• 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…


    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.

  • What Word Should Replace "Transcriptions"?

    Update: We changed the link to "Records" in November 2020

    A few months ago, we asked in our newsletter for suggestions to replace the hyperlinked word "TRANSCRIPTIONS" on our website as it doesn't fully communicate what we want it to: 

    In the redevelopment of the FreeBMD interface (FreeBMD2), we want to standardise our terminology to provide consistency across all of our websites. Each of the sister projects has an area where we provide information on the data we've transcribed, and what places, churches or districts, registers or volumes are included. This is being extended on FreeREG to include what we would like to transcribe if we could get the images, what gaps exist in the transcriptions and why, and where we cannot provide results because of embargoes imposed by an organisation. This is currently called COVERAGE on FreeBMD, and has been known on FreeCEN (up until recently) as DATABASE COVERAGE. We've also tried DATABASE and CONTENTS.

    Currently, we're using TRANSCRIPTIONS in the menu bar (see image above) but this doesn't convey the entirety of what this area contains, i.e. places, gaps etc. We're struggling to decide on a 'one-word-fits all' solution, so we would really like to hear your ideas and opinions.

    We've narrowed down the responses to three potential words, and now we're asking you, our volunteers, to vote for your choice in our poll, below.

    bike tracks
  • Get Closer to Your Family Whilst Physically Distancing (Part Two)

    Following activities 1-5  of this post, here are the last 5 things you can do to bring your family into focus at this time of being physically distant. We hope you enjoyed the conversation starters to get your relatives sharing their memories and that you're ready to dive a bit deeper into your family history!

    6) Look everybody up on FreeREG

    When the FreeREG project started with the ambition of transcribing all the Church of England registers from before civil registration began in 1837 (or later) it soon expanded to include registers of baptism, marriage and burial from other religious and secular organisations. The registers often contain information which is not available from the FreeBMD indexes.

    Been there, done that? 

    Try again - we are adding records all the time.  And use the new 'Unique Names' feature to see if Great Uncle Jonathan can’t be found because his name was misspelt.

    7) Call people again

    Now you have more information, call everybody again. You can ask more questions and check your research against people's memories.

    Been there, done that?  

    Use social media to see if anyone recalls deceased members of your family, or see if there is anything online about a school or other institution your ancestors were associated with. Famous ancestor? Make sure the Wikipedia article links to them on Wikitree or other publically available family tree. Check the Guild of One Name Studies to see if there are others researching the same name.

    8) Getting on a bit? Censuses are your friend!

    You may by now have people in your tree born more than 100 years ago. Three free resources you can use to find out more for people born before 1920:

    FreeCEN (if born 1891 or earlier). While not complete, the transcriptions are of high quality, and lots of detail is given that you may not find on other free websites, and the search engine is great if you are looking for more common names.

    FamilySearch (if born 1911 or earlier). More complete than FreeCEN, but the transcriptions do not give all the detail.

    Similar to a census, the 1939 Register basic search is free but after that, behind a paywall - make a note as you can often get free access at a public library, and you can visit once social contact is again possible.

    Been there, done that? 

    Use the census information (and information from civil and other registrations) to look deeper at the lives of your ancestors - the local museums and parishes and towns where they lived often have great resources, trade associations and professions and often have fascinating websites.

    9) Remember those who went before

    Whether you are an old hand, or new to family history, if you are still able to get out of the house (but need to keep in the open and away from others) you might like to visit graveyards that you’ve identified could commemorate your ancestors; you may find further information there. 

    You can ask others to go look on your behalf if you can’t get out, or by contacting relatives and friends living locally. Or you can answer requests from others, or record the graveyard on FindAGrave.

    You can also remember people by celebrating their birthday or marriage anniversary - perhaps via social media, perhaps by doing a little deeper research into their lives.

    10) Giving something back

    We’ve already mentioned a few ways you can support others interested in family history.  We hope that you have found the high-quality transcriptions on our websites FreeBMD, FreeREG and FreeCEN useful, and would love to have you as a volunteer. There are vacancies for transcribers on all three projects (at all skill levels). We also have vacancies for people to work on help pages (editing, or proofreading or using html), and a great need for Ruby on Rails, MongoDB, MySQL and HTML/CSS developers. Or you could make a financial donation to our work: £5 helps us get almost 400 extra records in our databases and £30 runs our servers for one day.

    If you have suggestions for improvements to these activities, or any others, please let us know in the comments.