Wednesday 17 November 2021

The war memorial - and beyond

For several years I have been researching the names on the war memorial in the town where I live, Chesham, in Buckinghamshire. I know from the enquiries we receive at The National Archives that  many other people have been doing the same, especially since the centenary of the First World War. Because of the job that I do, as Family History Specialist at The National Archives, I thought it would be interesting to see what I could find out about the men who served, and who survived the war. It seemed like a good idea at the time...

In fact, it has proved very rewarding, although I have spent much more time on it than I intended when I started. But that is the nature of many a research project, I suppose. Like many memorials, the one in Chesham town centre lists names without the rank or even the branch of the armed services, and the first names are represented by initials only. This means that it can be difficult to identify some of the casualties - there are still a few names on the Chesham memorial that have defied all efforts to identify them. Fortunately, I did not have to start my research from scratch, there were already two wonderful resources that I could consult. One is the magnificent Roll of Honour site, which lists names and biographical details from First and Second World War memorials throughout the United Kingdom, as well as useful background information. The other is local in its scope, but for anyone interested in the First World War anywhere in the county Buckinghamshire Remembers is invaluable. It includes not only details from every memorial in the county, but also a lot of information on many men, and some women, who survived the war. 

I put together the some of my initial research into a talk I gave at The National Archives in November 2014 'Putting it all together: using archives to discover your community's involvement in the First World War'. Since then I have learned more, and new resources have been released online. There are 184 names on the Chesham town war memorial, and I have now collected details of more than 2000 men, and a few women, who served in the armed forces, or were in some way involved in the war, or the war effort. Deciding who to include was not as straightforward as you might imagine. It was easy enough to set the geographical boundaries; the ancient parish of Chesham, and its former chapelries of Chesham Bois and Latimer, including several nearby small villages. It was much harder to decide who 'belonged' to Chesham, and therefore who should be included. I decided that anyone who lived or worked in Chesham, albeit briefly, would qualify, so I included several men born in Chesham, but who had moved away, sometimes even to other countries, so there are some on my list who served with overseas forces, mainly the Australian or Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Many still had relatives in Chesham, and some of the casualties among them are on the Chesham or other local memorials. 

The biggest single problem encountered in this kind of research is the loss of so many soldiers' records, probably about 60% of them, during a bombing raid in the Second World War. The great majority of men served in the army as 'other ranks', so this is a major obstacle, but the records of men in the other armed services, and those who were army officers, have generally survived, so it's not all bad news. But even without a service record, there are other ways to find out more about a soldier. As a general rule, it is often easier to find information on men who died, because of the information recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which often gives the man's home address, and his next-of-kin. However, some CWGC entries give no extra information at all, but the Naval and Military Press database Soldiers Died in the Great War provides a man's place of birth, and place of enlistment. and the National Army Museum's Register of Soldiers' Effects provides information on next-of-kin. These last two resources are available on Ancestry, and using all three, you should be able to identify most of the deceased. 

It can be much more difficult to find out about survivors of the war. Everyone who served overseas with the army will have a medal index card, and these records are complete, but they contain no personal information, so you need to use other sources to identify the right person, if there is no service record for them. In fact, it is not always possible to find out if a man served at all, but there are some sources that you can use, and this becomes easier as more records are digitised and indexed online. 

The most useful of these is the Absent Voters' List, if you can find one for the area where a serviceman lived. I was very lucky in that the Chesham list for 1918 had already been transcribed on Buckinghamshire Remembers, but they are still very easy to use if you consult them directly. The 1918 lists are the most useful, because they were compiled early in that year, while most men were still in the armed forces.  Demobilisation was well underway in 1919, but there are Absent Voters' Lists for 1919 and 1920, which obviously contain far fewer names, but are still valuable. These lists show a man's home address, his branch of the service, his unit or ship etc, and his number. Most of the men in an Absent Voters' List will have survived the war, but there are some who died very late in the war, after the lists were compiled.

It would take a long time to describe all the sources I used, and how I combined the information I found in them to reach my conclusions. But I think the most important lesson I learned was that you can sometimes resolve some apparently insoluble problems using many different sources. Two or three sources may not be enough, but by carefully combining scraps of information from several more sources you may be able to work out which was which, out of several men with the same name. I used some of these techniques to work out which of many George Donaldson casualties was my great-uncle. I described this in more detail in my post 'Finding Uncle Geordie' and with my Chesham men I was able to attach four men called George Darvell, and another four called Frank Gomm, to their respective families. There were, and still are, quite a number of families in Chesham with those surnames.

