The next big thing?

The recent announcement that Findmypast and The National Archives
are making available the National Registration Act 1939 ‘census’ is very exciting.  This Act led to the population of Britain being issued with identity cards as the second World War got underway. A little bird tells us that we could see some of it happen before the end of 2015, and make no mistake, it is going to be huge. There are 40 million entries and 7,000 volumes to digitize. Many 20th century research brickwalls will come tumbling down as a result.

As there was no census in 1941 due to the war, and the 1931 England & Wales census returns were sadly lost to fire, the 1939 Registration Act census will be the most recent year genealogists will be able to combine information from both census and civil registration in order to locate people for a long time to come. The 1921 UK census will be released in 2022 after 100 years as has been the normal practice, (another 7 years to wait) but then there might be no major record sets from the 20th century until the 1951 census is made available in 2052, unless (possibly, maybe) we get access to searchable civil registration certificates online. The 1939 data is being released earlier than 100 years as the legislation which brought it into being is different from that used to carry out the normal 10 year census, regulated by the 1920 Census Act.

We have all seen how quickly the big data websites have rushed to provide us online access to all the available England & Wales census returns, the surviving Ireland census returns, as well as transcriptions from the Scottish census. Many other records, most of them partial or parts of bigger series, have come online as well. But which types of records are going to keep the big data websites growing over the coming decades do you think?

What would provide the biggest break-through for your own research? Should there be a concerted effort to get all remaining parish registers indexed? How about all English probate material pre 1858 in one place? Military muster rolls?

What will be the next big thing?

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It’s family history Jim, but not as we know it

This is a post by Simon Fowler, Author, Tutor and Professional Genealogist.  We thought this was an interesting follow-up to the general discussions about only doing genealogy online.  Family reunions may perpetuate those old family myths, but they are fun!

I recently moderated a family history reunion for a client. They wanted me to provide genealogical expertise and a guiding hand. But in fact I was hardly needed. The group was more interested in sharing details of second and third cousins and not listening to me. There was a real buzz about the afternoon.

But it was not family history as taught on Pharos courses. Tangential links were made without real evidence: someone claimed descent from the English poet Edmund Spenser. I haven’t checked but it seems unlikely. Family trees had been scribbled on envelopes. And notes came in a variety of forms – some were in impressive looking photograph albums with photos, documents and even a tram ticket.

The group had only the shakiest grasp of British history, based on hazily remembered history lessons from fifty years ago, television programmes and potboiler histories. There was even a debate about the relationship between the French and English lands owned by the Normans, although why I could not fathom, as nobody had traced their ancestors with any certainty much back before the 1850s.

Of course I should have intervened and insisted on proper evidence, effective record keeping and all the other things we teach and learn on Pharos courses. But I didn’t have the heart. They were having so much fun. And it would probably have been counter-productive.

This is genealogy as experienced by many people with all the joy of discovery and communication without any of the rigour. Like the Who Do You Think You Are? TV programme, but without the celebrities.

But does it really matter? Of course ultimately it does, but I think this is an ideal way into the hobby. With luck rigor will follow, as participants realise that it helps both their research and to learn about the generally unromantic lives that their ancestors really lived. And I had a blast learning how most people get started on their family history.

Simon Fowler is the author of many genealogy and family history books, and teaches the Pharos Tutors military courses.  He was previously the editor of The National Archives Ancestors magazine.  There is a full list of his books on Wikipedia

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Five dangers of only doing genealogy online

Danger One: Health. Too much time at the computer or on your tablet can lead to eye strain, back problems, loss of fitness. In the past, we would walk to the archive, physically go to the filing cabinet and get the film, wind it on, go back to the cabinet for the next film, now we risk RSI from typing and mouse clicking. I used to be so fit from standing up all day and physically lifting the books at The Family Record Centre, now I am not.

Danger Two: Record Context. We become divorced from the context of the record. We no longer feel and smell the paper or parchment, no unwrapping of ancient string tying bundles of documents together. No more dirt on the hands either, and it is better for the documents not to be handled, but all the romance is lost. Not only this, but even if you have the images online in front of you, you don’t always have the front and end pieces, or even all the page, or know what could have been written on the back. You have probably not looked at a catalogue, so don’t understand how the record fits in with other records in the same series or set either.

