Archives Discovery at The National Archives

The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery – , is a great source for finding archives held at institutions across the United Kingdom. You can “use Discovery to search for records held by The National Archives and around 2,500 archives and institutions across the United Kingdom as well as a much smaller number of archives around the world.”

Discovery contains all the records catalogued at The National Archives. It is also shows whether these records have been digitsed and are available online. This is currently around 5% of the records it holds.

Discovery is a project that The National Archives has been working on for a number of years and has integrated some of the other services it offers:

Records held by other archives and institutions

You can use Discovery to search for records held by other archives and institutions. These will sometimes be full catalogue entries and sometimes a person, family, business or organisation with a brief description and where the records are held. These catalogue entries are made up of two previous databases:

Access 2 Archives (A2A) – This was a project that ran from 2000-2008. It was an archives portal for finding aids from archives across the UK. Most catalogues were added as part of a cataloguing project often with a theme such as family and estate collections. Some archives added more of their catalogues at a later date. Some archives submitted more catalogues than others, but not their entire holdings; so it is still worth checking with an archive, if they hold records you want, but you can’t find a catalogue on Discovery.

National Register of Archives (NRA) – The NRA was set up in 1945 and 1946 in Scotland, and was the responsibility of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. They collected or created lists of archives held privately across England and Wales. The NRA lists are mostly very basic box lists. The National Archives holds physical copies of all the actual NRA lists from England, Wales and Scotland, and you can view them at The National Archives in Kew.

In Discovery you will see the person, family, business or organisation the records relate to and a brief description with covering dates. Many of these records have now been deposited with an archive, but some are still held privately. You can see where they are held in Discovery and there is sometimes a link to an online catalogue.

You will probably see old references to A2A and the NRA on other websites, but they are both now integrated into Discovery.

Manorial Documents Register

Manorial records consist of court rolls, surveys, maps, terriers, documents and books of every description relating to the boundaries, franchises, wastes, customs or courts of a manor. They are covered by certain legislation, as they are the only proof to the title of copyhold land. This legislation ensures the preservation the records. The National Archives is responsible for the maintenance of the Manorial Documents Register under these rules. The register for many counties has been computerised and can be found through Discovery, using a basic search (there is beta testing for the MDR advanced search).

You can find out more about Manorial Documents Register here.

You can find which Counties have been computerised here

Find an archive

Find an archive on the Discovery home page gives details of archives and other institutions that hold records across the UK

You can search Find an Archive by map, country, region, county or by name. Some of the features it includes are listed below:

  • Contact details, map and website

(when this information has been sent to The National Archives there are also:)

  • Links to items in Discovery e.g. business, organisations, people and families
  • Links to the archive’s online catalogue
  • Links to the NRA catalogue references of records held by the archive.
  • Lists of new accessions by year

Find an Archive used to be called the Archon directory and again you may find old references to it on other websites.

Tagging records in Discovery

Discovery has a crowd sourcing feature where you can tag records for yourself to find later or to help others. The National Archives adds date and location tags to the catalogue entries, but anyone can add any tag to them after that. However just be aware, they are not checked for accuracy.

Accessions to repositories

Each year most archives send lists of all the new accessions they have received over the year. These are not yet in Discovery, but you can find them here: arranged by subject or on each archive’s page in Find an Archive.

Research guides

The National Archives has been working on a project to redesign their research guides and give them a more user centred approach. More about this work can be found in their blog

Their new look research guides are in the Beta testing stages. Take a look here and let them know…


Discovery is a great resource, but if you feel you need help searching it you can take a look at The National Archives free webinar – Using Discovery – The National Archives online catalogue.

This is on Tuesday, 7 April 2015 from 12:00 to 13:00 (BST), you can register using the below link.

Webinars are available, even if you miss the actual event:



Discovery Catalogue, The National Archives,   Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Manorial Documents Register, The National Archives,  Accessed 4 Apr 2015


Current initiatives, Manorial Documents Register, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Find an Archive, The National Archives,  Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Help us tag our collections, The National Archives,, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Accessions to repositories, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Website redesign: help with your research by Paul Lamey and Matt Norman, The National Archives blog, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Help with your research, beta pages, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015

Webinars, The National Archives, Accessed 4 Apr 2015


Hot off the Press – Newspapers for Family History

Newspapers are a great source for family history and can give you an image of your ancestors that you will not get from official records; this can be good or bad!

The first newspapers appeared around the 17th Century in Britain and across Europe. In the early 19th Century, in Britain, there was a massive rise in the number of newspapers produced. There was normally more than one title being produced in each town, offering something for everyone e.g. people of different political affiliations or social status.

