The big news at the time of writing is the redesign of Findmypast (www.findmypast.co.uk). Although this had been announced in advance, no-one was prepared for the degree of change, or the poor execution which was immediately apparent. Favourite features had disappeared, and using the site required a totally different approach, which did not go well with users. The forums were full of complaints, with threats to cancel subscriptions and even to take legal action under the Trades Descriptions Act.
Findmypast responded with plans to restore some of the missing features, while insisting that the old site could not be restored, since it would be unable to cope with the volume of new data they planned to add. Some of the missing features are now back, but the overall clunkiness remains. The principal difference between old and new sites is that while on the old site one selected the type of record and source that one wanted before typing the search details, with the new site one types in the details and then limits the search to the type of record and source available. However, one is still faced with curiosities like a search screen for the census which includes a box for the date of death, although it is explained that this limits which censuses are searched..
Family historians can sometimes be slow to adapt to change. Those who stick with Findmypast, and its wealth of unique data, will need to spend time learning new methods, but perseverance may eventually lead to a more effective search experience.
The reason that Findmypast give for redesigning their search engine is that it enables them to introduce new record sets more quickly. They have promised to introduce 100 new sets of records in 100 days, the first 13 of which are military or naval records. In January, they introduced BMD records of the British in India, but the big forthcoming release will be the Register taken in 1939, a useful substitute for the census which was not taken in 1941. Unfortunately, some of these 100 records are only available to those with a world-wide subscription.
The problems at Findmypast are sure to send researchers back to FreeBMD (http://freebmd.org.uk) because of its simpler but more comprehensive and very flexible search options. One instance where it is not very intuitive is in the option for including a date of birth when looking for a death. The trick is to enter the date of birth with an “@” before it in the Death age/DoB box. One little used feature of FreeBMD is the option to add a postem, where you can help other family historians with additional detail about an entry. I was recently helping a visitor to our Research Room and discovered a postem on a marriage record which gave a full transcription of the marriage certificate and also the e-mail address of the poster, who clearly had an interest in the same family as my visitor. That sort of good luck does not happen often.
Meanwhile, Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) has also been adding new collections. Perhaps the most important, and one which was mentioned by Pat Lindegaard in the last issue of the Journal, is the PCC wills database, 1385-1858. This includes images of the wills themselves, and is not just an index, providing is a cheaper way of seeing the text of wills than buying individual copies from The National Archives. Wills are invaluable for providing detail about a family, and also for proving relationships. Similarly important for us are the Gloucestershire wills 1541 to 1858 that are now available on Ancestry. This dataset includes some probate inventories, and I was delighted to find that my ancestor John Cooper who died in 1720 had “wareing apparel” worth £2, as well as “3 barrells and a cupboard” in his buttery. Also new on Ancestry are Manchester Non-conformist records 1758-1957.
The Genealogist (www.thegenealogist.co.uk) has started a project to digitise over 10 million tithe records for England and Wales. Tithe maps and tithe apportionment schedules date from the 1830s, and are invaluable when researching land ownership and occupation, as well as indicating how land was farmed and what crops were grown. There are three phases to the project, with the final phase, the digitisation of the maps themselves, becoming available in 2015.
Another source of old maps online is now provided by the National Library of Scotland, which has digitised its collection of six-inch to the mile maps of England and Wales. These can be found at http://maps.nls.uk/os/6inch-england-and-wales/info1.html. This scale of map is finely detailed, and can be considerably enlarged on screen. You can also order copies in a wide variety of sizes and formats. It may take you a little while to understand how to use the site, but the results can be very worthwhile
If you need to find where people lived after 1911, or between the censuses in the late nineteenth century, then street directories are invaluable. An online source of such information is available from a collection maintained by the University of Leicester. The site has been redesigned, and can now be found at http://cdm16445.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/. If you have Leicester roots, you may also find much other material of interest on this website.
For those with ancestors from West Somerset – villages like Bicknoller, Combe Florey or Nether Stowey – the parish register transcriptions on Martin Southwood’s site at www.wsom.org.uk/ will be very useful. Those looking for members of the clergy may recall Jane de Gruchy mentioning the Clergy Database at her Bristol talk on 14th April. This covers the years 1540-1835 and can be found at http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/