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British nationality: subject or citizen?

Mark Pearsall looks at the status of immigrants and the concept of nationality over the last 500 years. This talk covers alienage, denization, naturalisation and registration of citizenship and the records of these statuses that survive. This talk also clarifies the position of overseas Britons who became citizens of other Commonwealth countries and who could – or could not – be regarded as a British citizen after 1948.

Mark Pearsall has written a number of publications including Family History On The Move and Immigrants and Aliens.

There is a small degree of interference in the audio quality of this live recording.


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to cover various aspects of nationality and citizenship, talking a little bit about citizenship law, although the law is very complicated in matters of citizenship. And when you’re dealing with questions of nationality you have to take into consideration English – or British – law as it was at a particular time and also the laws of the country from which the individual came that has settled in this country. So you have to take into account not only the laws of this country but the laws of the country that the individuals came from. And of course the law changes over time.

So I’m going to cover various aspects of citizenship: alienage, the status of being an alien; denization, which was a form of granting of certain amounts of rights to an alien or stranger living within the King’s realm but didn’t confer all the rights of a natural born Englishman or Briton; and how to search for records of denization [and] which records survive.

Then about naturalisation and the laws relating to naturalisation: naturalisation by act of parliament and then the process was streamlined in the 19th century and you could apply to the Home Secretary for a grant of naturalisation. So I’ll be talking about that and searching for surviving records of naturalisation.

Then I’m going to say something a little bit about the British Nationality Act of 1948 ( and registration of British citizenship and how the status of people in this country and Britons living overseas was changed by the 1948 Act and also how citizenship evolved within the British Empire and Commonwealth as it came into being. And I shall say something about the registration of British citizenship and what records survive for registrations of British citizens and how to search for the records of registrations of citizenship.

And, to finish off, something about the British Nationality Act of 1981 ( which is the main act which is still in force. There have been several acts since the 1981 act. There was an act in 2002 and there was a more recent act which slightly changes the law. But as I’m talking about historical records and citizenship from a historical perspective, it doesn’t affect the records that we hold in The National Archives and tracing individuals if you’ve got immigrant ancestry. But the basis of modern British citizenship law is the 1981 Act and to a certain extent still the 1948 Act, although certain aspects of the 1948 Act were changed in 1981.

So that’s what I’m going to cover. Many of the records relating to denization and naturalisation for the 19th and 20th centuries up to 1986 can be searched for on Discovery on the online catalogue ( But you need to remember to do an advanced search, and you should be able to search by name. There are three main series of records relating to applications for denization or a request for a grant of citizenship. There are three main Home Office series – HO 1, HO 45, and HO 144 – and I’ll come back to these later on.

But if you’re searching in the 19th century, early 20th century, those are the three main series for applications for naturalisation and also for early denization records early 19th century. And for the 20th century there is also HO 405, although we don’t have, after 1934, a complete set of applications for naturalisation. Many of them have been destroyed by the Home Office and haven’t been kept.

So we only have a selection of records from 1934 onwards of applications. But we do have the certificates that were issued to individuals, duplicate copies of the certificates that were issued to individuals, and they’re in a Home Office series HO 334, and you can search for those on the catalogue as well by name.

Where the application papers don’t survive we’ve also got the Home Office indexes to those naturalisations that were granted. Up to 1980 you can search them on the catalogue in HO 409. So most naturalisation records can be searched by doing a name search on the catalogue. And I’ll come back to that in a bit more detail later. First of all I’ll start off with alienage.

Aliens are those people that have a foreign allegiance or were born in a foreign country. The concept of citizenship grows up in the medieval period. The nation state doesn’t really exist. People owed allegiance to their lord and, through their lord, to their prince or to their monarch. So the allegiance was sort of personal to an individual, to a prince rather than to a country. And the concept of being a subject of the crown, of the English crown, you were born within that monarch’s territory.

So the idea was that you had sort of an English citizenship, but you were also a subject of the King. But the King also had French subjects that owed him an equal amount of loyalty. So although you had a nationality, a national status, your primary allegiance was to your prince, whoever they were, rather than to country.

