Perhaps the most significant recent development has been the start of the long-awaited publication online of probate records for England and Wales. You can now search for wills from 1996 onwards at https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#wills.
This is a beta site, which means that it is not in a finalised format, and comments are requested. My own initial feelings are that the site is not nearly as good as it could be. The basic search consists of surname and date, so I tried using the surname of a recently deceased aunt – GRAY – and the date 2010. This produced 312 results listed in no particular order, ten to a page. Scrolling through would be tedious, and the correct entry easily missed.
Using the Advanced Search option made it possible to search using first names, and this time I easily got just the result I wanted. I noticed, however, that the probate registry shown was Oxford, whereas my aunt lived in Fareham and my cousin and I used the office in Leicester to swear our oaths. The search screen requires you to input the date of a single year, so if you are unsure of the year when someone died, you have to make an informed guess and then use the “previous year” and “next year” buttons
Less information is provided than in the old printed calendars, but the site does offer a simple way to order online a scanned copy of a will for £10. You are unable to access this straight after ordering it but will be sent an email when it is ready to download, usually within 10 days. It will then be available to download for 31 days. Records of grants issued will appear on the site approximately 14 days after the grant has issued, which is certainly a great improvement on the previous system.
I believe that the Probate Registry began the computer listing of wills in 1996, and this website uses the data already accumulated. Prior to 1996, printed calendars were published, so no work has yet been done on transcribing these, which ought to be a simple task. The Ancestry website has indexed images of the old will calendars from 1858 to 1966, leaving a gap of 30 years in on-line access to these useful documents.
The centenary of the start of the First World War means that many websites have increased the range of data they provide. With the announcement by Forces War Records (www.forces-war-records.co.uk/) that they now have some military hospital records, it seemed a good time to compare the records available on the different websites. I looked for records for Edward Coker, born Portsmouth 1893, who was a motor driver in the Army Service Corps and who survived the war. Forces War Records had no record for him, while Findmypast (www.findmypast.co.uk) had an image of his service record (part of the “burnt record” series), and a transcription of his medal card, plus a link to the TNA website where you can order a copy of the image for £3.30. Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) had images of both his service record and his medal card, which made it the most useful website in this example.
Other useful recent releases on Ancestry are the UK naval officers and ratings records, Debtors’ Prison Registers, 1734-1862, Quarter Sessions records for Dorset and some Bishops Transcripts for Somerset. Meanwhile, Findmypast continues to release new records every Friday, and recent these included school records, wills, court and apprenticeship records from London and Surrey, and records of the Indian Mutiny.
Wiltshire Soldiers (www.wiltshiresoldiers.co.uk/ ) contains service records, letters, newspaper reports, war diaries and some photographs about 12000 servicemen with Wiltshire connections, including the Wiltshire Regiment itself, who fought in the Great War 1914 to 1919. It is run by Richard Broadhead, who spoke at the BAFHS Open Day, and is free to join, although you have to register.
For those with Welsh interests, there is a website concerning Wales and the Great War. It is Cymru’n Cofio/Wales Remembers 1914-1918 (www.walesremembers.org/), and includes details of news, events and projects in Wales to mark the centenary.
In a previous article, I mentioned Mapping our Anzacs, a site to trace Australian and New Zealand service personnel. It is now called Discovering Anzacs, although the web address is still http://mappingouranzacs.naa.gov.au/. I found a very full account of the service of a distant relative, Harry Barden, although his was no tale of bravery or sacrifice. He was shipped home in 1917 with a recurrent dislocated shoulder, and lost his medals in a fire in 1939.
Access to Archives was formerly a way to search the catalogues of local record offices and other archives. Following changes at The National Archives, the data is no longer separate but is included in the Discovery catalogue at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ .
If you choose the “Browse all published collections” option on FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/), you will see a list of available data sources from around the world. Among these is “England and Wales, Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008” and similar entries for Deaths 1837-2007 and Marriages 1837-2005. These titles are misleading. I could find no births after 2006, and no deaths after 2005.
The Knowyourplace website (www.bristol.gov.uk/knowyourplace) is being extended to South Gloucestershire. The 1880 Ordnance Survey has already been added, and the 2013 O.S. map covers a very wide area of the south-west. The next stage is to add tithe maps from the 1830s, and volunteers are already working on this.
Finally, if you have ever wondered which BBC programmes were being broadcast on the day you were born, or on any other day between 1923 and 2009, then take a look at http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk