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By Ryan Taylor

In genealogy's prehistoric days, people interested in finding English birth certificates went to London, crammed themselves into St. Catherine's House and flexed their muscles looking at the huge indexes, which began in 1837.

The earliest indexes were handwritten on parchment sheets which were then bound into leather volumes with broad leather handles on the back. There were four volumes per year. Each weighed about twenty pounds. Some of the shelves they were on were above our heads, some at floor level. Hefting the volumes was interesting work, made moreso by the fact that each researcher was rubbing elbows with the next person.

About 1870, the volumes changed to typewritten on paper. They were a lot slimmer, weighed less, but lifting them up and down remained the same claustrophic work.

I must admit, it was uncomfortable, but there was a certain excitement in being at the centre of the most important kind of genealogical information. Once you'd found the reference you needed, you filled out a form, paid your fee and came back two days later to pick up the certificate.

I can remember the first time I held an ancestor's birth certificate in my hand. The technology of those days used a high quality copying process which transferred the original 19th century handwriting onto the modern certificate. The researcher was able to see exactly how the registrar wrote the details, mistakes and all. There was a sad charm in learning that my great-grandfather's cause of death was given as "swept overboard by a sea".

But it was time-consuming and getting to London wasn't exactly convenient. You could hire a researcher to do the searching for you-indeed, most of the people building their physique by lifting those index volumes were professional searchers. But that was expensive, and anyway, doing the research yourself is a good part of the interest of genealogy.

The internet has changed all that. The big indexes are gone-now only our fingers get flexed, because there is a database with all those details waiting to be found.

You can find it at http://freebmd.rootsweb.com/ . It is usally referred to as 'the freeBMD website'. It is simple to use. Type in the name that interests you and away you go.

With more common names, there are simply too many results. I tried Margaret Harrison and received several thousand hits. The index refuses to deal with more than two thousand, suggesting that you refine your search. You can search by name restricted to one county, or by single year.

The results display name and year in chronological order, starting with 1837. Births, marriages and deaths are all given together. The county is given, but you must click on the name to be given the full index entry. Only at this step will you see the name of the registration district, which is the most important clue in the index indicating whether you've found the right entry.

Going through the list can be time consuming, because you must click on each possible name, note the registration district and then decide whether to keep the reference or not. Even my search for the more unusual 'Alice Walmsley' got more than seven hundred hits.

A useful added feature is that county searches yield not only answers for that county, but for neighbouring districts also. So a Lancashire search also gives references for Westmorland, West Riding of Yorkshire and West Derby. People often did a little travelling to get married, ignoring county borders.

I foresee lots of fun ahead using the freeBMD website, but when I do, I'll make sure to set aside a good block of time. It's addictive.

Posted July 8, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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