But aliens were those people that had an allegiance to a foreign prince and were born outside the territorial jurisdiction of the King of England. So people in this country that were from France were technically aliens within England. You often see the term used, ‘stranger’, particularly in the 15th, 16th, [and] 17th century. Rather than an alien, the term ‘stranger’ is used. Now that can mean in parish records somebody actually born outside a parish. So if you find an entry in a parish register referring to a stranger, it can usually mean somebody born in the next parish rather than actually a native of that parish. But it can also mean someone of foreign nationality from overseas.

So alienage is the status, the legal status of being an alien, and the majority of immigrants who stayed and settled permanently in England or, from 1707, Great Britain and, from 1801, the United Kingdom remained, legally, aliens. And most people didn’t take out denization or naturalisation. It wasn’t necessary. You could live in this country. You were sort of treated fairly equally under the law.

The only problem was in wartime, particularly if you were French or, in the 17th century, Dutch and we went to war with the United Provinces or we went to war with France. And then your position could be very difficult. You could be subject to arrest and imprisonment or, more usually, deportation when hostilities commenced. But during times of peace there was really no need. Unless you intended to make a permanent life in this country and you were in business [or] you wanted to own property, there was no need to take out denization or full naturalisation.

In the 14th and 15th centuries aliens were often taxed separately, and there are records in the Exchequer series of what are called Alien subsidies which are specifically subsidies granted by parliament to the crown, but they’re specifically targeted to aliens. There are ordinary subsidies for English subjects, and sometimes aliens are included on the ordinary subsidy rolls. But in most cases aliens paid double taxation. So whatever the grant of taxation and the rate for an English subject, for an alien it was usually double.

And in the 14th, 15th centuries there are specific alien subsidies. The best surviving returns are in 1440 and in 1483-84. The alien subsidies stopped in 1512, but aliens do appear on the later ordinary subsidies charged at a double rate of taxation. And you can search for the subsidy rolls on the E 179 database ( That’s the main series of Exchequer records for taxation records, E 179, and you can identify surviving taxation returns by town or parish by using the database.

And you can also find reports and lists of aliens locally in Quarter Sessions and city and borough records. There are whole series of aliens acts, particularly in the 16th century, relating to the employment of craftsmen – ‘stranger craftsmen’ as they are often referred to. A good example of this is Henry VIII employing lots of craftsmen from Holland and Germany and France, particularly metal workers, artists like Holbein, but German metal workers, German armourers, French armourers.

And these people were regulated by Statute law. And they could trade under certain restrictions in the City of London and in other boroughs and cities. But there were firm rules and regulations as to when they could trade, where they could trade. They were subject, as with the subsidies, to double taxation. They couldn’t take on, necessarily, apprentices without permission from the city authorities. So they were regulated by statute.

But you can find returns in City of London records and in city and borough records and also in Quarter Sessions records as well. Particularly by the end of the 18th century with the French Revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars, again there are a whole series of aliens acts, and an Aliens Office is created in 1793. And aliens are much more regulated again, and returns had to be made to the Aliens Office.

Not many of those records do survive, and most of the records of the Aliens Office from 1793 onwards don’t survive. But there sometimes are returns that were made as well to the Aliens Office in London. Returns were made to the magistrates [and] the justices of the peace at Quarter Sessions. So you can find records of aliens locally in Quarter Sessions records and borough and city archives.

And this is the E 179 database available on the website. You can search by parish or borough or city, so search by place. You can search by date range and type of taxation and whether the taxation returns include lists of names of individuals or whether they’re just the amounts of money collected.

So for searching for early taxation records, use the E 179 database. And this is an example of one of those early returns from 1484 for Stratford-at-Bow in Middlesex. Some of the London ones and some of the London suburbs in Middlesex and Surrey have actually been published and are indexed.

