Newsletter - 6 March, 2010
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The General Register Office has announced that the standard price for birth, marriage, and death certificates ordered via its website is to increase by 32% from £7 to £9.25 on April 6th. I suspect that it isn't a coincidence that this announcement was made the day after Who Do You Think You Are? Live, Britain's largest family history show finished at London's Olympia exhibition halls. Had it been made earlier it would have been a hot topic of conversation, and I'm sure that the many celebrities present would have condemned the move.
According to the announcement the increase is to ensure that they cover their costs. However, I find it hard to believe that they don't make a thumping great profit even at £7 a certificate, especially considering that they sell around 2 million a year. How much can it possibly cost to print an A4 sheet of paper, fold it in half, and put it in an envelope?
Fortunately there is no need to conjecture, because in 2008 somebody very perspicaciously wrote to the GRO and used the Freedom of Information Act to get the answers - you can see the response here. Looking though the numbers it's hard to come up with a cost of more than £2 a certificate, including printing, labour, postage, and envelopes. No doubt they will claim that there are all sorts of other expenses which aren't listed, but my suspicion is that they are asking us to pay for their failed digitisation projects, DoVE and MAGPIE, which were abandoned a couple of years ago.
I have taken two steps to protect the interests of LostCousins members and other family historians with ancestors from England or Wales. My first step was to submit a Freedom of Information request requiring them to explain how they reconcile the planned price increase with the costs quoted in 2008, and asking whether they have considered adopting the same solution that the General Register Office of Scotland chose when setting up the Scotlandspeople site (where it is possible to get the same information online instantly - and for just £1.20).
My second step has been to contact Dominic Grieve, the shadow Justice Secretary and Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, since - if the opinion polls are correct - it's likely that before long they'll be the ones who make decisions relating to most of the matters that affect LostCousins members, including the price of certificates. Will they pledge to reverse this unjustified price hike? We'll have to wait and see....
In the last newsletter I stated that you'll never see original signatures on a certificate from the General Records Office. One or two members have queried this, and I do accept that they may be occasional exceptions, possibly when missing records have been reinstated - so perhaps what I should have said is that I've personally never seen original signatures on a GRO certificate.
This is my understanding of how it worked: for births, deaths and civil marriages it was the local registrar who was responsible for making copies of certificates and sending them to the GRO every 3 months, but for church marriages it was the vicar's responsibility. You'd therefore expect to see the vicar's handwriting on church marriage certificates, and the registrar's handwriting on others - though either of them might have deputed such a boring task to one of their colleagues (it's because entries were being copied and recopied that errors sometimes creep in).
I suppose there is a possibility that some registrars and vicars completed the copies for the GRO at the time the event was registered, and asked the parties involved to sign the copies as well as the original register. All I can say is that I have yet to see such a certificate. When I married, my wife and I signed the register - but even our original marriage certificate doesn't bear our signatures.
Whenever possible I'd recommend that you go back to the original document that your ancestors signed. It can be very useful to compare signatures when you're trying to verify that, for example, one of your ancestors married twice. This is particularly crucial before civil registration because the information in the register is so much more limited - no occupation is shown for the groom, and there's no information about the fathers of the bride and groom.
However, you do need to bear in mind that people's handwriting does change as they get older - yesterday I was looking at the two signatures provided by my great-great-great grandfather's youngest brother when he married in 1838 and 1882, and the difference between them was so marked that without all the other information I'd collected you wouldn't know that it was the same person. Similarly, said great-great-great grandfather married twice in 1817 and 1827, and the signatures are very dissimilar - he even spelled his name differently. Not only that, the marriages took place in parishes 40 miles apart! Were it not for the fact that the surviving children of his first wife were living with his widow in 1841 I would still be concerned that there was a case of mistaken identity.
This brings me on to something else that you need to bear in mind when you're looking at documents from the late 18th and early 19th centuries - whilst 53% of the British population could sign their own name in 1800 (up from just 6% in 1500), many of them were barely capable of doing so (after all, they might only be called upon to sign their own names on half a dozen occasions in their lives). It's therefore not surprising that they sometimes copied the spelling that the vicar had used when writing their name, and on other occasions they 'fluffed' their signature and had to start again.
Changes in the spelling of surnames (and forenames too) were very common in the early 19th century, and continued into the 20th century - my maternal grandmother's surname is spelled differently on her marriage certificate from the way it appears on her birth certificate. Forenames often get switched around too, and many people invented middle names for themselves when they became popular around the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, as long as you're aware of all these things they shouldn't hinder your research.
