Wednesday 30 October 2013

Gazing at the Gazettes - beta site

I've been looking at the new beta site for The Gazette which is set to replace the three separate sites for the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes. It looks very different.

I am a big fan of the Gazettes, and the London Gazette in particular. It is a wonderful source for family and local history, and not just for bankruptcies, changes of name and gallantry awards, for which it is fairly well-known. In fact, as part of the day job, I gave a talk called 'The London Gazette: not just the brave and the bankrupt' in 2010 which you can still download as a podcast.

The fact that you can now search across all three Gazettes at once is an improvement. As before, you can search by key word, date range or Gazette page reference. Although there is no 'Advanced search' or 'Search builder' option, You can still do all these things on the beta site. Previously, there were boxes for all words, exact phrase or any word. You can still do all these searches in the new single search box, using double quotation marks for "exact phrase" and OR between your key words for an 'any word' search, ie the regular Boolean operators. You select the date range using a calendar feature, not a drop-down menu, which works well. The pre-set selections for particular events, notably the two World Wars, have disappeared, which is a pity.

There are several new filter features, some of them very detailed, starting with 'Notice type', but based on a few trial searches I have made, these only seem to work from 1998 onwards - editions up to 1997 appear as pdf files of whole pages, while the later ones are text versions of individual notices. There is also a place filter, using place, postcode or local authority, which also seems to return only recent results. I have no insider knowledge, but my educated guess is that this is why the post-1997 filters can be so detailed. So neither of these tools will be of much help for historic searches, but there is one new feature that will be useful for everyone; you can register with the site (it's free) and save your searches in an area called 'My Gazette'. You can also share your findings using Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

The beta site and the old site will run alongside each other 'Until we have migrated all the notices and are completely confident the new site is flawless' so there may be some changes to come. There is one vital feature that I can't find on the new site, which I very much hope will be added before long - the PDF versions of the printed indexes to the London Gazette. These are particularly helpful when searching for gallantry awards, which can be very tricky to find using the usual search methods.


Monday 28 October 2013

Memories of the Probate Service - Somerset House

The recent news about the move of the Probate Service searchroom from First Avenue House, with little advance publicity, set me thinking about how things have changed over the years. When I started researching, back in the 1980s, the Probate Search Room was in Somerset House, where it had been for nearly a century. The room, like the rest of the building, was a handsome one, and apart from the introduction of electric light seemed to have changed little during that time. Many of the index books, called 'calendars' were in shelved in free-standing bookcases with a lectern on top, as in the picture above, which actually illustrates the earlier searchroom at Doctor's Commons. The rest were in bookcases around the room, mostly without lecterns or handy shelving, although there were some tables. The most recent indexes were on microfiche, and as I recall there were never enough microfiche readers.

The books were large and heavy, but unlike the birth, marriage and death indexes, did not have handles on the spines, so they were prone to damage from mis-handling. When you found an entry for a will you wanted, you had to decide whether you wanted to read it, or order a copy, then fill in a form and pay the appropriate fee. This was more complicated than it sounds. As well as the form, you had to take the book to the desk for checking, and you could take two at a time - although carrying more than two would have been no mean feat! It cost 25p to read a will, or 25p a page for a copy. Either way, you then had to wait until the will was brought up for you to read, or a note of the number of pages if you wanted a copy to be posted to you. You would hear names being called out as each item arrived, and if you were lucky you'd work out fairly quickly that they called out the testator's name, not your name, or you might have a long wait.

The fun(?) part was paying the fee. You had to go down the corridor to the cashier, and it was a good idea to have the right money, because the cashiers never seemed to have any change. Except during the lunch hour, when the cashier's office was closed and you had to go down a different corridor and up two floors to another cashier who didn't have any change either. They never quite fixed the cashier problem, but the pricing did become simpler, when the price of copies was fixed at 75p, regardless of the number of pages.

Somerset House's days were numbered as a home for the Probate Search Room, though, because it simply wasn't big enough any more. It wasn't just crowded with probate searchers, it also shared the building with the Divorce Registry, which was desperately short of meeting rooms where the parties could confer with their lawyers just before a court appearance. On one memorable occasion I had to step over a barrister, in robe and wig, who was sitting on the stairs with his client as I made my way up to the cashier's office.

The good old days? I don't think so (apart from the price, of course). So the whole operation left Somerset House and moved up to First Avenue House, but that's another story.


Saturday 26 October 2013

Where are the wills? Searching for the searchroom

I heard from a couple of reliable sources this week that the Principal Probate Registry searchroom is no longer at First Avenue House, but has moved to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. This move will only affect researchers who want to search and order wills in person in London; other registries and postal searches through the District Probate Registry at Leeds will not be affected.