Now denization was a sort of halfway house between being an alien and having all the rights of a natural born English or British subject. So aliens who wished to regulate their status could become denizens by taking out Denization by letters patent. And they could petition the Crown for a Drant of denization by letters patent.

This allowed the individual to hold an purchase property, which aliens couldn’t do. But they couldn’t inherit property. To do that they would need to take out full naturalisation. And they didn’t have any political rights. They weren’t allowed to vote and they didn’t hold public or military office. So they couldn’t stand for election; they couldn’t be a member of the armed forces. But they did have protection in law. They had protection under the Crown, and they were treated just the same equally in court cases in the law courts. So they had the rights of a citizen and protection of the Crown, but they didn’t have all the rights of a natural born subject.

And it was never actually abolished, denization, although it’s out of date. The whole process of naturalisation was streamlined in the 19th century, and there was an 1844 Naturalisation Act. There was a further Act in 1870. But it didn’t actually abolish denization, and there is an overlapping period in the 1870s where, at the beginning of the 1870s, denization could still be granted.

The last grant letters patent issued were in January 1873, and that was the last grant of denization. But it was never abolished either by the 19th century naturalisation acts or the Act that codified common and statute law, the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act ( And actually in 1933 somebody actually requested, for some strange reason, to become a denizen rather than a fully naturalised subject, and the Home Office just turned down the request saying that although it hadn’t been abolished, it was just archaic, and it was no longer relevant, and they would have to apply for full naturalisation.

Searching for records of denization, they’re granted by letters patent so they’re enrolled on the patent rolls in the (TNA) National Archives series, Chancery series C 66. And you can consult those, you can search those by searching the calendars of the patent rolls, and they’re indexed in the calendars under denization or indigenae. And you can use also Palmer’s Indexes to the patent rolls which are in the index series IND 1 and also the C 275 indexes to C 66.

The later denizations for the early modern period, 16th, 17th, 18th century, most of those have been published by the Huguenot Society, and we’ve got copies of those in the library. And the ones from 1801 to 1873 have been digitised. They’re in HO 1 up to 1870. There are a few in HO 44 and HO 45. They’re all now searchable on Discovery, and they’ve also been digitised so you can actually download and read the actual applications and grants of denization.

We’ve also got some examples of unclaimed letters patent in the series C 97. They were either just not claimed or the individuals died before they collected them. So there are a few examples of the original grants in the series C 97 but most were actually given to the individuals themselves.

This is an example of a 16th century one, a grant to John Alaska in 1550. This is enrolled on the patent rolls in C 66.

And this is an entry from Discovery. This is for the last denization granted which was actually granted to the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1873. And if you look, there’s two entries. The bottom entry is the denization in 1873. He took out denization, but some 20 years later in 1897 he actually took out full naturalisation. So he applied to the Home Office to the Home Secretary for a grant of naturalisation. And in 1897 he got the full rights of a British citizen. So this is an example of where somebody took out denization and then subsequently took out full naturalisation. And this is actually the last denization granted in 1873 to the artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Now naturalisation by act of parliament granted you the full rights of citizenship so you were able, if you were wealthy enough – and it was wealthy people that actually applied for full rights of citizenship – to own property, to buy and sell property, to hold public office, to get a commission in the army. So to do that you had to get full grants, full rights of citizenship. To do that, you needed to petition parliament and get naturalised by act of parliament up to 1844 – which was expensive because a bill had to be produced. It had to go through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It could be defeated in either house. It could be amended.

Usually naturalisation acts are for groups of individuals or two or three individuals who share the cost of the lawyers and the solicitors and the drafting of the bill and getting the bill through parliament. So the acts usually apply to several individuals rather than to a single individual. Although ones for foreign princes sometimes, marrying into the royal family, where they naturalise – so, for example, Prince Albert was naturalised by act of parliament when he married Queen Victoria – there are individual acts of parliament.

And often for foreign noblemen – many German noblemen, sometimes French noblemen after the French Revolutionary wars – some men decided to settle in this country and take out naturalisation. And for wealthy people you might get an individual act of parliament for that one individual. But in many cases in the 17th, 18th century, they’re for groups of people or two or three individuals.