But much more difficult for researchers to overcome is a name change, where one surname is replaced with another. There are any number of reasons why somebody might change their name, many of them perfectly innocent - for example, some people simply got fed up with others misspelling or mispronouncing their surname. These days you couldn't hope to do it without going through some legal formalities - you'd never convince your bank, for a start - but in times gone by you could change your name without any paperwork whatsoever. Nevertheless even then some people did execute a deed poll, and you can read about the records that still exist in this interesting online leaflet at the National Archives site.
If you missed out on the 15% discount that was on offer at Christmas, don't despair - you can get a 10% discount against ANY subscription if you click here and enter the discount code mypast0410 in the Promotional Codes box. Note that you can't use this code in conjunction with any other offer, or with the 14 day free trial (but in any case, the free trial isn't such a good offer as it appears because it doesn't include the 1911 Census, and you get locked in to 6 month subscription cycle, which is much more expensive than subscribing for 12 months at a time).
This discount will last at least until the end of March, and hopefully until the long Easter weekend - I'll give you a precise date in the next newsletter. If you don't currently have access to the 1911 England & Wales Census this is a great opportunity to avoid those pesky credits which work out so expensive!
Over 600,000 records for ratings who joined the Royal Navy between 1853-1923 are now available at the National Archives website. It's free to search, and it will cost you just £3.50 to download a record. You might be surprised what you discover - I certainly was……
Do you remember that in the last newsletter I wrote about a great-uncle of mine who died of typhoid in New York in 1893 when he was just 20 years old? Whilst researching the new TNA record set for this article I found that at the age of 15 he'd joined the Navy as a "Boy, 2nd class" but bought himself out at a cost of £8 after just two and a half months on the training ship HMS Boscawen. Maybe the Navy didn't suit him, but he clearly wanted to roam, as at the age of 17 he was on his way to New York for the first time.
Anne wrote to me recently to say that " I have recently helped clear out my late mother in law's house and only just managed to save her collection of memorial cards (mainly inside her missal or prayer book) from being thrown out. These were considered junk by other family members but they have provided valuable information to me regarding my husband's family. They provided me with at least 25 death dates and on some cards birth dates were also included as well as photographs and addresses. It would have cost me a fortune in birth and death certificates for this information."
I know how crucial such clues can be - the first hint that my great-uncle had gone west as a young man and died in New York was when one of my 'lost cousins' included a photocopy of his memorial card with her Christmas card (she'd been sent it by a cousin of hers, but not someone who shares our Calver ancestry - which just goes to show how important it is for us to be aware of how discoveries we make may help our cousins).
I'm very careful not to post personal information online, so imagine my shock when I realised that I'd inadvertently done this using Amazon's Wish List feature! As a long-term user of the Amazon site I'd started adding items to my 'Wish List' without first reading the instructions - after all, we all know what a wish list is, don't we?
What I didn't realise is that, by default, ANYONE who types in your name or email address can see your wish list! To check whether I'm the only one who has made this mistake I started typing in the email addresses of randomly-selected LostCousins members - and in about 20% of cases I was able to see what books and other items they had chosen. Other personal data that may be displayed for all to see includes the town where you live, and your birthday - and I wouldn't want a complete stranger to have all this information (would you?).
You may not have made the same mistake as me, but I'm willing to bet that there are people you know who have inadvertently made their wish list available to every Tom, Dick and Harry. To check this out just click here, enter a friend or relative's email address, and see what comes up (note: you don't need to be an Amazon user yourself).
In the Masterclass article "Tracking down pre-1837 baptisms and marriages" in my last newsletter I described how I personally go about it, but of course there may be additional resources that are relevant to you. When I post the article on the Help & Advice page later this month I'll include key resources suggested by members, and these will include local LDS Family History Centres, the FamilySearch pilot site, and Online Parish Clerks.
However I can't wait to tell you now about a wonderful suggestion from Eileen, who came up with something that I'd never thought of doing. Like most of us she lives too far away from many of the counties where her ancestors lived, and so visiting the records offices just isn't practical. At the same time, she knows that transcribed register entries in the IGI rarely include all of the information shown in the register, so obtaining a copy of the original entry is important.
