Newsletter - 8 April 2013
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The LostCousins newsletter is
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For years, many of us in the world of genealogy have been trying to coax the General Register Office into making birth, marriage and death information more readily available - and eventually I decided to go the top by writing to Theresa May (who as the Home Secretary is ultimately responsible for the GRO).
Here's what I wrote:
TIME TO BRING THE GRO INTO THE 21ST CENTURY?
When we met briefly on 29th October I indicated that I would be writing to you in connection with the General Register Office - I'm sorry it has taken so long to put my thoughts down on paper, but hopefully you'll agree that the wait has been worthwhile.
I suspect every minister dreams of being able to please millions of people without it costing the Exchequer a brass farthing, but few ever have a chance to put such a policy into practice. I'm writing to you today to explain how with a simple reform you can transform the lives of the millions of family historians in Britain - and far from costing money, it will create additional revenue!
The 1836 Act which established the General Register Office and the Civil Registration system was passed before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, and whilst there have been some concessions to the advances in technology since then, such as the introduction of fountain pens, in many respects the GRO is still operating in the 19th century.
Family history is something that the British are normally rather good at. The television programme Who Do You Think You Are? attracted such large viewing audiences on BBC2 (over 6 million) that it moved to BBC1, and has been licensed in numerous overseas territories. It has also inspired an annual show at Olympia which is said to be the best-attended family history event in the world (the 2013 show takes places between 22nd-24th February, should you want to see for yourself).
Findmypast, a British company, is challenging the American market leader (Ancestry) not only in the UK but also in their home market; Genes Reunited, another British company, has 10 million registered members. I'm also playing a part, albeit on a much smaller scale - 60,000 family historians subscribe to my fortnightly online newsletter.
This British success has been achieved despite the failure of the GRO to make its historical registers available online. To obtain a copy of a birth, marriage, or death entry from 150 years ago takes longer and costs just as much in real terms as it did then - despite the advent of the computer and the World Wide Web, two British inventions that transformed the world in the 20th century and continue to do so in the 21st.
England & Wales was the first part of the United Kingdom to introduce Civil Registration, but it is now falling behind the rest of the nation. The General Register† Office for Scotland long ago recognized the importance of making its historical records available on the Internet, and providing uncertified digital copies of entries - which are typically all that family historians require. The General Register Office for Northern Ireland is in the process of making similar arrangements.
Soon England & Wales will be the only part of the kingdom where it takes longer to get a copy of a 19th century birth, marriage, or death entry than it did when Queen Victoria was on the throne! But the main concern of the millions of family historians who are researching their English and Welsh ancestors is that the cost of certificates has become prohibitive.
Let me explain why: in the days before the Internet people researching their family trees would generally focus on a single line, and even if they researched other ancestors they usually didn't include their extended families. In those days it wasn't cost that restricted demand, it was time and distance - no wonder most people didn't take up the hobby until they retired.
When census and other records became available online about 10 years ago it not only became feasible for many more people to research their family trees - it became possible for them to extend their research to cover their entire tree. However, the high price means that they typically limit their certificate purchases to their direct ancestors. I believe that at the right price, probably between £1.50 and £2, the demand from family historians for digital copies of register entries would be 20 to 50 times higher than the present sales of paper certificates at £9.25 each.
Ironically the GRO makes no money selling copy certificates, even at £9.25 each, because although the physical cost of producing a certificate is only about 20p, the rest is swallowed up by staff costs and other overheads. However, digitising records and putting them online not only makes them more accessible, it brings down the cost. For example, when the 1911 Census was first made available by the National Archives in 2007 it cost £45 per household, because everything had to be done manually, but when it went online in 2009 it cost less than £2. Now it costs less than £1 per household!
At £45 per household the National Archives were breaking even, but at less than £1 per household they are making money. Shouldn't the GRO be equally commercial when it comes to records that are of purely historical interest?
You won't be surprised to hear that the General Register Office has plenty of excuses for not reforming: the statutes, they argue, prohibit the provision of information except in the form of a certified copy. They contend that without new primary legislation they cannot carry out the necessary reforms.
I'm not convinced. Section 5 of the 1836 Act - which does not appear to have been repealed or amended by subsequent legislation - gives the Registrar General the power to:
"make Regulations for the Management of the said Register Office, and for the Duties of the Registrar General, Clerks, Officers, and Servants of the said Office, and of the Registrars, Deputy Registrars, and Superintendent Registrars herein-after mentioned, in the Execution of this Act, so that they be not contrary to the Provisions herein contained"
In fact, there was nothing in the 1836 Act that specifically prohibited the provision of information in uncertified form, or stated that the registers could not be viewed by members of the public (indeed, they were permitted to do so in the mid-19th century).
If you agree with my analysis, then perhaps you might invite the Registrar General to use the very wide discretion provided by Section 5 to bring the systems up to date, and meet the new demand from family historians by putting the older registers online, as Scotland did years ago?
However, should you consider that new primary legislation is required, then perhaps it should include provision for the historical registers - those over 100 years old - to be transferred to the National Archives, who already hold the national censuses and have been extremely successful in making them available online using the resources and expertise of commercial companies.
