• Making a Point

    “It’s rude to point!” As youngsters, we are taught this – but we quickly learn that it’s necessary to point, if we need to bring something important to someone’s attention.

    It’s no surprise then, that a hand-drawn pointing finger (known as a manicule) was sometimes used to highlight important entries in parish records.  Although, as our own volunteer transcribers have found, what was deemed ‘important’ varied greatly according to clergy, as did the manicule itself!

    What is a manicule?

    Not to be confused with ‘manacles’ (as Wikipedia helpfully points out), manicule is Latin for ‘little hand’. It usually takes the form of a hand with its index finger extended in a pointing gesture.

    Appearing in handwritten text as far back as the Domesday book (1086), manicules were also used later in printed works to draw the reader’s attention to important text. They became very popular in advertising, too, during the nineteenth century.

    Manicule: Skerton, Lancaster

    Simple manicule in register of Baptisms 
    (Skerton, Lancaster, 1839) Mother = singlewoman

    Manicules in parish records

    Manicules appear in some parish records, but by no means in all. Indeed, in a recent survey of our volunteer transcribers, only 40% had encountered them – and, even then, only very occasionally. Some transcribers felt they were perhaps more common in the older (16th/17th century) records.

    So, what are the manicules highlighting in the parish records? Two main reasons have been found by our transcribers: either to highlight illegitimate children; OR to indicate someone of note, such as a member of the local gentry. Interestingly, transcribers found that the use of manicules sometimes ceased with the arrival of new clergy - perhaps indicating that the subject’s social standing mattered less to them!

    Another reason for the use of manicules was simply to mark the start of a new year in the records, but one transcriber reported that the meaning of the manicules never became clear, even as they continued through the rest of the document.

    Manicule in a 1549 Burial record (Barford, Warwickshire)

    Fine art?

    As for the drawing of the manicules themselves, this appears to fall into three categories. Some are barely more than two squiggly strokes with the sketch of a pointing hand; some are amusing with strangely proportioned, extra-long fingers; and others are elaborate and artistic.

    The latter usually include sleeves and cuffs; and these reveal, in turn, something of the fashions of their time. Flowing sleeves, for instance, give way to delicate, lace-trimmed cuffs in later centuries.

    Modern use

    Very few records are written by hand these days and, with options such as highlighter pens and sticky notes, there’s little need for hand-drawn manicules.

    With printed text, too, there are other ways of bringing important content to the attention of readers – for example, text can be highlighted, emboldened, coloured or italicised, to make it stand out.

    But, while we may not refer to it by name, a version of the manicule is still with us. Think of the cursor on our computers and the upward-pointing ‘hand’ that appears to indicate an object that can be manipulated or a clickable hyperlink. They may have a slightly different purpose, but manicules still have an important point to make!

    More manicules

    We would like to thank the FreeREG volunteer transcribers for all the work they do – did you know that they have now transcribed a staggering 57.4 million records?

    We would particularly like to thank those who took part in our survey, and we look forward to seeing examples of manicules they uncover in the future.  


  • ​FreeCEN transcription uploads

    On February 1st, I announced the final step in our transition to FreeCEN2 transcription uploads to coordinators. The FreeCEN2 website launched in 2017, almost six years ago. The new website is much more accessible and has a much better user interface. FreeCEN1 (the old website) will be available until FreeCEN2 has all of the features on FreeCEN1. Data updates to FreeCEN1 have ceased as we can no longer support the old update method. 

    The new website has a different uploading mechanism, developed to replace obsolete software programs, improve data quality and, in future, to enable better search facilities. We have continued to support both systems for a period of parallel running. However, this is not an efficient use of resources, and is not intended to be a permanent solution. 

    We have engaged with our transcribers to support their transition to the new platform and address any concerns. Nearly all of our transcribers have now transitioned to the new platform. In the last 18 months or so, coordinators have incorporated over 4.5 million records into the new system with no significant issues. Whilst the new spreadsheets collect some additional information, the overall work involved is reduced because the need for repetitive entries has been eliminated.

    The future development of FreeCEN is contained in a plan that we call the Roadmap, which transcribers can in your list of Actions on the FreeCEN2 login page. This Roadmap is available to everybody with a login and is currently being updated. We have now completed Phases 1 and 2 of the Roadmap and are close to completing all the currently possible parts of Phase 3. Phase 4 involves search engine enhancements for researchers.