Information about HM Courts and Tribunals Service can be found on both the and GOV.UK sites, but both link to the same page for the London Probate Service still giving the First Avenue House address and opening hours. I could not find any announcement about the move on either site, but the Society of Genealogists received a notice from HM Courts and Tribunals Service which they published on 17 October. It reads:

With effect from Monday 21 October 2013 the London Probate search facility currently ar High Holborn will be moving to Court 38, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL 
The opening hours will be 9am to 4pm although please note the search facility will be unavailable between the hours of 1-2pm.  
The fee payable for this service should be paid at the Fees Office, Royal Courts of Justice, which is signposted within the building. Maps will also be available prior to the opening of the search facility at the new location.  
The search facility will consist of the same search facilities as now, there will still be no Level One Service, copies ordered for collection will be ready after 48 Hours, if you have requested the postal option, and the copies will be posted within 14 working days. 
If you have any enquiries please contact a member of the London Probate team on 020 7947 6043

This number and the general enquiries number from the London Probate Department page have been added to the Royal Courts of Justice page. You can download a map of Courtrooms in the Royal Courts of Justice which shows that Court 38 is on the ground floor of the West Green Building, near the Carey Street Entrance.

I don't know what the situation will be when the courts re-open on Monday, but earlier this week my sources said the searchroom terminals were not yet up and running, so if you are planning a visit I would strongly suggest that you ring and check first.


Tuesday 22 October 2013

Tuesday's Tip - it's not the document you need, it's the information

Sometimes we need to just stop and ask why we are doing what we do. I'm not starting a whole philosophical debate on the Meaning of Life, I just mean that as genealogists we should consider why we are performing a particular search. Suppose that you are searching for an ancestor's birth certificate; fine, that's a very sensible thing to do. But why do you want it? Is it because you like the nice wavy pattern on the watermarked paper, and the offiicial goverenment stamp at the bottom (I'm talking about England and Wales here, by the way)? No, it's because you want the information it contains. So it's good if you find the birth certificate, but it need not be a disaster if you don't, because you might be able to get the information you want from another reliable source.

Back in the Middle Ages, when there were hardly any census name indexes, I was trying to find a family in the 1861 census in Glasgow. The only way to do that at the time was to hope they were at an address from a certificate, a will, directory entry or some other source close to the census date. I wanted to find out about my great-great grandparents, starting with their ages and birthplaces. I had found their marriage in 1849, but this was in Scotland before the start of civil registration in 1855 so all the information I got from that was the date and place. I tried the address on the birth certificate of one of their daughters born in October 1861, but the weren't there. There was an older daughter born in 1858, but they weren't at that address either. Then I found the death of a child in December 1860 at yet another address, but they weren't at that one either.

At this point I gave up on this line for a while. If they had lived somewhere smaller I might have searched the whole place, but this was Glasgow, so it would have taken a very long time. I decided it was more sensible to work on another line instead, and then I made a breakthrough. It was the best kind of discovery, one that you make by accident when you are looking for something else altogether. I was looking at Poor Law applications in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow for my elusive Collins ancestors when I spotted an entry for Margaret Charlton. This was my great-grandmother's maiden name, and it was cross-referenced with the surname Soutar. Charlton is not a very common name in Scotland, and the application was dated July 1861, so this had to be her. And so it proved to be.

It hadn't occurred to me to look for the family in the Poor Law records, but the single page document that I saw gave me all the information I would have found in the census, and more. Not only did it provide the birthplaces of the whole family, but for Margaret and her four children the actual street addresses were listed. Better yet, it showed that William had been in the army for 15 years, and had been discharged about twelve years earlier. This was all news to me, and I now I had all kinds of leads to follow up. When I did eventually find the family in the 1861 census, after it had been indexed, it was a bit of an anti-climax. It was nice to have, though, and it provided me with yet another address for them, making four different ones between December 1860 and October 1861.

So it can pay to think laterally. Getting a birth certificate is the obvious way to find the mother's maiden name, but if you can't find it, or if your ancestor was born before the start of civil registration and therefore has no birth certificate, the birth of a younger brother or sister will provide the information. Of course, you have to be sure that they are full siblings, and not half-siblings.

There are all kinds of places where you might find vital information on dates, places and relationships, not just in registers and certificates. My poor law application is just one example, but it illustrates the fact that your ancestors might have had to provide details of their birth and marriage, and perhaps even prove it by producing written evidence. Schools, employers, the armed forces and all kinds of public authorities might have required this at some point, so don't give up when the head-on approach doesn't deliver the goods.