Where possible, I have listed the wives of the men who were married, including their maiden surnames, and this is another way of seeing how inter-related some of the local families were. There is a lot more to explore, when I have the time, helped by some of information gleaned from newspapers. And these are not always local newspapers - several men were in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and lists of casualties in newspapers there include each man's place of residence, so several Chesham men appear in them. 

Some facts and figures

To date, I have found nearly twice as many casualties than are listed on the memorial. Some appear on other memorials in the area, or further afield if they had moved away. More than 1700 of my 2000+ names were men who served in the British Army, with 87 and 89 in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, respectively. A further 62 served in the armies of other countries, 16 were Royal Marines, and a handful served in the merchant navy or one of the Naval Reserve forces. More than 20 local women were in the Voluntary Aid Detachment or one of the women's forces, and a similar number of women were recruited into the Post Office or the Metropolitan Railway, replacing men who were in the forces.

About 300 men had joined the local regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, but many joined other county regiments, or other non-regional parts of the army such as the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Royal Army Medical Corps, Labour Corps or Army Service Corps, to name just a few. Before 1914 it was possible, but extremely rare, for men to be promoted from the ranks to become officers, but under the exceptional circumstances of the first World War it was much more likely, and 20 Chesham men were promoted.

In most cases I was able to identify the parents of the men on the list, so I can easily see which families sent more than one son to war. More than 100 Chesham families had three or more sons in the forces, and nine families sent five sons. Nineteen families lost two sons, and one family lost three of their five sons. 

About 100 of the men on my list were discharged from service before the end of hostilities, and if they were in the army it is worth looking for them in the Silver War Badge rolls, available on Ancestry. Although 'SWB' often appears on Medal Index Cards, there is more information on the rolls, which usually give exact dates of service, and whether the cause was wounds or sickness. In some cases they even give the man's age. I have found that more men were discharged for sickness than for wounds, and in either case most will have returned to civilian life suffering from some long-term damage, physical or mental. 

Yet to come...

Anyone who is still doing this kind of research will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the release of the 1921 Census on Findmypast, to see what their community looked like after the war. The information collected on children under 16, the 'orphanhood' question, will be particularly interesting when looking at how families were re-shaped after the war. How many widows remarried? I know of one who did, to her dead husband's twin brother. But this wasn't legal in 1921 (they married in 1923), so I am very curious to see if they were in the same household in the census...

Thursday 7 October 2021

The London Gazette - revisited

Some years ago I wrote a blog post about using the London Gazette, and I also gave a talk on the subject, called 'Not just the brave and the bankrupt', or something along those lines. This is because it is well known that the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes are key sources for people researching military gallantry awards, and bankruptcy cases. While this is certainly true, there is a lot more to it, and the Gazettes are full of information on many other subjects of interest to genealogists, house historians and others. While a lot of what I wrote and said still holds true, all the details about how to use the site became completely out of date when it was given a radical re-design.

In the (now not very) new version of the site, some of the old search functions have disappeared, notably the ability to perform a simple search by year and page - this is the unique identifier for any page in one of the Gazettes, and this is the reference you will find in the printed indexes. In fact, before the Gazette site was launched online, this was the usual way to find an entry, using the print versions of the indexes and the Gazettes.

The current home page advertises all kinds of useful categories and filters, but they only apply to issues from 1998 onward. To research in editions any earlier, where the printed editions have been scanned, you can search by key-word. This obviously has its limitations, especially in the earlier editions, where the print does not respond well to Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Even in the 19th century, you can still find the letter 's' appearing as a character that looks more like 'f'. Try doing a key-word search for 'miffion' or 'paffage' and you will see what I mean!

From 1829 onward, you can still search the old-fashioned way, using the London Gazette’s own published quarterly indexes, if you have an approximate date for the entry you want. They are available on the site, but this is not obvious from the home page, because there is no direct link to them, but they are easy to find once you know where to look.  

From the Gazette homepage, there is a drop-down menu ‘Notices’: from this menu select ‘Publications’, which takes you to the page where you can browse recent pages of any of the Gazettes, and at the bottom of the page you can search for and download the historic indexes to the London Gazette (the site has no historic indexes for the Edinburgh or Belfast Gazettes).

Choose an edition (London), then a year, then an index number – there were always 4 index volumes per year. The arrangement of the indexes varies a little over time, but is fairly constant, starting with State Intelligence, then Promotions (civil and military), then Advertisements, and finally various categories to do with Companies, Partnerships and Bankrupts. It is worth having a look at a few indexes, just to get an idea of the kind of content you might hope to find. The Gazettes are particularly useful to researchers looking for gallantry awards, bankruptcies, and changes of name, but there is a lot more than just those popular categories. There are official notices of many kinds; promotions and transfers within the Civil Service, registration of places of worship, quarantine regulations in times of cholera, property sales by auction following Chancery cases, and much more besides. You might also find out when tram-lines were first laid in your town, or even your street, or when a business was awarded a Royal Warrant.

