As a family historian with some English connections I was interested in the 1939 English and Welsh Register which went online recently at FindMyPast. But having seen the 1939 Register entries for my Scottish ancestors I didn’t expect to find anything terribly new or exciting. So I wasn’t even sure if I’d check it out promptly. But sure enough I did, being still up as the site went live shortly after midnight on Monday 2nd November 2015.
Sadly the site was very flaky then, with lots of pages failing to load. I was getting an awful lot of error messages, at various points e.g. initial search results, trying to preview an entry, trying to buy credits/unlock an entry, trying to view an image. Usually reloading one or more times sorted it out though. And I don’t seem to have inadvertently spent my credits twice. Fortunately site responsiveness improved over the coming days, and it’s much more stable now, but that wasn’t a good way to launch a website, especially when people were paying pay-as-you-go to access the information.
The positive thing is that after battling through the page loading problems I was very surprised by how much useful information I got in this. Examples include:
- Finding my great-grandfather in Leeds, getting valuable info on him. He was estranged from my granddad so we didn’t really know anything about him circa 1939, even if he was still alive. Now we have an occupation, address, the fact his second wife was still alive, and this has helped me to hopefully track down his death a few years later.
- Learning that my husband’s great-grandparents on a farm had 2 land girls staying with them.
- Discovering that my husband’s Norfolk grandfather was in the local fire brigade in 1939, just like my granddad in southern Scotland.
- Finding my other Yorkshire great-grandfather with what looks like wife #3, and then using that info to finally trace their marriage record in FreeBMD.
I was also impressed by how full the pages are. Even with lots of entries closed (like my Dad’s, aunt’s, and my husband’s uncle – all still living, in their 80s) you get names of lots of neighbours at the time. Which is really nice. I emailed the relevant pages to my octogenarian relatives, so they can see some neighbour names that might bring back memories for them.
On the downside I still can’t find my husband’s paternal grandparents in the 1939 Register. Goodness only knows quite how they’ve been recorded and/or transcribed! Maybe I’ll find them in future though.
But yes, pleased with what I found. Far more useful than I thought it would be – I didn’t honestly expect it to tell me anything new or terribly interesting. I found the information I got worth the price I paid to unlock the households, but that’s mainly because of unexpected information I found. Getting birth dates for relatives is great, but I’m not sure that would have been enough for me. It’s the extra detail, like war service information and some unexpected genealogical clues, that really helped.
Having said that, I’m not sure that the 1939 Register is being that well promoted by FindMyPast. In particular they aren’t making clear to genealogists that people born after 1915 who are not known by the Register authorities to have died cannot be searched for in the site. There are an *awful* lot of very experienced genealogists out there who have tried to find, for example, parents or other fairly recent relatives in the new database. These people would have been in the 1939 Register, but are too young to be released this time. But the information in the FindMyPast help pages isn’t clear about this at all, not explaining in simple terms that these people cannot be searched for online at the moment.
I’m also not convinced that FindMyPast appreciate just how useful the information in the right pages can be for genealogists. I’ve found references to local war service – e.g. land girls, fire brigade, and air wardens – on every single page I looked at. In some rural areas there were numerous entries in that column. Two of my husband’s ancestral households had useful information there. As a family historian that’s just the type of detail that adds colour to the family story. But sometimes it’s cropped too severely, and cannot be read properly as a result. I think this information is one of the strengths of this register, isn’t as rare as FindMyPast think, and should be better supported via the website.
So some concerns still. I’m also not quite sure how useful this site will be to me as a one-name studier. I’m researching the surname Cavers, and it’s not clear yet how useful it would be to me to extract references to that name (77 or so). Even using the free preview information I’m not sure it would tell me that much new, with so many redacted child/recent entries. And it’s not cost-effective for me with the current pricing structure to unlock all those households. So yes, not sure. I think the site can be great for genealogy, but more personal family history than one-name studies. One-place studies may be different, though my two are in Scotland, so I can’t use this site for those. Time will tell!
EDIT: As a late postscript to the post, after I posted this earlier today the death certificate of my Leeds great-granddad arrived in the post. It reveals that he had more children, with wife #2, the wife who refused to take care of the older children of his first marriage, which meant those children had to go into a home, and broke off all contact with their father. So my Dad now has a new aunt and uncle to add details of to the family tree, as well as lots of cousins. We may even be able to get in touch with living descendants. I’ve been researching my family tree for 30+ years, and it’s remarkable to make such a new discovery, so close to my generation, after all this time. I wouldn’t have been able to trace my great-granddad’s death reliably, were it not for the 1939 Register going online, letting me find him, and be sure it was him with the right birthdate (day, month and year). And because that gave me his address, which was also where he died in 1946, I could confidently link things up. Magic!