Newsletter - 8 January 2011



How to get free BMD information

Is FreeBMD getting it right?

Remembering Traceline

Using the Electoral Roll

Masterclass: finding birth certificates

Multiple births in the 19th century

Will you live to 1000?

Census jobs - in New Zealand

Findmypast takes over SoG online collection

Record delays for probate documents

Make contact with your cousins whilst you have the chance

Soldier's nephew traced after 95 years

Peter's Tips

Stop Press


About this newsletter

The LostCousins newsletter is published twice a month on average, and all LostCousins members are notified by email when a new edition is available (unless they opt out). To access the previous newsletter (dated 31 December 2010) please click here. Each newsletter links to the one before, and you can go back to February 2009 when the newsletter first went online; in due course there will be an online index to articles.


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Although these newsletters are hosted at LostCousins, they are not part of the main website. Click here to go to the main website and take part in the LostCousins project to link relatives around the world.


How to get free BMD information

One of the first websites I discovered when I began researching my family tree was FreeBMD, an incredible project to make the General Register Office (GRO) indexes for England & Wales more readily accessible by utilising volunteer transcribers. At that time there was no other way I could look up the indexes without going to the Family Records Centre in London, where the original leather bound volumes were held, or finding a records office that had a copy on microfiche.


But FreeBMD's coverage was very much lower in those days - it was quite good for the mid-19th century, but only about half of the early records - the most difficult to read - had been transcribed, and the coverage tailed off completely after about 1880. Even the years with good coverage weren't complete. So I still found myself traipsing up to London, heaving those enormous books off the shelves, and painstakingly copying entries by hand - until the launch (in 2003) of 1837online, a ground-breaking venture that put images of the indexes online for the first time.


Over the years FreeBMD's coverage has been extended well into the 20th century, and the 19th century gaps have been filled - yet at the same time the complete transcription of the GRO indexes by two commercial websites, Ancestry and findmypast (formerly 1837online), has meant that many new researchers have never needed to use FreeBMD.


However, the simple fact is that at any given time most researchers don't have a subscription to one of the commercial sites, and even those of us who do know others who - for one reason or another - aren't subscribers. So I though you might be interested to find out how you can look up index entries from 1837-1983 quickly, easily, and completely free of charge - all from the comfort of your own home, thanks to the miracle of the Internet.


Searching for BMDs in the 19th and early 20th century

FreeBMD's coverage is virtually 100% for this period, but there are a few quarters where the coverage is a little patchy, so if you can't find the entry you're seeking it's worth checking the charts which show the quarter-by-quarter coverage.


For the period up to 1915 Ancestry uses FreeBMD's transcription, so there's little point checking both sites, but even if you're not a subscriber you should take advantage of the free searches that findmypast offers, because you can get a lot of information from them without paying a penny (currently findmypast only has name indexes of births and marriages, but the death indexes will be added soon).


Another advantage of using findmypast is the way that it looks for variations in spelling: many people were illiterate (education for all didn't begin until 1875), so there are bound to be entries which, even though transcribed correctly, don't match the spelling you would expect. Exact matches always appear at the top of the search results, so you've got nothing to lose by ticking the 'include variants' box.


Of course, if you're not a subscriber to findmypast you won't be able to see the full record, but the free search results give so much information - name, registration district, county and year - that you'll often be able to spot the entry you're looking for.


Once you've done that, go back to FreeBMD and search for each entry you've found at findmypast - if you're lucky you'll find that they have all been transcribed or that one of those that has been is clearly the one you're looking for. But if not, you can still look up the entry - it's just a little more time-consuming. What you'll need to do in this case is browse the scanned index pages for each quarter in that year until you find the entry: to do this first select birth, marriage or death; next choose the year; then work through the quarters one by one. Note that although the pages are only indexed by the first letter of the surname, they are in order, so it shouldn't take very long to find the right one.


