Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Writing to your MP


I would like to encourage all OPCs who are UK residents, not just those living in Cornwall, to write to their MPs.   You can find their email addresses on Theyworkforyou.  Obviously, you will have to edit my email, not just forward it.  Nor does it matter if an MP hears from several constituents.

Dear Ms Newton

I am a constituent of yours, living in Mitchell, and I would like to enlist your help.

My hobby is family history, in particular, Cornish family history.  I am a founder member of the Cornish Online Parish Clerk project (  This is basically an "adopt-a-parish" scheme with over a hundred volunteers world wide.  OPCs are committed to helping Cornish FH researchers free of charge.  The project has an online, searchable, free-to-view database ( with over 2.3 million records online.  Our main target is the parish registers, but we always looking for other sources of useful data.  

For the last six months I have been exchanging emails with the Registration Office in Truro, trying to persuade them to let me photograph and transcribe the indices of the 19th century registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths.  Not the registers, the indexes.  Yesterday, they said no, quoting an email they had had from the Policy Dept of the General Registration Office.  This said:

“This query is linked to a wider issue relating to access to records by family history societies, Ancestry, Find my past etc.   We are still seeking a resolution to this query and while I am unable to provide a definitive answer at present, I will advise you as soon as I am aware of the outcome.

In the interim, you may wish to advise the parish clerks that the public may only have access to the indices in the manner provided for by statue, i.e. in accordance with s.64 of the Marriage Act 1949, where you will note that there is no provision to transcribe or photograph the indexes, see link below.

It is interesting that they mention commercial operators such as Ancestry.  They, of course, would charge for access to the data, we don't.  Also, they say that the relevant act has no provision to allow the photographing or transcription of the indices.  But does it say that they can't be?  

As they have a policy dept, I would like to know what the policy actually is and how they intend to alter it.

I would like to re-iterate that it is the indices I want to transcribe, not the registers.

Hoping you can help.



Some background.  There are about 30 such projects in operation.  According to the administrator of UKBMD, he has been at usergroup meetings with the GRO and no objection to such projects was raised by them.

The Truro RO allowed CFHS to copy and transcribe the indices some years ago, but the results were not used for reasons not explained to me.  Personally, I think it was because rather belatedly they realised that CFHS charged for access.  I also think that within County Hall there is an IT department that would like a council web site to host the data, but they have neither the expertise or money to do it. We on the other hand have both the expertise and the web site!

Finally, despite not admitting any knowledge of UKBMD, in 2009 the Truro RO asked UKBMD for advice on setting up such a project.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Local BMD registers


A couple of years ago, Myra asked me to subscribe to the mailing list of the Open Genealogical Alliance.  This is a bunch of people interested in public access to public data.  They are operating a bit above our pay grade but they are interested in the same data as we are.  This is a quote from the mailing list.

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) - is a collection of books populated with tables, where each row is a reference to a certificate for a corresponding life event. Every time someone is born, dies or gets married, the local council register issues a full page certificate, then it makes an entry of the event in the local index, and they also make a copy of the local index to be sent to a central location: the General Registry Office (GRO), part of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). This institution has the collection of all these copied index books dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Older life event records were maintained by the church instead of the government, and are kept separately This index is meant to be digitised and made available online for free, but the delivery of this service has been delayed for many years due to problems with commercial subcontracting. In the meantime, other forms of access to the index - such as CDs - have been restricted or suppressed, ostensibly due to the imminent availability of the online version. This long impasse has created a situation where a number of commercial companies - such as --are stepping in and providing paid for access to this public information that the government has committed to deliver for free. The Crown claims copyright on the design of the index, expiring 50 years after creation as they are not published works, but the actual content is factual information not encumbered by intellectual property restrictions. Thus anyone is free to copy the index data. Our partner organisation has been providing free online access to a partial copy of the index transcribed by volunteers, as until recently the registers were handwritten, and thus requiring manual typing into a computer. The official advice form for citizens requiring free access to the index is to go via FreeBMD. This volunteer group has offered to help providing to the full index in collaboration with GRO, and we have been trying to help communicate and advance this great idea. Unfortunately, these requests have been batted away, without even being allowed to meet to discuss the options. Emails have gone without reply for months. We have been told for 18 months now that a new plan is imminent and we should just wait. We have responded that under the coalition agreement and the compact for the voluntary sector, we should be consulted at an early stage in order to help shape the plans, not informed afterwards. This is particularly applicable when we are proposing a solution that could save taxpayers money. Unfortunately this has been ignored. We have also been told that the online index is entangled with a major ICT project that is suffering delays. However, new government policy is to break down large contracts, and this would seem an ideal candidate for outing this new policy into practice, given the costly delays already incurred and the apparent inability of moving this forward within a reasonable timeframe. We would like to request an urgent intervention from the Transparency Team to help us reach to the GRO and discuss a way to promptly ensure that the full BMD index is available online for free as open data.

Barriers in accessing this data: 

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) is meant to be freely available online, but this has been delayed for many years. Volunteer groups have offered to provide this as open data for free, but this has been dismissed without due consideration.

Benefits overview:

The BMD index is very valuable, being the first point of call for anyone in need of tracing their ancestors, or obtaining a copy of the certificates. This could be for practical reasons, such as an inheritance, but in most cases it's people wanting to explore their family history. There is fundamental transparency principle in making the civil register freely available, and also an economic imperative. Family history is a very popular hobby and drives a lot of cash online, with people paying up to £150 per year for subscriptions to commercial sites. For the UK it could also become a major economic activity thanks to ancestral tourism marketed to the descendants of British people. There is a huge market for US travellers, and several county councils have already started local programmes to tap into that market. The development of this kind of services based on secondary reuse of data, where the business model is tourism instead of data paywalls -- is hampered by the lack of proper Open Data in the family history domain. County council tourism boards cannot reach local US prospective travellers and commercial ancestry websites do not provide those data services.

I have a personal interest in this because 9 months ago I started an exchange of emails with the Registration Officer in Truro.  I asked for permission to photograph the indices to the local BMD registers.  Why bother to do this, given that FreeBMD has transcribed the GRO indexes.  However, it is well documented that there are differences between these indexes and those of the local BMD registers.

In January they said NO, although I pointed out to them that there are 30 such projects in England under the umbrella group UKBMD.  These are usually joint projects between family history societies and local Registration Offices.  But not always, they also involve groups such as ours.  Their refusal was based on advice from the GRO, which I think was incorrect.  I therefore wrote to my MP and asked her to ask the GRO just what the official policy was.  I am still waiting for an answer.  If anyone who is a UK resident would like to ask their MP what the policy is – I’ll provide a copy of my email.  The more people who ask, the better it might be.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Burial Registers of Lanreath in the 19th century


Burials and causes of death in Lanreath in the 19th century

Transcribing a Burial Register can be a tedious process, particularly when the incumbent’s hand-writing is not of the best, but occasionally the tedium can be alleviated when one encounters an enlightened Minister. One such was the Reverend Richard Buller of Lanreath.

Crockford’s Clerical Directory indicates that Richard Buller graduated with a B.A. from Oriel College, Oxford in 1826, and gained his M.A. 3 years later. He was made a deacon in 1828, in which year he appears to have been appointed Curate of the parish of Lanreath in Cornwall, and he was appointed Rector of the parish the following year. He was then 23 or 24 years old. He died on 19th June 1883 at Pounds near Plymouth (his death was registered at Plympton St Mary) but he had certainly been carrying out his duties in the parish until the previous month – he performed his last baptism on 13th May and conducted his last burial on 17th May.

He had therefore served his parish for some 55 years. That is, of course, a commendable and remarkable record of service, but in terms of social history, he left us so much more.

In 1812 Parliament had decreed that with effect from 1st January 1813, Parish Registers should be in a standard format, with one volume for baptisms, one for marriages and one for burials. The format was set out in the 1812 Act, and the Burials Register was to have 5 columns, headed ‘Name’, ‘Abode’, ‘When Buried’, ‘Age’, and ‘By whom the Ceremony was performed.’ Anyone who has transcribed a Burial Register will know that the majority of incumbents recorded just the information they were obliged to record, but not the Reverend Richard Buller.

