Monday, 19 March 2018

Comparing BMD indexes for England and Wales: Ancestry

There are separate databases for:

England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2005
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1916-2005

There is another database ‘England and Wales, Death Index, 2007-2015’, but this does not come from GRO data.

The six databases can be searched individually, and there is an option to search all of the above databases at once, called ‘England and Wales, Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, 1837-2005’ For some odd reason this category also includes six databases of church records from Derbyshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, and the search fields seem more suited to parish register searching.

The wider category ‘Birth, Marriage & Death, including Parish’ includes all of the above, plus more than 300 related collections such as church registers and probate calendars and obituaries, from all parts of the British Isles. However, even the ‘one size fits all’ search screen for this category has a lot of options for refining a search. No category is mandatory, and each field can be set to ‘exact’ or a variety of flexible options. 

Search options

When searching a single database you can select ‘Exact’ for any search field, which enables the use of wild cards * at any point in the word. An ‘Exact’ search in the forename field will return all the results where that name appears, even as a middle name - so a search for Mary will return results for Mary Ann, but there seems to be no way to confine the search to Mary without any other forenames. Leaving the ‘Exact’  box unticked for a name field searched using name variants, which can be useful, but there is no way of knowing which variants have been included or excluded.

You can select an exact year, or up to + or - 10 years. There is a drop-down menu for the month - although the results are always in quarters up to 1983. If you select January, February or March you will get results for the March quarter, and so on. The place search options are less helpful; there is just the standard Ancestry place option, which auto-fills to places in its worldwide database. This does not include a number of registration districts, and even when override this by typing the exact name of one of these ‘missing’ districts it returns no results. This is likely to happen with a district name which is not also the name of a parish or town within it; for example, ’Medway’ will return no results, but ‘Medway, Kent’ will return results from every district in Kent.

Search results

When searching across multiple databases, there are two ways of viewing the results; the ‘Records’ tab lists all of the individual results from all the categories, and the ‘Categories’ tab shows a list of the databases with results, and the number of results in each. 

The results within each database come in chronological order by year (not by quarter) and alphabetically within each year. They show the name, registration district and a county (which does not appear in the original index, and is not always accurate) You can also view an image of the original index page. Each result also has a shopping cart symbol where you can order a copy of the certificate, but this is NOT RECOMMENDED because it costs more than twice as much as ordering direct from the GRO, and will take longer.

The layout of the results varies a little between the various databases, but have similar features, and if you click on ‘View record’ against a particular entry, you will see them all. These include a full transcription of the entry and a link to the original index page (up to 1983). Results from the marriage indexes 1837-1915 include the all the names with the same volume and page reference, to help you identify likely spouses.

If you search the birth indexes by surname, but without a forename, the results from 1911 onwards include entries under other surnames, but where the surname you are searching is the mother’s maiden name. There is no way of searching by mother’s maiden name only in the 1837-1915 birth indexes, but the search options for the 1916-2007 database includes a ‘Mother’ field, for the mother’s maiden name. 

The original paper version of the marriage indexes from 1912 include the surname of the spouse, but the Ancestry results helpfully include the full name of the spouse. 

Death indexes include an age at death from 1866, which in the Ancestry results appears as an estimated year of birth eg ‘abt 1840’ but ‘View record’ shows the age as it appears in the paper index. Results 1837-1915 appear in chronological order, which may not be obvious at first, because it is in order of estimated year of birth, except where the age at death does not appear in the indexes, in which case the year of death is used instead, in practice for results from 1837 to 1865. 

There is no way to re-sort or download search results, although you can choose how many to show at a time, 10, 20 or 50. You can also widen your search to other sets of databases without re-entering the search data. This can be useful where a result from another category helps you identify the right entry - for example a probate calendar entry for a death, or the parish register copy for a marriage.

Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers 

All of the 1837-1915 indexes include a feature which could have been brilliant, but sadly, has been badly executed.
Extract from the Kent parish map
The full record includes a hyperlink ‘View Ecclesiastical Parishes associated with this Registration District’ which takes you to a list of parishes, based on information extracted from the excellent Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Against each parish is a link to the Atlas’s map for that county, and a simple grid reference to locate the parish within the map, eg 5G, 3A etc. If you look at these maps in the book version of the Atlas you will see that the county maps aren’t overlaid with an actual grid, but have letters and numbers in the margin, which works very well as a visual guide, without cluttering the map with extra lines. The Ancestry parish lists have painstakingly included all these references, but unfortunately, the numbers and letters have been cropped from the images of maps, so you have to guess where they might have been. Oops!

There are some transcription errors, but a much bigger problem is the way that the parishes are listed in their registration districts; if the name of the district contains more than one word, the list will show all the parishes in districts which contain any of those words. So the link for the registration district of St George in the East goes to a list of parishes in districts all over the country, including St Martin in the Fields, Newcastle in Emlyn, Stow on the Wold, and Bury St Edmunds, to name but a few. 

Browse options

The search options and the way the results are presented leave much to be desired, but on the plus side, it is very easy to browse the original index pages. The main search page for each database has a browse option on the right-hand side where you select a year, a quarter, and then an initial letter; so you can reproduce the experience of using the old born index volumes, but without the heavy lifting.

The links to the Phillimore Atlas maps are not very helpful in this context, but they do contain a lot of useful information, and you can browse the map images, either by following the links from your search results, of from the Atlas’s own landing page. 


Monday, 12 March 2018

Comparing BMD indexes for England and Wales: FreeBMD

FreeBMD should normally be the first port of call for anyone who wants to search the General Register Office (GRO) birth, marriage and death indexes. The exception would be when you want to use the more recent indexes; FreeBMD coverage is only up to 1983, the last when the paper indexes were the master copies. Also, since it is an ongoing volunteer project, it is not yet complete - although it is very close. The site has coverage charts that you can check before performing searches in the more recent indexes. 

There a single search screen so you can see all your options at once. You can search births, marriages or deaths, any two of them, or all three at once. The search fields are; last name, forename(s), surname of spouse/mother’s maiden name, spouse’s first name, age at death/date of birth, year and quarter, volumes and page. You can also filter a search to a specific district or county, and a date range. this is ‘from-to’ range, by year and quarter, rather than a ‘+/-‘ by year, so you can define a very precise range, even single quarter.  

The search engine will return results for the surname exactly as entered, and first names beginning with the letters as entered; so ‘Ann’ will return results for Anne, Anna, Annabel etc, including any with middle names. This is the default search, but there are options to select exact search on first names, and phonetic search on surnames. A search for +Ann will produce results where names starting with Ann appear anywhere in the first name field e.g. Gertrude Annie as well as Annie Gertrude. This also works with initials, so +P in the First name(s) field produces results such as Percy, Annie Phyllis, Peter John G and Edith P V.

Birth searches can include the mother’s maiden name (in the indexes from the September quarter of 1911). These searches will only return results from September 1911 onwards. Birth entries for twins will normally have the same page reference, but sometimes they will have consecutive numbers, where one entry is at the bottom of a page, and the other is at the top of the next page.

Marriage searches can include the surname and/or first name of the spouse - spouse’s surname is in the indexes from the March quarter of 1912, but the search will identify potential matches in the earlier records, i.e. where both names have the same reference, which means they appear on the same register page. There can be up to eight names on a page, so matching references do not guarantee that the two people married each other. You can restrict your search to those entries where the spouse's surname is guaranteed by selecting ‘Identifiable spouses only’.

Death searches can include a year of birth or an age. If you put an age at death, it will return results showing that exact age, and also where the age in the index is indistinct, or no age is shown all. The results will also include all entries before 1866, when the age was first included in the index. Results from the June quarter of 1969 will be those with dates of birth consistent with the age selected. You have the option to select ‘recorded ages only’ to get exact results. If you select a year of birth instead of an age, the results before June 1969 won’t be exact, but +/- 2 years.

None of the search fields is mandatory so you can search with just a forename, or even with no name at all. The search screen also has some other useful features; you can save searches, and download search results; if you click on ‘Count’ instead of ‘Find’ you will first see how many results your search will return; there is a maximum of 3000 that can be returned for a single search. 