Since what I'm writing about relates to just one small corner of one department within the Home Office, it must seem very insignificant in comparison to the much more serious issues that you have to deal with.
And yet, because reform would benefit millions of British people and encourage genealogical tourism (something that has been very positive in Ireland, and is also being promoted in Scotland), whilst at the same time bringing in much-needed revenue for the Government, I believe that it merits your attention.
I hope you agree.
I don't expect everyone reading this newsletter to agree with every single word that I wrote, but I'm sure that the vast majority of you will be broadly in agreement. Indeed, I doubt that even members of the public who have no interest in family history would dispute the logic of updating the GRO's systems. After all, I'm not writing this newsletter with a quill pen, and it won't be getting from me to you by stagecoach - it isn't 1836 any more!
Sadly I didn't get a reply to my letter from the Home Secretary, or from the Minister directly responsible for the GRO, nor from the Registrar General herself. Instead, nearly 2 months later, after my letter had been passed from out-try to in-tray goodness knows how many times, I got a response from the GRO Communications Manager, who wrote:
"...I recognise that the present situation is far from ideal for those many people who are involved in researching their family history.
However, I do believe that at present we are confined by existing statutes in what we do. Registration legislation generally† (and it is not alone in this) defines what is permitted rather than what is not: so it specifies that for those wishing to obtain information from the record, a certified copy of the entry may be purchased. The legislation does not specifically go on to list ways in which such information cannot be divulged, but it cannot be inferred by this that access arrangements other than that specified are therefore permissible.
Our understanding is that if we want to amend the way in which access to register information is divulged, this will need some legislative change. You mentioned the 1836 Registration Act in your letter, but this also provided that information should be divulged by certified copy following access to indexes (not to the records themselves)."
You'll note that he ignored the point I made about Section 5 of the 1836 Act and he also carefully focused on telling me what couldn't be done, rather than suggesting what could be done. Considering that the Prime Minister has repeatedly urged that the people of Britain adopt a "can do" attitude, it's rather annoying that public servants are allowed to stick with the "can't do" approach that we all laughed at when Yes, Minister was on our TV screens in the early 1980s.
Perhaps I've missed it, but I can't see anything in the 1836 Act which specifies what information should be in the GRO's indexes - this seems to have been left entirely to the Registrar General to decide. Surely if that's the case, the present Registrar General could compile indexes that are far more detailed - just as many local registrars have already done?
I don't think this is just about the GRO - it seems to me that there are fundamental problems with the way that the public sector responds to the needs of the public. By the way, I'm not making a party political point - the last time I wrote this was when the previous government was in power.
Perhaps Shakespeare had it right when he wrote "A plague on both your houses!"
Remember that if you've recently purchased a new findmypast.co.uk subscription (or upgraded your present subscription) after carefully following the instructions in my previous newsletter you could be entitled to a free LostCousins subscription!
We all have areas of our tree where we're stuck - whether it's an ancestor whose baptism we can't find, or a branch that seems to disappear - and when this happens it's useful to have some input from other researchers.
Sometimes our cousins will be able to help - whether you meet them at LostCousins or elsewhere, other researchers who share your ancestors are a great resource. But sometimes it takes somebody from outside the family to spot what everyone else has missed - and that's where it can be useful to take your problem to genealogy forum.
I know that most people reading this have never used a forum, and some of those that have didn't find it very welcoming. That's why I'm working with a fantastic group of volunteers to make sure that when it opens, the LostCousins forum will be especially welcoming for first-timers.
If you've tried every other avenue, why not bring your 'brick walls' to the LostCousins forum when it officially opens next month?
Tip: the LostCousins forum is strictly invitation-only right now, which is why there's no link from the main LostCousins site. However if you indicate on your My Details page that you're interested in joining, you might be lucky enough to receive an invitation ahead of the official launch. And, while you're on your My Details page, it's a good opportunity to make sure that the rest of the information you've provided is up to date and as complete as possible.
Like many of you I'm old enough to remember rationing, which continued in Britain until July 1954, over a decade after D-Day (see this BBC article for more details and dates).
But I was a little surprised to read today †that retailers in the UK are rationing the sale of powdered milk for babies, according an article on the BBC News website.
Researchers from Cambridge University have discovered that simply by analysing Facebook 'likes' it is possible to make highly accurate predictions about people - from the colour of their skin to their gender, orientation, political allegiance, and much more. Combine those inferences with what people explicitly tell you about themselves, and you could know more about someone than their own relatives!
Other research has found that by collecting relatively innocuous information from a variety of online sources you can build up a far more detailed picture of somebody than they ever intended - be very wary of choosing the same user name at different sites.
Have you tried searching for your own name using Google? Or for your email address (put it in double quotes)? Or for your user names? You might be surprised at what you find!
Note: I'm a great believer in providing privacy and security for those who value it. At LostCousins nobody can see your name or your email address - even when you've been matched with someone else they'll only see your initials (until you choose to exchange names). By the way, it's not only other members who can't see your name - Google and other search engines can't see it either.
