• Two New Features for FreeREG and FreeCEN

    Free UK Genealogy is proud to announce two new features to assist our users.

    FreeCEN (with free access to high quality transcriptions of nineteenth century British censuses) and FreeREG (with high quality transcriptions of registrations of baptism, marriage and burials) now have "friendly" permanent URLs to their records.  

    Records in FreeBMDwhich covers the civil registrations of birth, marriage and death in England and Wales has permanent URLs that you can copy and paste from the “info” page. 

    For FreeREG and FreeCEN, the URL displayed in the address bar of a detailed search results page will always take you back to that detailed search results page. There is a snippet of information in the "friendly" URL which will enable researchers to identify which URL belongs to which person's record.

    Snip of FreeCEN highlighting location of the address bar and URL


    The second new feature makes use of permanent URLs: if you want to cite a FreeCEN or FreeREG transcription in your family tree/academic work or take a note of a record of interest to return to it later, now you can do so using the Citation Generator button. This is located on the far right of the row of buttons after "Next Dwelling" and "New Search" on FreeCEN, and next to the "Export as JSON" button on FreeREG. Clicking there, you get a choice of which format of citation you want to use. As the generator uses the permanent URLs, it means you will always be able to go back to the record without having to search for it again.


    These new features have been brought to you by our team of volunteer developers, and in the case of the citation generator, by Sudaraka Jayathilaka who developed this feature as an intern working with us as part of the Google Summer of Code programme. Google Summer of Code is a global programme that brings student developers into open source software development. Students work with an open source organisation on a 3 month programming project during their break from college or university. Sudaraka has written about his experience on his blog

    If you are interested in developing your programming skills, please consider volunteering with us.

  • Poison Panic on BBC One

    We're pleased to host another guest post by author and FreeREG transcriber Helen Barrell, who will feature on BBC One's Murder, Mystery and My Family  this Wednesday (3rd April) at 09.15am. 

    Here, Helen describes the usefulness of parish registers in researching the subject of her books, and the case of Sarah Chesham, who she believes suffered an unfair outcome in her trial.

    Cover of Poison Panic

    The cover of Helen's book: Poison Panic.

    Some years ago, I was researching a branch of my family who lived in Acton in Suffolk. I discovered a great-several times uncle called Mordecai Simpson who, it turned out, had been drawn into an arsenic poisoning which led to the hanging of a 17-year-old.

    This was the rather sad case of Catherine Foster, who was convicted of murdering her husband. The crime only came to light when Mordecai, who lived next door to Catherine, noticed his chickens dying. It turned out they’d eaten leftovers from the arsenic-laced dumpling that Catherine had fed to her husband. She was hanged in 1847.

    While transcribing the parish registers for Wix in Essex, I stumbled over another arsenic case – when Mary May was found guilty of poisoning her half-brother Spratty Watts (also known as William Constable). Mary was hanged in 1848, and the more I looked, the more cases of arsenic poisonings I found cropping up in the newspapers around that time.

    And one of the other cases was that of Sarah Chesham, who stood trial no less than three times for poisoning in 1847 and once again in 1851. Just after that final trial, when Sarah was condemned to death, an act was passed which restricted the sale of arsenic. Up until then, it was as easy to buy as an any innocent grocery, but after the act was passed, arsenic could only be purchased if the customer signed or marked the poisons register. In later years, many other poisons were added to the restricted list, including strychnine and cyanide. If you’re an avid reader of Golden Age crime fiction, you’ll have come across poisons registers in murder mysteries.

    But these stories are no fictions – real people died of arsenic poisonings, and real people were hanged in front of crowds of thousands of people. I was curious about the impact of the cases on the people involves and their communities and so set about researching them in detail. In 2016, Poison Panic, my book about the cluster of poisonings in Essex was published, and in 2017, Fatal Evidence, the biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor – the toxicologist who worked on nearly all the cases in Poison Panic, as well as famous nineteenth-century trials like that of William Palmer – came out.