The British Library holds the largest collection of newspapers and has most runs of newspapers published in the UK since 1800. They are currently working on a mammoth 10 year project, in partnership with Find My Past, to digitise 40 million newspaper pages and make them available online in the British Newspaper Archive. They have currently digitised 10,570,347 pages (25 March 2015). Titles that they have digitised can be found here.

Many local studies libraries and some archives also hold old newspapers for the local area. These are normally available on microfilm, but sometimes you will get to view the original newspaper.

What can newspapers tell you about your ancestors?

Newspapers are a great source for family history and can give you some great stories about your ancestors that you probably wouldn’t find elsewhere. Here are some examples of what you can find in newspapers:

  • Obituaries and funeral notices
  • Coroners’ inquests – (good source for these, as records are often closed for 75 years or have been destroyed)
  • Birth and marriage announcements
  • Attendees of weddings and funerals and description of the event itself
  • Court proceedings – (for that criminal in the family!)
  • Legal notices such as probate, bankruptcy, divorce, sales  and purchases
  • Articles about local factories and businesses – (which may mention employees, such as the retirement of a long term employee)
  • Local sporting teams and news of local societies – (for your ancestors’ pastimes )
  • Church news and  Sunday schools
  • Events at local schools or exam results

Some of the local newspapers may even include photographs, so you may even get to see your ancestor!

Even if you can’t find anything about your ancestors, newspapers are a great source for local history. It can be great to browse through the local papers to get a feel for the place your ancestors’ lived and get an idea of what they got up to.

  • Browse through local papers to see what life was like in the place you ancestor lived – some local newspapers cover local events, anniversaries and community traditions.
  • There could be advertisements for your ancestors’ business or things your ancestors could buy.
  • If can be useful to look through newspapers if you can’t find any other record for a particular building or society, such as non-conformist churches or learning institutes. Newspapers will often include articles on opening and closing ceremonies and other events.

The list is endless…

What I found in newspapers

Newspapers can really help to bring your ancestors to life, unlike official records. The census is a snapshot of people in a house every ten years. The image I got of my ancestors was quite romanticised, a household with lots of children in a quaint rural village. How wrong I was! Think about what you get up to in a decade, here are a few examples of what I found about my ancestors (be warned, it is not always pleasant – all examples are from 19th and early 20th century and involve no one living)

One ancestor got convicted of receiving stolen goods (shoe rivets).  He was aged 67 and got sentenced to two months hard labour, but a petition was signed for his release due to his age, health and previous good character.

Several ancestors won prizes at horticultural shows for their vegetables; one of which was judged by another branch of the family.

One family wouldn’t look out of place on the Jeremy Kyle show. The husband appeared frequently in court sessions columns for assaulting his wife, deserting his family (which he accused her of too) and drunk and disorderly. The wife’s father was also no stranger to prison after stealing rabbits.

Newspapers are such a valuable source of information on so many different aspects of your ancestors’ lives.

Where to access newspapers

Online (subscription)

The largest collection of UK newspapers online is theBritish Newspaper Archive , which is also available on Find My Past. Both of these are subscription sites.

This Wikipedia page has a list of links to online historic newspaper archives from around the world.

Online (free)

You can also find a collection of newspapers from around the world at the Google news archive.

The London (1665-), Edinburgh (1669-) and Belfast (1706-) Gazettes are available here.

The Spectator (1828-2008) is available here.

Welsh newspapers online at the National Library of Wales are available here. There are currently 7.6 million articles, 725,000 pages.

British Library
You can also access newspapers at the British Library, at their St Pancras and Boston Spa sites. It is worth contacting them beforehand, as some newspapers are stored in the National Newspapers Building in Boston Spa and take 48 hours to be retrieved and some newspapers are not accessible at the Boston Spa site.

Local Libraries
At most local libraries you can have online access to the archives of the big national newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian and The Observer.

Local Studies Libraries and Archives
Many local studies libraries and some archives have collections of old local newspapers, many of which are on microfilm/fiche.

In the early 2000s the British Library started a project called Newsplan, to help microfilm and preserve local newspapers. You can find more about it here  The databases that were produced are a useful resource to help you see what is available and where it is.


The British Newspaper Archive Accessed 25 Mar 15

Find My Past, British newspapers 1710-1953 Accessed 25 Mar 15

Google news archive  Accessed 25 Mar 15

Newspapers and comics, help for researchers, The British Library Accessed 25 Mar 15

Newsplan, help for researchers, The British Library Accessed 25 Mar 15

Family History Websites – Which One?

[Note – this post was originally published on 16 Mar 2015. It was updated on 19 Mar 2015 with changes to the comparison table to include databases of The Genealogist and subscription information. Changes were also made to my decision to take account of the new comparisons.]