And these papers are for the most part in the Parliamentary Archives. So up until 1844 full naturalisation was only granted by acts of parliament. They’re private acts. They’re not public general acts. So you can’t access these on the legislation index ( that we host. The best place to look for them is the Parliamentary Archives on the Parliamentary Archives website ( You can search their catalogue for naturalisation acts. So the original acts, most of them, are in the parliamentary archives, as are the related papers. And you can follow the passage of an act through the House of Lords or the House of Commons through the records held in the Parliamentary Archives.

We’ve got some indexes. There are some in the research and inquiries room, the research and inquiries area. And there are copies of the lists at the front of the Home Office series and also in the library. Again they’ve also been covered by the Huguenot Society publications. So most of the acts of parliament up to 1900, you can find references to them in various finding aids and in the Huguenot Society publications here. But the actual acts, you’ll need to go to the Parliamentary Archives at the Palace of Westminster.

There are a few on the Parliament Rolls for the late 15th century, early 16th century in C 65, but not many. And the original acts are still with the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster. There are some after 1844 when the whole system of naturalisation was streamlined, usually for foreign nobility or royalty – so members of foreign royal houses marrying into the royal family who were settling in this country. For example, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Prince Henry of Battenberg who married daughters of Queen Victoria. Their naturalisation acts are in the parliamentary archives.

And the actual last naturalisation act was actually in 1975, even though for most people from 1844 they just go through the Home Office procedures. So after 1844 the number of naturalisation acts just drops off. And it’s usually only for foreign nobles and foreign royalty.

[The] Naturalisation Act in 1844 streamlined the system. It allowed petitions and applications to be made to the Home Secretary. And from 1847 an amending act required proof of residence in this country and residential referees to say that you were a law-abiding citizen and say that you lived where you were saying you’d lived for several years. There wasn’t a qualifying period at this time, but they needed proof of residence and that you were a law-abiding citizen. From 1870 a minimum qualifying period was laid down of five years’ residence in the UK.

The 1948 Act, as I mentioned, allowed for registration of British citizenship, and I’ll come back to that later because that’s a separate status, registration of British citizenship. That’s for people that were British citizens rather than foreign nationals.

The whole system was streamlined from 1844, and what we have are the surviving application papers or memorials to the Home Secretary and then the duplicate copies of the certificates that were issued to the individuals.

So what we have are a whole series of application records, petitions or memorials with accompanying affidavits verifying the information – so the memorial to the Home Secretary by the applicant themselves giving name, age, occupation and length of residence in the UK. From 1847 you get related referees supporting the applications, verifying the information given and that the person has been resident where they say they’ve been resident.

And also from 1870 you get details of the applicant’s family. Before then it’s often just they have a wife and children. It might name the wife and give the number of children, but from 1870 you’ll get the wife’s name and the names of the children and usually the ages of the children as well. And from 1873 you usually get a magistrate’s report or a police report verifying their status again and confirming that they haven’t been in trouble with the law; they’re law abiding and they haven’t had any criminal convictions.

Now searching for these records, as I mentioned, do an advanced search by name on Discovery on the catalogue. Name search should be sufficient, but you might need to narrow down the date range. And depending on the date range will depend on the relevant Home Office series. If you know the date range, you can specify the Home Office series.

So the applications, the memorial papers, up to 1870 they’re in HO 1. In the 1870s they’re in HO 45, and from 1878 to about 1934 they’re in HO 144. They should be complete up to 1934. From 1934 they’re incomplete. Those that we have are in HO 405. And the certificates from 1870 are in HO 334. Before then where there’s a certificate it’s in HO 1 of the application papers. And you just do the key word search. So for here, for example, I’ve searched under Marks, Michael Marks.

