Wednesday 18 April 2012

Workaday Wednesday - the men behind the indexes

From Cassell's New Penny Magazine 1899

Everyone who researches family history in England and Wales between 1837 and the present day uses the General Register Office (GRO) indexes. Nowadays we usually access them online, in database format, but they started out as bound volumes of hand-written parchment pages back in the 1830s. They were compiled by an army of clerks, and in case you were wondering, they were all male until well into the 20th century. Oddly enough, there were female registrars of births and deaths as early as the 1870s, but that's a tale for another day.

When the GRO was set up in 1836, many of the staff were recruited from Grosvenor and Chater, a firm of law stationers who also operated as a kind of employment agency providing clerical staff. The senior clerks were always part of the civil service establishment, however. The clerks who prepared the indexes were part of the Record Branch, while others worked in the Statistical, Correspondence or Accounts Branches. The Record Branch clerks who prepared the indexes were divided into transcribers, sorters and indexers. The transcribers copied the names and references from birth, marriage and death entries onto slips that were then sorted by (guess who) the sorters. The details from the sorted slips were then written up on parchment pages by the indexers. These were bound into volumes, most of which were still in daily use in the Public Search Room until 2007. The transcribers and indexers were paid according to the number of entries they completed, known as 'task work', but their work was checked, and if it was not satisfactory they had to do it again. The indexers could even have money docked from their wages for the parchment they had wasted - it was expensive stuff, after all, at 1/- per skin. 

Marriage index December quarter 1865
On some of the original pages you can see, in pencil, the names of the indexer and of the senior clerk who checked his work. In the example above you can see the name 'Beddoes' in the top left corner and 'checked T Davies'. There were records clerks called John Beddoes and Thomas Davies on the staff of the GRO at that time. I know this because I have compiled a database of nearly 400 people who worked at the GRO in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sad but true. From 1866 the system changed when the indexes were sent off site to be printed, and the transcribers and sorters were re-classified as 'index compilers'. 

From the beginning the GRO had more work that it could cope with, and the Registrar General frequently asked the Treasury for more staff, or at least for more money to pay overtime to the existing staff. The work was monotonous and the hours were long, often six days a week, and the clerks were not well paid. In the 1840s and 1850s in particular there were many instances of GRO clerks with serious money problems, appearing in the bankruptcy courts or even being imprisoned for debt. Running the GRO can't have been easy, and in 1870 the Registrar General, George Graham, had this to say:

'In some offices where there is occasionally a sudden temporary influx of work requiring speedy attention I know the system of writers supplied by Law Stationers who, as middlemen, abstract a large share of the poor writers' hard earnings in payment for the Law Stationers' patronage: I am also acquainted with the system of employing boys from 13 to 16 years of age at very low wages and then discharging them ; but I do not approve of either system in established government offices. I have had great experience of temporary clerks and boys in a temporary office; having had under my control 105 temporary clerks, 37 of whom were not 20 years old.
If temporary clerks and writers and boys are on day pay, they may be placed at desks; but no amount of supervision can obtain from all of them a good day's work. They know that the more work they execute in a day, the sooner their temporary employment will cease and they will be again turned adrift; therefore it is their interest to do as little work as possible'.

So next time you search the indexes by pressing a few keys and jiggling the mouse a bit, spare a thought for the GRO clerks a century and more ago who made it possible.


Monday 9 April 2012

Mappy Monday - London Railways

New Railway Map of London & Suburbs (Bacon's Atlas 1890)
Some of the most heavily used maps today are railway maps, and in particular those for major cities like London. Tourists in London know that they can always find their way around using the famous London Underground map. In fact, some never venture onto the much bigger network of buses because they feel so comfortable with the familiar colour-coded diagram. You see it all over the place as a decorative item, it has become such a design classic. You can even see it online and download it (and several others) from the Transport for London website.

The map above is its ancestor, although it doesn't look very similar to the modern map. Many of the lines and stations from the modern London Underground network are clearly shown, but there is no distinction between the 'underground' and 'overground' networks as there is today. Many of the modern-day underground stations that you can see on this map appear as part of the Metropolitan and District Line, although today you will find them on the Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith & City lines. Anyone familiar with the London Underground will see that the Piccadilly, Northern, Central, Victoria and Jubilee lines are under-represented; the Victoria and Jubilee Lines date only from the late 20th century, while those parts of the other lines that run under central London use tunnels deep below the ground, which had not been dug when this map was produced in 1890. The ones that you can see here are of the comparatively shallow 'cut and cover' type.

Metropolitan Railway 1870
This picture dates from 20 years before the map, and depicts part of the Metropolitan Railway. I don't know which station it is, but it looks an awful lot like Baker Street (I've spent an awful lot of time waiting for trains there over the last 30 years, so I should know!).

One of the most striking differences, though, is that the modern 'map' isn't really a map at all, it's a diagram, and isn't at all to scale. When it is drawn to scale it doesn't look at all familiar, so you can have fun comparing the two, but it may not be as easy as you think. If you look closely you will see that the railway lines are overlaid on a very faint street map, although you have to have pretty good eyesight to read most of it. Enjoy.