When you find an index entry that interests you, the reference will be a page number. Each year the Gazette starts at page 1, and this is why a year and a page is a unique identifier, and you can use this to find the entry you want in the London Gazette itself. Although the old 'year and page' search facility is no longer there, you can still do this kind of search, it is just a bit more cumbersome than it used to be.

In this example, from Volume 1 of the 1875 index, the advertisement for the sale of properties in Bermondsey, and freehold land on Richmond Hill is on page 3170. 

Go back to the home page, and enter 3170 in the 'Search the archives' box. Unfortunately, there is no Advanced Search, you can only do a simple search, and then refine the results. In this case you will get hundreds of results to start with, but you can refine them first by selecting ‘London’ from the Gazette edition filter on the left of the page, and then you can use the ‘Publication date’ filter. You can’t just select a single year, you need to select year, month and day in both ‘From’ and ‘To’ categories, or it won’t work, - it's the same kind of system that you'll find when you want to book a flight or hotel room online. When you have done this, and updated the results, you should only have a few results to choose from – as you can see below. The search will have picked up any instance where the number 3170 appears in that year's Gazette, but one of them will be Page 3170. You can then view that page, and download it if you wish. This method works perfectly well most of the time, but it still relies on OCR, so occasionally this will not pick up the page number. If this happens, try again with a nearby number, and then you can browse to the page you need. 

The lower the page number, the greater the number of hits you will get, even using the year filter. But there are still ways to narrow the results to a more manageable number. If your initial date filter was a whole year, you can revise this to the quarter covered by the index volume (1 – Jan-Mar, 2 – Apr-Jun, 3 – Jul-Sep, 4 Oct-Dec). If this still leaves a very large number of results, you can use the ‘Sort by’ option at the top of the results to sort them into date order. This will only sort them by the date of the Gazette edition, and not in strict page order, but it makes it easy enough to scan the results to find the one you want. It’s not an ideal solution, but it does work. Fortunately, most Gazette page numbers are on the high side, so you might never have to look for a page with a very low number - each Gazette year includes thousands of pages.

When you have found your Gazette page, the viewing window is quite small, but if you click on the 'save' icon in the top left corner you can see the whole page in a new tab., You can also browse all the pages in that edition using the tools at the top of the page, or use the 'Download full PDF' tool to download the whole issue.

As well as using the indexes, you can also use the 'Search the archives' box on the home page to perform more complex key-word searches, using operators like AND or NOT etc. There is more information about this on the Help pages. This can be useful, but still has its limitations, because OCR may not pick up a word where the print is indistinct, or where it has been hyphenated at the end of a line. But it is still worth doing, because the OCR works well most of the time. You may be surprised at the kind of information you will discover - and the more you explore, the more you will find.


Thursday 12 November 2020

Finding Uncle Geordie

My maternal grandfather served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, and fortunately he survived. but one of his brothers was not so lucky. All I knew about him was that his name was George, he was in the army, and was killed during the First World War. I had already found his birth entry, on a visit to New Register House in the days before the ScotlandsPeople Centre. He was born 15 December 1893, only 20 months before my grandfather. On another research trip, this time to the Glasgow City Archives at the Mitchell Library, I found my widowed great-grandmother’s application for Poor Relief on 23 November 1915, It included George in the list of her children, and his name had later been marked 'killed' which showed that he must have died at some point after then, but it didn’t give the date of his death.

There is no surviving service record for him, which is no great surprise, since so many of them were destroyed during the Second World War. Unfortunately George Donaldson is not a very distinctive name, and a search on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) site for First World War army deaths produced 6 results for George Donaldson, and another 6 for G Donaldson. I wanted to see if I could identify the right one, and I like a challenge. I find it particularly satisfying to find out about the family members who died too young to have any descendants, and who can so easily fade from the collective family memory. My mother used to refer to him as Uncle Geordie, even though neither she nor any of her siblings had ever known him - her eldest sister was born in 1919 - so I wanted to find the information for her, as well as for myself.

Quite separately, I had been doing a lot of research on the men who served in the First World War based on the war memorial in the town where I now live. In the course of this I had learned quite a few ways of compensating for the lack of service records. I discovered that I could find out a surprising amount by combining scraps of information from a wide range of sources, not all of them military. In several cases where there were 3 or 4 local men with the same name I was able to work out exactly which was which. So I decided I would try applying the same techniques to my search for my mother's Uncle Geordie.