After having a break from my family history research for the last couple of years, I am now starting up again. The last subscription site I used was Ancestry and was happy with it, but this was at the time when there weren’t really any great competitors.  I have recently been looking at what the different family history subscriptions sites have to offer, to decide which to sign up to.

How I am going to judge the sites

I am going to judge the sites by what UK records they have to offer.  The websites that offer the best selection of UK records may not be the best for worldwide records.  If you are interested in Irish, American, Australian or any other countries’ records, you may want to see what each website has to offer for these.

I am just going to consider the content of the sites rather than the search or community facilities.  I have not thoroughly tested the search facilities of all the sites, so it would be unfair of me to rate them using this as a criteria (I have done plenty of searches on Ancestry and Find My Past, but this was a couple of years ago).

So what is on offer now?

The main sites are Ancestry, Find My Past, The Genealogist, Genes Reunited and My Heritage.  I am not going to consider three of these websites for the following reasons:

MyHeritage – Has very few UK records, just 1841-1901 England and Wales census and incomplete GRO indexes and other birth, marriage and death (BMD) records. However, it does look to have a bigger selection for the USA and other countries. I want to sign up to a site with a good set of UK databases, so this is why I am discounting this website.

Genes Reunited – This is run by the same group as Find My Past (Brightsolid/DC Thomson Group), so contains some, but not all, of the same databases. This has more of a community feel than Find My Past and one of the main features is to link up to long lost relatives by sharing family trees. It has public family trees and message boards that you can search. Some people join on and off throughout the year to see if any new relatives have got in contact, as monthly subscriptions are very cheap. I am discounting this, as you do not have access to many databases on here, but if you are interested in locating living relatives have a look, as this could be for you.

So that leaves me with three sites:

Ancestry, Find My Past or The Genealogist?

This is a comparison of some of their major databases:

The Everyday Archivist’s comparison of major databases available on Ancestry, Find My Past and The Genealogist


Find My Past

The Genealogist

Census 1841-1911 England, Wales and Scotland (not 1911) census

(Indexed and linked to images)

1841-1911 England, Wales and Scotland (not 1911) census

(Indexed and linked to images)

1841-1911 England and Wales census, 1851 Scotland extracts

(Indexed and linked to images, SmartSearch technology)

BMD GRO Indexes Full GRO index 1837-2005

(fully indexed)

Overseas BMD (Source: The National Archives RG 32-36)

Full GRO index 1837-2005

(fully indexed)

The General Register Office’s Army, Marine, Air Force, High Commission, Regimental, Consular and Ionian Islands BMDs.

Full GRO index 1837-2005

(fully indexed, SmartSearch technology post 1911)

Overseas BMD (Source: The National Archives RG 32-34 and RG36)

Registry of shipping and seamen –BMD at sea (Source: The National Archives BT158-160)

The General Register Office’s Army, Marine, Air Force, High Commission, Regimental, Consular and Ionian Islands BMDs

BMD Parish Registers Original Registers

[Place/County – Source]

Birmingham – Library of Birmingham

Dorset – Dorset History Centre

Gloucestershire – Gloucestershire Archives

Lancashire – Lancashire Archives

Liverpool – Liverpool Record Office

London – London Metropolitan Archives

Manchester – Manchester Archives

Northamptonshire – Northamptonshire Record Office

Surrey – Surrey History Centre

Warwickshire – Warwickshire County Record Office

West Yorkshire – West Yorkshire Archives Service

Wigan – Wigan Archives service

For other counties there are various transcriptions from printed books (e.g. Pallot’s and Boyd’s) and other extracts

Original Registers

[Place/County – Source]

Canterbury – Canterbury Cathedral Archives

Cheshire – Cheshire Archives and Local Studies

Devon – South West Heritage Trust

Hertfordshire – Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Lincolnshire – Lincolnshire Archives

Plymouth – Plymouth & West Devon Record Office

Shropshire – Shropshire Archives

Staffordshire – Staffordshire & Stoke on Trent Archive Service

Wales (All Counties) –  National Library of Wales and Welsh County Archivist Group

Westminster – City of Westminster Archive Service

Yorkshire (not West Riding) – Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, Doncaster Archives, East Riding of Yorkshire Council,  North Yorkshire County Council,  Sheffield Archive and Local Studies Library  and Teeside Archives

British India Office – British Library

For other counties there are various transcriptions from  family history societies and printed books (e.g. Pallot’s and Boyd’s) and other extracts

For 43 Counties in England and Scotland there are:

Printed books – indexed books of parish registers that were transcribed and published many years ago

Database of transcripts many of which have been compiled by local family history societies.

