Tracing Black Family History

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref 1714/1)

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s
(SHC ref 1714/1)

“Out of Many, One People” –  the motto of Jamaica

For centuries, people have moved to Surrey from all over the UK and throughout the world. Some came as merchants or economic migrants, others answered Britain’s call for labour in the 1950s and 1960s. By whatever means they arrived in the county, Black people made Surrey their home and became part of the county’s diversity. As a result they appear in the county’s historical records from the sixteenth century onwards and through these records we get an important insight into their lives.

Discover more with our comprehensive online resource about Black History in Surrey.

If you’re interested in tracing your family history Surrey History Centre can help you in your quest. Even if your family doesn’t have Surrey roots our Seeking Surrey Ancestors web page is a good place to start for the basics of tracing family history. We also have a dedicated blog by our professional genealogist, Jane Lewis, which offers great advice on how to tackle many areas of this exciting and often absorbing hobby. Everyone has their own story to tell, why not record your older relatives about their life, work and how they came to live in the UK, or help them write a family memoir? If your family has Surrey connections you can place a copy with us in the archives at Surrey History Centre to help future generations understand your family’s journey, please contact us at [email protected].

The following guides will help you discover more about the key sources for Black family research:

Tracing Black History at Surrey History Centre (downloadable as a pdf document pdf logo)
Marvel of the Month guide to Black History sources.
Black History Month bibliography (downloadable as a pdf document pdf logo)

Online family history subscription sites such as and contain a vast range of records, and contain superb research guides for African and Caribbean ancestors, as well as members’ family trees. These sites are free to use upon registration at any Surrey library and at Surrey History Centre. In addition, these websites have access to key family history records of birth, marriage and death, military records, wills, newspapers, street directories, and electoral registers, all of which can help pinpoint dates, places and occupations of family members.

New research on how Black communities of African and Caribbean descent became established in the UK is constantly emerging. In particular, in 2018, the 70th anniversary of the MV Empire Windrush arriving from the Caribbean in 1948, has awakened renewed interest in the more recent Black History of the UK. Research and exhibitions by the Migration Museum and the Black Cultural Archives has meant that the amount of sources and information accessible online for those tracing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) family history has never been greater, or more exciting.

The BBC’s hugely successful Who Do You Think You Are? programme regularly features celebrities with Black ancestry, notably Moira Stewart, Ainsley Harriott, and Reggie Yates. These programmes give a good idea of the survival of sources and patterns of migration between countries. DNA testing with commercial genealogy companies is becoming increasingly popular too, with several high profile TV programmes featuring Black celebrities, including the athletes Michael Jordan, Jamie Baulch and Colin Jackson.

See the ‘Useful links’ section at the bottom of this page for more online sources to help with African and Caribbean family research.

Sources at Surrey History Centre

A woman in traditional dress in Trinidad, from the albums of the East Surrey Regiment, c.1880s (SHC ref ESR/2/13/4, p75e)

A woman in traditional dress in Trinidad, from the albums of the East Surrey Regiment, c.1880s
(SHC ref ESR/2/13/4, p75e)

Surrey History Centre holds historical records of Black people and their contribution to life in the county. Records such as electoral registers, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, property documents, street directories, maps, photographs and illustrations, and a huge collection of local studies publications, can all help build up a picture of an ancestor’s life.

Surrey was home to freed slaves, slave owners and a number of leading abolitionists. The collections at Surrey History Centre hold their stories in the records of slave-owning families, the papers of abolition committees and the slaves themselves. Not all records of Black people in Surrey relate to slavery; records of education, work and everyday life record their place in the county’s history.

The contribution of black doctors and nurses to a growing National Health Service from the 1950s onwards is well documented and we hold some records of their employment in Surrey. For example, at the end of the Second World War, chronic staff shortages in many areas of employment in Britain led to skilled and unskilled workers migrating from several countries, including the Caribbean and parts of Africa. Surrey’s hospitals thrived as a result of nursing staff from parts of what was then the British Empire and the records of Surrey’s mental hospitals feature many doctors and nurses among their collections, including at Netherne Hospital, Coulsdon. To see what staffing records we hold for Surrey mental hospitals, including Netherne, please see our online guide.

