the destitute poor only if they entered the workhouse. Due to the demand for workhouse accommodation created as a result of the ravages of the Great Famine, outdoor relief was eventually introduced. As a result of the introduction of outdoor relief, the workhouses in Ireland had by 1900 become a refuge for the old, the sick and destitute children.
Another form of outdoor relief was the practice of putting out to nurse or boarding out orphan and deserted children. Under Acts of 1898 and 1908, a record of children and nurses had to be kept. You will find details either in the outdoor relief registers or in separate boarding -out registers.
The Medical Charities (Ireland) Act 1851 brought the dispensary system under the control of the Boards of Guardians which in turn created new series of records. These include, for example, vaccination registers that give the name of the child, the name and address of the mother or father or other person in charge of the child, the date of vaccination and the age of the child at the time of vaccination. Some of these registers date back to the 1860s for some Poor law Unions.
The workhouse system lasted until the introduction of the Welfare State in 1948.
The most useful series of records for the family historian are the indoor relief registers, which run almost continuously from the establishment of the particular workhouse to 1948. These contain the names, addresses, religion and occupation of those who entered the workhouse. Occasionally, registers of births and deaths that occurred in the workhouse survive for some Poor law Unions. There are also out-door relief registers which are less extensive for the19th century.
Even the minute books are of interest as the early volumes will contain the names of those who failed to comply with the workhouse rules, who absconded or who were given assistance to emigrate.
The records of the Boards of Guardians are closed for 100 years after the date of the last register entry. However, you can make application for a search to be carried out under Freedom of Information by contacting PRONI in writing (by letter, email or fax) or completing a PRONI Enquiry Form online.
Further details can be found in Family Tree Leaflet 13 - Poor Law Records (103KB) .
Hospital recordsPRONI does not hold patient records apart from those of mental hospitals, some of which begin in the 1830s. Committal papers, case books and admission registers are of particular interest to the family historian (main PRONI Reference HOS). This particular group of records are closed for 100 years after the date of the last register entry. However, you can make application for a search to be carried out under Freedom of Information by contacting PRONI in writing (by letter, email or fax) or completing a PRONI Enquiry Form online.
Records of the Crown and Peace Courts and Petty Sessions CourtsYou are more likely to appear in the public records if you committed a crime. The earliest criminal files and the accompanying crown books summarising each case and recording the sentence are to be found in the records of the Crown and Peace Courts for each of the 6 counties of Northern Ireland (main PRONI References C&P ANT, ARM, BELF, FER, LOND and TYR). Not only will you find extensive descriptions of the crime, including witnesses’ statements, but you will often get details of ages of the accused, their state of health and their criminal record. The earliest criminal records date back to 1822, but the majority do not start until the 1880s and 1890s.
Also to be found among the records of the Crown and Peace are the Grand Jury presentments. The Grand Jury was the most important local body in rural Ireland during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and was empowered to raise money by means of county rates. Its responsibilities included the construction and repair of roads and bridges and the upkeep of local institutions, such as lunatic asylums and hospitals. Grand Jury Presentments are the chief records of the county administration prior to 1898. They contain information about work ordered to be done by the Grand Jury on roads, bridges and jails and about constabulary duties in the counties, as well as the names of those who received money for such work. Detailed searching is required as there is no personal names index to the volumes. However, for all counties in Northern Ireland, the presentments go back into the 18th century - those for County Antrim, for example, begin in 1711.
The Crown and Peace archive also contains some Freeholders’ registers and lists, mainly for the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These record the names and addresses of those 40 shilling freeholders who were entitled to vote at elections. Those pre-1840 Freeholders records have all been indexed and digitised and are available on this website. For the late 19th century there are some Voters’ lists for Counties Antrim, Fermanagh and Tyrone and also for Belfast.
Further details can be found in Family Tree Leaflet 10 - Voters, Poll and Freeholders Records (65KB) .