Danger Three: Speed. It all happens so fast, we tend not to make notes or record what we do. Click, click I am here, click, click now I am somewhere else. Where did I just see that result? Click, click, now I have lost where I was, and I am looking at something totally different.

Danger Four: Descriptions confusion. There needs to be a new language for describing results found online; some of the old definitions are creaking under the strain, what do we really mean by source or record in an online context? Some of the citation advice is overly complex and off-putting to many, but we need a common and standardised way of telling others or reminding ourselves where we found things that is not overly complicated, yet takes into account the shifting, changing nature of online resources. The big data websites do not help by using different language to describe the same source, or by not being accurate in their description of what it contains. If we don’t describe things accurately then confusion reigns.

Danger Five: Too many results. As data websites get bigger and bigger and include more and more record sets from around the world, it becomes increasing difficult to drill down to find what you need to search. Blanket searches across all data sets bring in far too many results, yet knowing what indexes are available on any website and how reliable they are is becoming more and more important. I used to know what people had searched if they told me they had looked at the IGI or searched on findmypast, now I do not have a clue. Family historians are not educating themselves as to what a website actually contains and it therefore makes it really difficult to explain which databases are more trustworthy than others, if indeed any of them are. I am no longer sure. Perhaps we are going to come full circle and start teaching people that they will have to look only at original records in an archive office if they are to be sure of their research, because only then will they know what they have looked at.  I used to be such a big advocate of online genealogy, but if it is starting to frustrate me, I don’t know what it must be doing to those who don’t have a sound background in the original records.  It could be putting them off completely.

What do you think?

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Why genealogists love general elections

This post is by Stuart Raymond, Pharos Tutor and prolific genealogy author

As another general election approaches, it is time for genealogists to think about what is in it for them. Answer: a great deal of evidence! The records of elections include many lists of names, beloved of genealogists. Parliamentary elections in the counties were conducted by sheriffs in their county courts. Between 1696 and 1872, they had to compile lists of those who had voted, showing how they had cast their votes. Many of these poll-books survive, some in manuscript, some printed. From 1832, registers of those entitled to vote had to be compiled and published annually, a practice that continues to this day (although information may be withheld from the modern published registers due to privacy concerns). These lists of names are invaluable sources for tracing the homes of family names across wide areas.

Poll-books and electoral registers are valuable sources of information for family and local historians. In those constituencies where the franchise was wide they may list thousands of our ancestors, telling us where they lived, and perhaps their occupation or status. The Westminster poll-book of 1774, for example, lists over 7,000 voters, with their residences and occupations.

The arrangement of poll-books was not uniform. Some grouped voters by parish, ward, or even street; others provided a straightforward alphabetical listing; a few listed them by trade. I have even seen a poll-book arranged in the order in which the electors cast their votes! Electoral registers are more uniform; the Somerset Western Division volume for 1832 is arranged alphabetically by hundred and parish.

In county constituencies before 1832, the franchise was held by freeholders who held land valued at forty shillings per annum. That qualification dated from 1429. In the succeeding half a millennia, the value of forty shillings declined considerably, and the numbers of those eligible to vote consequently greatly increased.

In the boroughs, there was no uniform franchise. It was frequently restricted to freemen, with the result that borough court records are often full of admittances to the freedom immediately before elections took place. In the City of London, the franchise was held by liverymen who were also freemen of the City. The 1768 London poll-book has a peculiar semi-alphabetic arrangement, whereby surnames are listed alphabetically by livery company. Elsewhere the franchise might be restricted to the burgesses – those who held land in the borough. At Old Sarum only those who held a ploughed field by burgage tenure could vote. There were very few voters!