Starting with the 12 CWGC results, I was able to eliminate several of them because they contained information that meant they could not be my man. Three of them died well before the date of the Poor Law application, two more were several years too old, one was too young, and another was in the Canadian Infantry. So I now had five men to choose from, less than half of the original number. 

Next I consulted ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ which provides very little personal information about each casualty, but will usually give each man’s place of birth, and place of enlistment. Of my remaining five candidates, one was born in Morayshire, and recruited in Edinburgh, and one of the men listed just as G Donaldson by the CWGC turned out to be Gordon, not George. So now there were three who were born and recruited in Glasgow.

So far, so good, but I still needed to reduce the three to one, and then find some positive confirmation that the last one left was my great-uncle. I hoped that there would be a service record for one or two of them, with enough personal details to eliminate them from my enquiries, but no such luck. All of the deaths are listed in the GRO Index to War Deaths 1914-1921, but with no extra information, such as age at death, it was no help in establishing which of them might be the right one. But deaths of Scottish soldiers are also registered with GRO Scotland. The war deaths are part of the ‘Minor Records’ on ScotlandsPeople, and the indexes include age at death. Unfortunately the indexes don’t show regiment or service number, but by now I knew I was looking for a George Donaldson who died in 1917 or 1918, and there was only one whose age at death matched my great-uncle's date of birth, and this proved to be Pte George Donaldson 33164, 16th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, who died on 29 August 1918. 

I was reasonably sure I had found the right man, but I wanted some proof. There is a wonderful online resource for Glasgow men who died during the First World War, the index to the Glasgow Evening Times Roll of Honour. The index gives the date when the death was announced in the newspaper, and the page number. I found the entry for a Pte George Donaldson at around the right date, and on my next trip to the Mitchell Library I was able to consult the newspaper in the hope it would provide the corroborating evidence I needed. I found the entry, and there was even a photograph! but then it was sharp intake of breath time; the caption read ‘Pte George Donaldson, HLI (Killed); widow resides at 107 Maclean Street, Plantation, Glasgow.’. I thought I had been so clever, narrowing down those twelve names to one, but now it looked as though I had made a mistake somewhere, because I was looking for a single man, not a married man, so now I would need to backtrack…

Then I remembered one of my own rules ‘Never assume’. I had been assuming that he wasn’t married, because no-one in the family had even mentioned a wife. But by the time I started researching, or even asking questions, there was no-one alive with a personal memory of him. There was an easy way to find out, I could look for the marriage, and there it was on ScotlandsPeople. He had married Mary Arthur in April 1916, and the marriage entry proved beyond all doubt that I had found the right man after all. Not only were the parents’ details correct, the wedding took place at the address where the Donaldson family had lived since at least 1909, 77 Elder Park Street, Govan.

George had not yet joined the army, because he is shown with his civilian occupation of carter.  But conscription was well underway in 1916, so he may have joined or been called up soon after. He had only been only married for just over two years when he died, and probably spent most of that time away from his new wife. After he died, the Donaldson family probably lost touch with her, and I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her either (so far). When I showed my mother the results of my research, including the photograph, she said she could see a family resemblance. It’s a very small, grainy picture, printed from a roll of microfilm that had seen better days, but I have a picture of my grandfather, David Donaldson, at around the same age and I think she was right (my mother was usually right!). I have put them both here for comparison.

Glasgow Evening Times 1 Oct 1918

As a postscript, I should mention some sources I didn't use, but which might be helpful to other people trying to do the same kind of research. You can search for soldiers' wills on ScotlandsPeople or on GOV.UK, for England and Wales, either in the soldiers' wills category, or among the regular probate indexes, which also contain some soldiers' wills. Finding the name of the next-of-kin could be just the vital piece of information you need. The National Army Museum's Register of Soldiers' Effects 1901-1929 on Ancestry also gives the name of the next-of-kin. This wasn't available to me when I did the research a few years ago, and might have confused me a bit because of course George Donaldson's next-of-kin was the wife I didn't know about at the time! 

For soldiers who survived the war, the records I used to call my 'secret weapon' are the Absent Voters Lists which give a serviceman's home address along with his service number, regiment and battalion or equivalent unit. These don't all survive, but there is a good collection on Findmypast, and they are a real goldmine of information. There are also some wonderful local resources, so it pays to see what is available for the area where your soldier's family lived, such as a Roll of Honour, or a local or family history society may have researched the names on their war memorial. And of course there are newspapers, many of which are now on the British Newspaper Archive - although they don't yet include the Glasgow Evening Times (hint, hint!)


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.


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.