The Petty Sessions’ courts dealt with minor misdemeanours. The order books would be the most useful series of records for family history purposes (main PRONI Reference HA/1). However, less than 15% of the Petty Sessions districts for Northern Ireland have records going back into the 19th century, the earliest being 1822.
Wills and Testamentary RecordsBefore 1858, wills were proved and letters of administration were issued by the Church of Ireland courts. Unfortunately, these records were lost when the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin) was destroyed in 1922. However, indexes to the pre-1858 wills and administrations survived and PRONI holds those for the dioceses in Northern Ireland. Copies of some pre-1958 wills have been uncovered in privately deposited archives held by PRONI and an index to these is available in the Search Room. Other sources for pre-1858 wills are detailed in Family Tree Series Leaflet 7 - Wills and Testamentary Records (76KB) .
From 1858, wills began to be proved by the Supreme Court of Judicature (the High Court). Only copies of wills have survived for the period 1858-1900 (main PRONI Reference MIC/15C). A project to index and digitise 1858 - c1900 wills from the District Probate Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry is almost complete. Phase one - an index to the will calendar entries (grants of probate and letters of administration) - is now available on the PRONI website. Phase two - to link the will calendar entries to the digitised images of the wills - will follow shortly.
PRONI holds all original wills and grants of letters of administration for deceased persons in Northern Ireland from 1900 to 2001.
Further details can be found in Family Tree Leaflet 7 - Wills and Testamentary Records (76KB) .
PRONI’s private archives are a rich source of information for the family historian. The following are some of the more important archives.
Landed Estate RecordsDuring the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the majority of the Irish population lived on large estates. The administration of these estates produced a large quantity of records, including maps, rentals, account books, etc. Landed estate records, particularly the rent rolls, leases and maps listing the tenants on the estate, are an extremely useful source of genealogical information and may be the only source available for the period before 1830. In general, it can be said that the larger the estate the more likely that extensive and continuous records have survived.
PRONI holds the largest collection of estate records in Northern Ireland. Some of the landed estate archives to be found in PRONI relate to estates in the Republic of Ireland, such as the extensive Kenmare estate in County Kerry and many of the large estates in County Monaghan. Extensive Introductions to some of these estate archives are available online in PRONI's Introductions to significant privately deposited archives.
PRONI’s Guide to Landed Estates (available in the PRONI Search Room) is a useful starting point to help identify what records have survived.
For further details see Family Tree Leaflet 8 - Landed Estate Records (42KB) .
1803 Agricultural CensusWhile this was a government led survey, the 1803 agricultural census returns for County Down are to be found in the Londonderry estate archive main (PRONI Ref D/654/A2). Similar returns exist for County Antrim but they are in the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. British authorities, fearing a French Invasion of Ireland, made plans for the defence of the coastline so that in the event of an invasion they would know what to move and what support would be available for the army. The plans involved taking an inventory of livestock, provisions, crops and equipment. The returns of ‘live and dead stock’ record the names of householders by townland and parish with details of what stock each held, but the names of householders are only recorded for 30 out of the 50 parishes. Nevertheless over 11,000 names are recorded.
Business RecordsThe business records held in PRONI range from the archives of the large industries that have made Northern Ireland famous - linen, engineering, shipbuilding - to the smaller businesses such as bakeries, ironmongers and flour mills. Information can be obtained on customers, suppliers and employees as well as directors and shareholders. Wages books are among the most productive series, giving information on employees’ names, days and hours worked, wage rates, overtime payments, details of work done, etc, and occasionally include their age and address. Trade Union records that may record the names of members also feature prominently in PRONI’s archives.
If you know where your family came from, check out the Ordnance Survey maps to identify what industry was in the area where the family may have worked. If they lived in Belfast, street directories (see Family Tree Leaflet 9 - Street Directories (64KB) ) will also show what businesses were in the vicinity of your ancestor’s home.
PRONI’s Guide to the Ulster Textile Industry, the subject index and the Deputy Keeper’s Reports, all available in the Search Room, are useful starting points to identify what business archives are available in PRONI.
For further details see Family Tree Leaflet 18 - Business Records (47KB) .