The widening of the franchise came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as successive Representation of the People acts gradually extended the right to vote to all adults other than prisoners and peers. An interesting account of the ‘History of the Parliamentary Franchise’ is available for download at  London electoral registers, 1832-1965 can be searched at They are also available on a number of other sites. Of particular interest are the ‘absent voters lists’, which record the names of servicemen at the Front during the First World War. The information provided included regiment, number, and rank. For the Leeds absent voters list of 1918, visit

Poll-books and electoral registers can generally be found in local studies libraries and record offices for the areas they cover. There are also good collections at the Institute of Historical Research at London University, the Guildhall Library, and the British Library. Full lists of surviving poll-books and electoral registers are given in:

• Gibson, Jeremy, & Rogers, Colin. Poll books 1696-1872: a directory to holdings in Great Britain. 4th ed. Family History Partnership, 2008.
• Gibson, Jeremy. Electoral Registers and Burgess Rolls 1832-1948; . Family History Partnership, 2008.

A number of poll-books and electoral registers for Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, and Yorkshire have been reprinted, and are available from the Internet Genealogical Bookshop at


Stuart says:  I work as a genealogical bookman. That is, I am not only an author publisher, but I am also a trained librarian and a genealogical bookseller in a small way. My ambition is to ensure that local and family historians receive the guidance they need to undertake effective research. Principally, I do that through my writing, but I also lecture, and run on-line courses through Pharos. Most of my books are now published through the Family History Partnership of which I am a member.

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I wish I knew when they were born!

Have you ever wondered how long the gap was between a date of birth and a baptism? When you are used to knowing a date of birth from working with civil registration records, moving into parish registers and having only a baptismal date can be frustrating, particularly in the absence of other good quality information about a person. Sometimes in questions of multiple identity we really do need a precise date of birth, or at the very least a definite year and probable month. Sometimes we have a date of birth perhaps from a family record, but no baptism date. How far along should we search? What was the common interval between a birth and a baptism?

Until the 17th century, the Church in England & Wales required that no longer than 7 days should elapse between birth and baptism. Indeed some baptisms in the mid-16th century (when parish registers begin) are known to have taken place on the same day as the birth (Chislet, Kent) and it is thought that medieval practice was also for baptism on the same day as the birth. The Book of Common Prayer held that a child should be baptised on the next Sunday after birth, or failing that the following Sunday. But did people obey this ‘rule’?

Yes and No.

One of the interesting but highly frustrating things about doing family history, is that each family is unique, and of course some parts of any family are going to be more awkward and less conforming than others. After all, if everybody did exactly the same thing, then it would be easy to find them and easy to predict them, and genealogy would not be full of all those ‘But why?’ type questions, and all the duller for it. Historians can satisfy themselves with what was the ‘norm’ by looking at all the births and baptisms from those rare parish registers where both are recorded, (the well-known ‘Dade and Barrington’ registers of Yorkshire and Durham have both) and draw some general conclusions, but unless we family historians have the specific facts in front of us, there is no way of knowing how much our own family conformed to the rest of society. It seems very likely that different districts had different ‘norms’; thus it would be foolish to presume that birth/baptism intervals in both Kent and North Yorkshire would be the same. Many factors are likely to have come into play; how far the church or chapel and baptising Minister was from the family home, the time of year, whether the family were Dissenting or not, what the neighbours did, how strict the Minister was, indeed how strict the diocese was, and whether the community was rural or urban.

Nevertheless, we can apply a rule of thumb to the period when the Church tended to have a tighter grip on things, say prior to the 1640s. If you have a baptism but no way of knowing the date of a birth, then it should be within a 14 day period, and in the 16th century probably more like 7 days, unless something very unusual had happened. That is the good news. The bad news is that most of us don’t have our ancestors back as far as this, or at least only have a few ancestors back as far as this. Over the next 200 years, the interval between birth and baptism tends to get longer, particularly growing in the second part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. The work of historians and demographers tend to tell us things like ‘75 % of children in X parish were baptised within 14 days of birth in 1750’. This does not help a genealogist work out a likely gap in 1830, in Y parish, although it might be helpful to know that you should consider a gradually increasing interval as being normal. In a regular church going family it is highly likely that any child would be baptised between one and six months old. But then, not all families were regular church goers, as the Victorians were shocked to discover from the 1851 Religious census.