Search results are colour-coded, pink for births, green for marriages and grey for deaths; this is helpful when searching across more than one event type. The Registration District is a hyperlink to information about that district, and the page number is a hyperlink to a list of all the entries on that page - particularly useful for identifying possible spouses in the marriage search results. 

The ‘Info’ button links to information about the transcribers, but gives no more information about the entry itself unless there is a Postem - extra detail added by an individual, but which does not appear in the index. but if you don't need to click on 'Info' to find out of there is a Postem, because an envelope symbol will also appear against the entry. You can submit corrections via the Info button; a further symbol, of a pair of spectacles, will lead to an image of the original paper or parchment index page to help you do this. 

More information about the site and the data can be found under ‘Advanced Facilities’, and there is a ‘Help’ button for more detailed information on how to search. The search results page includes more links, including instructions on how to order a certificate from the GRO or a local register office. Even frequent users of the site can easily miss some of its many features, which are well worth exploring. if you subsequently use another site for GRO searches, the comprehensive background information found on FreeBMD will prove invaluable. 

No site is perfect, but FreeBMD performs better than other sites in many ways, and is continually updated and improved.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Searching the online GRO birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales

Before I look at the details of online indexes on various websites, I want to say something about the indexes themselves. It is always easier to make sense of an online resource if you know something of the original hard-copy source it comes from.

Transcription slip used by the GRO

Searching the indexes
Even when the data is identical, you can get different results from different sites because the search engines they use work in different ways. You can even get different results using the same site, depending on the kind of search you use. On some sites you can search across all their records at once, or a general ‘births, marriages and deaths’ category. Searching over multiple databases at once requires somewhat ‘one size fits all’ search options. This has some advantages, but you can perform more refined searches by tackling one set of records at a time.

Sites have different options for coping with variant spellings, including the use of wild cards. If there is a variant spelling option, this will usually involve some kind of computer algorithm; while  this can be useful, it may not cover all the variant spellings of a name, and may produce a number of irrelevant results. You can usually refine searches or filter results by place, and the date range to be searched may be set in different ways. 

It’s important to know that the indexes don’t include all forenames in certain years. So if your search includes middle names you may not find the results you want, depending on the site you are using and the search options you have chosen. All names appear in full in the manuscript indexes from 1837 to 1865 (some of these indexes were withdrawn and replaced by typed indexes, which also contain full names). Printed indexes were introduced in 1866, and for 1866 only, initials are used for all but the first forename; from 1867 to 1909 you will see two forenames, then initials, from 1910 to 1968 the indexes were typed, and show only one forename, then initials. In 1969 computers were first used to prepare the indexes, and from then onwards show two forenames, then initials.

Different times, different errors
Most index information is accurate, but with millions of entries over more than 180 years, there are bound to be mistakes. Depending on the time, and the method of copying used, there are different kinds of errors to look out for.

Until well into the 20th century cursive script was generally used, so even where the final index was printed or typed, the paper slips used for manual sorting were handwritten; so when trying to work out how a name might have been mis-copied, think of letters that look similar in cursive script, not in block capitals, typescript, or print. In the case of capital letters ‘F’ ‘J’ and ’T’ do not look similar when typed or printed, but when handwritten they are easily mistaken for each other, especially at the beginning of an uncommon surname.

When typing, especially on a computer keyboard, it is all too easy to hit the same key twice by accident. The surname Quarmby is a rare one, and I am reasonably certain that the version beginning ‘QQ’ is not a spelling variant, but is the result of ‘fat-finger’ typing - it’s in the death index for the March quarter of 1975 if you want to look for yourself.

Online indexes up to 1983 have been copied from scanned versions of original parchment or paper indexes. But the scans themselves were made from microfilm or microfiche versions, which were themselves copies. The filming that was done in the 1960s was of better quality that the microfiche version made in the 1980s, but the fiche version was much more widely available. The fiche version of the older hand-written volumes could be particularly hard to read - while perfectly legible in their original form, their parchment pages were more brown and beige than black and white. 

In both cases there was always the possibility of two pages being turned over at once by a camera operator, thus losing two pages of entries. When some of the early hand-written index volumes were withdrawn and replaced with typed copies, a typist could also turn over two pages at once with the same result. Additionally, the typed indexes show each surname only once, which saves a lot of key-strokes and therefore time, and typewriter ribbon. Unfortunately, if a surname was mis-copied, or omitted altogether, this could result in a whole block of forenames being indexed under the wrong surname. In the typed index to for the December quarter of 1864 all the ‘Day’ births up to Elizabeth Sarah are wrongly listed under the much rarer name of ‘Dax’ because the typist failed to type the surname ‘Day’ after the entry for Gilbert Elliot Dax.

Finally, some entries do not appear in the indexes at all because they did not make it through all the stages of indexing; copies of some entries, particularly marriages, did not even get to the General Register Office in the first place, even though the original is held in the local Register Office. 


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Comparing websites – Birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales

I recently delivered a talk at Rootstech 2018, which was well-received, and this spurred me on to return to some work I did on comparing the online indexes that appear on various websites. This post is an overview of the main sites and their coverage, and will be followed by more in-depth looks at the individual sites. Anyone who doesn't mind listening to me for an hour can view the Rootstech presentation in full. 

indexes Indexes to the birth, marriage and death registers for England and Wales are very widely available. You will find them on a number of sites, some free, some commercial. Although the records are (theoretically) the same, there are differences between the various indexes, and it is worth knowing about them to get the best results from your searches.

There is a single set of records for births, marriages and deaths since 1837, held by the General Register Office (GRO). But this is not the only set. Births and deaths are registered at a local Register Office, and the original records are still held locally. The central registers were compiled from copies sent to the GRO, called quarterly returns. 

Marriage registers are a little more complicated, because marriages could be performed in a number of places; principally, churches of various denominations, synagogues, Quaker meeting houses and register offices. The original registers may be with the church (or more usually a local record office), or at the register office, but, like the births and marriages, the GRO marriage registers were compiled from the quarterly returns.

The main sites where you can consult indexes to GRO registers are: 

None of them is complete, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, so it is worth using a combination of them for best results. The most recent indexes are not online anywhere, they can only be consulted on microfiche at selected locations – details of these are on the GRO site.


FreeBMD 1837-1983
As the name suggests, this is a free site, the result of an enormous amount of work by an army of volunteers. It is still a work in progress, although the coverage charts for births, marriages and deaths show that it is virtually complete up to the early 1960s, but with many gaps after that. It ends at 1983, the last year before the indexes were ‘born digital’ and the databases were retained by the GRO. 

Ancestry 1837-2005 (births and marriages) 1837-2007 (deaths)
This is a commercial site, but there is free access at many libraries, record offices and FamilySearch centres. However, Ancestry’s indexes 1837-1915 for all three events come from FreeBMD, and so are still free to search on Ancestry. You will not always get identical results from the two sites because both allow users to submit corrections, so any amendments or updates to FreeBMD after Ancestry acquired the data will only appear on FreeBMD. Similarly, any changes made on Ancestry will not appear on FreeBMD. Indexes from 1916 to 2005 (births and marriages) and 1916 to 2007 (deaths) are Ancestry’s own. You can also browse the images of the index volumes 1837 to 1983.

FindmyPast 1837-2005 (marriages) 1837-2006 (births) 1837-2007 (deaths)
Also a commercial site, but with free access at many libraries record offices and FamilySearch centres. All of the indexes on FindmyPast were prepared independently of those on FreeBMD or Ancestry. You will also find them on, which is owned by the same company. You can also browse images of the index pages 1937 to 1983. The indexes can also be searched free of charge on

General Register Office 1837-1917 (births) 1837-1957 (deaths) 
These indexes are free to search, but you need to register an account with the site and log in to use them. You need to do this anyway to order certificates from the GRO; ordering GRO certificates from anywhere else will cost more, and take longer. The GRO’s own indexes are the newest to appear online, and are limited in coverage, but they were created by re-indexing the quarterly returns. All of the others are transcriptions of the existing indexes. 

