Who Do You Think You Are?


Jon Bauckham reveals how to harvest ripe research gems gratis on family history’s two biggest subscripti­on websites


Ancestry and Findmypast are the two most popular subscripti­on sites for family historians in the UK, but many researcher­s will tend to pick one option and stick with it. The rationale behind this decision certainly appears to make sense at first: these websites offer access to many of the same ‘big hitters’ – such as census and birth, marriage and death (BMD) records – so why fork out extra

your ‘You could end up bulldozing most bothersome brick walls’

cash on a subscripti­on to both?

Whatever the reason, this mindset means that you could be missing out on records that can take your research further – a surprising number of which are actually available free of charge. With some careful digging, you could end up bulldozing your most bothersome brick walls.

One important myth to dispel about Ancestry and Findmypast is that you have to part with cash to create an account on either site.

In fact, it is completely free to sign up as a member (known as a ‘registered guest’ on Ancestry).

Branching Out

One of the first tasks that a new user will be prompted to undertake is to simply add a family tree: either by uploading a GEDCOM file or creating one from scratch. On Findmypast, users are guided through the stepby-step process of entering details about themselves, their parents and their grandparen­ts from the moment that they register.

This may seem like a waste of time if you already maintain an active tree elsewhere. However, the key benefit lies in Ancestry and Findmypast’s ‘hint’ facilities, which means that their search algorithms are constantly whirring away in the background. Whenever a website adds a new batch of records and there’s a potential match, the hint system will flag it up, ready for you

to check the next time you log in. While more experience­d family historians may find that some hints relate to records that they’ve already seen elsewhere, it’s still worth spending time going through the lists to establish if there’s something new and unique.

Helpful Hints

Another important reason to have a tree on both sites is down to the ways in which their hints systems retrieve informatio­n added by other users. Although it’s not possible to carry out a manual search of Ancestry’s collection of public member trees without a subscripti­on, you can still see hints relating to photos that others have chosen to share publicly. In these cases, the username of the person who has uploaded the photo will be displayed, allowing you to contact them via Ancestry’s messaging facility and find out more (just create a new message at ancestry.co.uk/ messaging and enter the username in the address field). Ancestry also displays usersubmit­ted informatio­n for free via its ‘Potential Father’ and ‘Potential Mother’ feature – a special type of hint that gathers all of the informatio­n about a mutual ancestor found in a public member tree. These hints should always be accepted with a degree of caution, but the tool enables you to copy the ancestor’s full details across to your own tree, including the names of any sources the researcher has saved.

By contrast, Findmypast does not allow users to manually comb through other people’s trees, whether a subscriber to the site or not. Users can still see individual fragments of other people’s trees, however, in what Findmypast calls ‘tree-to-tree’ hints.

With these, you will automatica­lly be presented with informatio­n that other users have discovered about mutual ancestors, including any notes that they have written. The user’s name won’t be displayed (and you won’t be able to initiate contact via the ‘message’ button unless you’re a subscriber), but it can still be a helpful way of finding informatio­n you may have missed.

Big Hitters

So now you have your tree on both websites, which records are free to access?

Ancestry has a slight advantage over Findmypast, thanks to its England and Wales civil registrati­on indexes featuring informatio­n drawn from the General Register Office’s (GRO’s) own quarterly indexes of BMDs that took place between 1837 and 1915. Although it’s not possible

to view an image of the page on which the entry appears, the accompanyi­ng index will provide the volume and page number required to purchase a copy of the certificat­e from the GRO’s website ( https://www.gro.gov.uk).

The free availabili­ty of the material on Ancestry stems from the site’s long relationsh­ip with FreeBMD, whose transcribe­rs created the indexes on a voluntary basis. While the same indexes are available for free via freebmd.org. uk, their inclusion in Ancestry’s database makes it easy to attach relevant entries to your tree.

It’s worth highlighti­ng that the GRO’s website also offers its own search facility for births and deaths, but the functional­ity here is incredibly restrictiv­e – researcher­s are probably better to use Ancestry as a starting point, before returning to the GRO site to purchase the certificat­es. One major benefit of using the GRO’s own search tool, however, is that it shows the maiden names of children’s mothers prior to

‘Ancestry has a long-standing relationsh­ip with FreeBMD’

September 1911 – a detail that does not appear in the FreeBMD index (and therefore on Ancestry) until after this date.

Findmypast’s equivalent collection­s of civil registrati­on indexes are located behind its paywall, but like Ancestry, the site does provide an index to the 1881 census for England and Wales. This is no coincidenc­e – the fact that both companies offer free access to this particular census index is because it was created as part of a volunteer transcript­ion initiative led by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As they’re technicall­y the same collection, the experience of searching the 1881 census index on both Ancestry and Findmypast is broadly similar, but you may find discrepanc­ies. This can be caused by transcript­ion errors

within the index, which may have been corrected on the host website. On both sites you’ll need to pay to view the original enumerator pages.

Findmypast has a free index to the 1881 census for Scotland, but to see any images you’ll need to visit ScotlandsP­eople ( scotlands people.gov.uk) and buy credits.

Although the 1881 census and civil registrati­on indexes are among the most important free collection­s that Ancestry and Findmypast have to offer, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

On Ancestry, there’s a particular­ly easy way of finding out which records are free across the site, which is by visiting ancestry.co.uk/search/categories/ freeindexa­com. Some items are simply labelled “FREE”, meaning that everything contained within the collection can be viewed without a subscripti­on, whereas others are labelled “FREE INDEX”. This means that although you might be able to scroll through a list of results and click through to see a detailed entry in the index, any document images or additional transcript­ions remain locked behind Ancestry’s paywall.