Tip: if you find a marriage then both FreeBMD and findmypast will display the other entries on the same register page, one of which should be the spouse; however at findmypast you'd need to be a subscriber (or spend credits)to use this MarriageMatch feature.


Searching for BMDs up to 1983

FreeBMD's coverage for this period is quite variable, and whilst the coverage of the earlier years is generally excellent there are some significant gaps - so I'd recommend starting your search at findmypast. (Note that while Ancestry has its own indexes from 1916 onwards, the free search results don't show nearly as much information as you would get at findmypast  - not even the year  - so it really isn't an option for the parsimonious researcher.)


From the 3rd quarter of 1911 onwards the mother's maiden name is included in the birth indexes, whilst from 1912 onwards the spouse's surname is included in the marriage indexes. Though this information won't be displayed in the free search results at findmypast, if you already know it (or can guess what it is) you can include it on the search form, so that the only results displayed are those that match.


If you don't know the maiden name or spouse's surname you can get this information from FreeBMD, either by searching or browsing (as described above).


Searching for BMDs from 1984 onwards

After 1983 the information was computerised, so there are no original index pages, and so the FreeBMD project will not go beyond that year. The free search results at findmypast provide the same information as for earlier years, but unfortunately there is no way to get the full information online without subscribing or using credits.


Tip: whilst the indexes of births and deaths at findmypast go up to 2006, those at Ancestry only extend to 2005.


Finally, don't forget that there are local BMD indexes for many counties, and that these usually include more information than the GRO indexes. See the UKBMD site for full details of what is available.


Is FreeBMD getting it right?


Health Warning: you need to read this article all the way through, and in conjunction with the one above


Since I've just demonstrated how useful the FreeBMD site can be, especially in conjunction with free searches at findmypast, you might be surprised to learn that in my opinion FreeBMD should stop transcribing the GRO indexes and invite their volunteer transcribers to focus on parish registers instead.


If FreeBMD does decide to continue transcribing the GRO indexes family historians will lose out - because FreeREG, the parish register project that is part of FreeBMD, is demonstrably a much more important project.


When FreeBMD began, it was the only site where researchers could search the GRO indexes. Now there are at least two sites which have more comprehensive indexes, and whilst they aren't free, I've shown in my previous article how you can avoid paying for the information from the 1837-1983 period that the FreeBMD project covers. By contrast there are thousands of parish registers that have never been systematically transcribed and indexed. Just imagine how many 'brick walls' would come tumbling down if only they were!


Some might go further, and argue that it's pointless for volunteers to transcribe ANY records that have previously been transcribed, albeit by a commercial organisation, when there are so many records that nobody has ever transcribed.


I have some sympathy with that viewpoint. True, there will always be a small minority of researchers who cannot get access to commercial databases, because they can neither afford to pay, nor get to one of the thousands of public libraries, records offices, family history societies, and LDS Family History Centres around the world that have a subscription - but no matter how politically-correct it may be to help minorities, isn't it better to do something that helps EVERYONE?


If you are a transcriber - or are considering becoming one - would you rather spend your time working with records that have never been transcribed before, and which will be made available free to everyone? I know I would, but I'll be interested to know what you think!


Note: I am not suggesting that the FreeBMD site no longer serves a purpose. On the contrary, I think I've demonstrated how - following the launch of findmypast's birth and marriage indexes - it can be more useful now than it has ever been. The work carried out in the past by FreeBMD transcribers, many of whom are LostCousins members, is invaluable - but that shouldn't blind us to the fact that circumstances have changed in the 13 years since FreeBMD was founded. It's how FreeBMD uses its resources in the future that needs to be re-evaluated - Trustees please note!


Remembering Traceline

In my last newsletter I wrote about Traceline, the wonderful tracing service that was killed off by the Data Protection Act - with a little help from the GRO and NHS.


One correspondent told me how she had spent several years trying to trace her aunt, who was rumoured to have emigrated, before eventually learning about Traceline. Even though they were only provided with a pre-War address, Traceline very quickly determined when and where the aunt had died - even though she had married (and so changed her name) three times. As for emigrating - well, that seems to have been one of those family myths that we all encounter (who knows how they start!).