Find out more about Black health care workers in Surrey

Photograph of the East Surrey Regiment with members of the 7th Bn Gold Coast Regt, 1930s (SHC ref ESR/2/13/17, p49)

CSM H L Amor of the 1st Bn East Surrey Regt with members of the 7th Bn Gold Coast Regt, Royal West African Frontier Force, 1930s (SHC ref ESR/2/13/17, p49)

Moving further afield, in the nineteenth century, the Surrey regiments were stationed throughout the British Empire and their records include stunning photograph albums showing the different cultures that the battalions encountered as part of their presence in far-flung places, including Trinidad in the 1880s. Other regimental photographs capture the vital role that black soldiers played in supporting the regiments, such as 7th Battalion Gold Coast Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force, in the 1930s.

The Royal Philanthropic School, at Redhill, whose records are held in the Surrey History Centre, was founded in 1788 to reform the many paupers who had found themselves part of London’s criminal underbelly. Some Black children found themselves leaving the city as part of this new reformatory system where they were housed, fed, and clothed, often sponsored by a wealthy white philanthropist conforming to the charitable mindset of the day. One pauper child who was helped by this system was Thomas West, whose story is a rare recorded example of a young Black boy living in Georgian London. We have a record of his misdemeanours as a child thief, but we also see him put on the path of reform and begin a new, stable life outside the city and out of his poverty-stricken, criminal surroundings.

Thomas Jackson, wearing his Royal Philanthropic Society ‘Reform’ school uniform. From his page in the school’s admissions register (SHC Ref. 2271/10/25).

Thomas Jackson, wearing his Royal Philanthropic Society ‘Reform’ school uniform. From his page in the school’s admissions register
(SHC Ref. 2271/10/25).

Thomas Jackson, was another young Black boy placed in the care of the Royal Philanthropic School but this time in the early twentieth century. The records reveal his story and include family history information such as his parent’s names and the fact that his father, Charles, had come from Jamaica to Shoreditch, where an immigrant population was growing around London’s docklands.

Sometimes families have collected their treasured documents and photographs and placed them with us at Surrey Histry Centre. These unique archives can then be used to help trace Black family history. Find out how we traced the history of John Springfield (c.1847-1891), an escaped slave from Zanzibar who became a cobbler in Guildford, using his naval apprenticeship certificates and other records preserved by his family.

Our collections are free to use and open to everyone. If your family moved to Surrey why not add your own story to our archives? We’d be delighted to hear from you, please contact us at [email protected].

Useful links for tracing African and Caribbean family history

With Surrey/London boundary changes over the decades it is worth looking at London Metropolitan Archives research guide to their holding relating to the Black African Caribbean Community Archives.

Since the settling of the British Caribbean in the 17th century, people have returned or emigrated to Britain. However, up until the 19th century, it is difficult to know how many Caribbean people lived in the UK. Watch an illustrative introduction by Guy Grannum, author of ‘Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors’, to researching Caribbean migration and migrants to the UK:

Caribbean Roots which has an extensive list of sources for Caribbean family history and an excellent guide on how to start tracing your ancestors.

The Caribbean Surname Index features a guide to West Indian families being researched and a discussion forum, which is a great way of seeing what research has already been done.

‘Moving Here’ is a vast family history resource for migration to England. Now archived it covers migration stories, galleries, guides and useful links.

The National Archives (TNA) holds the records of the British Colonial Office, 1500-1850 and their online guide to Black and Asian History in Britain, gives a great overview of 200 years of black presence in Britain.

The Slaves and Highlanders website traces both planters and the enslaved who have Scottish Highlands connections, particularly clan families.

The Jamaican family history website has an impressive collection of helpful research guides, including a ‘How Do I Begin’ page, along with a history of Jamaica, a glossary, a bibliography and a guide to where to find records. There are also transcribed sources for members who wish to subscribe, such as the 1878 Kingston City Directory.

The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database contains important genealogical information covering plantations, owners who received compensation on the abolition of the slave trade, and the legacy of slavery,

Recognize aims to promote positive diversity by educating people about the heritage and culture of the African Caribbean community. Their website includes blogs and articles about British Black History including the Empire Windrush immigration and Black soldiers, find out more at

The Family and Colonial Research Network has a useful online research guide for tracing colonial sources and a huge number of useful family history links.

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