I have been building a big tree for a client, and one family has 14 children born in the period 1800 – 1820 in various locations, including in India and one even at sea. The family were good church attenders with the father being a churchwarden at one point. We have dates of birth for all of them from family records, so we can be sure that we have a fairly accurate picture. The eldest children were all baptised within 28 days. With the younger children it becomes much more flexible, with the biggest interval stretching to six months, but most of them being baptised at four or five months. In the previous generation of the same family, (1760s to 1780s) the birth baptism interval (where known) is always about one month.

Looking at my own family at the start of the 19th century, where the information on both birth and baptism is known, some children are baptised at one month, but there are also others at around five months. Perhaps a conclusion to be tentatively drawn from this is that the more children you have, the more lax you tend to become, suffering less pressure from others to do the ‘right’ thing.

Historians and demographers have only done studies on a very few parishes, because it was hard for them to locate registers where both birth date and baptism dates were known; Pevensey in Sussex is one. However, now that so many registers are online it is hopefully not going to be too long until studies based on more registers which show both birth dates and baptism dates are made.

Where there are really long intervals, as with adult baptisms, it does beg a lot of questions. I have an interesting example in my own family, with four children baptised on the same day in 1815 in a chapel far from where they were living in central London. The father was an Attorney at Law, and although of foreign extraction (his father being an Italian-French migrant to London); I have no evidence for him being anything other than Church of England. He was educated and well to do, so why did two of his children get baptised in London (the two boys), and then all four children (boys and girls) get baptised or in the boys case, re-baptised (one of them within 2 months of their first baptism) at Aldborough Hatch, a little chapel of ease for Barking?

I don’t know when the two middle children, the girls, were born, but I think they were about 8 and 5 years old in 1815. Naturally it is one of the girls I particularly want a more accurate date of birth for. They definitely lived in the parish of St Anne’s Soho in London, so this little chapel was obviously chosen as an out-of-the way place to avoid any nosey neighbours, but why? Were the parents not legally married, which was then rectified just prior to this set of baptisms in June 1815? It was obviously originally considered more important to baptise the boys rather than the girls, so were the 1815 baptisms a change of heart, in which case why include the boys?

If anyone has any ideas, or similar stories from their own family, please share them!

What are the birth and baptism intervals in your family?


Read more from Stuart Basten
Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

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Pursuing Probates

This is a guest post by Andrew Millard who maintains a very useful webpage listing probate records

Probate records are a gold mine of information for genealogists, but the records can be hard to find. Prior to the creation of national civil probate courts (1858 in England, Wales and Ireland, 1876 in Scotland) one has to search the records of local, regional and national jurisdictions depending on where one’s ancestor owned property, and that means searching multiple indexes or calendars and accessing records from various archives.

For over 30 years I have been conducting a one-name study of the name Bodimeade, and ten years ago I had reached a point where I decided that a systematic check of every probate index was the next logical step. I also had some other surnames where I regularly collected all references in pre-1850 or pre-1800 records as I found them (in case you are interested: Brooksby, Littlechild, Redington, Spriddle), and intended to collect all the index entries for them as well. So how did I go about it?

I started with the book Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills by Jeremy Gibson and Else Churchill which describes the area cover by each court and lists all known indexes (and their deficiencies). Although it was last updated in 2002 this book is invaluable as a concise guide to the courts, the printed indexes and the locations of the original records. My copy is very well thumbed!

As I have easy access to a major research library, I started by systematically working through all the probate indexes published by the British Record Society. Then I went to Probate Jurisdictions to identify other indexes and checked as many of them as were in the library. I made slow but steady progress in lunchtime sessions in the library, but after a while it became obvious that there were new indexes appearing that weren’t in Probate Jurisdictions, so I started annotating my copy and checking them as well.