Beryl in Canada not only told me about her experiences of Traceline, but informed me that there's a Canadian equivalent - you'll find their details here.


Finally, I heard stories from people who had worked at the GRO in Southport, and knew the Traceline team. Having spoken to members of the team myself I wasn't a bit surprised to hear how dedicated they were to finding people, frequently going beyond the call of duty as they strove to avoid disappointing the enquirers. One of my correspondents ended up by saying "It was a very, very, sad day when the service closed. They were very good

at what they did and they transformed many lives."


My thoughts entirely. If the present Government were to reverse their predecessors' decision I don't think anyone would object!


Using the Electoral Roll

Nicky wrote to let me know about a website called where for just £2.95 you get 24 hours unlimited access to the Electoral Roll (and, as a bonus, the BMD indexes for 1984-2005, the ones that you can't get free online). Of course, you have to remember that since 2002 people have been able to opt out of the version of the Electoral Roll that is supplied to commercial organisations (other than credit agencies), so there's a chance that the people you want to find may be unlisted - but nevertheless, it seems quite a bargain when you consider how much other sites charge (for example, charges a minimum of £9.95, and you only get 6 credits). However I should stress that whilst I've looked at the tracegenie site, I haven't used it myself.


Masterclass: finding birth certificates

It's very frustrating when you can't find an ancestor's birth certificate - but often the 'brick wall' only exists in our imagination. Let's look at some of the key reasons why a certificate can't be found….



How can you overcome these problems? First and foremost keep an open mind - be prepared to accept that the information you already have may be wrong. Obtain all the other information that you can from censuses, certificates, and other sources (such as Army records): the less information you can find, the more likely it is that the little you already have is wrong or misleading in some way. For example, if you can't find your ancestor on any censuses prior to his marriage, you can be pretty certain that the information on the marriage certificate and later censuses is wrong in some material way.


Consider how and why the information you have might be wrong by working your way through the list above - then come up with a strategy to deal with each possibility. Sometimes it's as easy as ordering the birth certificate for a sibling to find out the mother's maiden name; often finding when the parents married is a vital clue.


If you can't find your ancestor on the census with his or her parents then you should be particularly suspicious of the information you have - it's very likely that some element is wrong, and it is quite conceivable that it is ALL wrong.


Middle names that could also be surnames often indicate illegitimacy - it was usually the only way to get the father's name on the birth certificate. Unusual middle names can provide clues - I remember helping one member find an ancestor who birth was under a completely different surname by taking advantage of the fact that his middle name was Ptolemy!


Make use of local BMD indexes (start at UKBMD), and also look for your ancestor's baptism - sometimes we forget that parents continued to have their children baptised after Civil Registration began. Consider the possibility that one of the parents died when your ancestor was young - perhaps there will evidence in workhouse records. Could the witnesses to your ancestor's marriage be relatives? Have you looked for wills?


Finally, remember that you're probably not the only one researching this particular ancestor - and one of your cousins may already have the answers you're seeking. So make sure that you have entered ALL your relatives from 1881 on your My Ancestors page, as this is the census that is most likely to link you to your 'lost cousins'.


Note: this is a revised version of an article first published in April 2010; it covers such important issues that I think it's worth repeating.


Multiple births in the 19th century

It seems that Beverley's triplet relatives, who I mentioned last time, were very lucky to live as long as they did. Although I've had a lot of interesting feedback from members, it seems that in the 19th century triplets almost always died in infancy. The exception came from Chris in Australia, who in his tree has triplet relatives born in Ireland in 1821 - two of whom lived to a ripe old age.


Another member wrote to me with an amazing, albeit sad, tale - her grandmother was the only survivor of 13 children, and all the others were triplets! Finally - for now - David wrote to tell me about three triplets born in 1900 in Utah, who - though not relatives - were neighbours and close friends of David's father. What was remarkable about them was that all of them lived to 90, which must be some sort of record.


