Internet Genealogy

In 1992 I started tracing my family history. The two main tools for amateur genealogists (at least until they get back to about 1840) are the indexes of registrations of births, deaths and marriages and the returns from the census which has been taken every ten years since 1841 (there are earlier censuses, but they don’t record individual names).

Back when I started, accessing these records was a painfully manual process. The BMD indexes were held in large leather-bound volumes in St Catherine’s House on the Aldwych. The members of the public were free to search these volumes looking for references to their ancestors. Once you had the reference numbers you needed, you could fill in a form, pay £5.50 and a week or so later a copy of the certificate would drop through your letterbox.

The census records were slightly easier to deal with. They had been scanned onto film and microfiche, so you had to go to the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane to spend hours searching for your ancestors’ names – often written in a hard to read nineteenth century hand. And, of course,  the records were ordered by parish, so if your ancestors moved it became a very hit and miss affair. I spent many days hunched over a microfiche reader or risking physical damage by lugging the oversized BMD indexes around and I still have piles of notebooks full of the notes I took over fifteen years ago.

I largely stopped research several years ago. It was just too hard to make much progress. I didn’t have the time to put into in. Towards the end of the period I was working on the project the census and BMD records were both brought together in the Family Records Centre in Islington, but the basic process was still just the same.

Recently I decided to get back into tracing my family tree. And I’m amazed to see how much things have changed in  the intervening years. These days you can do most of what I did fifteen years ago from the comfort of your own home. All of the census records are available online as are a large proportion of the BMD indexes. I put this down to a combination of two factors. Firstly the Public Records Office (who own the census) and the General Register Office (who own the BMD data) have become more aware of the potential of sharing this data across the internet. And secondly there has been a massive increase in the public’s interest in genealogy. This is obvious from the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are and the large number of family history magazines that are published each month.

It hasn’t all been successful. When the 1901 census was first put online in 2002, the site soon collapsed under the strain and remained unavailable for over six months. These days the government just licenses the data to commercial organisations like Ancestry and FindMyPast and lets them deal with the scaling issues. This leads to a slightly confusing situation where different companies have access to different sets of census data and you might end up having to pay more than one company in order to have access to all of the data you need. It’s not ideal but it’s far better than it was when I started out.

For example, all of the census search sites have indexed the data. That means that you’re no longer just skimming scans of the original documents. You can search for names and you’ll be given a list of matching records from anywhere in the country. That has helped me track down a large number of previously missing ancestors. Of course, you’re relying on someone else’s interpretation of nineteenth centrury handwriting, but you get used to typical transcription errors. I’m finding that my mother’s surname, Sowman, is often mistranscribed as “Lowman”. An easy mistake to make if you see the original document.

BMD records are also being indexed. But at a slower rate. A wonderful project called FreeBMD are working on it. Currently their coverage is great for the nineteenth century, but patchier for the twentieth. They’re working on that though and are still looking for volunteers to help with the project.

Soon after I started out, in the 90s, I bought a book called “The Genealogists Internet”. To be honest it was rather a desultory affair. There wasn’t much out there and what there was had been created by genealogists with very little knowledge of the power of the internet. Recently I bought a copy of the fourth edition. And what a change their has been. These days the internet has amazing amounts of genealogical data available. The book’s web site has a links section which I’m still working my way through almost a month later. Plenty of interesting stuff there.

If you’re interested in tracing your family tree then now is a great time to start. You can make great progress just sitting in front of your computer. I’ve got my tree back to the late eighteenth century without any trouble at all. And I’m from a line of complete peasants who made no mark on the world at all.

If you try to trace your family (or if you already have), I’d be very interested in hearing how you did.


  1. You don’t mention what tools you use for organising the data you’ve acquired. When I first got interested in genealogy I joined the lifelines mailing list ad there was a lot of criticism on there of the practice – encouraged by much popular genealogy software – of going straight from data to inferences without recording the raw data and the steps in between.

    I found lifelines very clunky and have recently played with Gramps which seems more usable and allows me to record stuff reasonably accurately but still[0] seems to want me to input a piece of data like a record in a BMD register as if it were an actual birth, marriage or death (Ceci n’est pas une pipe).

    [0] IIRC – I last played with it about 18 months ago and have doubtless forgotten some details

  2. I also use Gramps. I think it’s a great program.

    When I started on the project I fear that my enthusiasm got the better of me and I fell into exactly the trap you describe. I have mountains of raw data (written in pencil in notepads) and a gedcom file which contains no references to what each inference is based on.

    One of this year’s projects is to go back and revisit all of this data in a more structured manner. Of course, the internet sites I mention above make this far easier than it would once have been.

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