It’s all very well writing ‘see BRS 102, 108, 111’ in the margin of book to denote a new set of indexes for the London Commissary Court but I soon started finding online indexes, and added notes like ‘online index’ for the Bristol Consistory Court. When I revisited an index that had to be typed out again, and I decided that I’d be better off creating a webpage with the links in. So my page Recent Indexes to English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Probate Records was born, initially just for my own use. As it developed I made it public because it seemed others could benefit from my efforts in compiling it.

Since then it has growed like Topsy. Although I have tried not to duplicate material from Probate Jurisdictions, I have included older indexes that have been scanned and placed online. I periodically search sites with major collections of scanned books, like and for newly scanned indexes. In doing this I’ve found a handful that were omitted from Probate Jurisdictions. That might be because they are superseded by a later index, but in some cases I know of no other index.

New indexes are coming out frequently, and existing ones move to new web addresses, so it is a never-ending task to keep my list up-to-date. Even if it is up-to-date it is not comprehensive, as many indexes published in the 20th century are in copyright and not digitised. So please do use my list to find indexes to pursue probates relating to your ancestors, but don’t forget to refer to Probate Jurisdictions to find indexes only available in print. Inevitably you will want to look at original documents not just an index, and if images of the originals are not online, then Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills will tell you where to find them.

About Andrew:  Apart from his full-time day job teaching at Durham University, Andrew somehow finds time to act in the following capacities;

Chair, Trustees of Genuki:
Maintainer, Genuki Middx + London: + ../LND/
Academic Co-ordinator, Guild of One-Name Studies:
Bodimeade one-name study:
My genealogy:

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What happened in the year….?

This is a guest post by Wayne Shepheard

I have a booklet, given to me by my sister on the occasion of my 60th birthday, called Once Upon a Time in the World 1945.

It resides in the bathroom, along with other reading material, where I can occasionally look back on that momentous year, such as the following: among many World War II news stories, in February of 1945, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt met in Yalta to discuss war arms; the Nobel prize in Medicine was awarded to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst B. Chain and Baron Florey for the discovery of penicillin; the Oscar for Best Movie went to The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman; the song, Sentimental Journey reached number two on popular music’s Top Ten Hits; and, in August, atomic bombs were dropped on two cities in Japan.

So I wondered what I could find for those years in which some of my ancestors were born. Perhaps looking at the news of the day would give me a better understanding of life then – the important events that affected day-to-day life, or just what might have interested or entertained them. I started with my paternal 2nd great-grandfather, John Shepheard. His birth in 1830 was far enough back to offer interesting comparisons with the modern-day world but not so far back that finding information would be very difficult.

On December 30th, the date John Shepheard was baptized, the four-page newspaper Trueman’s Exeter Flying Post had all kinds of interesting information on:

• world affairs – comments on the effect of the French and Belgian Revolutions on trade; the Five Great Powers agreeing “to acknowledge the independence of Belgium”; the King of Prussia adopting “precautions to preserve his share of the plunder of Poland from the epidemic of revolt”
• government notices – one given setting the date for the Epiphany General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the County of Devon
• domestic matters such as – a report on a meeting about Poor Relief; the Quarter Sessions summary for Exeter City
• results of criminal court matters – such as the sentencing of three gentlemen to transport to New South Wales “for disinterring and carrying away dead bodies at Stoke Damerel”
• classified advertisements for – real estate for sale and rent; positions available; commercial goods and services; auctions
• association and club meeting notices and reports – including some information about future fox-hound group meeting dates
• commercial transactions and market reports
• birth, marriage and death notices from several areas in Devon and elsewhere

Page one of the Post also had a series of interesting advertisements for many medicinal products including Butler’s Cajeput Opodeldoc (a remedy for chronic rheumatism, spasmodic affections, chilblains, palsy, stiffness and enlargement of the joints), Improved Pectoral Balsam of Horehound (for coughs, colds, asthmas, hooping [sic] cough and all obstructions of the breast and lungs), Partridge’s Concentrated Pills (for “head ache, giddiness of the head and dimness of sight”), Hart’s White Itch Ointment (for obvious afflictions and which could “be safely used by persons of the most delicate constitution”), Dr. Sydenham’s Antibilious or Family Pills (for “bilious and liver complaints, gout, indigestion, flatulencies, habitual costiveness, spasms and nervots [sic] headaches”), Congreve’s Balsamic Elixir (for “coughs, hooping [sic] cough, shortness of breath and asthma”) and Powell’s Balsam of Aniseed (also for “coughs, colds, hoarseness, difficulty of breathing and huskiness in the throat”). These were real eye-openers of the complaints of the times!

