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Hatches, matches and despatches Nov 09

In days gone by, the printed indexes of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) were housed at Somerset House. Then they resided at the Family Records Centre in Islington, an excellent resource in its own right. Sadly, the FRC is closing down. The upstairs National Archives resources (censuses etc.) are moving to Kew from early next year. The paper BMD indexes – owned by the General Register Office – have moved to Christchurch as detailed on the GRO site.

Microfiche versions of the BMD indexes have for a long time been available in local libraries and record offices, but the FRC was a key central resource. As I understand it, the Office for National Statistics had committed to placing the indexes online in a fully searchable form by spring 2008, but this project has been delayed and won’t be able to take over from the FRC search room.

On the up side, other online resources continue to offer some access to the BMD indexes. The FreeBMD project, for which I used to be volunteer transcriber, has manually copied millions of entries from the indexes into a searchable database. It’s an invaluable resource and a testament to the benefits of collaborative working online. FreeBMD continues to grow, and is nearly complete now for the Victorian era.

A number of commercial websites provide access to scanned versions of the indexes as part of their subscriptions. These aren’t directly searchable, but you can browse for the page you need just as you would with a paper index. Both FindMyPast.com and Ancestry.co.uk offer this service. Helpfully, Ancestry (which is the one I have experience of using) also provides access to the FreeBMD data, and to the electronic BMD database that replaced the paper version in 1984.

While it’s a familiar refrain – and good avice – from family history guides that you shouldn’t rely solely on the internet for research, the increased availability online of scanned or indexed copies of physical sources is extremely welcome, and BMD indexes are a prime example. It’s a shame that the ONS’s promise of a fully searchable online index to replace the paper versions has, in the short term, fallen through, leaving family history researchers worse off than before.

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