• 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!

  • Technical roles and Chair of Trustees

    Free UK Genealogy is going through a period of change at the moment, with the retirement from the projects of a number of long-serving staff and volunteers. They have all been critical to the huge success we have had with these projects and I wanted to add my voice to say a big thank you for their long service.

    There is now a greater need for additional technical volunteering. Reflecting on this important priority, Richard Light has decided to move from his current role as Chair of Trustees to a new role, where he will be actively involved in program development (initially on the FreeBMD2 project). He hopes this change will strengthen the links between the software development work and the Trustees, and that it will encourage other volunteer developers to come forward. We believe this will be a great help to this critical need for the organisation and ensure we can continue to be technically robust and develop further into the future.

    The board of trustees have asked me, an existing trustee, to assume the role of chair with effect from September 2022. I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce myself to the projects and explain how I see the role working going forward.

    I have been a trustee of Free UK Genealogy since 2018, but a user of the projects for much longer. I've been researching my family history since 1985 and using FreeBMD, FreeCEN and FreeREG regularly since their early days. I'm passionate about free data, being a founder and former trustee of Wikimedia UK, which supports the Wikipedia family of websites in the UK. My day job is working as a risk manager for a mortgage lender which (whilst very different from FreeUKGEN) gives me a good financial background and I'm familiar with the requirements of good governance.

    Andrew Turvey, Chair of Trustees

    As trustees we recognise that we need to improve our communications, in particular with the key project volunteers, and this blog is one of the ways we will do this, The trustees have been very focussed recently on securing our financial future (which I'll share more on shortly) and managing staff changes. However, we realise that it's ultimately the volunteers — transcribers, coordinators, developers etc. — who deliver our goals as a charity: the record transcriptions that our users value so much. Whilst none of us have a magic wand to solve all problems, we want to be better at understanding what we can do to help the projects deliver and develop.

    I know we have sent out quite a few surveys in recent months and a big thank you to everyone who has filled those in. They have given us a much better sense of what we should be focusing on, what is creating value and how we can make a difference. However, they are also (mostly) anonymous which means it's difficult for us to follow up directly on specific comments. If anyone has anything they want to follow up on please feel free to email me any time on Andrew.Turvey@freeukgenealogy.org.uk. I will always be keen to hear feedback on how we are doing and views and ideas on what we can do differently!

  • Free and Open Genealogy Resources (UK & International)

    We asked, you suggested…

    Recently, through the power of free data sources, some precious photographs, letters and documents belonging to a flight engineer who died in World War 2 found a new home and purpose with a blood relative.  

    In November 1942, the flight engineer was part of a crew who perished when their plane was hit by flak. He was 25 and had been married to his childhood sweetheart for just six months.

    Some 60 years later, a distant cousin researching the family tree found the flight engineer’s details on the Commonwealth War Graves website. His widow was still listed in the BT Telephone Directory, so the cousin wrote a letter hoping to learn more, but received no reply.   

    Six years later, however, the widow’s nephew and executor of her will wrote to say he had found the cousin’s letter in his aunt’s files. He confirmed the family connection and offered to share copies of photographs, letters and more. Later, on reflection, he decided to pass the whole collection to the cousin, since his was the direct family line. 

    Now the cousin - who happens to be a history teacher - is the custodian of the items, and he uses them to illustrate his lessons. So, the flight engineer’s story lives on – all thanks to a couple of free searches.

    Image of the flight engineer's burial site - Oldebroek General Cemetery, NL (CWWG)

    Open sources, galore

    This is a powerful little story that illustrates the benefits of Free UK Genealogy’s vision of making data more accessible, more usable, and free, forever (see our previous blog).

    This week, we asked you (via Social Media) for your recommendations for FREE sites that YOU use in your research – and you came up with the goods. In fact, there were so many suggestions, we plan to share them over two blogs!

    Below, we will cover the national and international sources you have recommended. Then, next time, we will share your local gems.