MyHeritage 1837-2005
It is not clear from the MyHeritage site whether they have compiled their own indexes, or obtained them under licence from another site. As well as the three databases for 1837-2005, there is a GRO birth index for 1911-1954. This is one of the three major commercial sites worldwide, along with Ancestry and FindmyPast, but has a relatively low profile in the UK, so it is less likely to be available free of charge in record office and libraries, but there is free access in FamilySearch centres.
The Genealogist 1837-2005
These indexes were prepared independently of the others, and are also available  on which belongs to the same company.  FamilySearch centres have free access, and some libraries and record offices may also have free access; but it is much less widespread than the two main commercial sites. 


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Who do I think I am?

View from Anderston to Govan (featuring the 'Squinty Bridge')
In 2014 I did something I have never done before, and may never do again. I paid with my own money to attend a family history fair in the UK. I have attended every Who Do You Think You Are - Live in London and Birmingham, and before that, every Society of Genealogists Fair in London, as well as a number of local and national events. I was always a volunteer for one organisation or other, and since 2003 it has been part of the day job.

This was different. 'Who Do You Think You Are - Live!' was in Glasgow, the city of my birth, and where I have at least one line of ancestry back to the 16th Century. Both my parents, all four grandparents and five of my great-grandparents were born there too. So you can understand why I was keen to go. But despite my deep roots in the city, and elsewhere in Scotland, I don't mind admitting that I am much more knowledgable about English genealogy than Scottish. I like to think I have a reasonable working knowledge of Scottish records, but it is not where my expertise lies. So when I am in Scotland I am the enthusiastic amateur, and it is actually rather enjoyable being on the other side of desk for a change!

I had a wonderful time, I could suit myself and do what I wanted without looking at my watch all the time to see when I needed to be back on duty. The location of WDYTYA - Live!, the SECC, was also a happy coincidence for me. It is in an impressive setting on the banks of the Clyde, in Anderston to be precise, a district of Glasgow that is virtually unrecognisable from even a few decades ago. My father and many of his family were born there, and from my room in the Hilton hotel I had a view across the river to Govan, where my mother was born, as were many members of her family. So I could hardly have been more at home if I tried.

I have spent most of my life in England, and have no plans to move, but I have never for a minute identified myself as English; British yes, and Scottish, yes, but not English, much as I love the place and (most of ) the natives! I guess the acid test is 'Who do you support in a sporting contest?' My answer to that is that I support a Scottish team or contestant if there is one, and if it is a contest where teams or individuals compete on behalf of the UK or GB, then I root for the British team or person. In a contest where Scotland and England are both involved, I am all for Scotland, but if (and sadly, all too often when) Scotland are out, it's 'Eng-er-land' for me! I am not one of those who support two teams, Scotland, and whoever is playing against England. If you could have heard my father screaming himself hoarse as he cheered England on to victory in the 1966 World Cup, you'd know where I get it from.

Although I haven't lived there in over 50 years, I am very much a Glaswegian - you can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can't take Glasgow out of the girl! In many ways I feel I have more in common with people from other cities than with other parts of Scotland, although I have ancestral lines from the rural Scottish counties and the Highlands too. I was also surprised to find just how much I felt at home in Ireland the first time I visited, long before I discovered just how mush Irish ancestry I have. But perhaps that is just a characteristic of family historians in general; we are always looking for something that we can identify with in people and places everywhere, to understand them better.

As a family historian I have discovered over the years that yes, I am very interested in my own family, and families that I have some connection with. But much of the time I am equally excited by the things that I find out about other people's families too. I have always been fascinated by all things historical, an in particular the 'what people did all day' kind of history. I am keen to know about the history of the places where I have lived, and where I live now (which I will write about another time). To get the most out of your family research you want to see where your people fitted in to their time and place, their communities and the wider world. That's why I want to know about the neighbours, and what they were up to, and what was influencing their lives. Or perhaps I'm just nosy.