BMD Non Conformist Registers England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970  Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, Independents, Protestant Dissenters, Congregationalist, Presbyterians, and Unitarians and Quakers (Source: The National Archives, series RG4, RG5, RG6 and RG8)

Non-Conformist registers for London, West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Manchester and others. (Source: London Metropolitan Archives, West Yorkshire Archives, Liverpool Record Office, Manchester Archives)

England & Wales, Non-Conformist births, baptisms, marriages and burials (Compiled from various sources)

Cheshire Non-Conformist and Roman Catholic records 17th Century-1910 (Source: Cheshire Archives and Local Studies)

England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970  Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, Independents, Protestant Dissenters, Congregationalist, Presbyterians, and Unitarians and Quakers and Fleet Marriages (Source: The National Archives, series RG4, RG5, RG6, RG7 and RG8)
Wills Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills 1384-1858 (source: The National Archives – series PROB 11)

England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 (Source: Principal Probate Registry, London)

Original probate records for London and Gloucestershire (source: London Metropolitan Archives and Gloucestershire Archives)

Various will indexes compiled from printed sources

From the Origins website –  National Wills Index [this now links to and is available on Find My Past], which has just been acquired by Find My Past:

Prerogative & Exchequer Courts of York Probate Index  1688-1858

British Record Society Probate Collection  1320-1858 over 2.3 million names and covers quite a lot of England

On Find My Past now:

Original probate records for Cheshire (Source: Cheshire Archives and Local Studies)

Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills 1384-1858 (source: The National Archives – series PROB 11)

Will indexes from printed sources for various counties

Military Records WW1 British Army service and pension records 1914-1920 (source: The National Archives, series WO363 and WO364)

WW1 National roll, medal index cards and soldiers who died in the Great War 1914-1920

WW1 prisoners of war

WW2 Roll of Honour and prisoners of war 1939-1945

Other conflicts: eg Napoleonic Wars and Boer War

UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929 (source: National Army Museum)

UK, Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services, 1900-1928 (source: The National Archives, series ADM 188)

UK Navy Lists 1888-1970 and UK, Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972

Various other indexes and some militia lists for various counties

Chelsea Pensioners’ British Army service records 1760-1913 (Source: The National Archives)

Militia service records 1806-1915 (Source: The National Archives, series WO96)

WW1 British Army service and pension records 1914-1920 (source: The National Archives, series WO363 and WO364)

WW1 National roll, medal index cards and soldiers who died in the Great War 1914-1920

WW2 Roll of Honour and prisoners of war 1939-1945

Other conflicts: eg Napoleonic Wars and Boer War

Various regimental records and navy records

92 Army Lists available ranging from 1661 to 1940 and 28 Navy Lists ranging from 1689 to 1944.

War memorial lists and transcripts with images

WW1 prisoners of war

WW1 casualties list

WW1 National roll, medal index cards and soldiers who died in the Great War 1914-1920

WW2 Roll of Honour and prisoners of war 1939-1945

Various regimental records

Some militia lists for various counties

Newspapers The Times, London Gazette and some local newspapers and periodicals British Newspaper Archive (10,506,520 pages – 15th Mar 2015) Illustrated London News,  The Great War, The War Illustrated, Punch (coming soon) and some periodicals
Passenger Lists UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 (source: The National Archives, series BT27)

UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 (source: The National Archives series BT26)

England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 (Source: The National Archives, series HO 26 and 27)

UK and Ireland, Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927

England, Alien Arrivals, 1810-1811, 1826-1869 (source: The National Archives)

Crew lists for Dorset, Liverpool and Glasgow ports

Early passenger lists to America

Transportation registers for convicts to Australia and passenger list for US ports e.g. New York (but I am unsure whether these are available on a UK subscription)

Britain: outbound passenger lists, 1890-1960 (source: The National Archives)

Register of passport applications 1851-1903

Convict departures to New South Wales 1788-1842

British Home Office Naturalisation Lists

Australian Convict Transportation Registers 1787-1867

New Zealand Early Settlers

Early passenger lists to America

Occupational UK, Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956 (source: The National Archives)

UK, Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811 (source: The National Archives, series IR1)

British Postal Service Appointment Books, 1737-1969 (source: British Postal Museum and Archive)

UK medical registers, Crockford Clerical directories, various engineers lists

Trade directories – UK, City and County Directories, 1766 – 1946 (e.g. Kellys and Pigots -27,108,675 records)

Trade Union Membership Registers for various trades (source: Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick)

Business Indexes Of Britain, 1892-1987 (Source: Society of Genealogists)

Merchant Navy Seaman records (Source: The National Archives)

Teacher’s Registration Council Registers 1914-1948

Various other lists

Apprenticeship Records – Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books 1710-1814 (Source: The National Archives IR1)

Pilots – Royal Aero Club – Aviators Certificates (1914-1926)

Printed sources for various professions including railway, actors, clergy, medical, law and teachers

Freeman and burgesses rolls for various cities

19th and 20th century trade directories (e.g. Kelly’s and pigot’s) for counties across England and Wales and Scotland.