    "Free to All"

    High on the list is FamilySearch, which has the tagline "Free to All". Provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, FamilySearch is dedicated to preserving important family records and making them freely accessible online. Originally intended for Church members, the FamilySearch resources are now open to everyone to discover their heritage and connect with family members.

    Several of you have cited the Online Genealogical Index (OGI) – a free tool that saves researchers hours of time by finding the exact website they need. The OGI began as a spreadsheet in January 2012 and currently has over 407,000 links to vital record data (birth, baptism, marriage, death, burial), as well as school records, graveyard headstones, war memorials and family pedigrees. The tool’s creator is a genealogist himself who was frustrated with subscription sites selling access to resources that were free elsewhere.

    A highly recommended source: UKBMD. In 2000, the county of Cheshire revolutionised public access to birth, marriage and death (BMD) records dating back to 1837 when a joint project between the county's registration services and family history societies resulted in CheshireBMD. Other counties followed their lead, and UKBMD was started as a simple website to enable the main county BMD sites to be found via one convenient starting point. Many more BMD-related sites have since been added, covering parish records and Bishops Transcripts.

    Now, you might think that UKBMD is a rival to FreeBMD. But there is a subtle difference that is of unique value to genealogists. Where FreeBMD transcribes the GRO indexes, UKBMD has transcribed the original indexes created by the local registrars. For this reason, our databases can differ slightly. For example, in the event that pages are missing in one index, they would likely be present in the other. Both are volunteer-led projects and so have similar commitments to quality of provision and there is actually potential for us to combine our efforts in the future, to enhance wider access to BMD records.

    Again, in the same vein as FreeBMD, you mentioned the GRO website. As Howard, a FreeBMD volunteer explained:

    The GRO site (England and Wales BMD certificates) is probably known to [many genealogists], but some may not realize that it's free to search its indexes (which give a little more information than the paper indexes which other websites have transcribed.

    Staying with the BMD certificate theme, the BMD Certificate Exchange Facebook group was amongst your suggested resources. The group is a very popular one, with over 10,000 members, and is "a means to share birth, death, marriage, burial, and other certificates with fellow genealogists who may have an interest in them". You never know, you may find a certificate in there you would otherwise have to purchase!

    Another favourite you have recommended is GENUKI which provides a virtual reference library of primary sources of genealogical information relevant to the UK and Ireland. The content is provided by a group of volunteers, and the site is maintained by a charitable trust. Established in 1995, it now contains more than 110,000 pages of information.

    On a similar theme, Dustydocs is a 'web-linking site' of English Baptisms, Marriages and Burials records for the years 1538 to 1900. Their information is sourced from freely available church and BMD records, and validated user contributions.

    Ireland, US and Canada

    For those researching Irish ancestors, you have recommended two national sites. The first is the National Archives Genealogy Website where you can gain free access (through searchable databases and linked images of relevant pages) to a whole host of genealogical material in the custody of Ireland’s national archives. This includes the Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census fragments and substitutes, 1821-51.

    The second recommendation is Irish.Genealogy.ie, a government website where you can search and freely access records from a number of online sources including the historic registers and indexes to the BMD registers, some church records, and others such as the census data and soldiers’ wills.

    For those with American ancestors, you told us about The USGenWeb Project. Established in 1996 by a group of genealogists who shared a desire to create free online resources, it began with listing online directories of text-based resources. The site has since grown into a network of over 3,000 linked websites, all individually created and maintained by a community of volunteers. It includes a variety of unique county and state resources such as photos, maps, transcriptions, historical documents, and helpful links.

    And for Canadian ancestors, you suggested the site for the Royal British Columbia (BC) Museum and Archives, which offers a wide range of information in three searchable databases. These include textual records, photographs, sound recordings, moving images, and maps; descriptions of publications held in the library such as books, directories and government reports; and BMD registrations.

    Do you know of any other UK and international resources?

    Put them in the form at the bottom of the page and we'll add them to the list


    So, back to the free sources used in our flight engineer’s story, the Commonwealth War Graves site was also among your recommendations (as you might expect) – and, although telephone directories were not mentioned, perhaps they are a resource worth considering.  
    That said, while the current telephone directory is freely available online, it seems that past issues are only accessible via a paid-for site, which seems a shame.  