For most of these naturalisation papers it’s best to put in the surname first, comma, first name rather than first name and then the surname. It’s the way they’ve been catalogued, so do it that way. I mean if you put it in, it may find it, and what it might do is bring up all the Markses rather than Michael Marks. If you just search on Michael Marks, it will bring up every entry from Michael and every entry from Marks. So if you put in ‘Marks, Michael’ it will find it.

So if you do that search and put in a date range – we’ve just specified Home Office; we didn’t even specify a particular Home Office series – you get several hits. Now in this case the bottom one is not relevant, but you’ve got the top two references to Michael Marks. The first entry at the top is his application papers, his memorial papers – so his memorial to the Home Secretary and the accompanying paperwork from the referees and from the magistrates. So HO 144/407/B23729 are the application papers, and below that the second entry is the duplicate certificate that was issued to him, and that is HO 334/25/9621. And you can order those papers up.

Now this is part of the paperwork in HO 144. This is the referee, Thomas Spencer, who was one of the referees for Michael Marks. You can see where this is going. Michael Marks was a merchant, so was Thomas Spencer, and they went into business together to form the company that’s still going as Marks & Spencer. But Thomas Spencer was the referee for Michael Marks.

And you’ll see on this document that his residences over the past five years – actually slightly more than five years – are given – six years, two months, just saying where he’d lived. And the other documentation will corroborate this as well, the other referees.

And this is the report from the magistrate. In this case it’s the Mayor of Wigan. He was resident in Wigan, and a report was made to the Mayor of Wigan as the chief magistrate for the Borough of Wigan and again confirms his places of residence. These have been checked and they’ve checked with the police force that there is no convictions against him, so saying that he is a suitable person for the Home Secretary to grant naturalisation to.

This is an entry, a rare entry – in fact it’s the only entry – for an application that was turned down. All other applications that were unsuccessful have been destroyed, but this one was kept because it was Karl Marx. His application was made, and it was turned down in 1874. One of the reasons it survived is that there was a request to see the papers in the 1920s and 1940s. And you see there’s this file here, this Home Office file from 1946, which was a request that Marx’s remains be removed from Highgate and actually sent to Moscow for interring in Moscow as a hero of the Soviet Union.

That was turned down, but because there’d been a request for information about Karl Marx, the Home Office were aware that this file existed. And in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, these files – probably lots of these files – still existed. And because this one, they’d needed the file to refer to in later correspondence in this request, they actually kept this file on one side. So this file survived where all the other refused applications have been destroyed by the Home Office. So this is the only one that actually survives where an application is turned down.

And this is the Metropolitan Police report on the file which actually says that this is the notorious German agitator, the head of the International Society and an advocate of communistic principles. This man has not been loyal to his own king and country, so why would he be loyal to Queen and country. So it was a damning sort of statement by the Metropolitan Police and one of the reasons why Marx was actually turned down. But that’s the only file where the file has been kept where somebody has been turned down.

The naturalisation papers: I mentioned they were in several series. So from 1844 to 1870 they’re in HO 1. From 1871 to 1878 they’re in HO 45 just for that little period in the 1870s. From 1878 to 1934 [they’re] in HO 144. But if you can’t remember the series, you can just put in a date range and put in ‘HO’ and it will search all of these series. You might get too many hits and then you’ll have to narrow it down.

And then from 1934 you’ve got selected papers. The Home Office destroyed most of the papers after 1934. We’ve got a good selection from 1934 to 1948 in HO 405, but they’re not actually complete yet. We’ve got the surnames from A to S, but the later surnames are actually still with the Home Office. They’re slowly being processed and transferred to us. Hopefully by the end of 2014 we should get the rest of the alphabet for the 1934-1948 period.

They’re mainly for people of German and Austrian nationality, usually of Jewish extraction, that came out of Germany and Austria as a result of Nazism. So their records for the most part have been selected for permanent preservation. But there are gaps in those series. And after 1948 we have nothing, and as far as I’m aware the Home Office has destroyed most of the files from the 1950s and 1960s. But anything after 1948, if it does survive, more recent papers will be with the Home Office.

