Here at Free UK Genealogy, we want to help family historians and others by creating high-quality indexes of historic documents. While most of our users are primarily interested in finding records of people, place is important both in searching, and in providing further information. Place in historic documents is a very complex subject; we are working on ways we make searching easier and results easier to understand. A look at the projects we have live shows some of the issues, and the current and planned developments.
Place in the indices to the England and Wales registration of births, marriages and death is relatively simple. Each event was registered in a registration district. Mapping conventions encourage us to think of places as points, but the name ‘district’ reminds us that places are not points, they are areas. On FreeMD you can search by district, or by county. A search for the death of Ralph Alcock in the county of North Yorkshire gives, along with two places in North Yorkshire, two – perhaps surprising – results: Darlington and Stockton.
Those familiar with the geography of this part of England will know that Stockton and Darlington are in County Durham, not the North Riding of Yorkshire. But as clicking on the highlighted district name shows, these districts spanned two counties. We link through to UKBMD where details are provided of which localities were included in the district. The page for Darlington shows that the village of Eryholme (North Riding) was transferred to Northallerton in 1936. Unfortunately, there is no tool which, as yet, allows you to work in the opposite direction – starting by searching for the registration of deaths which were specifically in Eryholme.
While FreeREG began as a project to provide access to Church of England parish registers before the civil registration began in 1837, the project has expanded, recognising the usefulness of these registers in later years, and of the registrations of similar events in religious or civil contexts. The structure of place based searching on FreeREG is founded on the digital Gazetteer published by the Association of British Counties, eBook and Data Extract (Oct 2013), the 1834 Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales: Counties and Places, by James Bell and Phillimore’s Atlas of pre-1832 parishes.
. A search result provides links to the place details, including the GENUKI map for the parish. The ‘nearby places’ feature allows you to search places that are near the parish you have selected. To calculate ‘nearby’ we have to use a point approximating the parish location, and search the approximate points of nearby parishes. Looking for the Burial of Ralph Alcock in Eyholme finds nothing, but with ‘nearby places’ finds two in East Cowton, and one in Manfield. You can see where has been searched, and how far they are from the parish point by using the “About This Query” button – which reveals that East Cowton is 3.3 miles, Manfield 6.9 miles.
. The register entries at East Cowton has additional information revealing that one of these Ralph Alcocks lived in “Eriholm” and was a farmer. At the moment, it is not possible to search FreeREG by this secondary place information – which is particularly included in later marriage records. This is also the case for registers of non-Church of England institutions, such as the Quakers – we are transcribing the Liverpool records at the moment, and recording all as being in the county of Lancashire, but there are many which are actually in Cheshire. It is worth knowing this and searching without specifying a county. I am hoping that we will, in the future, be able to offer searching of secondary locations to our users, probably because we have developed the tools to do so in the third current project: FreeCEN.
FreeCEN covers another, very rich source of information for family historians – the 19th century census records. We have recently started the move from a 20-year-old interface (still accessible at FreeCEN). One of the main differences (and one which users find particularly frustrating) is that while there are many ways to search the old system, including detailed place of birth and by house name or street address, these features have not yet been developed for FreeCEN2 (the new interface).
Enabling detailed place-of-birth searching means deciding whether we are going to use the data as recorded or whether we are going to standardise it. This decision highlights the difficulties of place-based searching. The many variants of place names such as Eriholme and Eryholme can be covered by phonetic recognition software, but there is no way of coping with the informant who gives information that is different to the query submitted by the researcher. For example, some places start in one county but in the lifetimes of those born there are transferred to a different county. Some may choose to continue to identify their birth county as being the county at the time of their birth, others may identify it as the current county at the time of the census.
The researcher may know one or the other from some other document which, if it does not specify town or parish within the county, may not alert the researcher to look in the neighbouring county. A person who has moved far from their home may give their place of birth not as the hamlet they were born in, nor yet the parish, but of a large town a few miles away, that will be more recognised by those where they live now. The situation in the large metropolitan areas tends to combine these problems of boundary and name-selection-for-outsiders: thus family tradition may say ‘London’, but the birth took place in what was then one of the surrounding counties. Someone searching for Jo Bloggs in London might be looking for Jo there because:
- The family bible says they were born somewhere that is now part of London, but was not until after Jo’s death.
- Jo always said they born in London (although technically, they were born in Essex).
- Jo’s birth certificate shows they were born in one of the London boroughs. But their family did not live there, they lived in what was technically Surrey.
- Jo is remembered as saying that they came from London. Actually, they were born and lived in Middlesex, but got on the boat at London.
The census record may record them as being born in London, but which London? Possibilities include
- London in 1790, when Jo was born,
- London in 1851, when the census was taken,
- Actually just outside London in 1851, but the census was taken in Aberdeen, and Jo thought that no one would have heard of their little village, and always said they came from London.
We want people to be able to search for ‘London’ but in a way that recognises that the meaning of the term has changed over time, and the other reasons why Jo Bloggs may be recorded in other places. Our solutions involve maps (either maps the researcher can use to create the query, or maps used in answering it). The mapping data will include not only where places are but also when the place had those boundaries, and what other places at the same time had boundaries which covered that place. This will allow knowledge of one type of area (say the registration District of Poplar for births, marriages and deaths in 1868) with other types of area (say the Census registration district of 1851 for Poplar), and county boundaries of another (say Middlesex and London in 1790). This also will give researchers opportunities to query across our databases.
Written by Pat Reynolds