It was like reading ‘A day in the life of. . .’! There were no reports from the Cornwood area in that particular edition of the Post, of course, as Exeter is some distance away and a small, rural parish did not always generate much activity that was newsworthy. I did find some references to the parish in other issues of both the Post and the North Devon Journal published during the year 1830, though.

Turning to events outside Devon, a Google search for “events in 1830” had 32,500,000 hits so it looked like I would not have any trouble finding out what was going on that year. Narrowing the search to “events in 1830 – United Kingdom” alone resulted in 858,000 hits. Wikipedia listed: the death of King George IV and his succession by his brother William IV in June; the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; the last hanging for piracy in London; the Swing Riots by agricultural workers in East Kent who protested the against the use of labour-displacing threshing machines; another disturbance called the Otmoor Riots, in Oxfordshire, following the enactment of laws concerning enclosure which disadvantaged many farmers; and, closer to home for me as an Earth scientist, the publication of the first volume of Principles of Geology by the Scottish geologist, Charles Lyell.

Next up – what happened in the year 1792, when my 3rd great-grandfather was born?

Have you done something similar with your family history? We would love to hear about what was happening on specific days when your ancestor was born or married.

About the Author

Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (Intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

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The Best Family History Lessons I Never Had

Do you remember the defining moments when suddenly something clicked into place, or you learned something the hard way without reading about it or attending a class? I can count the following seven “aha” moments as some of my best learning experiences.

1. Don’t skip on collecting all relevant information. When I joined the Society of Genealogists and was given a birth brief to fill out, I still remember the sudden thought, ‘Oh, so I should be collecting all the births, marriages and deaths of all my ancestors!’ Such methodical collecting had simply not occurred to me. But give me a form to fill and I like to set to and fill it out. From then on I was doubly hooked and the tree really started to take solid shape, instead of being an odd collection of bits of information.

2. Names in later life are not always exactly the same as at birth (duh). Exactly how much time I wasted looking for Elizabeth Sutton only, I don’t want to confess. The name on the back of the photograph said Lizzie, surely she had to be Elizabeth? It was totally beside the point that my own mother only uses her middle name and never her first name. I was boxed in by my assumption. For a long time I thought this birth was unregistered, but it was there all the time under Susan Elizabeth Sutton.

3. Multiple marriage partners may have had the same first name. A man named John might marry a woman named Mary, then after Mary dies, he might marry another woman called Mary! This one causes a lot of confusion, but when you spot it, it makes you proud to be such a good detective. It is worthwhile collecting all the possible marriage details for your John, even after you think you have the one and only marriage for him. The clue is usually a gap in the children’s births, and maybe an anomalous age for Mary in the census. This lesson might also come under the heading buy all the civil registration certificates that you can afford.

4. Don’t rely on your parents or grandparents to have got the dates for their own parents and grandparents right. Invariably you need to widen the searches to include far further back than you have been given to believe. ‘She must have died in the 1950s’, means she died around 1932! I now understand more about how memory is a very inexact thing, and can lead to totally false bits of information. In fact, I no longer rely on any information given by relatives unless I can see the documents, or it involves their own birthday.

5. If you have a rare surname, collect everyone. This one occurred to me early on, when I first saw that it would be possible to collect all the known instances of a rare surname from various indexes and then analyse the results – AHA, now I might be able to put together all the missing bits in the tree. Of course, I started out by sticking to just one spelling, but I soon had that idea knocked out of me.