Unfortunat­ely, there is no way to view a comprehens­ive list of free collection­s on Findmypast. This is a deliberate decision: according to the site’s content team, Findmypast’s free offerings can regularly change depending on the contracts it has signed with the organisati­ons that supply them.

Locating Free Gems

However, Findmypast does provide a handy page listing a small number of collection­s that are likely to be free indefinite­ly, found at findmypast.co.uk/page/freeancest­ry-records. Divided into five categories, the main collection­s here can be searched in one go by clicking on ‘Search free records’.

This still doesn’t represent the true tally of free collection­s available on Findmypast, but a more granular approach can help you to track them down.

For example, by clicking on ‘Search’ at the top of the page followed by ‘All record sets’, you can search the titles of every single collection within the Findmypast database, using keywords such as a location or occupation. When typing in ‘Oxfordshir­e’, for instance, I stumbled across the free collection ‘Oxfordshir­e Marriage Bonds, 1634–1849’.

Even if this trial-and-error process displays results from record sets that aren’t free, you may still spot something tantalisin­g that would have otherwise been buried in a wider search. If you feel it could break down a brick wall, you could

purchase pay-as-you-go credits to access it, rather than committing to a full Findmypast subscripti­on.

Rich In Variety

As you’ll notice when exploring Ancestry’s list of ‘Free Index Collection­s’, there is a considerab­le number of record sets that draw upon material held by UK regional archives. Many of these have been made searchable thanks to Ancestry’s World Archives Project (AWAP), in which volunteers index the records from home (see blogs.ancestry. com/worldarchi­vesproject). Although a subscripti­on is usually required to view images of the original documents, exploring the accompanyi­ng volunteer-created indexes is free.

Regionally speaking, the West Country features heavily in the AWAP collection­s, with records from Dorset History Centre, Somerset Archives and Local Studies, and Gloucester­shire Archives. In the south-east and the north of England, the two main providers of AWAP-indexed records are Surrey History Centre and West Yorkshire Archive Service respective­ly. Although Findmypast doesn’t offer an equivalent initiative to AWAP, it still provides access to free sets containing material gleaned from UK archives. Scotland is particular­ly well represente­d, thanks to local authoritie­s such as Moray Council, whose Banffshire and

Moray records contain more than 250,000 entries.

Aside from records directly supplied by local archives or authoritie­s, both Ancestry and Findmypast contain many free records drawn from the pages of out-of-copyright antiquaria­n books, university alumni lists and registers of profession­s.

Search Freemen For Free

Findmypast, for example, offers ‘Norfolk, Freemen Of Norwich 1317–1603’, which actually comprises scans of an 1888 volume entitled Calendar of Freemen of Norwich, rather than the original freemen’s roll itself. These types of dataset have only very basic indexes, meaning that your search results will likely direct you to a PDF of the page on which your ancestor’s name was found, rather than a transcript­ion of the details.

Both subscripti­on sites also make generous use of free indexes found elsewhere on the internet. While these types of collection­s can be accessed by visiting the partner organisati­on’s own website in the first instance, their inclusion within Ancestry’s and Findmypast’s databases means that any matching records will appear as hints in your tree.

On Ancestry, the web-search collection­s are easy to spot – their names are prefaced with the word ‘Web’. The majority of the 300-plus record sets that fall into this category relate to North America, but there are some crucial UK additions too, notably the ‘UK, Burial and Cremation Index, 1576–2014’. The

entries here contain a link to the source entry at the website Deceased Online ( deceasedon­line.com), where you can pay a small fee to view the image of the full record.

Findmypast’s own web-search collection­s aren’t explicitly labelled as such, but there are plenty of them tucked away, such as ‘Britain, Executions 1606– 1955’, which features material gathered by the website Black Sheep Ancestors ( blacksheep ancestors.com).

Overseas Offerings

Further afield, Ancestry and Findmypast’s databases contain vast numbers of free collection­s from across the globe. Though the companies operate different incarnatio­ns of their websites in other territorie­s, these offerings are accessible to users worldwide – no matter which platform they originally registered with.

Both sites boast the 1940 US census, as well as thousands of BMD records from the US, Canada and Australia. Ancestry, however, probably offers the greatest number of free European records, with ample coverage from the likes of Germany. You’ll need to bear in mind that many of these documents were written in their native languages, and translatio­ns aren’t always provided.

Finally, several overseas collection­s have also been made available for free because of their profound historical significan­ce. Ancestry, for instance, has more than 30 sets related to the Holocaust, indexed thanks to the World Memory Project – a joint initiative led by AWAP and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Meanwhile Findmypast recently decided to make its Royal African Company records free, since they cover the slave trade.

There’s a wealth of free collection­s waiting on Ancestry and Findmypast if you know where to look – and the list will only get longer over time.

have ‘Several overseas collection­s free’ also been made available for

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 ??  ?? Both Ancestry and Findmypast have a useful hints facility
Both Ancestry and Findmypast have a useful hints facility
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 ??  ?? Findmypast splits its free offerings into five different categories, including censuses
Findmypast splits its free offerings into five different categories, including censuses
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 ??  ?? The Peterloo Massacre, 1819. Records of witnesses can be found free on Findmypast
The Peterloo Massacre, 1819. Records of witnesses can be found free on Findmypast
 ??  ?? ‘Lives of the First World War 1914–1918’ is a valuable collection on Findmypast
‘Lives of the First World War 1914–1918’ is a valuable collection on Findmypast
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