• 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

    OPEN, GLOBAL GENEALOGY

    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.

  • The Shipway Pedigree Fraud

    With 10 years’ experience of deciphering 16th-18th century registers, FreeREG transcriber Cathy Jury has come across some interesting entries. She even wrote about the challenges of transcribing difficult entries, back in 2017. But the following note, referring to a baptism of ‘John Shipway, the son of John Shipway’ in the Charfield, GLS register, she says caps them all:

    “Note that the entry of May 31st 1619 is a forgery, written at a much later date and forming part of the notorious Shipway Forgery. See also marriage 4 Feb 1617 and burial 9 Dec 1684.”

    Cathy looked into the story behind the entry, and says that it’s worth the read…

    Unthinkable

    When the church records show a BMD record for your ancestor, you’re inclined to accept it as a fact. Mistakes are made, of course – but usually only in the spelling or order of names. The possibility that an entry is fraudulent is unthinkable.

    That’s why Lt Col Robert Shipway of Grove House, Chiswick, who knew he had some 'ancestral connections' within Gloucestershire, was happy to accept the findings presented to him by the 'principal genealogical specialist' Dr Herbert Davies BA, MD, who he had hired to research the Shipway pedigree, in 1897.

    But Lt Col Shipway was deceived. ‘Dr’ Davies was actually a 22-year-old former assistant school teacher who had assumed the BA (Oxon) degree of one Herbert Davies (who was now in Australia), and whose MD degree diploma from the University of Heidelberg was a complete forgery.
     
    And, in fact, the ‘findings’ Davies presented to Lt Col Shipway had actually involved the desecration of several historical relics (including the addition to the Charfield register almost 270 years later, which Cathy had seen), and one unfortunate death following an exhumation. It all resulted in a three-year prison sentence for their perpetrator.

    Remarkable fraud

    During the next year following his engagement, Davies had pursued the Shipway line and traced it back to John Shipway (c1615-1690) of Beverston Castle. But his research had stalled with the lack of Shipway entries in the parish register prior to 1639, so Davies then commenced a remarkable series of fraudulent activities in order to establish a more ancient and far more important pedigree for the Shipways. 
     
    It should be noted that, throughout this period, Davies was being paid daily, plus expenses – in total he received £683 in fees and expenses (equivalent to c£91k today, according to the Bank of England’s calculator). 
     
    Using his impressive academic status, Davies gained free access to the Beverston registers and convinced the vicar to supply legal certificates of the entries he had 'found'. He also gained permission to inspect the contents of some graves, leading to the 'discovery' of an inscription on the plate of a lead coffin (discovered after Davies was left alone to 'clean' it).

    Imago of the register with a note about the fraudulent entry

    Image of the register page, with a note about the fraudulent entry.
    Reference P74/IN/1/5, Courtesy of Gloucestershire Archives

    “A lesson to all”

    Davies’ next act was to forge various wills. But this was to be his undoing.
     
    Lt Col Shipway showed the wills to the eminent genealogist WPW Phillimore, who felt that the content was suspicious and alerted the appropriate authority. The result was a prosecution lasting from September to November 1897, which was avidly followed by the local and national press. Davies was sentenced to three years penal servitude.
     
    Read more details on the story here and in this blog on the AmericanAncestors website, where the author wisely notes: 

    “The case of ‘Dr’ Davies serves as a lesson to all: even the most detailed attempts at crafting a fraudulent story will be unravelled by well-trained researchers.”

    Open, Global Genealogy

    Of course, if all data was truly open and accessible to everyone - which is our aim at UK Free Genealogy, con-artists such as Davies would find it more difficult to work their scams!

    OPEN, GLOBAL GENEALOGY is the theme of our annual conference which will take place (online) on 22 and 29 May. Find out more about our plans for the conference and register to join us on the 2021 Conference page.

  • Brick Wall Challenge: Open Data Day 2020

    We have been inundated with responses so have closed for this year.

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    We're holding a 'Genealo-thon' on Saturday the 7th March, using our records to help break down your brick walls.

    Why not get some fresh eyes on your Brick Wall Ancestor? This year for Open Data Day we're hosting a Brick Wall Challenge! Send us as much information as you have on your 'brick wall' ancestor (BWA) and the Free UK Genealogy community will try to help you push that ancestral line back a generation using our freely available Open Data.

    Use the form below to tell us as much as you can about your BWA and if your application is progressed we will be in touch!

    When sending us a FamilySearch tree link, please make sure the focus is on your brick wall ancestor, or other ancestor; if it is on yourself, we won't be able to view your tree.

    If you'd like to be involved from the other side, to help break down the Brick Walls, this is the page for you: https://www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk/news/2020/02/14/brick-wall-team/