Visiting your local LDS Family History Centre and asking them to order in the microfilm is one option, but it can work out quite expensive, especially if your nearest FHC is as far away as mine. Instead Eileen discovered that it is possible to order printed copies using this form on the Family Search site, and at just $2 each (for between 2 and 8 records), it's a very cheap way to document your research and find out more about your relatives. You can order records from batch numbers that begin with C, E, J, K, M (except M17, M18), and P - and because payment is by credit card you don't need to worry about exchange rates.
Thanks to everyone who wrote for your kind comments and helpful suggestions - it's your contributions that make this newsletter really special.
Historical birth, marriage, and death indexes for New Zealand can be searched free at the official New Zealand Government site: Birth, Death and Marriage Historical Records. However, there are some limitations - you can only search for births over 100 years ago, marriages over 80 years ago, and deaths over 50 years ago. If you find one of your relatives you can order an official certificate from the same site at a cost of NZ$26, or else for NZ$20 you can get a printout for research purposes. Thanks to Colyn for reminding me about this site, and to Ann for explaining that the certificates are typed and provide less information despite the higher price.
Although the index doesn't show the precise date of an event, only the year, you can deduce the exact date using a binary search.
Malta was the first place I ever visited outside the UK, so I was delighted when Pat wrote to tell me about Stephanie Bidmead's Malta Family History site which has a wealth of information abstracted from Army, Navy and other records. It's well worth a visit if your ancestors had connections with the island.
At Who Do You Think You Are? Live last weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Peter Christian, author of The Genealogist's Internet, talk about censuses. He pointed out something I'd missed, which is that householders completing the 1911 Census of Ireland had the option of doing so in Gaelic - so if you've had difficulty finding some of your relatives in 1911, this could well be the explanation.
When you do find your relatives, remember to add them to your My Ancestors page so that we can look for your Irish cousins. One of the great things about the LostCousins matching system is that it doesn't matter how distant the relatives that you enter are - we can still use that information to track down members who share your Irish ancestors.
Irish Genealogy, a site sponsored by the Irish government's Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, has an index of over 1.3 million baptism, marriage and death records from Dublin City and Kerry. It was Noelene who told me about this site - thanks.
I'm sure you don't need me to remind you that if you were thinking of ordering and birth, marriage or death certificates for England & Wales, now is the time to do it - before the swingeing 32% price increase comes in on April 6th.
But that's not the only opportunity to save money this month - Royal Mail are increasing the postage rates from the same date, and the cost of sending a letter is going up by 2p to 41p for 1st Class and to 32p for 2nd Class, increases of 5.1% and 6.7% respectively. I've only just finished using the 2nd Class stamps I bought for 27p each before the last increase, and I still have plenty of 1st Class stamps which cost me just 36p. When the interest paid on savings is so low it makes sense to invest in something which you know can only go up in value!
A number of members have written to me about the changes that BT are making for those who get free evening calls - in future the evening will start at 7pm, not 6pm. It could be an expensive hour for anyone who doesn't read the small print!Save 40% on Your Family Tree until March 15th
Everyone's familiar with the FamilySearch site, which hasn't changed much over the past few years. Why? Because all the new records are going to a completely new site, currently known as the pilot site. You can get there by choosing Record Search pilot from the dropdown menu on the existing site, or you can go straight there by clicking here.
Tempting as it may be, don't use the Search form that appears on the home page under the heading Discover Your Ancestors; instead click Browse our record collections and select a continent to see a list of the resources currently available. For example, if you choose Europe you'll be presented with a list that includes England Baptisms 1700-1900 and England Marriages 1700-1900 (which seem to be from the indexes previously sold on CD ROM as British Isles Vital Records Index, although I haven't verified this).
However there are new records too: there is a wealth of information from Cheshire, including parish registers, non-conformist records, school records, and probate records. You'll also find unindexed images of Norfolk parish registers and indexes to the England & Wales 1841 and 1861 censuses (powered by findmypast). Note that whilst the census information provided is limited, birthplaces are shown for the 1861 index entries, something you won't see when you carry out a free search at either findmypast or Ancestry.
But it's not just about Britain and Europe - there are records from numerous countries around the world. Take a look at what's available and see what might be relevant to your research!
Ancestors magazine is to cease publication with the March 2010 issue, though the National Archives are considering a new publication to be launched in Autumn 2010.
That's all for now - I hope you've found some of it relevant to you and your family tree. Please do keep sending in your comments and suggestions for future issues.
Copyright 2010 by Peter Calver & Lost Cousins Ltd except as otherwise stated