6. Helpful documents are sometimes available in printed collections and available from the library or on the bookshelves of the archives. It is not always necessary to call up an original document at the National Archives or the local record office, often there is a printed copy published by the local record society and they tend to be indexed. Not only that, but it prevents you having to struggle with difficult handwriting, so saves you time. I once spent a whole day on the original hearth tax returns for Wandsworth, without making a great deal of sense of them, before finding that in fact they were printed by the Surrey Record Society and all I had to do was look in the book, which just happened to be in a room quite close to where I ordered up the originals. It has been annoying me ever since.

7. Don’t set out for the record office without all your information and that includes double checking the parish, county and archdeaconry, and knowing the names, places and date ranges you are searching for. This one still happens to me, although I have got very much better than I used to be.

What are your best ‘aha’ moments? Do share them.

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Online Parish Clerks, A Great Volunteer Activity for Genealogists

This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard


I volunteer as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four ancient parishes in Devon – Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice. So what does an OPC do and how do they help family historians? I have written a few articles that explain the OPC scheme. There was also a great piece in Family Tree magazine by Roy Stockdill (2012) about the subject. References to them are listed below.

Several counties in England now have an OPC program – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Somerset, Sussex, Warwick and Wiltshire. Basically, an OPC adopts a parish or parishes and compiles reference material in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites such as mine ( where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed. A major stipulation for being an OPC is to share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email.

Map of England showing counties in which an Online Parish Clerk program is present – dark grey-shaded areas show where individuals act as OPCs, light grey-shaded areas are represented only by a coordinator who manages all data received from others

I get one or two requests per week from people looking for information about their families. Because I have copies of all of the BMD registers, censuses and lots of other information, I can access the data right at my desk, at any time, and quickly answer many of the initial questions from family researchers Most often they want confirmation about dates of baptism, marriage or burials or the names of parents. Some of the information is now online at Ancestry or FindMyPast however not everyone has a subscription or can get to a library to access these databases. With a simple search of a parish name, my websites come up and researchers then have at least an initial contact.

Occasionally people want to know about family relationships, especially where there are several families with children of similar names (not uncommon as children were often named after their grandparents so cousins often had the same name). The spelling of surnames is often different in various types of documents. For example, I found the same individuals on BMD and census records with the surname of Kellow, Kellar, Callard and other minor variations. Family members moved around Southwest Devon quite a bit and in each place they lived, their surname seems to have been recorded differently.

Another researcher wanted information on an ancestor named “George Chapple, alias Geo. Chapple Standard”, according to his Royal Navy service record (Shepheard, 2014). He was baptized in Plympton St. Mary parish as George Chapple Standard, son of a single woman named Margaret Standard. He married as George Standard and had three sons in the 1850s all baptized with the same surname, although the last one was registered as Chapple. But by 1861, as shown on the census, the family was using Chapple and did so from then on. We still do not know where the Chapple name comes from, possibly from his natural father, but George obviously thought that was his real name from the age of about 35.

One of the side-benefits of being an OPC is that, through requests from others looking for their family members in my parishes, I have met many new “cousins” from all over the world. Since the Shepheards inter-married with a number of other families, I was directed to those additional names via specific queries. Through some of those cousins I found out information on other branches of the family that I may not have discovered for some time, if at all. Along with that knowledge, in some cases, came histories that I would not have known about and copies of documents and photos that I might never have seen.

Anyone with an interest in family history can be an OPC. Volunteers are always welcome, especially if they have knowledge about a specific parish or county and like helping others find their ancestors. Have a look at which counties and/or parishes are open and contact the relevant administrator for more information.


Shepheard, Wayne (2012). The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks. Crossroads, quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association. 7(2), pp. 6-13.

Shepheard, Wayne (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: Examples of information gleaned from parish registers. Relatively Speaking, quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society, 41(1), pp 14-19.

Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: A case study involving the use of information from parish registers and other data sources. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, May (146), pp. 24-29.

Shepheard, Wayne. (2014). George Chapple Case Study. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, February (149), pp. 29-31.

Stockdill, Roy. (2012). Online Parish Clerks. Family Tree, 28(7), pp. 38-41.

