Let’s make something clear right from the start. I am a huge fan of digitisation and online access in genealogy. Both as an enthusiastic hobbyist and as a professional genealogist with 37 years’ experience, I have reason, on a daily basis, to be grateful for the vast range of key family history resources available nowadays on websites such as Ancestry and Findmypast. I quite simply wouldn’t be able to do my job without the 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week access that I have to some of the most important sources for genealogical research, not just in the UK, but all around the world. The range of resources and the ease of access to them are simply astonishing.
In my previous life as an employee of The National Archives, I was actively involved in the projects to digitise the 1901 and 1911 censuses of England and Wales, so I have first-hand experience of dealing with the issues that can crop up; in particular, the physical practicalities of digitising the original material and the challenges involved in transcribing the data. I know that none of it is easy and I appreciate the amount of work that goes into making it all happen. A fully transcribed dataset attached to a collection of digital images doesn’t just appear by magic…
And I also appreciate the incentive for our archives to enter into agreements with the commercial companies to digitise their records. It’s a way of providing unrestricted access to their key holdings without having to accommodate hundreds of onsite visitors, while at the same time removing the risk of damage or wear and tear to the documents. It’s also (I suspect) a decent source of much-needed revenue.
So, it’s a win for the researcher, it’s a win for the archives and, as they’re continually increasing the range of material that they make available, it must also, presumably, be a win for the commercial websites. Sounds like everyone’s a winner, doesn’t it?
But there’s a problem. Somewhere down the line, we lost sight of an important factor in all this. The commercial companies, however much they may support the genealogical community, however much they take part in educational activities and promote good research techniques, are, at the end of the day, only in to make money. Which in itself, isn’t a problem – except when it comes to the concept of quality control. In certain corners of the commercial world, there’s a principal known as ‘Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’, a concept that was exemplified by the former High Street giants, Woolworths. And I fear that our own genealogical giants have a tendency to follow this mantra at times.
The fallout of this is that the datasets are all-too-often less complete than they should be. Let me give you some examples of this.
As a Hertfordshire-based researcher, I was delighted when a partnership between Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS) and Findmypast (FMP) to digitise the HALS collection of Hertfordshire parish registers was announced. The dataset was launched in 2012 and, as a long term subscriber to FMP I’ve made a lot of use of it over the years.
Of course the HALS collection itself has a number of gaps in it. No county-wide collection is ever going to be complete once we take into account the ravages of time, shifting county boundaries and the (usually mistaken) belief of certain churches that they are best placed to look after their own historical registers. There may also occasionally be issues regarding rights – the fact that an archive is the custodian of a certain document doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the right to digitise it and sell it on to a third party.
Now, there’s nothing on the Findmpast or HALS websites which makes any claim regarding the completeness of the Hertfordshire parish register collection and FMP have a very useful parish list which, in three alphabetical sections, gives the years covered, parish-by-parish, for baptisms, banns & marriages and burials respectively. By necessity, these lists simply show ‘From’ and ‘To’ dates (years) – to list every gap in the holdings would be well beyond the scope of a list like this but the (unspoken) implication is that the dataset comprises the complete relevant holdings of the archive – i.e. HALS. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Take the parish of St James, Bushey for example. The list tells us that the collection includes marriages for Bushey from 1685 to 1915. But when you start looking more closely, it becomes apparent that the database doesn’t include any marriages at all for Bushey between July 1837 and June 1866. A whole register is missing from the online collection.
The archives’ online catalogue clearly lists the register (HALS reference DP/26/1/6) but it’s not on FMP. And it gets worse, because the banns register for Bushey for the years 1844 to 1871 (HALS reference DP/26/1/8) is also missing.
The missing marriage register includes 500 marriages. That’s 500 records (1,000 names) which should be in the Hertfordshire marriages collection on Findmypast but aren’t. And as a researcher and a FMP subscriber, it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that your failure to find the record of the marriage of James Jordan and Mary Harris, who you believe to have married sometime in the late 1840s, means that the couple didn’t get married in Bushey (or, indeed, elsewhere in Hertfordshire). After all, we’re led to believe that the collection is ‘complete’ – the FMP website has told you that it includes marriages at Bushey from 1685 to 1915 and if you checked the HALS catalogue you’d get confirmation that the relevant register is part of their holdings.