Now the certificates from 1844-1870 are in HO 1 and after 1870 they’re in HO 334. And we should have copies of duplicate certificates. For people resident in the United Kingdom – and I’ll come back to this in a moment – we have a few examples of overseas certificates. But for the most part, if people applied for British citizenship in British colonies or territories we don’t have duplicate certificates. If they survive, they’ll be in those countries. So it’s usually people that are resident in the UK where their certificates will survive.

So we’ve got duplicate certificates up to 1986 for Commonwealth citizens and citizens of Commonwealth countries that are taking on British nationality. But for foreign nationals of other states – European states etc – we’ve only got duplicate certificates up to 1969, after which the Home Office didn’t keep duplicate certificates. So we’ve got evidence of naturalisation, but we don’t have copies of the duplicate certificates for foreign nationals after 1969.

As I mentioned at the beginning, all naturalisations that we have are searchable on the catalogue up to 1980. And from 1981-1986 [The National Archives’] staff can search a Home Office database that we have that isn’t available to the public but you can request us to undertake a search and we can search records from 1981-1986. After 1986 all records are with what used to be the UK Border Agency and has now come back under the Home Office and is in the process of reorganisation. But you need to apply to the Home Office UK Border Agency for details of naturalisations or registrations of citizenship after 1986.

And this is an example of a later naturalisation certificate for Ernst Freud from 1939. And it’s almost in at the death – 30 August 1939, just before war broke out – Ernst Freud, resident in the UK, and it lists his wife and children. So you’ve got his three sons including Lucian and Clemens – Clement Freud, Lucian Freud, the two young sons. So that certificate was granted in August 1939.

Now the British Nationality Act of 1948 introduced the status of citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies for people living in the UK, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in those British territories, those British colonies that Britain had at that date. So it introduced a status of citizen on the United Kingdom and colonies. This didn’t apply to the dominions. So it didn’t apply to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa who, by this date, were starting to introduce their own citizenship laws.

Up until 1948 everybody in the British Empire and Commonwealth was a British subject. The 1948 Act introduced the status of British citizen to people in the United Kingdom and in British colonies. So British subjects became British citizens as well as British subjects. But people in the dominions didn’t become British citizens. However, they were still British subjects. So before 1948 the law considered everybody in the British Empire and Commonwealth as British subjects unless it was a British protectorate, in which case it wasn’t actually a Crown territory. It was a country under the protection of the British Crown, and the native population were British protected persons.

But in British colonies and what became British dominions, people were British – British subjects. And sometimes that’s hard for people now to understand. We quite often get requests about citizenship, and Australians and Canadians forget that their grandparents or great-grandparents were British even though they were born in Canada and Australia.

But from 1931 you have the Statute of Westminster which actually recognises the complete independence of the British dominions. And from that date they can start to introduce their own nationality laws. In fact they didn’t straight away, and it’s only really in the 1940s and after the 1948 Commonwealth Conference that each country, it was decided, should have its own national citizenship, but the status of British subject should remain for everybody in the British Commonwealth.

Australia introduced a nationality law in 1942 and Canada in 1946, with effect from 1947. But you had, as well as that citizenship, you still remained British subjects. So the 1948 Act changed the status of individuals in the UK and in British colonies, but it didn’t affect the status of British subjects. Britons became British citizens as well as British subjects. Other Commonwealth countries were to introduce their own citizenship laws if they hadn’t already done so. And colonies that subsequently became independent would have their own nationality laws and their own citizenship.

So the status of British subject remained common to all. The exception to that were those countries that became republics within or outside the British Commonwealth. So so long as the country had the Queen as Head of state, you still had the status of British subjects. So you’d be, after 1948, an Australian citizen and a British subject, a Canadian citizen subject and a British subject etc.

So under the 1948 Act people in the dominions could actually register their British citizenship. People in the colonies could register their British citizenship. And we have duplicate certificates of British nationality as well as grants of naturalisation from 1949-1986. And those grants, the certificates are in HO 334. And we have a database containing images of the Home Office card index. It’s not available to the public because it was never formally transferred officially from the Home Office to The National Archives. So you need to request a search of the records, and the staff will do brief searches in the records.