Education Alumni lists from Oxford and Cambridge and other universities and some public and other schools. Register books from 41 schools (mainly public) and universities 1264-1930 School (mainly public), college and university registers available for 29 counties in England and Aberdeen and Glasgow Universities with dates ranging from 1220 to 1949
Criminal England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 (Source: The National Archives, series HO 26 and 27)

Quarter session records for some counties

Home Office: Criminal Petitions 1817-1858 (source: The National Archives, series HO17)

Register of hulk prison ships 1818-1831 (source: The National Archives, series ADM6)

Central Criminal Court: calendar of prisoners 1855-1931 (source: The National Archives, series CRIM9)

Home Office: calendar of prisoners (source: The National Archives, series HO140)

Convict departures to New South Wales 1788-1842

Criminal Registers, Charges, Pardons and Criminal Lunatics. (Source: The National Archives Home Office Records series HO 27, HO 13, HO20/13 and CRIM 1)

Chancery proceedings  1377-1714 (printed source)

Australian Convict Transportation Registers 1787-1867

Other British Phone Books, 1880-1984 (Source: BT Archives)

Workhouse and poor law records and electoral registers for various counties

Printed social, place and military histories

Maps and gazetteers

Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834 (source: The National Archives T71)

Workhouse and poor law records and electoral registers for various counties

Kindertransport records (Source: The National Archives)

British India Office Records (Source: The British Library)

London, Bethlem Hospital, patient admission registers and casebooks, 1683-1932 (Source: Archives and Museum service, Bethlem Royal Hospital)

Tithe records – complete set of tithe apportionments and maps (coming soon; Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, Middlesex and Surrey maps already available) (Source: The National Archives )

69 heraldic visitation lists for individual counties and the whole of England and Wales, with years ranging from 1530 – 1921.

Various poll books

Landowner records English & Welsh records 1873, Scottish records 1872-1873 and Irish records 1876

Image archive

Public Family Trees Yes No Yes as a feature in Treeview
Upload Family Tree Yes and Ancestry will provide hints Yes and Find My Past will provide hints Yes The Genealogist has a built in package called Treeview that provides hints
DNA AncestryDNA Find My Past announced at RootsTech 2015 that they would be offering DNA tests through  Family Tree DNA, but these do not appear to be available in the UK yet, Yes The Genealogist offers packages through FamilyTree DNA
Subscription costs

(I have only included the UK subscriptions where you can access all the records in the table. Ancestry and The Genealogist both offer cheaper subscriptions that contain fewer databases.)

Premium  UK subscription

1 month – £13.99

12 month – £119.99

Pay per view

£6.95, 12 record views over 14 days

UK subscription

1 month – £9.95

12 month – £99.50

Pay per view

£6.95, valid 90 days, 60 credits (about 12 records)

£24.95, valid 365 days, 280 credits (about 70 records)

Diamond subscription

12 month – £119.45

The sources have all been found on the respective websites, although they have sometimes been quite hard to locate. I found Ancestry to be the best at fully naming its sources and in an obvious place and providing covering dates. Where I have listed the original parish registers, I have assumed all these to have actual images attached rather than just a transcription, as they look to have been done as part of a project with the Local Record Offices, but without signing up I cannot confirm this. If you feel I have missed any major databases in this list, please let me know, as I want to be fair.

My decision

Choosing an outright winner between the three sites is proving really difficult. Competition, although in most cases a good thing, has in this case ensured that great sources for family history have been split over several sites. They all have the essentials for England and Wales and other really good databases with a wide range of useful records. Find My Past, does to me, seem to have the edge with the British Newspaper Archive (which is such an excellent resource for family and local history) and a bigger selection of original parish records. Find My Past is adding new records all the time; it is also soon to add the 1939 register and is in partnership with BillionGraves to offer 12 million grave marker indexes.  I also find searches to be a bit more accurate at Find My Past. Ancestry has shared family trees and access to message boards, if you want more of a community feel.  All three sites will provide hints on family trees you upload, to potential records for family members. The Genealogist has some unique databases such as tithe records and although I haven’t compared search facilities, their SmartSearch technology is really useful. You can do things like search for birth records from the census at a click of a button or find children from a marriage post 1911. I found the census results really easy to use and the results are also displayed in a map view which is both useful and interesting.

