Wednesday 7 March 2018

Searching the online GRO birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales

Before I look at the details of online indexes on various websites, I want to say something about the indexes themselves. It is always easier to make sense of an online resource if you know something of the original hard-copy source it comes from.

Transcription slip used by the GRO

Searching the indexes
Even when the data is identical, you can get different results from different sites because the search engines they use work in different ways. You can even get different results using the same site, depending on the kind of search you use. On some sites you can search across all their records at once, or a general ‘births, marriages and deaths’ category. Searching over multiple databases at once requires somewhat ‘one size fits all’ search options. This has some advantages, but you can perform more refined searches by tackling one set of records at a time.

Sites have different options for coping with variant spellings, including the use of wild cards. If there is a variant spelling option, this will usually involve some kind of computer algorithm; while  this can be useful, it may not cover all the variant spellings of a name, and may produce a number of irrelevant results. You can usually refine searches or filter results by place, and the date range to be searched may be set in different ways. 

It’s important to know that the indexes don’t include all forenames in certain years. So if your search includes middle names you may not find the results you want, depending on the site you are using and the search options you have chosen. All names appear in full in the manuscript indexes from 1837 to 1865 (some of these indexes were withdrawn and replaced by typed indexes, which also contain full names). Printed indexes were introduced in 1866, and for 1866 only, initials are used for all but the first forename; from 1867 to 1909 you will see two forenames, then initials, from 1910 to 1968 the indexes were typed, and show only one forename, then initials. In 1969 computers were first used to prepare the indexes, and from then onwards show two forenames, then initials.

Different times, different errors
Most index information is accurate, but with millions of entries over more than 180 years, there are bound to be mistakes. Depending on the time, and the method of copying used, there are different kinds of errors to look out for.

Until well into the 20th century cursive script was generally used, so even where the final index was printed or typed, the paper slips used for manual sorting were handwritten; so when trying to work out how a name might have been mis-copied, think of letters that look similar in cursive script, not in block capitals, typescript, or print. In the case of capital letters ‘F’ ‘J’ and ’T’ do not look similar when typed or printed, but when handwritten they are easily mistaken for each other, especially at the beginning of an uncommon surname.

When typing, especially on a computer keyboard, it is all too easy to hit the same key twice by accident. The surname Quarmby is a rare one, and I am reasonably certain that the version beginning ‘QQ’ is not a spelling variant, but is the result of ‘fat-finger’ typing - it’s in the death index for the March quarter of 1975 if you want to look for yourself.

Online indexes up to 1983 have been copied from scanned versions of original parchment or paper indexes. But the scans themselves were made from microfilm or microfiche versions, which were themselves copies. The filming that was done in the 1960s was of better quality that the microfiche version made in the 1980s, but the fiche version was much more widely available. The fiche version of the older hand-written volumes could be particularly hard to read - while perfectly legible in their original form, their parchment pages were more brown and beige than black and white. 

In both cases there was always the possibility of two pages being turned over at once by a camera operator, thus losing two pages of entries. When some of the early hand-written index volumes were withdrawn and replaced with typed copies, a typist could also turn over two pages at once with the same result. Additionally, the typed indexes show each surname only once, which saves a lot of key-strokes and therefore time, and typewriter ribbon. Unfortunately, if a surname was mis-copied, or omitted altogether, this could result in a whole block of forenames being indexed under the wrong surname. In the typed index to for the December quarter of 1864 all the ‘Day’ births up to Elizabeth Sarah are wrongly listed under the much rarer name of ‘Dax’ because the typist failed to type the surname ‘Day’ after the entry for Gilbert Elliot Dax.

Finally, some entries do not appear in the indexes at all because they did not make it through all the stages of indexing; copies of some entries, particularly marriages, did not even get to the General Register Office in the first place, even though the original is held in the local Register Office. 


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