In 1897 PC George Snipe was killed when a brick struck him on the back of the head - and his bloodstained helmet is in the West Midlands Police Museum at Sparkhill, Birmingham.
Reading an article about this at the BBC website last month made me wonder what other memorabilia and police evidence bear DNA samples that might potentially allow a modern reanalysis of an old case - or provide the solution to a family history riddle?
A recently published article in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggests that the common paternal ancestor of every male on the planet may have lived much longer ago than the 60,000 to 140,000 years that was previously believed - the DNA of Albert Perry, a recently-deceased American appears to come from a line that diverged around 340,000 years ago.
This New Scientist article suggests that one possible explanation is that hundreds of thousands of years ago humans may have interbred with a species that is now extinct - a pattern which fits with recent discoveries of Neanderthal DNA in most modern humans.
Interestingly the sample was analysed by Family Tree DNA, the company which I have used for my own DNA tests - and the only testing company I can personally recommend to LostCousins members.
If my newsletter articles about DNA and DNA testing in September 2012 and October 2012 haven't told you everything you need to know then you might be interested in a half-day course that is being run at the Society of Genealogists on 4th May - you can find out more details and book here (though you might find it challenging if - like me - you use the Chrome browser).
Archaeologists working for Crossrail have been examining 13 skeletons discovered near Charterhouse Square, in London - it is believed that it may be the site of an emergency burial ground used at the time of the Black Death. You'll find more details on the Crossrail website.
In the 19th century people who emigrated from Britain to Australia had little expectation of ever again seeing the families they left behind - the journey was long, perilous, and expensive.
I was reminded of this when I read an article about a proposed mission to Mars in 2023 - the ultimate goal of the Mars One project is to have a colony of 20 settlers, but what made this plan stand out is that there are no plans to bring them back. †Now that sounds much more like the science fiction that so enthralled me as a young boy in the late 1950s!
Of course, if coming back is more important to you than touching down on the red planet, you could always sign up for the Mars flypast planned for 2018 by Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first space tourist when he visited the International Space Station.
President Nixon had a speech written for him to deliver in the event that the first men on the moon never came back - a speech that, thankfully, he never had to deliver.
You'll find information about this speech and many others in a recent article on the BBC News website - I found it fascinating.
I have to confess that I've never watched a reality TV programme - unless you consider that The Apprentice falls into that category - but when I read about the controversial 'Door to Door' challenge on last Autumn's I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! (which has resulted in ITV being censured by Ofcom) it reminded me of a much older TV challenge.
Imagine that you're a contestant on a TV game show and have to pick one of three doors, in the knowledge that only one of them conceals a prize. When you've made your selection the host (who knows where the prize is hidden) opens one of the other two doors to show that there's nothing behind it - and then gives you the option of staying with your original choice, or switching to the remaining closed door.
What should you do, and why? The most convincing answer to arrive in my inbox by Friday 19th April wins a one-year LostCousins subscription.
I remember that in the 1950s and 1960s if you wanted reliable advice you'd ask your bank manager - he (and it always was a 'he' in those days) was somebody you could trust. Nowadays there can't be very many people left who still trust their bank!
In November CPP were fined £10.5 million by the Financial Services Authority for selling card protection insurance that wasn't worth the plastic the cards were printed on (my words, not theirs). People were being sold insurance they didn't need - because (in the words of the FSA) "customers generally do not need insurance for fraudulent transactions on lost or stolen credit and debit cards because they are not liable for unauthorised card payments - apart from in exceptional circumstances". This probably explains why the cover sold by CPP for £35 per year cost them just 60p to buy (according to a recent article in Saga magazine).
Of course, while some sales were made direct, many were made through the banks that issued the credit and debit cards - yet another reason why people don't trust their bank any more. You can read the FSA's press release here.
But it's not just banks that have lost our trust - another £10.5 million fine was imposed last week, this time on the energy supplier SSE (formerly Scottish and Southern Energy). I'm not going to go into details because you can read it all here on the Ofgem website, but in short they were telling people that they would save them money when in fact the opposite was often the case.
You can't beat independent advice, especially when it's free. I use the Which? Switch website to check whether I'm on the cheapest tariff, and whether I'm with the cheapest energy supplier - and over the years I must have saved thousands of pounds. The ironic thing is that you get the same gas or electricity whoever's name is at the top of the bill - so there's no reason not to switch to a cheaper supplier.
Finally, in my last newsletter I wrote:
Quite a few LostCousins members who have retired live abroad, mainly in places where the weather is better than in Britain. But often it isn't feasible to emigrate, whether for financial or family reasons, so I'd be interested in hearing from any member who has personal experience - good or bad - of a timeshare, shared ownership holiday property, or similar 'investment'.
I had some very interesting responses but only a handful, so I suspect that most of you missed it. Please do pass on any tips based on your own experience!
This where any late updates will be posted, so it's worth checking back after a few days.
I hope you've found this newsletter interesting and that you'll make full use of your membership of my site to link with the cousins you don't yet know (your 'lost cousins'). After all, that's what LostCousins is all about!
© Copyright 2013 Peter Calver
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