Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Comparing BMD indexes for England and Wales: Findmypast

Birth, marriage and death indexes are searched separately with customised search forms, or as part of more general categories. If you search a specific database (reached via the A-Z of record sets) the search page contains links to the other two civil registration databases, but you need to re-enter the data each time you switch to another database. There are no mandatory fields so you can search without a surname, or without any name all. If you are searching a single database for civil births, marriages or deaths, there is a neat feature that shows you how many results you will get once you have entered your search terms, but before you perform the search; when you have entered information in any of the search fields the text on the Search button turns to ‘See xxx results’.

On the search screen the ‘Name variant’ box is ticked for the First Name(s) field, and unticked for the Last Name field, which is generally the best option, but you can change this if you wish. Name variants on the first name will return common variants and diminutives such as Tom or Tommy for Thomas (and vice-versa), followed by results including the initial letter of the name.


The search screen for births includes a field for Mother’s Last Name, and when you start typing in this box there is a warning that the information only appears in the index from 1911 onwards. However, Mother’s Last Name has recently been added to some, but not all, birth index entries back to 1837, so search including years before 1911 may produce some results. You can use wildcards in the name fields if you leave the ‘Name Variants’ box unticked.

The default setting for the Birth Year box is +/- 2 years, but you can easily change this to limit your search to a single year, or +/- 1, 5, 10, 20 or 40 years. You can also limit your search results to a single quarter, which Findmypast describes as 1, 2, 3 or 4, instead of the more usual Mar, Jun, Sep and Dec, or Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun etc. You need to do this using Findmypast’s equivalent of the drop-down menu, where it says ‘Browse Birth Quarter’; when you select this option you tick the box of the quarter you require, and you can select more than one quarter. The Birth Quarter field contains the text ‘Start typing a birth quarter’ but nothing you type here has any effect, although this feature works perfectly well in other fields on this search page, ‘Browse District’ and ‘Browse County’. When using either of these options you can select from the Browse menu, or you can start typing in the search box when you will see a list of options appear, and you need to click on an option to select it. Typing alone, without selecting an option, will have no effect. This feature is used throughout Findmypast on many of its search pages. It is less intuitive than a conventional drop-down menu, but it has the advantage that you can easily select more than one district or county, and your selected options are clearly visible below the search box.

The District options are registration districts as they appear in the indexes. The County option is a useful way to restrict a search to a rough geographical area, but is not part of the index entry, and many registration districts straddle county boundaries. It can sometimes be more useful than the District option, because there have been many district changes since 1837, and it is possible to unwittingly select a registration district that did not exist during the years being searched, and so fail to get the results you might expect. There are two more search fields on the Birth search page, ‘Place Keywords’ and ‘Optional Keywords’. Typing any name or place name in the Optional Keywords box will produce results or filter existing ones, but since there are already perfectly good name and place search boxes this is of limited use. ‘Place Keywords’, on the other hand, can be a really useful feature; you can only search by registration district using the District field, but here you can type the name of a parish or other place. When you start typing you can choose from a list. For example, selecting ‘Gillingham, Kent, England’ will produce results from the the registration districts of Medway or Chatham, depending on the date. This is very helpful when you know a place of birth, but are not familiar with registration district boundaries and their changes over the years.

The results show the name, year, quarter, district and county, and the mother’s maiden name, where applicable. From 1984 onwards the indexes are annual, not quarterly, and the reference shows the month of registration, which has been converted to a notional quarter on the main results screen. There is also a panel on the left side of the results screen where you can refine your search, but this lacks some of the fields of the custom search page. This is fine as a quick way to change the name or date details, and if you need to go back to the custom search screen ‘Advanced options’ will take you there.

You can’t download the search results, but you can re-sort them by any of the fields displayed. The full reference details, including the volume and page (and the month, where applicable) are only displayed when you click on the transcription for each entry. Unfortunately there is no way to search or sort by volume and page number.


The search page for deaths is, not surprisingly, fairly similar to that for births, since many of the fields are the same. Because the death indexes show the age at death from 1866, there is a ‘Year of birth’ field, with the same +/- options. When you click in this box to start typing, you might expect to see a note to the effect that the age at death is not shown in the indexes until 1866, but instead there is the rather puzzling ‘most of our civil death & burial records cover the years of birth 1780 to 2006’.

Although the results displayed will include the year of birth, this does not appear in the indexes until 1969, so before this date it will be a figure arrived at by subtracting the age at death from the year of registration. This means that the calculated year of birth will sometimes be a year out - this is not a major problem in most cases, since the age supplied when registering a death is often inaccurate in the first place. Both the age at death and the calculated year of birth appear in the full transcription for deaths up to the March quarter of 1969, after that the year, month and day of birth are shown in the transcription.

At first sight, the place search options look more helpful than those for birth searches, because instead of ‘Optional keywords’ there is a Parish option which you can browse. But the ‘Place keywords’ box is still more useful; taking the example of Gillingham, the ‘Browse parish’ list offers only Gillingham, but there are three parishes of that name in England, so it will produce results from registration districts in Dorset, Kent and Norfolk. The Place keywords field allows you to distinguish between several parishes of the same name.


The marriage search does not have either the ‘Optional keywords’ or ‘Parish’ fields, only the more useful ‘Place keywords’, along with District and County. There are also fields for the surname and forename of the spouse, and the results show name, year, quarter, district, county and spouse’s surname (from 1912). Unlike the birth and death searches, there are fields for volume and page references. While this is useful, the main reason for using this facility is to identify likely spouses; but if you click on the transcription of an entry you will see the ‘Marriage finder’ feature that does this automatically. From 1912, when the surname of the spouse is included in the index, this will almost always be a single name, but in earlier years there can be several possible spouses, depending on the number of entries on the same page. The Marriage Finder suggests spouses of the opposite sex, based on their forenames, but in the case of forenames that can be either male or female it will present all the other names on the page, to be on the safe side.

 For all three events Findmypast provides some background information, which is generally helpful, although some of the advice is questionable, such as ‘If you can’t find your ancestors in these records, it’s possible they eloped or were in common law relationships.’ to their credit, they also direct you to the GRO site to order copies.


Quite separate from the three search functions is 'England & Wales Birth, Marriage and Death Browse 1837-1983'. You can type or browse the event type, and the year +/- 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 or 40 as on the other screens, and type or browse the quarter. This time the 'Start typing a Event Quarter' (sic) works, because the quarters are described here as Jan-Mar, etc. The results list individual pages from the scanned indexes, described by name ranges, eg 'FAIRLESS, Joseph - FARRAL, Catharine'. There is an alphabet at the top of the page so that you can jump directly to any part of the index. Once you have clicked on the image link to the scanned page, you can browse forward or back through the images without returning to the results page.


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