Your decision will come down to what you personally prefer. I didn’t include search facilities in this comparison, but I would have a free trial on all three sites and see which you prefer to use. The Genealogist do some very reasonable cheaper packages that don’t include all the databases above but more than enough to get you quite far with your research (the SmartSearch technology and the navigation of the site makes it great for a beginner).  Find My Past regularly offers a lot of deals so keep a look out. You could also sign up to one site on an annual subscription and sign up to another on a monthly subscription occasionally or take advantage of a free weekend (which Ancestry and Find My Past both do) to look at records.

Personally I chose…sorry I just can’t decide – Ancestry, as most of my ancestors appear in their original parish registers and I would like to get my DNA done soon. Find My Past, as the British Newspaper Archive is such a great resource and they are adding new databases all the time. The Genealogist for their SmartSearch technology and the ease of use of their site.

On a final note – for personal research, if I had the money I would get all three, as they all have great databases and good unique features. When I turn professional (soon), I would get both Find My Past and Ancestry (professional subscription same as above), as I don’t think I could justify the professional subscription at The Genealogist (Diamond professional premium 12 months – £399.95)

My Heritage Accessed 15 March 2015

Genes Reunited Accessed 15 March 2015

The Genealogist Accessed 15 March 2015

Ancestry Accessed 15 March 2015

Find My Past Accessed 15 March 2015

Findmypast subscriber numbers grow, as fantastic new developments and partnerships are announced at RootsTech 2015, blog post by Holly, 16 Feb 2015 Accessed 15 March 2015

BillionGraves and FindMyPast team up in World-wide initiative!, 13 Feb 2015 Accessed 15 March 2015

First GRO certificate – 1st July 1837

Whilst reading the latest issue of Family Tree magazine (UK issue, Vol 31 No 6, March 2015) I came across an interesting question from a reader in the ‘Dear Tom’ section. What was the first certificate produced by the General Register Office (GRO) on 1st July 1837? They had enquired with the GRO, who advised them that “the current filing system leaves staff unable to ascertain such facts”

This got me thinking about the GRO – why and how it was set up and whether it would be possible to discover the first certificate.

Why was the GRO set up? There was no system of civil registration before the GRO. Prior to this the Anglican Church recorded baptisms, marriages and burials, but not always that efficiently. There was a rise in non-conformist religions, but their registers were not legally admissible, so could not be used in court or to prove property rights and non-conformist marriages were not legally recognised.  The Government wanted to solve these issues and wanted a civil registration system that was accurate, so they could gain statistics about population growth and mortality to improve welfare and public health and as always probably for taxation purposes. They passed the Act for Registering Births, Deaths and Marriages in England in 1836.

How was the GRO established? The Act used the newly created administrative structure of the New Poor Law 1834, which covered England and Wales. It decreed that a Superintendent Registrar should be appointed for each of the 619 poor law districts. Each district was divided into sub districts with their own local registrars.

The local registrars were responsible for the registration of births and deaths in their local district. They were paid for each one they registered. They were supplied with books and certified forms and sent copies and the full registers back to the Superintendent Registrars, when complete. In the beginning not all births were registered for a number of reasons, such as people thought baptisms were legally the same as registering a birth. There were also no penalties for not registering a birth until 1874 when it became compulsory. Deaths were different as you had to have proof you had registered a death before a burial could take place.

Tip – it is worth searching on surname variations as the registrar may have written it wrong if your ancestor was illiterate and dictating to the registrar.

Marriages were slightly different and you didn’t always need a registrar. For marriages that happened in an Anglican Church, the Vicar was the registrar. Two registers were signed, one kept by the church and one returned to the superintendent registrar when complete. Non-conformists had to have a registrar present at the wedding and they were responsible for the register. This didn’t change until 1898 when non-conformist ministers could legally take on the role of registrar.

Tip – the way marriages were recorded in separate registers means if you ask for a marriage certificates at a local register office, they will need the parish or church where the marriage took place to do a search, as no collated marriage register exists.

At the end of each quarter March, June, September, December, the Superintendent Registrar compiled all birth, marriage and death returns from local registrars and sent them to the GRO in London, which to begin with was at Somerset House. These were then copied into volumes by district and then a separate index by surname completed on vellum. These have been made available for the public to search from the beginning.

Tip – it is always worth checking at the local register office if you cannot find an event in the GRO index, as names may have been copied wrong (they had been copied 3-4 times by the time they ended up in the index) or missed.

What was the first certificate? Doing a quick search on free BMD showed there are over 50,000 entries for Sep quarter 1837. This means there were about 500 entries each day in that quarter; a massive undertaking when everything was handwritten. I suspect we will never know what the first certificate was, as with most new legislation there was nearly a year to appoint registrars and set up the system. The novelty of a new system can well have meant hundreds of certificates were produced on that Saturday 1st July 1837.