    After careful consideration by the trustees, and on the recommendation of the FreeCEN Committee, we have decided to bring the transition to an end and have set 31st March 2023 as the final date for uploading VLDs. The decision to cease these uploads was not taken lightly. It was taken for the greater benefit of FreeCEN and the researchers who search our records. It will allow us to commence the development of additional search options for researchers in Phase 4 of the Roadmap. Any work that you may have done on the traditional spreadsheets, and which has not been published, will not be lost. These spreadsheets will still be able to be managed by coordinators using the options available in FreeCEN2 for conversion and validation.

    We know that this is a difficult transition. We accept that some transcribers and coordinators may decide not to transition to the new platform. If your coordinator is not transitioning please email me so that we can ensure you are supported. If you haven’t already created a login on FreeCEN2, you can do this by following the steps in this video: 

    When it comes to choosing a county, please select the one you are working on currently.

    Free UK Genealogy is an organisation built on volunteers and we value your contributions enormously. We want to support people as much as we can to move to the new platform and we hope that as many as possible can make the transition and continue to produce something that our users value very highly.

    I am very impressed by your new site - it's been a while since I used your site and this was the first time I've used the new version. I was pleasantly surprised by the user friendly and aesthetically pleasing nature 

    Feedback from FreeCEN Researcher, David W

    Denise Colbert, Chief Operating Officer of Free UK Genealogy
    Email: info@freeukgenealogy.org.uk

  • What's in a name?

    Anna Wilson is a Free UK Genealogy volunteer and PHAROS student.

    Here, she shares with us an example of how FreeREG helped her track down the baptism record of her four-times great grandfather, William Dunbar.

    I have been researching my family history since 2004 after discovering three Victorian photograph albums in a dark corner of my parent's attic. It's a large attic and was full of ‘stuff’ so these albums had been left untouched for years. My father stated that he had never seen them before even though the house had been his family home since the 1960s. 

    The photograph albums led to the discovery that my paternal great-grandparents were Scottish and offered me the opportunity to delve into the amazing records available at ScotlandsPeople.

    This was until I came across the name of my four times great grandfather William Dunbar. I easily found trees online which included William and a baptism record for him on the 14th April 1754 in Whittinghame, East Lothian. The actual baptism record detailed the name of his father Alexander Dunbar and his mother Helen Pringle, and I happily continued to work on my tree entering in the details of his marriage and children. 

    I tend to bulk the wish list of records I want to purchase with credit at ScotlandsPeople as it keeps me on a focused path rather than straying into looking at ‘potential’ records and using up all my credit. So it was months later that I obtained a copy of Peter Taylor’s will, my three times great grandfather, who had been married to Ratchel DunbarWilliam’s daughter.

    Peter Taylor, family photograph

    Peter Taylor’s will was a gem of a genealogical document for both the Taylor and Dunbar families. It referred to land that Ratchel had inherited from her father, which had belonged to William Dunbar’s mother… Ratchel Galloway. This was an unfamiliar name: where was Helen Pringle? I revisited the records I had about William. His marriage to Catherine Patterson was in 1785 in Haddington, East Lothian. Their marriage occurred before the introduction of Civil Registration in Scotland in 1855 and so I was reliant on the Old Parish Registers of marriage. The entry stated that they had been irregularly married in Edinburgh – perhaps more information would be in the Kirk Session Records but residing in Somerset a visit to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) would not be happening any time soon.

    So, I searched ScotlandsPeople again changing dates, names, and locations with the same three results but none relating to William Dunbar the son of Alexander Dunbar and Ratchel Galloway

    By 2018 I had been trying to search for William Dunbar’s correct baptism for 2 years. I discovered that FreeREG had great coverage of baptisms, marriages and burials for the East Lothian area. I decided to use their search engine, making sure I used the Soundex facility. In less than a minute, bingo: there he was William Dumbar, baptised in the September of 1759 in Haddington, East Lothian just below the other William Dunbar baptised 1754 in Whittinghame, East Lothian. Clicking on the entry his father was Alexander Dunbar and his mother was transcribed as Rahall Gallaway, with William Gallaway as a witness.