Will you live to 1000?

At the start of the current millennium I decided that I would live to 150 so that I could see in the 22nd century - and I must admit that seemed a trifle optimistic at the time. But if the Cambridge academic Dr Aubrey de Grey is correct, I should be aiming higher, because he recently said: "I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already." As a 60 year old myself, that certainly got my attention, and you can read the BBC news article here if you're intrigued  - or perhaps horrified - by the prospect.


As it is, the Department of Work & Pensions estimate that 17% of the current population will live to 100, which when you consider that there are only 11,800 centenarians in the UK at the moment is quite astounding. Will any of us live long enough to see the release of the 2011 Census in 2112, I wonder (or will they keep putting the release data back as life expectancy increases)?


But is the population really ageing - aren't most of us fitter and healthier than our forebears? Don't we need to adjust to not only longer, but healthier lives. Sadly I hear that some employers are still forcing people to retire at 65, even though the law will change in a few months time - what a topsy-turvy world we live in!


Census jobs - in New Zealand

It's not just in the UK that there's a census in 2011 - there are several other countries taking counts in the same year, including New Zealand. Sue wrote from Auckland to let me know that there are still census jobs being advertised in New Zealand - you'll find details here (but you'll have to be quick because the closing date is Friday 16th January).


Findmypast takes over SoG online collection

It has been announced that the Society of Genealogists collection formerly online at Origins are to be offered instead by findmypast. SoG members will, of course, continue to have free access to the collections.


The star is Boyd's Marriage Index, which covers the period from 1538-1840 and includes over 7 million names, but there are many more including burials, marriage licences, and an index of wills. At the time of writing neither the press release nor, as far as I could see, the datasets were on the findmypast site, but they may well be by the time you read this - check here for the latest situation. I understand that some of the records have never been online before.


Findmypast has also added over 150,000 Warwickshire burials to its parish records collection.


Record delays for probate documents

It seems that the Probate Service has been overwhelmed with requests for copy documents since Ancestry put the National Probate Calendar from 1861-1941 online last year. For example, Pam reported that it took 4 months (and several reminders) before the documents she had ordered finally arrived; ironically they came the day after she posted off a duplicate order and cheque, assuming that because her cheque hadn't been cashed, the first order had been lost.


Make contact with your cousins whilst you have the chance


After reading the New Year Resolutions in the last newsletter Sue told me this story in an email - and there was so much that I could relate to my own experiences that I went back to her immediately to ask if I could share it with you.


Back in March 2008 when I was a "new" family historian, I met a cousin, Barbara, via Genes Reunited. She then directed me to her Ancestry tree, which was easier to follow (I think we all find that, actually).  She had been researching for much longer than I and had the added advantage of living in the area where our shared great-great grandfather came from.  However, I was still able to share things with her and sent her a copy of a list in a bible my mother had, showing two generations of her Watson family - my maternal great grandfather and his wife and children, and his parents and siblings, which included Barbara's great grandmother.  This list was written in two different hands – mother and daughter-in-law, father and son? Your guess is as good as mine, but it would be nice to know. Perhaps one day I'll recognize the handwriting on a marriage certificate, or in a marriage register?


There followed two years of middle of the night emails (I was still addicted at that time!) thrashing out brick walls.  Inevitably some of these emails were followed immediately by the sorry type "sorry, disregard previous mail, I had got my Williams mixed up..." 


Barbara was the one on the spot (Cumbria) and had lots of very solid research backed up by visits to records offices and churches.  She knew not only the different villages but also the hamlets and their proximity to each other.  As an added bonus she had a living great aunt with photos and memories.  