    Alfred Swaine Taylor giving evidence at an inquest

    Last year I was contacted by the makers of BBC1’s award-winning series Murder, Mystery and My Family. Sarah Chesham was to be the subject of one of the episodes, and they asked me for my help.

    I was really glad to be involved as I’m not convinced that Sarah Chesham had a fair trial in 1851. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s what the law would define as an “unfair trial”, because as things were in 1851, the judge presiding over the case and who sentenced her to death after she was convicted of attempted murder, had not technically done anything wrong. It’s just that morally it doesn’t seem right as the Offences Against the Person Act, under which she was tried, doesn’t include execution as a possible sentence – life imprisonment or transportation for life are the stiffest sentences possible. However, judges were allowed to sentence as they saw fit, and Campbell, the judge, decided that Sarah was guilty of the charges she’d been acquitted of in 1847 as well. 

    Sarah had no defence counsel, and the press had been printing lurid nonsense about her too – with no money of her own, no solicitor to raise a petition, and with no Appeal Court (which wouldn’t exist until 1875) to challenge Campbell’s sentence, Sarah Chesham was hanged.

    Parish registers were incredibly useful for my research – not only did they inspire me in the first place to find out more about the arsenic poisonings afoot at the time, but they also helped me to reconstruct the families of those involved. In the case of Mary May, the registers were useful for finding out if the newspapers were correct when they claimed she’d had sixteen children and murdered them all – it will come as little surprise to learn that this wasn’t true at all. Over-the-top gossip surrounding the arsenic poisonings cases made their way into newspapers unchecked and were repeated and exaggerated as the stories spread. 

    Parish registers offer us an insight into ordinary people’s lives – and when those people become part of extraordinary events, those registers can give us the facts that overblown, tub-thumping newspaper editorial of the past distorts. And so it’s fitting we filmed a scene in Clavering’s churchyard, where the very vicar who recorded Sarah Chesham’s family in his parish’s registers once stood.

    Helen Barrell, FreeREG Transcriber and Author of Poison Panic in Clavering, Essex.

    The second series of Murder, Mystery and My Family is being broadcast on BBC1 from 25th March to 5th April. The episode about Sarah Chesham airs on Wednesday 3rd April.

    Helen Barrell’s books Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence are published by Pen & Sword and available from all good bookshops.

    Transcriptions for Acton, Clavering and Wix can be found on FreeREG.

  • Opening Death Data for Genealogists and Other Historians

    Open Data image with logos

    Open Data Day is an annual celebration of open data all over the world. On Saturday 3rd March groups from around the world will create local events on the day where they will use open data in their communities. It is an opportunity to show the benefits of open data and encourage the adoption of open data policies in government, business and civil society.

    All outputs are open for everyone to use and re-use.  Research Data is one of four themes for this year's Open Data Day.

    All three of our current projects contain information which is invaluable to family historians and other researchers. The indices to the registrations of death in England and Wales are, of course, freely available on www.freebmd.org.uk. Civil registration only started in 1837, so to find deaths which occurred earlier, you can look on www.freereg.org.uk, to see Church of England and other burials.  Later burials are there too, from the Church of England Registers and a growing range of religious organisations and secular bodies.  Most recently, we have received images of burial registers from Lancashire that are awaiting transcription - sign up here to help get them on line sooner!

    Image of a desk with genealogy paraphernalia


    Surprisingly, perhaps, the census records we transcribe and share on www.freecen.org.uk also have information about death. On https://freecen1.freecen.org.uk you can search by occupation, and this includes those who worked in various aspects of the businesses surrounding death.  Restricting the search to Cornwall, in 1841 there was just one (funeral) "undertaker" recorded (in St Austell) In 1851, four undertakers are recorded:

    Image showing details of four undertakers


    In 1861, just one again is recorded, and in 1871 five including Jabez Parkyn.  A decade later, the Parkyn name becomes even more visible, as the children of the family (shown below in the 1871 census) continued the family trade, all three describing themselves as "Builder & Undertaker":

    1871 Census, Parkyn Family


    But in 1891, although the number had grown to 11, none of them was a Parkyn.  Jabez senior and Jabez junior (now spelled Parkin) are recorded purely as Builders, Jabez William A had become a painter.

