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 While a lot of what I wrote and said still holds true, all the details about how to use the site became completely out of date when it was given a radical re-design.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.