Genealogy is Free
How to get it!

We mostly know who our parents are and likewise for their parents. But the principle of modern genealogy is not to rely on handed down tales, but on getting data from public records. Mostly this requires spending large sums of money. So I thought it useful to explore what can be done, without spending Big Bucks and certainly without spending much, for British Genealogy.

There are two issues (a) Searching for and finding material in known public records and (b) Finding where else to look when the first has failed. Let's take the second first.

By and large you have to go and talk to people when you want help. You can do this in person, over the phone, or over the internet:

  • Genealogy societies run help desks. Find lists of societies on Genuki (http://www.genuki.org.uk) or on CyndisList (http://www.cyndislist.com). Get in touch with the ones that appeal to you and are convenient.
  • Some organisations provide telephone help lines, the Society of Genealogists does on these days and times (http://www.sog.org.uk/library/advice.shtml).
  • Internet discussion groups have hundreds of people, many of them itching to help you. The discussion areas are of three types:
    • Usenet aka Newsgroups, the oldest of the lot. No censorship, so occasionally there can be a bit of a fight but a some very knowledgeable people do contribute. It is best used with a special type of program called a newsreader but you can also read the current and archived discussion on GoogleGroups; try the British ones (http://groups.google.com/group/soc.genealogy.britain) but they may ask you to provide an mail ID.
    • Rootsweb Mailing Lists, the oldest and best of these were started by Rootsweb as a free facility. But Rootsweb went bust and Ancestry took it over and while it remains free, it is obviously used as a feed to Ancestry's commercial operation.
    • Society and other mailing lists: most genealogy societies run their own mailing lists for their members and you will find these on each society's site, see the above lists. Mailing lists work by mailing to a list of people who have given their mail ID to the bunch that run the list. You can unsubscribe by mailing a special control mail ID.
    • Forums run on web technology. This is a third internet means of exchange after usenet and e-mail and has exploded into the World Wide Web that we all know. The advantage of forums to the organisers is that they are much more easily controlled ('censored') to keep the discussions on-topic and civilised. They are sometimes referred to as 'Message Boards'. You can only find them by logging (ID and password) on to a web site and entering the discussion areas. Just put "genealogy message boards" into any search engine and you will be shown a host of hosts or providers.
Now for some free resources:
  • FreeBMD: http://www.freebmd.org.uk/. This is a stupendous site and it is not merely free. It has an excellent search engine and considerable care is taken to provide good transcriptions and to have a good error checking and updating service. So far they have covered birth, marriage and death registrations from the start in 1837 up to around 1961 though with death most of the way up to 1970. There are thousands of people working together to transcribe the English and Welsh BMD indices and my guess is that it will take about four years to complete this to the end of 1983. They have also started the FreeCEN and FreeReg projects for censuses and parish registers and these are covering all Britain, including Scotland.
  • Mormons at http://www.familysearch.org/. The Mormons have not long ago relaunched this site with a radical enlargement of records and getting rid of most, possibly all, of the dross of patron-submitted speculation that had little or no connection to public records. I have seen statements that they now have around 50 million records on this site; this is enormous and is far larger than any other information supplier, free or not, but the total since the start of parish registration is nearer 100 million so there is still a long way to go.
  • Local Libraries. Those in larger towns will have better facilities. Most will allow free access on their terminals to the internet and to commercial sites such as Ancestry.com and FindMyPast. Some will even give you free access over the internet to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and to The Times Digital Archive.
  • Public Records Offices. Visiting them is free and their catalogues can mostly be searched via Access to Archives http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/.
  • Roy Stockdill's 'Newbies Guide' at http://www.genuki.org.uk/gs/Newbie.html, a wealth of good advice.
  • Chris Phillips' compendium of Medieval Genealogy at http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk for when you have found some links to the Middle Ages.
I would be interested in extending this list of free genealogy help, please get in touch with suggestions.

Tim Powys-Lybbe
February 2012, updated 2014.