Sunday 8 April 2012

Shopping Saturday - some more Dickens

I have always been fascinated by the history of shops and shopping, and I have quite a collection of books on the subject. There are books on department stores, corner shops, well-known shopping street, famous high-street names and reprints of old catalogues. But many of our ancestors (well, many of mine, anyway) would have made their purchases in places that are not mentioned in any of these histories; they bought things second-hand. Think about it. If you were poor, and many people were, you couldn't afford to buy much, and even the cheapest new clothes might be beyond your reach.

You won't find company histories of dealers in second-hand clothes, or other goods, and there are no famous names that have come down through the ages. These traders did not always have shop premises either; instead they might have worked in street markets, or just streets. You might find them listed in directories as 'general dealers', 'wardrobe dealers' or 'marine stores'. In a post earlier this year about the monthly nurse I quoted Dickens' description of 'the very fetch and ghost of Mrs Gamp' hanging at the second-hand clothes dealers around Holborn. In Bleak House he paints an equally vivid picture of a marine store dealer's premises.
'She had stopped at a shop, over which was written, KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill, at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another, was the inscription, BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES' AND GENTLEMEN'S WARDROBES BOUGHT. Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window, were quantities of dirty bottles: blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles: I am reminded by mentioning the latter, that the shop had, in several little particulars, the air of being in a legal neighbourhood, and of being, as it were, a dirty, hanger-on a;ud disowned relation of the law. There were a great many ink bottles. There was a little tottering bench of shabby old volumes, outside the door, labelled "Law Books, all at 6d."...
...There were several second-hand bags, blue and red, hanging up. A little way within the shop-door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discoloured and dog's-eared law-papers. I could have fancied that all the rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron, had once belonged to doors of rooms or strong chests in lawyers' offices. The litter of rags tumbled partly into and partly out of a one-legged wooden scale, hanging without any counterpoise from a beam, might have been counsellors' bands and gowns torn up.'


Friday 6 April 2012

Some thoughts on the 1940 census

The release of a new census is always an exciting event. Even if it another country's census you can still join in the excitement. Like many other Brits I have 'cousins' in the USA, so I had a personal interest in the 1940 census, as well as my general interest in all things genealogical.

There are some interesting comparisons to be made between US and British census records, but the first thing that struck me was that the (near) instant availability of images with no indexes was rather a good thing. There have been so many advances in recent decades in the way that records are made available to us that it can make your head spin; so much basic genealogical source material is not only online but name-indexed that we can easily take it for granted.

When I started doing family history research the way to find someone in the census was to establish the address where you hoped they would be on census night, and search there. If you didn't find them there, you trawled the surrounding area until you found them (or not). There were place indexes but not many name indexes. Do I want to go back to those days? Of course not. But there was one big advantage of doing it the hard way; you had no choice but to look at the town or village where your ancestors lived. You might notice in passing some other family members that you wouldn't have gone looking for, and you get a sense of the ancestors' immediate surroundings. In short, you see your family in context. Looking for people in 1940 is a little bit like that, where you can find someone if you know where they were living then and are prepared to take the trouble .

Millions of people certainly tried, and I could tell from messages on Twitter and in blogs that at least some of them succeeded. It wasn't really surprising that not everyone could get through or view images in the first few hours. This always happens when there is a really big online release. The demand is always huge in the first hours or days, well in excess of the number of the hits  the site will get on a daily basis after that. It strikes me that if a site was equipped to accommodate everyone who tried to use it on day one, it would be massively over-resourced as soon as the initial rush subsided; rather like cities that have hosted the Olympics and then find themselves with an oversized airport and too many hotels. Frustrating as it may have been, the fact that some people were able to find and download pages, rather than sites crashing altogether has to be encouraging.

Like many other people I had to give it a try on 2 April, and like many of them I couldn't get through to the image I wanted. I had another go early next morning (GMT) while most of America was asleep, and it worked like a charm! I found great-great-great-uncle Robert in the small town in Minnesota where I knew he'd be. When America woke up again things seemed to have calmed down, and since then people have been finding people at a furious pace. All the images are online, on one site or another, and the first indexes have appeared. Pretty impressive for a country the size of the USA, and in less than a week.

We can get awfully impatient, we 21st century people, but as genealogists who deal in decades and centuries we should be capable of taking a more long-term view, we really should. Amy Coffin (whose We Tree blog is always worth reading) hit the nail on the head when she said on Twitter 'Ok people, you're allowed 3 complaint tweets about the #1940census, then you have to take a chill pill. Pretty generous if you ask me.' (Also well worth following on Twitter @ACoffin).

Having found my own relative in the 1940 census, and a few others I am interested in, I started making my contribution to the common good by logging on to FamilySearch Indexing and transcribing some pages. This is a novel feature of this census, that it is the subject of a massive collaborative project between NARA,, FamilySearch and This is feasible with American records because the images are freely available for anyone to use, unlike in the UK where the images are Crown Copyright. So you can also find the 1940 census images on other sites, and (who produced the first online index, for Bristol County, Rhode Island). The race is on, and it's fascinating to watch.