OPC information can be obtained at the following Websites:
• Cornwall –
• Devon –
• Dorset –
• Essex –
• Kent –
• Somerset –
• Sussex –
• Warwick –
• Wiltshire –
• Hampshire –
• Lancashire –


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In praise of reading the whole document

I have been ploughing my way through some of the original parish registers of Gillingham in Kent, looking for people in the 18th century. All of Gillingham’s registers are readable online on the wonderful online archive that is Medway Archives CityArk. The three Medway towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham all blend into each other along a curve in the River Medway, which then enters the Thames estuary. The Thames and the Medway thus provide a highway for shipping to and from London.

I started by searching just for burials, and checking various baptisms that also appear in indexes online, but it quickly became apparent as I chased one particular family backwards that it would be more methodical to actually go through all the available registers for something like a 80 – 100 year period. Thus it is that I have been reading page by the page two sets of composite registers written up by the various vicars of St Mary Magdalene, Gillingham. I have gained so much more than if I had only done the individual checks and short searches I originally planned.

These then are my impressions. They are not scientific, but nevertheless provide some food for thought relevant to all parish register searches.

  • Firstly, the registers themselves are in a mess, lots of scratchings out, ink blots and illegible spidery notes at the bottom of the page and many entries too faded to read properly. If I find that events for this family are missing, then it seems likely that the record keeping could be to blame. No index can tell you this.
  • Secondly, there are many baptism and burial entries in Gillingham for Chatham people, although mention of other contiguous parishes is fewer. However, there are a notable number of marriages for couples from other places along the Thames estuary, and into London. Plenty of migration inwards might be expected for Gillingham, as it was so closely linked to the huge employment opportunities of Chatham Dockyard. London places mentioned are Hammersmith, Deptford, St Bride’s, St Katherine’s, Aldgate, and Stepney, all of them not far from or along the Thames. If you are missing events in London, it might be worth looking in Gillingham and Chatham for them, particularly if you have any suspicion that someone was a mariner, and vice versa. In the first quarter of the 18th century, for some reason there are many couples where both of them are from Rochester and Sheerness getting married at Gillingham. I wonder if Gillingham had a reputation for being a bit lax where anyone could marry? Such ecclesiastical laxness could be a mirror to the physical laxness of the registers.
  • Thirdly, there were quite obviously scores of travelling people moving through the town, many of them buried at Gillingham or having children baptised there. They are usually noted just as a ‘Traveling’ man or woman, but sometimes names are given as well, particularly in the later part of the 18th century. Many of them would have been gypsies, perhaps on their way to and from the hop-fields and orchards of Kent for harvesting and other work. Nameless people cannot be indexed so they disappear.
  • Fourthly, from the 1750s onwards there are a growing number of illegitimate children baptised. The frustration of the Vicar shows through with pointed little comments about “the reputed father”. There is also a horribly high death rate of children, similar to that of London, with couple after couple burying child after child. Always, always check burials ad baptisms together.
  • Fifthly, a handful of family names are constant over the centuries, but probably 75% of the population appears to change from one 30 year generation to the next.
  • Finally, there are many, many drownings in the River Medway noted, often just written as “buried a stranger, drowned”. There is also the death of a stranger in a snow drift. These are not sailors from the Navy ships at Chatham, since they appear always to be given their name, rank and ship.

On switching to the registers at Chatham St Mary, which in contrast are very orderly and obviously a fair copy from drafts, I found no laxness but also sadly little information apart from names, although I am confident that here are all the same families as in Gillingham, since the local surnames from Gillingham constantly pop up also in Chatham.

If I had stuck to indexes, partial transcriptions or just a few little look ups, I would not have discovered any of this. The original registers have given me so much more; a feel for the character of the place, the danger of working on the river, the hoards of traveling people and other visitors in a constant stream from the ships and boats, and the tough, tough conditions rearing children in Gillingham. It is also completely obvious that records from the two towns of Gillingham and Chatham must be used together in order to provide a more complete picture of a family.

What have you recently taken the time to read through in its entirety? Do you feel you get to know a place or situation when you do?
Information about the registers I was looking at is here:

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