In 2012 the GRO celebrated their 175th anniversary and holds over 260 million records. It is as important now as it has ever been for both the past and the present.

If you do have a certificate from early July 1837 or even the 1st, ‘Dear Tom’ would be interested to know – with ‘Dear Tom’ in the subject line.


English Civil Registration on FamilySearch Accessed 2 Mar 2015

General Register Office for England and Wales on Wikipedia Accessed 2 Mar 2015

FreeBMD Accessed 2 Mar 2015

The General Register Office celebrates 175 years of civil registration  Accessed 2 Mar 2015

Digital Dark Age Vs. Electronic Enlightenment

Digital preservation has been highlighted as an issue in the media over the last couple of weeks, after Vint Cerf, Google Vice-President and “Father of the Internet” said we are about to enter a ‘digital Dark Age’ .  He believes that we could lose a lifetimes worth of data because of hardware and software obsolescence.

There has been, what I am going to call, an electronic enlightenment over the last 30 years, with very rapid changes of software and hardware. Smartphones now can do more than early computers. When you consider digital storage, a floppy disc couldn’t even hold one image taken on a digital camera today. Yet now you can get external hard drives, as small as a pack of cards, which can hold a lifetimes worth of photographs. Technology is still advancing at a rapid pace in all areas – bigger and cheaper storage, AI, robotics, TV screens you can roll into a tube and things like Google glass. There is potential to record and save data about absolutely every second of your life, if you wanted, but would this data survive even during your lifetime?

The answer is yes, if you managed it properly. Many archives have successfully been working on solutions for digital preservation for many years. Several of these institutions have responded to Vint Cerf’s interview, detailing their work. Jeff James, Chief Executive of The National Archives talked to BBC Radio 4 about safeguarding digital records in their custodianship using ‘parsimonious preservation’. The British Library talked about their work, in such things as the UK Web archive, in this blog post.

Why a ‘digital Dark Age’? Why did this not happen with paper records? One reason is volume of data (records and documents). The electronic enlightenment has made it easy and cheap to produce and store a very large amount of digital data in a very short space of time. When you think of other inventions such as paper and printing presses, costs of production and limited storage space would have had an effect on what records were created and kept. This meant choices had to be made and often only the most important documents to people of the time have survived.

Management of the data produced is also vital. Digital storage is relatively cheap making it easy to store everything and then rely on keyword searches to find it in the future. This has been the preservation strategy for many a company, but one that could lead us to a Dark Age. This is the equivalent to our paper based ancestors throwing everything they have ever written into a room and someone else coming in years later to find a specific item. This would be no easy task even with a limited amount of paper records with no context (e.g. a ledger full of unnamed accounts), index or anyone to interpret the records. Paper records can also become unreadable (obsolete) through flood, fire, acidification, mould or insect damage.

How do you prevent a ‘digital Dark Age’? The principles for preserving digital records are not really much different from paper records. The most important step is managing your data – knowing what you have got and recording/indexing data so people would be able to interpret it with no assistance. Technology we already have available, can then be used to care for them and make sure they are preserved for the future. Several industries such as pharmaceutical and engineering have, for regulatory and other reasons, successfully preserved their digital records for many years. There are even commercial companies that specialise in offering digital preservation systems, such as Preservica and Tessella.

Should we really be keeping everything? The answer is no.  Even if we did save everything and it did happen to survive; it would be a truly epic job for our descendants to look through and consider it all with no interpretation. Choices should be made about what records are important and valuable to us and truly reflect our society, culture and world events (e.g. tweets during the Arab Spring rather than about people’s tea); even if this does raise other issues such as objectivity and the right to be forgotten. On a more personal level, we would probably want to save our digital photographs and blogs rather than say our online order receipts or utility bills. It is our job to preserve the records that will show future generations what was important to us and that truly reflect what living in today’s world is really like.


Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital Dark Age’ by Pallab Ghosh on BBC News 13 Feb 2015  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins.  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Preserving our digital heritage, how are we really doing? By British Library Collection Care blog.  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Valuing Archives – What is it worth?

‘What is it worth?’ Is a question I have often been asked, while working in various archives. This has always been asked in a monetary sense. My reply has always been that archives are unique and irreplaceable and so have no monetary worth. The value of archives is in knowledge they give us about the people and society of the past and the lessons we can learn from that.

When archives are given monetary value for such things as insurance claims this is rarely for the purchase of a replacement, due to their uniqueness. Most insurance valuations are for the cost of conservation work and repair if archives are damaged in a fire or flood. If archives are lost or destroyed, they are gone forever.