Beginning on 8th October 1828, when he had only been in post for a few months, he recorded that Mary Searle, aged only 49, had died of consumption. Between then and 17th May 1883, when he conducted his last burial service, there were 615 burials in Lanreath. Of that total, Reverend Buller had entered some further information on no less than 245 occasions. Some of those entries related to the personality of the deceased – in August 1841, for example, when he buried Samuel Willcock, aged 78, he noted ‘55 years Parish Clerk’. Similarly, in March 1855, when he buried James Stevens, aged 72, he noted ‘A Peninsular hero; medal with 2 clasps’. But the most interesting entries, arguably, are those where he recorded the cause of death. There are 237 such entries, and the biggest killer, by far, was consumption with 52 entries, followed by accidental death (22), scarlet fever (14), diphtheria (13), typhus (11), decline (10), dropsy (10), inflammation of the lungs (9), childbirth (8) and atrophy (5).

Of the 52 deaths from consumption, 23 were female and 29 male. The ages of the deceased ranged from 9 to 76, but the average was just 29 years 9 months.

Of the accidental deaths, 2 were of children (aged respectively 1 and 8) who were ‘burnt’, 1 (aged just under 2) was drowned, and a baby aged just one month old was killed ‘by a stick running thro' the eye to the brain’. In 1842, James Martin aged 10 had been ‘killed by a well falling in’, and in 1849 Philippa West died as a result of ‘poisonous berries’.

The accidents claiming the lives of adults were in some cases somewhat bizarre – in 1835, William Searle, aged 58, was killed when ‘a gutter fell on him’; the previous year Edward Tucker had died when he ‘fell from a rick’ and in 1846 Francis Hicks, aged 40, died as a result of ‘fall from a horse in frost’. On 14th May 1876 three men were buried as a result of ‘explosion of gunpowder’ (presumably an accident at the powder mills in the parish). The most unfortunate, however, was surely Anne Stephens, aged 32, who in 1831 was ‘run over by the Mail Coach’. For sheer misfortune, you have to feel for the family of Elizabeth Hockin, buried in June 1867, aged just 37. In the Register, Reverend Buller has recorded ‘childbirth; the 3rd sister who died thru’ the same cause’.

It seems unlikely that the Reverend Buller had any assistance from a medical practitioner, because of the sometimes rather strange explanations for deaths. According to the Register, ‘cold on Erysipelas’ claimed Richard Rowe in 1846; Philip Hicks, aged only 21, was buried in 1843 and the Register records his death as having occurred from ‘fright’. Strangely this idea of fright being the cause of death also appears in 2 burials, one in 1840 and the other in 1842. They were both females, aged respectively 75 and 72, and the Register gives their cause of death as ‘typhus – from fear’. ‘Hysteria’ is the somewhat surprising cause of the death of Mary Hill in 1865, aged only 17.

If anyone in the parish could have afforded to call in a doctor, it would certainly have been the Buller family, and yet when he buried his 3 year old daughter Jane Elizabeth, in 1838, Reverend Buller records the cause of death as ‘malignant sore throat’ which does not sound a reason which originated from someone medically qualified. Four youngsters succumbed to measles – 1 with ‘suppressed measles’ and of those who were claimed by scarlet fever (14 children, all under 10 years of age) 4 of them are recorded as having the ‘suppressed’ form of the disease.

As you work your way through the Register, one fact that you cannot miss is the apparent high number of child burials. Much has been written, of course, on the subject of infant mortality in the 19th century, and I was interested to see the actual numbers, rather than rely on impression. Of all the burials in the parish between 1813 and 1900, the age group of 0-10 bears the brunt – on average 30% of total burials, and in some decades over one third. No other age group comes anywhere near that percentage – the closest is the 71-80 group (where one would expect the death rate to be fairly high) but in fact it is not far off half of the rate for youngsters.

 (Click on image to enlarge)

John R.P. Evans
March 2013