Finding birth parents in the UK—a birth mother or birth father or both—is possible. Start here by learning about adoption contact registers, records and using DNA to find birth relatives in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Thanks to Michelle Leonard for writing this guest post! Read more about her below.
The advent of DNA testing for family history has revolutionized our ability to search for unknown birth parents. Puzzles for which paper trail research alone could never provide answers can increasingly be solved using a combination of consumer DNA testing and traditional genealogy research. The techniques required to crack such cases are mostly universal. But if your mystery is UK-based, it’s important to be aware of certain key points pertaining both to adoption and unknown parentage searches.
Adoption in the UK
Official adoption began in 1926 in England and Wales, 1929 in Northern Ireland, 1930 in Scotland and as late as 1954 in neighboring Ireland. If you were adopted in the UK, you have the right to access your original birth certificate as well as your adoption papers and there are many local adoption support groups that can offer assistance. The process differs depending on where the adoption took place. But generally, the local authority in the adoption locality will hold the records in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whereas in Scotland adoption records are centrally located at the NRS (National Records of Scotland) adoption unit.
Adoption Contact Registers: UK and Ireland
Another major facet of adoption in the UK (and Ireland) is the existence of Adoption Contact Registers (see links below). It is very important to place yourself on the appropriate adoption contact register for your country of birth and list your contact preference. Birth family members may have already registered contact preferences, so it’s important to check that before attempting to make contact via DNA testing. If you were adopted in the UK, the best course of action is to obtain your adoption papers, make use of official adoption support services and place yourself on the applicable adoption contact register before embarking on your DNA testing quest.
Unknown birth parents in the UK
A large percentage of people seeking an unknown parent were not adopted, however. For those outside that adoption framework, there are no documents, contact registers or official support services. A common starting point for UK-based unknown parentage mysteries is a known birth mother (either via information obtained from adoption records or via family knowledge in non-adoption cases) and an unknown birth father. Adoption papers will also provide any information given at the time in regards to the identity of the birth father. But very often this section is blank, sparse or the information is unreliable. Therefore, in most cases of unknown parentage, whether adoption-related or not, the only route to truly solving the mystery is DNA testing.
DNA testing for birth parents in the UK
As an experienced DNA detective with hundreds of solved unknown parentage cases behind me, I’d like to share a few of my top tips:
- Fish in all the ponds! Test with AncestryDNA first to get into the largest database. But don’t overlook testing or transferring to the other major testing companies (23andMe, MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA). Otherwise, if your best match tests at one you haven’t, you could miss out on vital information to solve your puzzle! (Compare the various DNA testing companies.)
- Males should also consider Y-DNA testing at FTDNA, which may provide a surname clue.
- Don’t expect the same level or volume of matches for UK-based searches as you would for US-based ones. However, cases can still be solved using 2nd, 3rd and more distant cousin matches. (You’ll use the tips below.)
- Whether your search is UK-based or not, one of my key mantras is ‘follow the DNA above all else!’ Never fixate on adoption paper details or family recollection. Bear all clues in mind but remember that DNA can often point in different directions and if that occurs always focus on what the DNA is revealing instead of trying to make it fit to the other information.
- Investigate your highest matches first and work your way down your match lists.
- Identify and eliminate matches on your known lines so you will be left with clusters of matches that pertain to your mystery line. Building an extensive tree for your known ancestry and proactively testing relatives on those lines can hugely aid this process!
- Check Ancestry’s Genetic Communities feature. Many UK-based communities can provide specific location clues.
- Compare the trees and shared matches of your highest matches to try and work out how they match each other, as this is very likely also how they match YOU and can lead to the identification of common ancestors.
- Build out the trees of your best “mystery matches.” Extensive tree-building is the bedrock upon which an unknown parentage case is solved! (See my ‘Top UK & Ireland Traditional Resources’ below for sources that can help with this tree-building process.)
- Once one probable ancestor or ancestral couple has been identified, trace all of their children and investigate the ancestry of the spouses of those children. If you can find DNA links to one spouse in particular, that could narrow your search down another generation!
- Once you have traced forward to the grandparent or parent level, it becomes about identifying the most likely candidates (e.g. who was in the right place at the right time?).
- Targeted testing of additional relatives will often be required to distinguish between multiple candidates and obtain a full answer.
- A major aspect of this kind of search is identifying DNA matches with no trees and tracing living people! One drawback is that hugely helpful detailed recent obituaries like those published in US newspapers are very rare for the UK. However, access to more recent records can make up for this limitation (e.g. in Scotland I can access BMD records right up to the present day in local archives to trace living people).
- The UK electoral roll is published each year and made available via several subscription websites. Be aware that it has been possible to opt out of this public version since 2002, so you may or may not find the person you seek listed on it.
- Another major difference in the UK is the prevailing thinking in regards to how contact with close birth family members should be handled. In the US, often the advice given is that the seeker (adoptee or person with the unknown parent) should personally make contact, whereas in the UK, much more focus is placed on using trained intermediaries.
We want to help you in your search. Our free guide to finding birth roots offers tips for using DNA to learn about your ancestry without even contacting birth relatives, and a helpful chart for determining likelihood of identifying birth relatives depending on the DNA matches you already have.
Resources for UK & Ireland Adoption and Unknown Parentage Searches
Adoption Contact Register Links
Top Resources for Building Your Family Tree in the UK & Ireland (most require some form of payment whether via credits or when records are ordered; only FreeBMD is wholly free)
- Free BMD: free access to a growing number of civil registration records for England and Wales
- General Register Office for ordering official BMD records for England and Wales
- Search for wills or probate records for recently deceased people in England and Wales
- Scotland’s People: Official government site for searching genealogically-significant government records
- General Register Office Northern Ireland (GRONI): for finding historical registration documents
- IrishGenealogy.ie: Ireland’s official government website for helping you search for your family history
- 192.com: Search among UK public electoral rolls and other public records
Don’t despair if you can’t grasp your answers quickly. There is always hope. New people are testing all the time, and more and more cases are successfully solved each and every day.
Next Steps: Learn to “Do the DNA” Yourself
We are here to help you every step of the way on your DNA journey. Are you looking for a birth parent? We have just the thing to get you started. Check out our free guide “3 Things DNA Can Tell You about Your Birth Roots”.
Michelle Leonard is a professional genealogist, DNA detective, speaker, author, historian and the official genetic genealogist of #AncestryHour. She has extensive experience in both the traditional and genetic genealogy spheres. Her business, Genes & Genealogy, specializes in solving unknown parentage and all manner of unknown ancestor mysteries using a combination of DNA expertise and conventional research methodology.