The main piece of news this quarter is that the GRO website (https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/) now includes recent deaths. The new index covers the years 1984 to 2019, which presumably is the period covered by electronic record keeping. The procedure for checking the index is the same as for the years from 1837 to 1957, and this leaves a gap of 27 years which is covered by indexes on other websites such as FreeBMD. Unfortunately, certificates for 1984 to 2019 are not available as cheaper electronic pdf files, which means you must pay £11 and receive a copy in the post. I have not yet had to use this new service, so can only report what I have read.

This latest development is a reminder that different indexes each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but that together they can help provide accurate information about people who have died in recent years, or to check if they are still alive. This can be compounded by the position of people who died outside England & Wales, or who just died away from their home town. Identifying the best source can get complicated.

The GRO website is good and accurate for the extended period now covered, but searching is limited to a 5-year period – chosen year +/- 2. This is cumbersome if you are simply trying to discover if someone is still alive or not. Other websites will generally allow a search over a longer period. The GRO website shows full names.

Free BMD (www.freebmd.org.uk/) is now virtually complete up to 1983, although there are still some small gaps in the 1980s. The information has been taken from the printed GRO indexes. By 1983, these show both first names and the date of birth, as well as the registration district details. For some previous years, you can only see the first forename, and perhaps an initial. But you can search over a long period.

Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) has separate files for 1837 to 1915 and 1916 to 2007. Some of these are based on FreeBMD. For years from 2007 to 2018, their index is sourced from GreyPower Deceased Data, which is supplied by a company named Wilmington Millennium, apparently specialists in anti-fraud information. The detail provided is limited, and with Ancestry you sometimes need to be sure you have searched the right database.

Findmypast (www.findmypast.co.uk) has transcribed GRO records up to 2007. From 2007 to 2017, they also have an index provided by Wilmington Millennium but with more detail. These show date of birth, date of death, age, and postcode of place of death. I don’t know the sources used for the Wilmington Millennium information, or how complete the coverage is, but some of it is from the probate index. My aunt Lucy Elizabeth Gray, who died in 2010 is listed three times on Findmypast, for one of which the source is the grant of probate or administration.

The different probate indexes can also help with finding deaths, especially for people who died outside England and Wales but who had property here. They can therefore help you find a death which is otherwise elusive, and may contain useful additional information. The original printed calendars list deaths from 1858 to 1996, after which the records were automated. The probate index only includes people who left wills, or where there was an estate to administer, and only where probate has been granted. They are therefore likely to be more useful for men rather than women, and exclude children and anyone else less likely to have property. However, the indexes themselves can provide information which helps identify the person. The official probate site is called Find a Will (https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#wills), although unfortunately this site only lets you search one year at a time, which can be laborious. It also has a direct link to the order form if you want a copy of a will. Generally speaking, this is the best index to use for the period after 1996. Ordered wills can take a long and unpredictable time to be delivered. I ordered a number of wills on 2nd October. Some arrived within a fortnight, while the last arrived in my in-box on 13th January.

For some years, the details offered in the probate indexes are comprehensive, such as this from 1910

 Alfred Ames probate

And this one from 1948.

 Robert Pollard probate

Later index entries may contain much less information. As well as differences in coverage, there may be differences in presentation. Maxwell Reeve and his wife Anna died on the same day in 1903, both in Madeira. They both left wills, but with different executors. Ancestry has an indexed scan of the original printed calendar, which is the easiest option to use. The probate website has similar scan for 1910, but is white on black and less easy to read. The probate website takes you directly to the page concerned, whereas Ancestry gives brief details of death place to help identification. Findmypast does not offer an effective index for this period, although you can browse.

Maxwell and Anna are both listed on the same page of the Probate Calendar. Her precise address is given – Quinta da Pontinha. It’s now a B & B, and gets good reviews on sites like Trip Advisor. Anna Reeve was the sister of Alfred Ames, who is shown above, but her estate was worth only £1026.

Burial indexes and memorial inscription indexes can also be used to trace a death, but each has a different function. A burial index records each event as it happened, but not necessarily where the death occurred. A memorial may list someone who is not actually buried there, and the memorial can have been erected at any time. Some memorials mark the burial site, while others may be on the wall of the church. Many graves do not have a memorial.

Mary Toghill died in January 1841 in Slimbridge, at the home of her married daughter Thirza. She was buried a week later in Saltford, where her husband had been buried three years earlier. Jordan Lawrence died in California in 1927, but has a memorial in Illinois, where he lived most of his life. Elizabeth Ballin died in Bristol in 1846, but is in the burial index for St Mary’s, Wootton under Edge, where she lived much of her life. Her memorial in the churchyard also records the death of her husband Samuel in 1830, but he does not appear in the burial register. The lesson from all this is that you should accept each piece of evidence as it is, but not draw too many conclusions from it.

Among the recent additions on Ancestry is the burial register of Brompton Cemetery in London. This runs from 1840 to 2012 and lists over 200,000 individuals. The cemetery, which is grade1 listed, is managed by the Royal Parks and contains the graves of many famous people such as Emmeline Pankhurst the suffragette and George Borrow the author. I was surprised to find that it also contains the grave of Robert Kemp, my great-grandfather’s brother. Robert was a GPO letter carrier and died at age 20. He was buried in a private grave twelve feet deep, but I have been unable to find that any other family members were buried at Brompton.

Findmypast has a new, more attractive appearance, but the functionality is largely unchanged. An interesting new set of military records is that of First World War hospitals. The records relate to various different hospitals, and it is best if you know the service number to find a particular individual. Many of the records relate to conditions such as bronchitis, trench foot or “GSW” which I assume means general service wound, and the records show date of admission and discharge, and also where the soldier was discharged to. One of the hospitals included is Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital for officers in Scotland. I found the records for the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was at Craiglockhart twice. The work of the hospital is described in the Regeneration trilogy of novels by Pat Barker.