I was the one who was more computer literate, stranded in Sussex, and more of a lateral thinker.  One of our brick walls was: why could we not find the marriage of our shared 2 x great grandfather Thomas Watson to Elizabeth Dickinson?  Another was why this same Elizabeth, widowed in 1880, had disappeared after the 1881 census although seemingly still alive?  Barbara found her great-grandmother’s 8-year-old son on the 1891 census in Warwickshire (my home county) living/staying with Elizabeth and John Parker (Farmer, born in Lancashire) and listed on the census as “grandson”.  This puzzled us, as we couldn't find the relevant marriage.


One sleepless night I set about interrogating FreeBMD for all John Parker marriages.  Up came the marriage of an Elizabeth Lace to John Parker in 1888 in Warwick.  I made a mental note of this and with my lateral thinking started looking for marriages of a John Lace to an Elizabeth Watson in Cumberland - bingo! Between 1881 and 1891 she had been married, widowed and married again - no wonder we had lost her.  Even more mysteriously she appears back in Cumberland in 1901 living alone, married according to the census. John Parker appears to be in Norfolk, and widowed! Haven't got to the bottom of that one yet but there is a family legend about some man making off with Elizabeth's money.


So, we had found the missing Elizabeth but not her original marriage.  Off I went again with my out of the box thinking.  We had been looking for a marriage of Thomas Watson to Elizabeth Dickinson and had drawn a complete blank.  Was she really Elizabeth Dickinson, I wondered?  Of course, this turned out to be the key - why did neither of us think of this before? She was the firstborn in her family and as many brides of the time only got to the altar just in time, maybe her mother didn't make it.  Sure enough I found a birth of Elizabeth, daughter of Mary Thompson.  Mary subsequently married William Dickinson.  I was then able to find the marriage of Elizabeth Thompson to Thomas Watson. Barbara verified it by getting the certificate and discovering that William Dickinson is named as Elizabeth’s father. All subsequent censuses have Elizabeth as "daughter" of William Dickinson but we shall never know if he was her real father, or simply the only father she had known.  


I then realised that Elizabeth’s youngest child William, my great-grandfather, was also married in Warwick in 1888.  Why did they both come to Warwickshire?  Was William working for John Parker on his previous farm in Westmorland and came with him to Warwickshire?  Is this how his mother met Parker?


This is the next key piece of research for me, but sadly I shall not be able to share it with Barbara.  She told me she was ill early in February 2010 and two weeks later I received an email from her daughter - who had found our correspondence and was thoughtful enough to let me know that she had died. We had become such good pen-pals yet we had never met or even spoken on the telephone.  It is almost a year now and still I miss her dreadfully.


Soldier's nephew traced after 95 years

Workmen repairing a village hall which had been used as a military hospital during the Great War found a postcard, apparently mislaid by a soldier who was treated there in 1915. Now a nephew of the soldier has been traced, and has tentatively identified the 'Nellie' who wrote the card. You can find out more on the BBC website if you click here.


Peter's Tips

Remember that the 15% saving on findmypast subscriptions ends at 23.59pm (London time) on Monday 10th January - so you'll need to act quickly. See my Seasonal Offers page for all the details, including a bonus offer that's exclusive to LostCousins.


At this time of the year shops and supermarkets are selling off the food that they stocked for Christmas, often at heavily discounted prices. If, like me, you like make jams and preserves, it's worth looking out for preserved fruit in fancy glass jars which can be recycled for your own produce - often you can buy them for less than you'd otherwise pay for an empty jar!


My last trip to Tesco was very cheap - in fact it didn't cost me a penny, even though I came home with 3 pizzas and several other items, all of them reduced to a fraction of the original price. It turned that picking up those pizzas was the key - they had been reduced from £2.29 to 49p each, but there was also a 3 for £5 special offer, which the till applied as if I'd paid full price for the pizzas. I can't guarantee that the same thing will happen to you (this happened at our newly-opened Tesco Express) but it's worth bearing the possibility in mind.


Stop Press

This is where any corrections or updates will be shown.


That's all for now - I hope you've found my newsletter interesting. Many of the articles are inspired by you, the members, so please do keep writing in with your thoughts, comments, and suggestions.




Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins