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Genealogy website publishes immigrants' documents

Database allows access to records of more than 30 million who left British ports


CBC News, Thursday, January 11, 2007


An online database listing more than 30 million ship passengers who left British ports from 1890 to 1960 can help genealogists find descendants, including those who moved to Canada.

The website,, allows people to view digitized high-resolution color images of passenger manifests, customs claims and other documents listing travelers' names and destinations that until now were only available in dusty boxes deep inside Britain's National Archives.

"Before, it was virtually impossible to find anyone," said Stephen Rigden, head of research at, the private company that partnered with the National Archives for the project.

The database it took two years to scan the estimated 1.2 million documents  includes entries from ships sailing all around the world, including decorative manifests from trips to West Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.

"Some of the passenger lists are handwritten, some are typed, whereas the first-class ones are quite ornamental," Rigden said.



Sorts thousands of unindexed documents

He said the project will allow people around the world to access records and learn more about their family history, instead of having to travel to London to dig through thousands of unindexed files.

The lists, gathered over the past century from Britain's board of trade, include war brides joining their new husbands, farmers drawn by land grants in western Canada, and those seeking a taste of fortune in the Yukon gold rush.

So far, the website has only posted records from 1890 to 1899, but files up until the 1920s should be available by the end of the year, Rigden said. 

During the 1890s, Canada received 307,000 arrivals through British ports, including numerous immigrants from Scandinavia who "two-legged," traveling to Liverpool or Dublin before heading to North America.

The number who came to Canada is second only to the 1.9 million people who headed to the United States. Australia received 130,000, and 31,000 travelers headed to New Zealand in the same period, the records show.

"Canada was by far and away the second-most important in the decade," Rigden said, but he added that many continued on to the U.S. as tickets on ships to Halifax and Montreal were often cheaper than on those sailing directly to New York.


Database shows home children's records

Also among the names are home children or "Barnardo children" thousands of young Britons who were sent to countries such as Canada and Australia between 1869 and the early 1930s.

More than 100,000 children, most of them between the ages of seven and 14, were sent to Canada by orphanages such as Barnardo's to serve as farm hands and domestic servants, according to the Canadian Genealogy Center of Library and Archives Canada.

Not all of the children were orphans. Some families put their children into the care of the organizations because the children required health care the families could not afford. Most were sent abroad without their parents or relatives being notified.

It is estimated that one in 10 Canadians is descended from home children.

"It's quite a startling percentage," Rigden said.

The database gives family historians a window into their ancestors' experiences at some of the most epic moments of their lives, he said.

"What's interesting about these records is that each one carries a story," he said.

"It really brings to life a person's existence in a way birth and death records can't. It's quite an emotional experience."





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