    If you are interested in OPEN, GLOBAL GENEALOGY, please do register your interest to take part in this year’s online annual conference to be held online on 22nd and 29th May.

    And look out for our next blog on your FREE local and other site recommendations.

  • What is "Open Genealogy" and why is it important?

    More accessible, more usable, and free, forever

    It’s not a surprise to learn that more people have taken up genealogy in the past year. What better lockdown pastime than one which can be undertaken by anyone from the comfort of their own home?

    Paid-for family history research sites are reporting increases in annual subscribers of up to 50%. “All you need is an internet connection and an inquiring mind!” according to one of them.

    If only that were true! Even if you use only the free sites, some data can still only be accessed for a fee, and BMD certificates must be purchased. Regrettably, this means some people feel unable to take up or continue with their research.

    That’s why Free UK Genealogy continually pursues its vision to make data more accessible, more usable, and free to use, forever. (And that’s why so many of you selflessly give up your time and skills to transcribe our records, helping to ensure that everyone has free access to their BMD, census and parish registers’ data.)
    Fortunately, we are not alone. There are many other organisations around the world that believe in open, global genealogy.

    Archives are for everyone

    So, what is open data and why is it important?

    Open data is the idea that our data should be freely available for everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.
    This is important because, as the National Archives puts it, such data is “an essential resource for our democracy, a public good and an asset for future generations. Our conviction is that archives are for everyone and that archives change lives for the better.”
    That’s a strong statement. But try a Google search on ‘benefits of genealogy’ and it returns over 32 million results. Among those listed are renewed sense of purpose; increased mental stimulation; reconnecting/making new connections with extended family; meeting like-minded people through groups and forums, and even discovering important family medical history.

    At Free UK Genealogy, we know that it’s only by having open, global genealogy that will enable EVERYONE to enjoy such benefits.

    Who does it?

    So, aside from ourselves and the National Archives, which other organisations share our vision? Another Google search, this time for "totally free genealogy websites UK", returns 717,000 results comprising websites, articles and lists.

    Most cite organisations such as ourselves, GENUKI, FamilySearch, RootsChat, the General Register Office, and the National Archives, but there’s also a myriad of event- or occupation-driven sites ranging from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and Find a Will to The Gazette (receiverships, liquidations and bankruptcies) and Historical Trade Directories.  

    Other organisations on our own wide-ranging radar include: Legacies of British Slave Ownership – UCL; Wikitree (a community of genealogists connecting the one human family tree using traditional genealogy and DNA testing); Open Archives NL (containing genealogical data of Dutch and Belgian archives); and Open Genealogy Data (a community project to make data that is important to genealogists available outside of the walled-gardens of large corporate entities).

    There are thousands more.

    How does it differ?

    The main difference between free and paid-for sites is – obviously – the cost. While paid-for sites offer additional benefits such as ease of access to their collection ‘all in one place’, suggestions on other records to view, and connections to others’ trees, these CAN also be found through combining the various free sites, once you get the hang of them. You just need time and patience.

    At Free UK Genealogy, we understand that transcribing or indexing records to make them searchable can incur huge costs. But, as our working model proves, it is possible to bring together volunteers to see a project through, and therefore keep the costs to a minimum.
    Paid-for sites want to increase the number of records they offer as quickly as possible so that people will continue to pay a subscription. This can sometimes result in poor transcriptions - we all know that transcribing is actually a labour of love that cannot be rushed.

    So, the other main difference is that free sites can offer better transcriptions than paid-for sites. But you know that – we don’t need to preach to the converted!

    Taking to the stage

    We are encouraged that so many organisations share our vision about making genealogy data more accessible, more usable, and free to use, forever.

    And we are delighted that some of them will be taking to the stage to talk about OPEN, GLOBAL GENEALOGY at our 2021 conference on 22nd and 29th May. Learn morehere– and we hope you will be joining us, too.