If it’s a lengthy search with insufficient details, then we’d have to call it a paid search and you would have to pay the standard rate for a paid search. So we can’t undertake speculative searches. But if you’ve got a name and a rough date, we can do a search. If it’s after October 1986, then you need to go back to the UK Border Agency and contact them for details after October 1986.

This is the form on the website that you need to fill out ( Now you need to fill this out for registrations of British citizenship from 1949-1986, but only for naturalisations from 1981 to 1986. Naturalisations up to the end of 1980, you should just be able to do the name search on the catalogue. So all we need are basic details. You put in your basic details – your name and your email address – and then fill out the details that you have for the individual – first name, last name, country of birth if you know it, date of birth is very important because sometimes that’s one of the ways – the only way, sometimes – we can identify individuals, and country of issue. For the most part it should be UK, and we’ve only got a complete collection for the United Kingdom.

If it was overseas in a British colony or British territory, then we might have a record for it, but we almost certainly won’t have a certificate. If you’ve got the certificate number you can enter that. A lot of people don’t have a certificate number but they have the old Home Office file number. If you’ve got the old Home Office file number, then we can use that to search the database as well.

But if you submit this as a request, we can search the database and then we can get back to you with the basic details. And then if you want a copy of the certificate, the duplicate certificate, you need to apply through our document copying service, and there is a fee for a copy of the certificate.

Quite often we get people applying for their own certificates from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and they need a certified copy, often for passport purposes if they’re renewing a passport through the UK Passport Agency. So they need it for legal purposes, so you might need a certified copy – well, you will for legal purposes. But if you just want one for historical record or interest, then it’s just a basic photocopy fee but you need to request a copy through document copying. But we’ll do the search for you in two or three days and let you know the result.

And this is an example of a registration for Sid James, the comedian – Sydney James. This is 1960, and he is registering his British citizenship. He was born in South Africa in 1913. South Africa was then a sort of dominion, Union of South Africa, and he would have been British in 1913, born in South Africa – a British subject. Because he’d come to live after the Second World War in the UK he was still British, but South Africa introduced its own laws. And in 1961 South Africa left the Commonwealth and became a republic. So to avoid becoming a South African citizen, he registered his British citizenship.

So he’s basically recording his British citizenship because South Africa is actually leaving the Commonwealth and becoming a republic. So to avoid taking on South African citizenship – he was still technically – in the 50s, he was a South African citizen because they’d introduced citizenship laws. But he was also a British subject because the Queen was still Queen of South Africa.

This is where it gets complicated and you have to bear in mind UK law and the law of the country the person comes from and whether they clash or are compatible. And sometimes they’re not compatible. You might have one status in Britain under British law, another status in South Africa under South African law or in Germany or Bulgaria or wherever. So you have to bear in mind the laws of the countries concerned. But he actually is registering because South Africa is becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth. So that’s why Sid James registered British citizenship.

Now things change with the British Nationality Act of 1981 which came into effect from 1 January 1983. It introduced five different types of citizenship. British citizens, people living in the UK or having a connection to the UK and the British Isles, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, so they became British citizens with an automatic right of abode. We actually ceased to be British subjects from 1 January 1983. That status still survives as a legal status and people still use it colloquially as British subjects. But in fact legally we just became British citizens from 1 January 1983 in the UK.

It also created British Overseas Territory citizens, what used to be British dependent territories citizenship, for those territories that Britain held that hadn’t become independent.
From 2002 there was a British Overseas Territories Act ( which actually in most cases converted those British dependent territories citizens into British citizens, but some of them remained British Overseas Territory citizenship. So they have a connection to an existing overseas territory, but most British Overseas Territory citizens became British citizens in 2002.

And you’ve also got another status, not Overseas Territory citizens but overseas citizens who remain in Commonwealth countries, usually ones that became republics after independence. They are British Overseas citizens but they don’t have an automatic right of abode in the UK.

