How To Find Old Orphanage Records

There comes a time in life where you might become curious about your ancestors. It’s an interesting activity to trace back the family tree and find out details about your family from the past. 

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If you’re tracing families from the 19th or early 20th century, it’s quite likely many of them will have been brought up in an orphanage. Life expectancy was shorter back then, and children often lost their parents before they grew up.

There were many large orphanages built and set up by philanthropic organizations or religious sects.  Not all residents were children whose parents had died, some were kids from poor families or those who could not care for them properly. What is the benefit of tracing ancestors?

How To Find Old Orphanage Records

Finding out about our roots can play a part in developing a sense of identity. Humans naturally crave connection and belonging. Learning about ancestors helps us understand our past and the challenges they faced.

It can also help us develop more compassion when we learn about the difficulties people faced in the past compared to now. It can also help us become aware of personality traits and similarities that we share with our ancient family. 

So, if you want to trace your ancestors, where do you start?

Census/Electoral roll 

The electoral roll is a good place to start. If you have a name, just type in the keyword orphanage and a name if you have one and if there are any details they will be available. You can either find the information directly or use a site such as ancestry.co.uk. 

You can find details of residents as far back as 1850. In the US census, a person will be listed as an ‘inmate’. Some states also provide information in the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent census which you can find on various ancestry search websites.

Orphanage records that have survived to date usually have lots of useful information such as registers, children that were given up and deaths. It’s unlikely you will find medical data due to its sensitive nature, but family details and names shouldn’t be too much of an issue. 

Ancestry.co.UK

This website is very useful for tracing families. It’s easy to use, and you can enter any information you have that will help with the search. 

The home page asks you questions about exactly what you want to find out and will ask you to set up an account. It will then guide you by asking questions about what you know. It will search through millions of records worldwide, including orphanages. 

Family search.org

Another great website designed to accurately find out about different generations. 

National Archives 

The national archives contain information from local governments. Typically, they will have details held from the last three governments.

However, they only hold statistics, correspondence, investigations, reports, and other such details. Most information about individuals or staff is likely kept in closed records, so you will need to make a formal request on their ‘Freedom of Information Page’. 

For general orphanage records, the website is pretty easy to navigate and will ask for details such as the name of the institution, what type of place it was and the location.

If you know the name of the ruling government at the time, you can use the advanced tool to add this in. The guide will suggest any other keywords that you could add in to further refine the search. 

Formerchildren’shomes.org

Another good website for location orphanage records is formerchildren’shomes. It’s easy to start, just type the name and click search. 

Children’shomes.org 

If you want to locate orphanage records from the UK then you can use children’shomes.org that has information for thousands of children in Britain that were in orphanages, special schools and poor houses. You can find out the history, location, building details and images of residents and staff.  

Local Histories/City Directories

If you don’t have any luck searching on websites, you may have to do some old-fashioned research and physically locate files in local directories. It’s a good way to find basic information such as addresses that can then help the online search. 

You may find records that contain information about admission and discharge, which will also have children’s date of birth and a brief description of their home circumstances. You can also find contextual information through annual reports to help you piece together an idea of the circumstances of the particular person or family you are investigating. 

The local directories might also contain Newsletters of children’s clubs that provided activities, and may very well contain separate records with extra information. Again, it will take time and patience to discover this but well worth it to uncover your roots. 

When residents left orphanages they walked away from a large part of their lives, so Alumni records were often kept. Researching Alumni records may give you details and photos of residents, and may even help find any living relatives.

Financial Aid Organizations 

If the person or family you are trying to locate ended up at an orphanage as an immigrant, chances are they will require some financial assistance, so you could search organizations such as charities that existed at the time to help immigrants. Many religious sects set up schemes and will likely have details of people they supported. 

To summarize, here are the steps to take to try to locate orphanage records:

  1. The census. If you are tracing relatives that were alive during the time the census started (1800 and after) 
  2. Local directories. To find detailed information about local orphanages and how kids were looked after. 
  3. Online search. Once you’ve identified the name, you can use Google and utilize the many websites that have been created to trace genealogy. In addition, you can also search archives. 
  4. Search through reports, newsletters, and other documentations for extra information 
  5. Search financial establishments’ setup to help those in need 

It can be challenging to locate orphanage records, but in the world of technology, such a search is easier and well worth the effort to find out exactly where you came from.