Recently there have been a couple of fires in repositories holding records. On 31 Jan 2015 there was a fire in a Library in Moscow, Russia, which contained some rare texts and documents, some of which dated from 16th Century. The fire damaged 1m historic documents and was described as a cultural “Chernobyl”

On the same day a large fire destroyed 4m boxes of records in a repository in Brooklyn, New York, US . The warehouse contained records from local hospitals, administration of children’s services and local court records. If none of these were backed up in digital form, then this would be a tragic loss of information about peoples’ lives that can never be retrieved. A blog post, by John Surico on discusses ‘How much history was lost in the Williamsburg storage facility fire?’ and its implications

Two other stories from the last couple of weeks focussed on the monetary value of archives, even though they are both worth so much more. In Chicago, US, Johnson Publishing is planning to sell the photograph archives of Ebony Magazine, which they estimate to be worth $40m, to raise capital. The archive contains 5m images detailing African American history, culture and life since the early 1940s. Johnson Publishing Chief Executive, Desiree Rogers told Reuters “Nothing exists like it. It’s almost like an African American Getty”. Yet it could end up being sold into private hands and hidden away from the world.

A Magna Carta edition from 1300 was discovered in a Victorian scrapbook in a Kent, UK archive. On its discovery many of the major newspapers led with the fact it was worth £10m. I am not sure how this estimate was reached, but to the academics studying the Magna Carta it is worth a whole lot more.

One of my relatives has said in the past “a house is only worth what someone will pay for it”. I do think the same is true of archives. It is a sad reflection of society that the monetary value of archives often seems to be more important than the knowledge and lessons that can be gained from their contents.


Fire in major Russian library destroys 1m historic documents, by AFP in The Guardian, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Fire rips through Brooklyn warehouse Saturday, burning city and state records, by Barry Paddock in New York Daily News, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

How Much History Was Lost in the Williamsburg Storage Facility Fire? by John Surico on, 6 Feb 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Ebony Selling Photo Archive, The ‘African American Getty,’ Worth $40 Million, by Reuters in Huffington Post Black Voices, 28 Jan 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

New original Magna Carta discovered in Kent, by Sophie Ambler on Magna Carta Project blog, 8 Feb 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Preservation – Parchment, Paper and Pixels

Last week the four Magna Carta documents dating from 1215 have been on display at the British Library and another copy from 1300 was found in a Kent archive. It is amazing to think that these documents have survived for 800 years. How have they survived this long? Would paper or digital records created today still be around in 2815?

Parchment is made from animal skin (sheepskin in the case of the Magna Carta documents). To make parchment, the skins were soaked in a bath of lime or sometimes urine for several days. They were then stretched over a frame while damp and the hair scraped away with a large knife. When they were dry they were treated with chalk or pumice and cut to size. You can often still see skin blemishes and hair follicles on bits of parchment. Parchment is very durable as long as it isn’t kept in excessively moist or very dry environments, and of course away from fire and water. Important documents like the Magna Carta were probably kept in a large locked chest, offering their own protected environments, helping to ensure their survival. It is also interesting to note that most of the records that have survived from before the 14th Century are important documents, such as charters and deeds proclaiming rights, and not something like a baron’s household accounts.

Paper has varying longevity depending on when it was produced. Early paper produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries was made of cotton or linen rags and tends to survive quite well. From the mid-19th Century paper began to be produced from wood pulp. The raw materials, processes and additives of wood pulp paper cause acid to form in it over time, turning it brown and making it become very brittle. Its survival depends on the quality of the paper and how it was produced.  This is why some 18th Century books look pristine, but a newspaper from the 1980s can have disintegrated into dust.

Digital records have the shortest lifespan, even though today they are probably the format in which most records are created. Digital records are subject to numerous threats such as obsolescence, decay or inadequate capture. Many digital records have already been lost even though they were barely a decade old. CDs and DVDs used for storage of digital records, also only have a life span of barely 10-20 years. Archivists are working hard to design systems and processes to ensure that born digital records are preserved complete for future generations, even if this has meant printing them out on paper sometimes!

Is the format of the record irrelevant? Could it be that records have survived because of their importance to the people at the time, rather than the fact they were on parchment? I don’t imagine the barons of the Magna Carta were particularly concerned whether it would still exist in 800 years. Even if recordkeepers work hard to preserve all the records in their care, from the documents of government to the diary of Joe Bloggs, will it be only certain records that stand the test of time?


‘Paper’ and ‘Parchment’ from Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts, Library of Congress. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Digital preservation: a time bomb for Digital Libraries, Margaret Hedstrom.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015