I’ll try to keep this brief.
I’ve blogged a lot in the past few years about the problems with many of the databases on the major commercial genealogical websites and in particular the various county-wide English and Welsh parish register collections. I’ve already looked in depth at the issue surrounding missing registers and the difficulties that this can cause for the websites’ paying customers, so I’m not going to go over that ground again.
Instead, I want to focus on another connected issue that all-too-regularly rears its ugly head; I’m talking about the situation where incorrect and often misleading descriptions are attached to a collection of documents. I came across a good (or rather, a bad) example of this phenomenon today while carrying out some research into my wife’s Cheshire ancestors.
I was particularly interested in viewing the marriage record of Daniel Smith and Martha Coundye (or Cundy) who I knew had married in Prestbury, Cheshire in 1804. My initial attempts at tracking down the relevant entry met with, shall we say, mixed results. I knew that Findmypast was the place to go for Cheshire parish register material and I was quickly able to find the entry in the Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Bishop’s Transcripts Marriages 1576-1906 database but I couldn’t find anything relevant in the main Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Parish Marriages 1538-1910 database.
I really needed to see the original entry in the parish register; not only is the Bishop’s Transcript (BT) a copy of the original (and therefore lacking any original signatures) but, in this case, the BT was heavily truncated, providing us with none of that additional information which can so often make all the difference when it comes to research in this period.
I checked the parish list which accompanies the database and this told me that the coverage for Prestbury extended from 1560 to 1910 and that 36,566 records were included in the database. (I guess that this means that there are 18,283 marriages as each marriage record generates two database entries.)
However, I was aware (from bitter experience) that these dates are, by necessity, merely start and end dates and that they can mask all manner of gaps in the records themselves. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, there are any number of reasons why there might be gaps in parish register collections so, again, I won’t go into that here.
My default policy in cases like this is to pop over to the relevant county archives’ catalogue to see what their coverage looks like for the parish in question. Cheshire Archives is one of those commendable record offices which allows you to download a comprehensive list of their parish registers, providing you with all the information you need: covering dates, archival references and microfilm references.
Turning to the entry for St Peter, Prestbury, I was quickly able to see that there were no obvious gaps in the holdings, and that there was a register (reference P 338/8504/18) covering marriages from 1803 to 1810.
Cheshire Archives clearly had the register I wanted, so why was I unable to find the record on the Findmypast database?
It took me the best part of an hour to sort out what was going on and rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of the exhausting process I went through, I’ve summarised my findings in the following table:
So, as far as the Findmypast Cheshire Diocese Of Chester Parish Marriages 1538-1910 database is concerned no marriages at all took place at Prestbury between 1748 and 1828. In fact, the records are all there but about two thirds of them have been incorrectly assigned to the parish of Saltersford cum Kettleshulme while the remainder haven’t been assigned to any parish at all. So, if you’re searching the database for marriages in Prestbury in this period, you won’t find them.
I really don’t think it should be too hard to do something like this and to do it properly. Each of the sections of digital microfilm is preceded by the familiar title page which describes exactly what’s on the pages that follow; in the case of the register that I was looking for, Prestbury Parish Church Marriages from 1803 to 1810.
I just can’t understand how it’s possible to fail to assign a placename to the marriages in this clearly-marked Prestbury parish register (likewise in four others) as Findmypast have evidently done. Even harder to understand is how the many thousands of marriages which are recorded in the Prestbury registers between 1754 and 1786 and between 1812 and 1828 have ended up being assigned to the tiny parish of Saltersford cum Kettleshulme.
The job of the commercial genealogical website here is a simple one; to take the material provided by the archive and to make it available to the paying customer via a suitable name index. It seems to me that creating the name index is the difficult part: making sure that all of the material you were provided with is actually accessible and that it’s fully and properly described is (surely!) relatively straightforward.
In the case of the Prestbury marriage registers we’re dealing with nearly 15,000 marriages over an 80-year period which are either incorrectly described or effectively not described at all.
If this was an isolated incident, it would be a simple enough task to report the problem and trust that it would quickly be sorted. But experience tells me that it’s anything but. These collections are full of errors like this and they all go towards making our jobs as researchers that little bit harder.
It’s just not good enough…
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 October 2021