How to get the best from The National Archives

Do you find TNA’s online resources sometimes complex to use? Simon Fowler offers reassurance and guidance on where to find the records you need.

TNA front entrance

If you are going to use the records held by The National Archives (TNA) – and this is almost inevitable if your ancestor are English and Welsh, and quite possible if your forebears came from Scotland or Ireland – then you need to familiarise yourself with the TNA website ( It is a key genealogical resource stuffed with useful material, whether you are just starting your family tree or regard yourself as being an expert. TNA is the national archive of England and Wales, and the United Kingdom. It collects records relating to central government and the courts, including the census, service records and passenger lists. 

The most important resource available on the website is the Discovery catalogue, which lists the millions of documents held by TNA, and many more at archives across England. 

Just as useful are the research guides which show the records you will want to use when undertaking particular searches, from looking for apprentices to finding out about the Zulu wars. You can also download copies of a number of records, although this is currently just a very small proportion of the total held at Kew. But there is much else besides. For example, there is a great blog with lots of posts about the records and the work of TNA ( And if you know what you want to see, you can order up to six documents in advance of a visit. 

TNA’s website is arranged under various themes. Most people just use the three sections listed at the top of the home page – ‘Help with your research’, ‘Search 1000 years of records’, and ‘Find our digitised collections’. The three other themes below (education, archives sector and information management) reflect the other, more technical, work of The National Archives. 

It is worth scrolling further down the homepage, as here you will find practical information about visiting TNA, details of forthcoming events together with podcasts from previous lectures, and a map of how to get there. You can even order books from the bookshop and images from the Image Library.  

Help with research

Clicking on the Find Guides button takes you to a new menu with more links to other resources. At the top of the page are the research guides. There are hundreds of them – each suggesting ways to conduct particular searches, or focusing on particular records. You can discover how best to research soldier ancestors, for example, or the records available to research the American Revolution.

They are all arranged in the same way, with an indication of what records are already available online, and brief descriptions of records at Kew, with links to the Discovery Catalogue where appropriate. There also links to other guides that might also help. Everything is clearly explained. 

If you don’t know exactly where to look, you can type in a word or phrase into the ‘Search all guides’ box – however, this will not enable you to find individuals. There are 68 guides, for example, relating to the Royal Navy, and 13 relating to merchant seamen, and you will need to scroll down to you find one you think is of interest. 

I’ve been researching my grandfather Paul Belcher Fowler, who was a merchant seaman during and after World War 1. ‘Merchant seaman serving after 1917’ looks the best bet. Unfortunately there are no service documents for the war, but medal records survive. Typing his name into the search box that is helpfully provided only brings up one card that matches the name, as Paul was an uncommon forename at this time. From here, you can buy a copy of the relevant card, if you want to. 

If you scroll down the research guides pages, you will find other resources in addition to the guides themselves. There are items about visiting Kew, the library catalogue (TNA has one of best specialist history libraries in Britain) and online exhibitions.

1000 years of records

From the TNA homepage, if you click on the ‘Search 1000 years of records’ section, you will be taken to the Discovery catalogue. This allows you to search through all of the records held by TNA. In addition, there are entries for material held by 250 local and national archives – but here, you need to careful. It is not complete, so if you can’t find here what you want you should also approach the archive: most have online catalogues of their own. Even so, there are other 32 million entries, including ten million for records at other repositories.

Discovery itself is a very powerful search engine. There are various ways to find what you want, but a simple tip is to put your enquiry inside double brackets, such as ‘Horatio Nelson’ or ‘HMS Victory’, as this will tell Discovery just to look for that phrase – otherwise you might get all the Horatios and all the Nelsons.

Again, the main Discovery page provides links to the Research Guides and to ‘Popular collections’ – by which it means the online collections. There are also links to many other record offices, which can be helpful if you want to find the contact details of a particular archive – there are 4000 entries. It is particularly useful when hunting down smaller more specialist repositories, such as the Marks and Spencer Company Archive in Leeds ( You can also tag specific descriptions, if you want to, although judging by the few records that have been tagged, this service has still to take off.

Find digitised collections

The third thematic heading on the TNA homepage is ‘Find our digitised collections’. Only about 5% of TNA’s collections are online, but this includes all the major resources used by family historians. Many records are available on Ancestry or Findmypast, but some unique material is available on the TNA website. It costs £3.30 to download a record, although some items are free. From the homepage, click on the ‘Online collections’ button, and then scroll down the list of research guides. Those with records available on other sites are flagged up. You won’t be able to get access to them via TNA’s website, but will need to subscribe to the other sites as usual.

The research guide will tell you how to go about accessing the record. Normally, you’ll just type in the name of an individual, and if there is a result just follow the instructions to download a copy. I did this for my grandfather’s Merchant Marine Medal card. 

Alternatively, you can do an ordinary search in Discovery and the piece description will tell you whether you can download the document. 

Unfortunately the size of some files, particular the war diaries, are huge, so unless you have superfast broadband they may take some time to download. 

Of course, if you are able to visit The National Archives down in Kew in person, you can look at all this material for free – although there is a small charge if you want to print anything out. 

It’s worth bookmarking The National Archives website address, as you may well need to visit the site often. This article has only really scratched its surface, so spend time on the website seeing what it can you about your ancestors and how you can find more about researching them.

TNA resources

Visit preparation: At some stage you may have to visit Kew to consult original documents. The Open Reading Room has lots of online resources including access to both Ancestry and Findmypast – as well as to original Army and Navy lists, street directories and other reference books. There are links from the homepage telling you what to expect when you arrive. If you need to use original material, you will need a reader’s ticket. There are several hoops to jump through before you can get one, so it is important to read the instructions. Once you have a ticket you can order up to six documents in advance of your visit. This is a real time saver. Just complete the online form a day or two before your visit.

Read it right: If you want to know more about reading old handwriting, there are online tutorials on Latin and palaeography to help you read documents from the medieval period and beyond, through practical activities and useful examples. Scroll down the ‘Help with your research’ page to the Reading Old Documents menu. The most useful section is probably ‘Palaeography’, which introduces users to the writing of the 16th and 17th centuries, with a number of examples to puzzle through. If you’ve managed to trace your ancestors back much beyond 1750, you will want to give this a go. Don’t forget the fiendish Ducking Stool game! 

Getting started: Not everybody visiting TNA’s website is an expert in archives and how to get the best from them. Fortunately, there are a number of guides and videos that discuss what archives are, introducing TNA and showing you how it is organised. Right at the top of the ‘Help with your research’ page, there is a ‘Start here’ button for users unfamiliar with archives. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, there are sections on ‘What are archives’ and ‘How to use archives’. As well as some text, there a couple of short videos which show you what archives are and how you can use them in your research.