Loading Mocavo Search Widget...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

'Welcome to GOV.UK...simpler, clearer, faster' allegedly

OK, it's not GOV.UK's fault that I had finished checking a number of links to the old direct.gov.uk site on Tuesday last week, and then GOV.UK went live on Wednesday, so I have to do them all again.   This is part of a periodic review of online guides that I have to do as part of the day job - if only I'd left it to the last minute as usual I'd only have had to do it once!


Since this is the official government site for information on birth, marriage and death registration I thought it would be worth looking at in a little more detail. I was not a great fan of way this information was presented on the old direct.gov site (which you can still see on the Government Web Archive). This wasn't entirely due to the over-use of orange on its pages, but it certainly didn't help. The new site is at least a bit easier on the eye, with good-sized print and a decent amount of white space. The home page has a link 'Births, marriages, deaths and care - Includes civil partnerships and Lasting Power of Attorney' which leads to a page entitled 'Certification, register offices, changes of name or gender' consisting of a list of links, 5 of which are of interest to family historians.

The first link, Order a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate is actually rather good, since it gives you essential information up front before directing you to the GRO online ordering system. It also includes other ways to apply if you don't want to do it online, and links to the General Register Offices in Scotland (GROS) and Northern Ireland (GRONI).

Unfortunately, the second link Register offices is very poor. It is subtitled 'Find a register office (registry office) - records of births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths - you can register these or order certificates' but all it will allow you to do is search by postcode, and only a full postcode at that. I tested this by entering my own postcode, and then the postcode of my last address. They each returned a number of results, starting with the nearest. For my current address this is the Buckinghamshire Register Office in Aylesbury, which is the correct one for my address, although the weblink didn't work. For my last address it listed the offices in Harrow, Barnet and Brent, in that order. The correct one is actually Brent Register Office, and although the Harrow one appears to be nearer, this is because GOV.UK has the wrong postcode for Harrow Civic Centre, so the automated links on Google Maps, Bing Maps and Open Street Map all go to the wrong place. They seem to have used some sort of 'branch locator' software package, the kind of thing you might use to find your nearest Starbucks, but which is completely inappropriate for this purpose. The small print also asks you to 'enter a UK postcode', so naturally I couldn't resist putting in Scottish and Northern Irish ones, which directed me to Carlisle and Anglesey, respectively!

Much further down the page are links to contact details for the GRO and the National Records of Scotland, but not for GRONI, although there is a link to its contact details from the GRO contacts page. For some reason the numerous Contacts pages throughout the site give postal addresses, phone numbers and email addresses or online contact forms, but not links to official websites or key landing pages within them.

The final link on this page looks the most promising - Research your family history using the General Register Office and this is an improvement on the old site where information was duplicated on a number of pages and the arrangement was not very logical. For some reason GRO references are referred to as 'index numbers' but at least the link to FreeBMD is prominent, and the list of the 7 places holding full sets of the indexes on microfiche is just below. This is good, but it doesn't make it clear that these are the only complete sets, or that they are on microfiche, it just says 'Finding index numbers in person - you can also search for index numbers for free at:'  and then lists them, but without addresses or weblinks, other than a link to the online registration page for a British Library Reader Pass. This is followed by a downloadable pdf document 'Where you can view the GRO index numbers in your area'. This is supplied by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) the parent department of the GRO, and is actually called 'Public holders of the General Register Office indexes'. This is much more helpful, with full addresses and details of the actual indexes held, and their coverage dates. They even include holdings outside England and Wales. It also lists the sites other than FreeBMD where the indexes can be found, referred to only as 'commercial companies' on the main page. You can also download the GRO's own list of its holdings. There are contact details for the Principal Registry of the Family Division for divorce records, but only a postal address and phone number, although there is a much better page Get a copy of a decree absolute elsewhere on the site.

The final section is 'Further information' which suggests you consult local archives or The National Archives to help research your family history. This is good advice, and the link to The National Archives is OK, but the Local archives link is just as bad as the Register Offices one - very handy if you happen to know the full postcode of the house where your ancestor lived in 1851, I'm sure! A link to ARCHON would have been much better.

The best part of the 'Certification, register offices, changes of name or gender' page is right at the end, a link to a downloadable pdf of the GRO's 24-page booklet Discover your family history which is excellent.

I would like to have seen some information about wills and probate on this page, but although there is some information about wills and probate in the Death and bereavement section of Births, deaths, marriages and care, there is no link that I have been able to find to the informative  Guide to obtaining copies of probate records pages on the Justice site.

No doubt the site will be developed and, hopefully, improved over time - it only went live a week ago, after all. For one thing it needs to learn that England and Wales has register offices, not registry offices. Overall it's an improvement on direct.gov, but those postcode searches really have to go!

  Print