And there is also the status British Nationals Overseas. That was created in 1986 for Hong Kong Chinese citizens. The Hong Kong Act of 1985 ( and the Hong Kong Order of 1986 created this separate status for Hong Kong Chinese, the British Nationals Overseas, granting them a right of abode in Hong Kong but not a right of automatic abode in the UK.

And then there’s the final residual status of British subjects. This relates to people that lived in British India before Indian independence. India and Pakistan became independent in 1948. And it also relates to Ireland before 1949. So people in India or born in India or Ireland before 1949 still have British subject status. So this is a status that obviously, as people pass away, with time, it will disappear when people die off. Eventually there will be no more British subjects.

It’s a bit like British protected person. That also survives, but we don’t have any British protectorates anymore. And as people die, that status of British protected person dies with them. In most cases not many people have that status. They’ve taken on the nationality of the country that they live in.

Under this Act of ‘81 Britain ceased to regard Commonwealth citizens as British subjects. So an example of an anomaly is that, as I mentioned, in 1948, before 1948 you had – Australians were British subjects. From 1948 onwards you got – they’re still British subjects but they’re sort of Australian citizens and British subjects. Well, they ceased in British law under this Act in 1983 to be British subjects. And in British law we just regarded Australians as Australian citizens.

But they didn’t change the law in Australia until 1986. So for three years in Australian law you were an Australian citizen and a British subject. But in British law you were just an Australian citizen and not British subjects. So the laws can differ, and laws in different countries don’t always run in sync. They actually have to catch up with one another.

And the same thing in Ireland, the status in Ireland. Ireland is a special case because it used to be part of the United Kingdom until 1922. And people in Ireland were still considered British subjects although the Irish introduced the concept of Irish citizenship. And that existed really from 1948 where Ireland became a republic from 1949 outside the Commonwealth. But in British law Irish citizens were not considered as foreign nationals, which is why people that were born in Ireland before 1949 can actually register and claim British citizenship and also have the status of British subject because they were born in Ireland before 1949.

And this is why someone like Terry Wogan, who is an Irish citizen – he’s got dual citizenship actually; he’s both recognised as a British citizen and an Irish citizen. He was an Irish citizen. He was born in Ireland in 1938 when it was still the Free State. Because he was born before 1949, in 1997 he got an OBE but it was an honorary OBE because he was an Irish citizen. In 2005 he was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire, a KBE, again honorary.

But he then registered his right to be a British citizen. So from October 2005 that KBE was re-granted and he had the right to call himself Sir Terry Wogan or Sir Terence Wogan. But he could actually use that title because he’d registered his British citizenship and because he’d been born in Ireland before 1949.

Bob Geldof, on the other hand, who actually got an honorary knighthood in 1985, 20 years before Terry Wogan, can’t. And he can’t register as a British citizen because he was born in 1951, after Ireland became a republic and after it left the Commonwealth. So because it’s a republic, it’s not a Commonwealth realm with the Queen as Head of state, Bob Geldof, even though the press and the media call him ‘Sir Bob’, isn’t entitled officially to be Sir Bob Geldof, or Sir Robert Geldof, whereas Terry Wogan can because he’s registered his citizenship. And he can do that because he was born before Ireland became a republic. A bit of a diversion there just to confuse you.

On the website ‘looking for a person’, the research signpost ‘looking for records of an immigrant’ (, that will help you trace foreign nationals coming into the country and naturalising. There is also the signpost ‘looking for records of a naturalised Briton’ (, again for records of people naturalising, and it will guide you to doing searches on the catalogue and finding naturalisation papers and duplicate certificates of naturalisation. So yes, looking for records of an immigrant, looking for records of a naturalised Briton, and there is also a couple more in-depth guides on immigration and naturalisation and British citizenship which you can access by the website. And they’re free to download.

Transcribed by Mary Pearson as part of a volunteer project, December 2014.

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