    Parkin 1881 census


    This brief look raises many questions - many undertakers had more than one occupation (carpenter or mason being common).  Were others who were recorded only as masons or carpenters also arranging funerals? We have not yet enabled a search-by-occupation feature on FreeCEN2 - we'd love to know if you would use this feature, and how you would like the search of occupations to work there.

    I restricted the data to Cornwall, as we now have permission to share this dataset as Open Data - please contact us to request access to this dataset. Sharing this data as Open means that the history of undertaking in Victorian Cornwall can be undertaken (excuse the pun!) much more easily than for other counties.

    Please join us in exploring our records on 3rd March, commenting here or on our Facebook event.  We'd love to know anything you are doing with the data of death - for example if you are researching the Undertaking Parkyns of Cornwall, exploring longevity, or if you would like us to transcribe the records of your church or share the transcriptions from a graveyard survey.

  • Nothing from Northern Ireland?

    Some reseachers have - rightly - questioned why Free UK Genealogy has 'UK' in its name as we have, until recently, not transcribed records created in Northern Ireland.

    The UK in our name reflects ambition rather than the actuality of the three projects which are currently providing data (FreeBMD - England and Wales, FreeCEN - England and Wales, Scotland and Crown Dependencies, and FreeREG - England and Wales, Scotland, and Crown Dependencies). 
    This is not to say that we do not have data relating to Northern Ireland.  It is most easily accessible on the original FreeCEN website, where you can search by place of birth.   For example, Harriett Smith, a widow born in Argmagh, was working as a servant in Nottingham in 1891:

    Screenshot of transcription of a household from FreeCEN website
    Household in Nottingham, including Hariett Smith, born Armagh
    Grand brick-built Victorian villa
    Cliff House, Hermitage Walk, Nottingham (c) Savilles (1)

    You can currently search on FreeCEN by Northern Irish county, and Eire counties will be added shortly. You cannot, currently, search by place of birth within any county - we would love to hear from you about how we can best help you to search for Irish ancestors, so please fill in the survey there. Sadly, the early censuses of Ireland have rarely survived. We would like to work with the National Archives of Ireland, who hold those fragments which remain, to enable the early censuses to be transcribed, and their data for the 1901 and 1911 to be shared on FreeCEN. 

    On FreeREG, we have recently been given transcriptions of registers in Co. Fermanagh, and these are the start of our coverage for Northern Ireland.  Country Coordinator Sandra Adams-West is contacting record-holders and recruiting new transcribers (head over to https://www.freereg.org.uk/cms/opportunities-to-volunteer-with-freereg if you would like to help out).

    Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in Ireland in 1864.  Records are searchable at https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk/, but in a very limited form.  We would like to work with the government of Northern Ireland, to enable searching across the UK (in FreeBMD), which would make their data more discoverable while enabling them to retain their income from pay-per-view to the certificates.  We are hoping to transcribe registration of Birth, Marriage and Death from military contexts and these include instances of events in Ireland.  For example one folio of the Registry of Marriages, Births and Baptisms, C Brigade Royal Horse Artillery. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C11665645 begins with a marriage at Charlemont, Armagh, in 1889, and ends with the birth of their daughter in Aldershot the following year.  This is a good example of a record which is currently inaccessible, as it has not been digitised

    So while we do not yet have much from Northern Ireland we have a little, and plans to do a great deal more. we would be delighted to hear from any organisation with such records that they would like us to transcribe.

    (1) This image shows the house where Harriett was a General Servant in a household with 10 young children  The house was offered for sale a few years ago, and the details are still available at http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-22783515.html

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    Look out for our series of guest posts starting next week, where professional Irish genealogist Nicola Morris of timeline.ie will be exploring Irish records in more depth.