    Baptism record of William Dumbar on FreeREG

    Baptism record of William Dumbar on FreeREG

    So why could I not find the original image on ScotlandsPeople? 

    I went back to ScotlandsPeople and searched using ‘Rahall Galloway’ as William’s parent and used phonetic and wildcard searches to match the transcription of the baptism entry and there it was in the search results. It recorded William Dumbar’s parents as Alexander Dumbar and Rachall Galloway and I was able to purchase the correct baptism for my William Dunbar – leading to a different family to that of Alexander Dunbar and Helen Pringle. 

    So, some valuable lessons learnt along the way:

    • Always verify the information and sources from online trees, 
    • Never give up on brick walls,
    • Find as many records relating to an ancestor as possible,
    • Use as many search facilities as possible to find them,
    • Always use phonetic and wildcard searches on different websites
    • If FreeREG covers your area of interest in Scotland it is a great resource to identify names that have been mistranscribed as well as assist in narrowing down the relevant individual before you spend your credit at ScotlandsPeople.

    I wish I had found FreeREG sooner!

  • Update on our financial position

    With everything going on in the world at the moment, alongside all the recent changes at Free UK Genealogy, we have had a number of volunteers ask for more information about our financial position. We hope it would be interesting to volunteers to share a bit more about how our finances work and what we have been doing recently to put us on a firmer footing.

    Inherently, our financial position is very robust. Our operating model is built around hundreds of volunteers – transcribers, coordinators, developers and trustees. We have a very limited staff of just four people, only two of whom are full time. All our operations were remote, even before COVID, so we have no costs for an office or travel. Our total financial expenses are around £9,000 per month. This compares to the value of donated time which we estimate at around £250,000 per month.

    Historically, advertising income has provided £6,500 per month and ad-hoc donations another £700.  Whilst this is able to fund most of our costs, it doesn’t cover everything. In addition we found our advertising income to be increasingly erratic which is a concern given our dependence on this form of funding. As a result we have run a small deficit over the last few years. We had managed to build up significant reserves from a commercial licensing deal which we have been slowly consuming. Our reserves have fallen below the minimum specified in our reserves policy so action was unavoidable to ensure the charity’s finances were sustainable. 

    This is why in 2021 the trustees decided to shift our emphasis onto donations and established a Fundraising Steering Committee. We recruited a specific trustee, Kathryn Streatfield, with fundraising experience to help with this effort. We set a fundraising target of £14,000 for 2022 and a longer term target that donations cover 20% of operating expenses. We have increased donor communications, started a specific donations pop-up which has run monthly on FreeCEN and FreeREG (and will start soon on FreeBMD) and plan to participate in this November’s Big Give” campaign

    We know that many of our users and supporters are willing and able to support us in this way. However, we also know that others prefer to contribute through their volunteer work. This is just as important to us and is very much appreciated! We have tried our best to ensure our donation appeals are sensitive to this - particularly at a time like now when many people are feeling the stretch. We also want to ensure that our adverts do not detract from the user experience.

    Earlier this year we signed a new agreement with MyHeritage, replacing some of our Google AdSense adverts with specially designed ‘widget’ adverts. This provides users with more relevant and targeted adverts, as well as increasing engagement and the revenue we raise. This has been successful in boosting our advertising income, and we have now moved this to a permanent partnership.

    Finally, we have had a sustained effort at managing our costs better. Overall this has reduced our run rate from £15,000 per month in 2018 to £9,000 per month today. However, we know we have to balance this cost control against ensuring the projects get all the support they need to keep delivering our charitable objectives, which has certainly been a challenge recently. And with inflation affecting our costs and our staff, we know that we should expect an increase in costs in the near future, however strict we are with controls.

    These three areas - donations, adverts and cost control - have successfully turned round our position. We are now running a monthly surplus and expect to be back within our reserves policy by early next year. This more robust financial position means we can focus on ensuring our resources are dedicated to supporting our websites and our volunteers and delivering our objectives – making genealogy records available - in the best way possible.

    We are keen to be open and transparent about our finances in future and communicate more about this. Our annual accounts are published, like all charities, on the Charity Commission website

    I’m happy to respond to any concerns or queries from any of our volunteers and hear any ideas you have - please email me if you want to get in touch.