You really can’t do it all online…

Yesterday, I made a flying visit to the library of the Society of Genealogists in London. The main purpose of my visit was to view some parish registers which I had identified as being part of their collection, thanks to their excellent online catalogue.

The volumes in question were typed, indexed transcripts of the registers of a number of Bedfordshire parishes. Bedfordshire is that rarity these days; an English county which hasn’t got into bed with one of the commercial genealogical websites.[1] Both the county record office Bedfordshire Archives and Record Service and the Bedfordshire Family History Society can sell you transcribed, indexed copies of the county’s collection of parish registers, either in hard copy, or on CD, but you won’t find digital images of the registers online. The Archives’ website tells us that Bedfordshire is ‘the first English county for which all the pre-1812 parish registers have been transcribed, indexed and published.’[2]

This is both frustrating, as the instant access to information that we’re used to with other counties is unavailable to us, and yet somehow quaintly re-assuring. It’s an old-fashioned approach, but you can pretty much guarantee that the quality of the transcription will comfortably outstrip what we’re used to from the commercial websites, and therefore that we are far more likely to (eventually) find the information we want.

And it’s not just the quality of the indexing; it’s the confidence you get from knowing exactly what you’re looking at. It’s all about having intellectual control. The Archives and the FHS between them know exactly what they’ve got and when you purchase one of their books or CDs, they’ll tell you exactly what they’re providing you with. This is something you rarely get from the commercial websites, who like to provide county-wide databases without, apparently, any concern about whether the collection is complete and without any genuine commitment to correcting any deficiencies once the database has been launched. It’s fair to say that some are better than others in this area…

Having said all this, I’m a 21st century researcher and I need instant gratification so rather than wait however long it would take to receive the relevant CDs in the post, I decided to look elsewhere for alternatives.

My quest was to locate a birth/baptismal record of a man who should have been born sometime in the late 1760s: his age was given as 65 at the time of his burial in September 1833. His surname (which, to protect client confidentiality, I won’t give here) is highly localised and, although it has spread over the centuries into London and south-west Essex, it is most commonly found in a small group of parishes on either side of the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border. The surname has, to use a term which I learned from the late, great George Redmonds, ‘ramified’ in this area, making tracing individuals, particularly those whose families didn’t tend to own land or to leave wills, somewhat challenging to say the least.

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Surnames And Genealogy: A New Approach by George Redmonds
New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1997

Despite the lack of anything approaching a comprehensive, county-wide database of Bedfordshire registers (Hertfordshire is, in theory at least, fully covered by Findmypast, although there are in fact significant gaps in the collection) there is some decent online coverage of baptisms, marriages and even some burials for the county, on each of the major sites. Principal among these is the collection on FamilySearch – the records which were formerly part of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and can now also be found on Ancestry and Findmypast.

However, searches had failed to turn up a record of my man, so I was left with a number of possibilities:

  • he wasn’t baptised
  • he was baptised under a different name
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism hasn’t survived
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism has been mistranscribed
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism isn’t available online

I don’t have time to go into each of these here but suffice it to say that I considered each of them before concluding that the last option was the most likely.

I needed, therefore, to find out what was and what wasn’t available online. My two go-to websites for a task such as this are FamilySearch’s indispensable English Jurisdictions 1851 and the associated FamilySearch Research Wiki.

On the first of these, I began by using the Radius place search feature to identify all of the parishes within ten miles of the place where I knew that my target lived for most of his life, namely, Meppershall in Bedfordshire.

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Screenshot from FamilySearch English Jurisdictions 1851, showing results of a ‘Radius place search’ centred on Meppershall (accessed 19 February 2020)

I then checked the Wiki for each of the parishes on the list to see what coverage there was of the baptismal registers for the period I was interested in. It didn’t take me too long to establish that coverage on a combination of FamilySearch, Findmypast and FreeReg was, apparently, comprehensive.

So, had I been wrong in concluding that the most likely solution was that the record of his baptism simply wasn’t available online? Well, no…

You see, we really need to understand that the dates shown in the FamilySearch Wiki alongside the various websites are merely the earliest and the latest years covered on that website. For example, it tells me that the FamilySearch website includes records for the parish of Clifton, Bedfordshire for the years 1602 to 1875, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have records for every year.

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Screenshot from FamilySearch Research Wiki, showing entry for Clifton, Bedfordshire (accessed 19 February 2020)

It’s wholly possible that somewhere in the help sections on the FamilySearch Wiki it explains this, and I understand the necessity behind presenting the information in this way,  but I feel that it might perhaps be useful to make the limitations more explicit. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that when a website tells you that “parish registers of christenings, marriages and burials are available online for the following years”, it might actually mean just that…

I had noticed that there was a family with the surname I was looking for having children baptised in Clifton at around the right time and, given its proximity to Meppershall, I decided to focus on that parish. And when I looked at all the baptismal records for Clifton that were available online, it was clear that there were some serious gaps in the 1750s and 1760s; certain years for which there were no entries at all. Although this isn’t specified, it looked like what we were dealing with here were Bishop’s Transcripts with limited survival. So, could my man be a child of this Clifton family? Could he simply have been baptised in a year for which no Bishop’s Transcripts survive?

It looked promising so I decided to visit the Society of Genealogists where I knew I would be able to look at their copies of the Bedfordshire parish register transcripts and also, should I wish to, to view their copy of the ‘original’ Clifton parish registers on microfilm.

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The Society of Genealogists, London

And guess what? There, in the transcript of the Clifton parish register, I found the baptism, in February 1769 of someone with the name I was looking for. He was one of nine children of the same family, baptised at Clifton between 1750 and 1769, yet only two of them appear on FamilySearch. I don’t know yet whether this is my man or not but it’s a very promising find and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it is him. As I said, Clifton is only a mile from Meppershall and the names of six of the children in the Clifton family were used by my man for his own children.

It’s worth noting that I would have had the same success if I’d visited Bedfordshire Archives – but they probably couldn’t have helped me with my Northumberland case…

The lesson here is that we mustn’t assume that everything’s online. Despite the astonishing range of material available online there’s still a huge amount that can only be accessed by visiting an archive or a library.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 February 2020

[1] I notice that in 2017 Ancestry added some Bedfordshire records ‘in association with Bedfordshire Archives’ so perhaps there’s more in the pipeline.
[2] http://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/Guide-to-Collections/FamilyHistory/BedfordshireParishRegisterSeries.aspx

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1 Response to You really can’t do it all online…

  1. A massive problem that I have noticed in Leicestershire is that people who have transcribed records have no local knowledge, this also carries over in Ancestry and their sometimes farcical attempts at names and in particular street names. 30 years later those mistakes are still there and yes I have reported numerous mistakes!

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