• 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!

  • 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

  • Camilla von Massenbach steps down as Free UK Genealogy trustee

    We are sad to share the news that Camilla Gemmingen von Massenbach has stepped down from her role as trustee of Free UK Genealogy.

    Together with Ben Laurie and Graham Hart, Camilla conceived and founded FreeBMD in 1998. Over the last 25 years, it has expanded to cover over 415 million records across a family of three sites. 

    She was instrumental in setting up FreeBMD as a charity, and served as a trustee of FreeBMD from the beginning and then, once the organisation expanded to include FreeREG and FreeCEN, of Free UK Genealogy. Although she stepped down as chair in 2017, she continued as trustee offering much needed help and guidance as the organisation developed. Pat Reynolds, who joined as Chief Executive Officer in 2016 remembers Camilla for her huge and continuing work for the charity, in areas from governance to running payroll, and for the personal support she received from Camilla over the years. Richard Light, outgoing Chair of Trustees, was first encouraged to get involved with Free UK Genealogy through the enthusiasm of Camilla (and husband Ben) for Open Data.

    We would like to note our deep appreciation for everything Camilla has done over all this time. Put simply, if it wasn’t for Camilla we wouldn’t have FreeBMD, or Free UK Genealogy today.

    She shared the following message which we would like to share with all the volunteers:

    I remember when we started FreeBMD. It seems like yesterday but was actually twenty three or twenty four years ago now.

    We had visions of a free access database with the BMD GRO indexes freely searchable. I think there were thought to be about 100 million entries at the time.  It seemed like an impossible target to aim for - to transcribe all those entries. There are somewhere approaching three times as many as the original target online now.

    We had visions of people collaborating and offering transcribing, other expertise and lots of time to achieve this, and even hoped we might be able to claim 100 million records in our lifetimes. We were not quite sure how to fund the resources we needed and funding continues to take up a lot of brainpower. But, we have managed to not charge for the transcribed data. It is still free access and always will be.  (If you wish to donate, we always welcome the support.)

    The task isn't complete but the achievement is real. The scope has widened. Our own umbrella Free UK Genealogy now also covers FreeREG and FreeCEN, sister databases with huge ambitions producing hugely significant primary source transcriptions for free access. Out there, the idea of Crowd Sourcing is well known and used successfully for all sorts of things. Those of you who were with us early on can legitimately say we must have been the first Internet Crowd Sourced project.  We set a pattern and have had a wide influence.

    My role was never a technical one, but for a long time, I ran the finances and acted as guinea pig tester and anything else that was wanted. There is rather a lot more to do these days and we have an Executive Director extraordinaire and a handful of wonderful staff as well as a dedicated board of trustees and an advisory board. The lines of communication have improved and the technical underpinning and systems which worked and worked for many years are all being modernised and made fit for the future. Of course the most important people are all the volunteers new and old who contribute time, expertise, enthusiasm at all levels of the organisations. The community has created a very useful thing!

    I am reviewing all this now, because I have enjoyed being part of this whole thing which has also been so important in my life for so long. However, recently, I have really only had time to provide a sort of continuity for the more recently enlisted trustees and am aware they are doing just fine. I also have rather a lot on, so fear I am not terribly reliable either. So it is time for me to step down as a formal Trustee.

    I wish Free UK Genealogy success!


  • Help keep access to family history free with the Big Give Christmas Challenge!


    We managed to raise our pledge target of £5,000 thanks to our loyal supporters and volunteers. We weren't selected for that to be matched by a Big Give champion, which brought our overall target to £10,000.

    The campaign ran from November 29th to December 6th and we managed to surpass the target through the generosity of our donors, raising a total of £12,772!

    A huge thank you to each and every one of you. We know that times are hard for lots of us right now, so this means so much to our charity.

    This year, Free UK Genealogy is looking to raise £20,000 through the Big Give Christmas Challenge. We aim to spend this on modernising and improving our services across all our websites. 

    Our Free websites (FreeBMD, FreeCEN and FreeREG) are all looking at improvements which will help to improve user and transcriber experiences. 
    FreeBMD must be updated and refreshed to provide better user search facilities and transcriber tools. We want to enhance the FreeCEN interface for users on phones and tablets and increase transcriber flexibility in data fields. In addition, FreeREG hopes to improve transcription tools online and offline and improve search engine features, such as wildcard options.
    Unfortunately, without extra funding, it will be some time before we will be able to implement any changes to the websites.

    As this is our first Christmas Challenge, we’re keen to be realistic and successful! So we are asking for your help with the first phase, which is to gain enough pledges to reach our £5,000 target. We need supporters willing to pledge at least £100. A pledge is a promise to match donations made during the Christmas Challenge.

    Once pledges are in, the second phase begins. Individual Big Give Champions will select to double a charity's fundraising. For example, if a Champion picks Free UK Genealogy, this will be a fantastic opportunity to raise funds and help improve FreeBMD/CEN/REG. 

    You won’t need to pay anything until after the campaign ends in early December. If you want to help, please act now, as the deadline for pledges is the 2nd of September 2022

    You can make your pledge here: https://www.thebiggive.org.uk/s/pledge?campaignId=a056900002NEB61AAH

    All donations made during the Christmas Challenge will be matched with the pledges previously raised. This means that every £1 you pledge can become £2, and if a Big Give Champion selects us, every £1 you pledge can become £4.

    This video helps explain the process:

    If you're not in a position to offer a pledge, please consider donating any amount you wish instead when the campaign goes live on 29th of November. 

    We're very excited to be part of the Big Give Christmas Challenge, and we hope you will be too.