• 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!

  • Spanish nobleman ‘Found Shot’ in Peterborough

    An intriguing entry occasionally catches the eye of our transcribers - and raises all kinds of unanswered questions.

    One such entry was recently unearthed by Ian Slater, a volunteer transcriber for FreeREG, when working his way through the burial register for Broadway Cemetery in Peterborough.

    Ian writes:

    When transcribing records, it is unusual to find one with an unconfirmed name; an age ‘range’; and an unknown address. So, when I found the following entry, it literally stopped me in my tracks:

    “Name – Hipolito Finat (supposed to be);

    Address – Unknown;

    Buried – 17 August 1885;

    Age – about 40-50 yrs”.

    Why was his name “supposed to be”? And why was his age in doubt, and his address unknown?

    Today, some 130 years later, we have the benefit of access to digitised records on the internet and, naturally, my first thought was to search for the name online.

    My search revealed a sorry and puzzling tale – reported in several newspapers* nationwide during August and September of 1885.

    Found Shot

    The reports revealed that Count Hipólito Finat was a Spanish nobleman, born in Madrid in 1838, and married to Leonor de Carvajal in 1870. He was a member of the Spanish Cortes, Deputy for the Province of Seville - and, sadly, he had shot himself in the head in King Street, Peterborough on the morning of Wednesday 12th August 1885.

    The first problem was identification – and, as the record shows, at the point of burial (five days after his death) they were not even sure they had got his name correct!

    The newspapers reported that Finat was found with nothing in his pockets that would lead to his identification. But from the quality of his clothes (made by outfitters in Paris) and, from his appearance, it was thought that this was “a gentleman from Spain or France”.

    So, the City Mayor contacted the Spanish and French Consuls in London. And, having found that the waistband of Finat’s trousers had the maker’s name of Robert Cumberland with an address in Paris (together with the name Finat and Madrid), the Mayor also contacted M Cumberland. In the telegram reply, it was confirmed that Hipolito Finat was a well-known gentleman from Madrid.

    The newspapers reported that he had, in fact, left Paris on 10th August, with 600 French Francs (about £24) and a gold watch and chain in his possession, although this was missing when his body was found.

    For some time, it seems Finat had been under the care of a Dr Barbet, Rue Boileau, Paris, and in a telegram received by the Mayor of Peterborough from Finat's bankers in Paris, it is stated that he was "temporarily mad". It was also reported that Finat had expressed an intention to commit suicide as he had thought that he would lose his fortune.

    At the inquest on 24th August 1885, an open verdict of Found Shot was returned.

    Image from the National Library of Wales


    With the identity confirmed and some context gathered, attention now focused on repatriation.
    On 19th August, the Consul-General of Spain based in London contacted the Mayor by telegram asking that the body be preserved. However, of course, the burial had taken place in the Broadway Cemetery two days earlier by the city Poor-Law Officials (after a photograph had been taken).

    Subsequently, on 10th September 1885, the Peterborough Mayor received an order from the Home Secretary for the exhumation of the body of Count Finat. This took place on 14th September at 4am in the presence of a group that included the Mayor, a Catholic priest, a doctor and the head-constable. 

    Four days later, the body was sent to London (after being encased in a lead shell and an oak coffin with silver mountings), where it was shipped on board the SS Lope de Vega, and forwarded to Madrid, accompanied by the priest.

    Why Peterborough?

    The question remains: Why did an important Spanish Count depart Paris and travel to Peterborough in England to commit suicide?
    While searching on the Count’s name in the newspaper archives, Finat’s name was found listed as a director on a 'prospectus' for the Union Bank of Spain and England Limited in 1881. This gives him a reason for having been in England – but the bank was headquartered in London, so why Peterborough? Maybe a branch was being considered there. Further searches show the bank went into voluntary liquidation around 1895, so it’s possible that Finat had good cause to fear he might lose his fortune.

    A noble link

    Peterborough does have one other link with Spanish nobility: some 350 years earlier, Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was buried in Peterborough Cathedral (1536). So, Finat was not the first important Spaniard to be buried locally – although he was probably the only one to have been exhumed and taken back to the country of his birth!
    At Free UK Genealogy, we naturally champion using free resources for our research. Although most newspaper archives are behind 'paid' walls these days, it is possible to search some newspaper archives for free and extract information. A search on ‘Count Finat’ in the newspaper archives (see sources below) brings up several pages of headlines and extracts, from which it has been possible to ascertain several facts about the incident, as Ian has related in this article. The Welsh Newspapers online site is, however, completely free!


    Results for 'count finat' | Between 1st Jan 1850 and 31st Dec 1899 | British Newspaper Archive

    Welsh Newspapers Online - Search - '()' (library.wales)

    Hipólito Finat | findmypast.co.uk

  • 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…


    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.


    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/