Free downloads from the (other) National Archives

The National Archives (the one at Kew in London) has a very irritating name. Which nation? It’s not Britain, since Scotland is excluded; it’s not the UK, since Northern Ireland is excluded; it’s not England, since Wales is included.

T other NA

Post-colonial nit-picking aside, TNA (even the acronym is annoying) is a wonderful and much under-appreciated resource for Irish research. Apart from British Army records, now largely available online on and, huge quantities of the records produced by imperial administrators in Ireland found their way back to London. For someone used to working with Irish records in Ireland, TNA’s vast, densely-populated archive series, many spanning multiple centuries, are simply stunning, like visiting a cathedral after a life spent in a cave.

One pew in the catherdral

The biggest problem has always been that the Archives is in London. Improving access is a long-standing priority and over the past decade, the online catalogue ( has become an extraordinary research tool in its own right, summarising in miniature many of the originals. After using it for years, I began to mine another generous feature, the “digital microfilm” service. TNA has digitised thousands of microfilms and is making them downloadable for free.

They are elephantine PDF files, slow to arrive and searchable only by hand, just like the microfilms themselves. But you don’t have to trek to Kew to see them. Among the records relevant to Ireland are Admiralty and Coast Guard records from 1816, the printed annual Army Lists, detailing every officer in the army from 1754, and the General Register Office Indexes to Foreign Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1627-1917.

It has to be said that the site (deliberately?) makes the digitised films very awkward to get at. Start from the full list, read the accompanying step-by-step instructions very carefully,  and then just keep burrowing.

Whatever its flaws, this is genuine public service. Irish institutions please copy.

13 thoughts on “Free downloads from the (other) National Archives”

  1. Hi John.
    Thanks for the great service you provide through your regular postings.
    May I just make one comment? Is it not time we left comments like your “post colonial” remarks out of references to British institutions like TNA? Its one county’s national archive. That does not mean that there is not records referring to other nations. What is the alternative? What historical time frame should be reflected in the title? Perhaps it should be the Essex Archives? Or maybe the Anglo-Saxon Archives? Perpetuating this kind of nationalist cringe does no one any good.

  2. Thank you John. This is where I found my Irish mariner ancestor and great explanations of the Seamen’s Tickets BT 112 and BT 119. Only place where his birthplace was listed and in Ballylongford Kerry, a far cry from the family story that he was from Belfast. Very grateful for these files and the indexing done by

  3. One thought when using records on the National Archives Kew website can you please tag them as Irish and ideally tag the place in Ireland they relate to e.g. Kerry to help make these Irish records more visible. To tag the records you need to sign up for a free account, but using that account you can tag and also save your searches so helping yourself and the rest of us. 🙂

    1. I agree with Ted Flack .People who live in the north of England could have the same feeling .I have just found out I have Irish descendants and I sometimes think that Scotland ,Ireland and wales are always carping about something and people should always remember that they may have a shock like me when tracing their ancestors that they could be from elsewhere…

  4. Hey John, can I ask a question about the whatever archives at Kew? I spent some time looking through the website and guides they provide. But, still am not certain exactly what is contained. I have read that they would likely have will summaries of Irish wills. And, you mentioned the military records. Would they have records of civil lawsuits or criminal prosecutions? I suppose all national archives are like that. They essentially become a repository for government records that no longer serve a current need. So, it may be difficult to summarize everything into one guide.

    1. Hi Tom
      I think the only directly useful Irish will information they contain are the Inland Revenue summaries of Irish wills -see . Because Ireland was a separate jurisdiction, there would be very little directly to do with the Irish justice system. The Army is a different matter. 99% of all historic British Army records are in Kew. Most are now digitised – their guides will tell you where.

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