But you’d be wrong. James and Mary were married at St James, Bushey – on 10 July 1849. The entry is in the parish register but the register isn’t in the database.
I have found several other examples of this and I reported this particular missing register in May 2019.
Ancestry’s London, England, Church of England parish registers collection is one of the largest on the website. It’s another database that I use practically every day, and one which undoubtedly changed (for the better!) the way that we’re able to search for and locate our London ancestors. The records in the collection were uploaded in association with the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) between 2009 and 2010. Again, with the same caveats mentioned above, the assumption must be that the collection is complete as far as the LMA’s holdings are concerned, but again, this, sadly, is not the case. Over the years I have come across several gaps in the collection but I’ll mention just one here.
The East End parish of St Matthew, Bethnal Green was one of London’s most populous and, in the early 1820s, it saw roughly 500 burials a year. But if you search for a burial that took place in the parish between April 1823 and August 1836, you won’t find any. In this case, no fewer than four registers are missing, including the records of at least 10,000 burials and possibly as many as 12,000. That’s 10,000 burials of people who died over a 13 year period in the East End of London which simply are not included in the London, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813-2003 collection. And these are records that should all be accessible on the Ancestry website. The LMA catalogue even tells us that they are. But they’re not.
How many times over the past 10 years have subscribers searched for the burial of an ancestor who was buried at Bethnal Green sometime between 1823 and 1836 and assumed (when they didn’t find the record) that he or she must have died somewhere else. Or worse than that, assumed that the record of a burial of someone with the same name in a different parish relates to the person that they’re looking for?
This particular lacuna (I’ve always wanted to use that word!) was reported to Ancestry in April this year. And last week, I found out that a baptismal register for the parish of St James, Piccadilly covering the years 1761 to 1785 is missing from Ancestry’s brand new Westminster parish registers collection. It makes me wonder how many more are missing.
Again, the problem is that researchers (i.e. subscribers) will rightly assume that by searching the relevant database, they have covered these registers and assume that the record they’re looking for doesn’t exist, while there’s a good possibility that it actually does.
The questions we need to ask here are why is this happening and why are the problems not being fixed? The cynic in me says that there’s no financial imperative for the commercial websites to do anything about it. They make their money through new subscriptions and the best way to get new subscriptions is to release new material; new datasets with previously unavailable records. Fixing problems in existing databases doesn’t generate income – it takes time and time equals money.
But these problems need to be fixed. Online access via digital images is the archives’ preferred means of access to these key records and if the collections are incomplete, we, the customers, are effectively being denied access to certain documents.
There are plenty of other issues here. The descriptions of the documents on the commercial websites often make it difficult to identify and understand what we’re actually looking at and the archival references are frequently wrong or entirely missing. I fail to understand why these websites would spend time coming up with their own descriptions when all the necessary information is freely available in the archives’ catalogue. Why reinvent the wheel? Particularly when the wheel that you’ve come up with simply isn’t fit for purpose…
Perhaps, the genealogical community needs to exert some pressure – in an organised way. Just reporting the individual issues is clearly getting us nowhere. I received another reply from Ancestry today, thanking me for bringing my latest ‘complaint’ to their attention.
We’ll forward this information on to the relevant teams for you. Thanks so much for sharing this so we could organise this for you!
I worked in customer service for long enough to recognise a brush-off when I see one – even if it is masquerading as something more helpful.
So, how about it? Who’s up for a campaign?
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 6 September 2020
 https://www.findmypast.co.uk/articles/world-records/full-list-of-united-kingdom-records/life-events-bmds/hertfordshire-parish-lists accessed 6 September 2020
 https://archives.hertfordshire.gov.uk/collections/getrecord/GB46_CDP26_1_1_3_2 accessed 6 September 2020
 https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1559/ accessed 6 September 2020