There still seem to be some people who claim to research their family history without obtaining certificates of birth, marriage and death, but most of us appreciate the extra information such documents contain, and the confirmation they give of the details of our ancestors.
Fortunately, it is now easier than ever to work online at home, checking the indexes and ordering certificates.
The cheapest and easiest way to check the indexes is through FreeBMD ( http://freebmd.rootsweb.com/ ). This ongoing project uses volunteers to transcribe the indexes which are otherwise available on microfiche or in bound volume form at the Family Record Centre. FreeBMD currently covers the period from the start of civil registration in 1837 until 1910, but it is not complete. It appears that the least likely years to have been done are those where the entries are handwritten, as the typed indexes are naturally much easier to transcribe. The original indexes were created from data sent in my local record offices, and sometimes there are alternative index entries when the name was unclear in the original. As its name implies, FreeBMD is free to use.
The other website to use when checking the indexes is 1837online (http://www.1837online.com/. This site contains images of the original index pages, so you may have to look at several to find the person you want, and each page viewed will cost you between 5p and 10p, the price per unit depending on the number of units purchased. The period covered is from 1837 until the present day, although from 1984 onwards you search a computer database.
Both of these websites will give you the GRO reference number, which you will need when ordering certificates. For some time now, it has been possible for UK researchers to order certificates online, but this facility is now available worldwide. Details can be found at http://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/. The cost is £7 per certificate, which includes airmail postage worldwide, and certificates are normally sent out on the fourth working day. It is fashionable to deride British services, but I doubt if many other countries have such an effective and efficient national system to recover details of events which have happened over the past 167 years.
Births marriages and deaths are recorded at local register offices, and details are then forwarded to the national record. It is well known that many records, especially in the nineteenth century, were either not passed on to the General Register Office, or that mistakes were made in transmission. For that reason, many people prefer to order certificates from local register offices. Some local offices are now making the indexes to their registers available online, and the offices for Bath and North East Somerset have recently joined this scheme. At the time of writing, there are details of over 40,000 marriages online, but several thousand more will be uploaded in August. Each volume is completely transcribed, so that, for example, all 376 marriages at Freshford St Peter between 1837 and 1958 can now be checked. The site is easy to use, and the result of a search shows the full names of the two parties and the year and place where the marriage took place. Clicking on the reference number will produce a form with the details included ready for you to complete and post. The certificate will cost £7. This site can be found at http://www.bathbmd.org.uk/index.html.
The other indexes provided by local register offices are outside our area, but a list can be found at http://www.ukbmd.org.uk/. The Bath website, like some of the others, uses the same format as the original Cheshire website of local indexes.
Online Parish Clerks research all the available historical data they can find on a parish. The records are transcribed, and are made freely available to any researcher. These include censuses, parish transcripts, bishop's transcripts and churchwardens accounts, overseers accounts, land tax records, postal directory extracts, church & village histories, etc. There are currently clerks for parishes in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Lancashire, Sussex and Wiltshire. The coverage varies a lot, but checking the village of Motcombe, near Shaftesbury, Dorset led to a very useful collection of parish records, census transcriptions and other documents relating to my wife's ancestors the Brickells. The Dorset Parish Clerk home page is at http://www.dorset-opc.com/#OPC and links can be found from that site to those for other counties.
In my article for the June 2004 Journal, I described my recent experience of using Ancestry.com . Since writing that piece, Ancestry have started to offer a pay-per-view option, and this is available to search any of their databases, including the 1871, 1891 and 1901 U.K. censuses. The cost is $5.82 ($4.95 + tax) for 5 credits, but this credit must be used in 2 days. At current exchange rates, this is about 63p. Payment is by credit card only. The system works much like our 1901 census in that some information is available free of charge, but to go any further you must use one of your credits. As I have indicated previously, the Ancestry indexes have the inaccuracies typical of any index done without local knowledge. I have been searching for my great-grandmother Rosina Cooper in the 1871 census, and was pleased to find a Rosina of the right age living in Bristol and with the birthplace Honondsbury, Gloucestershire. This seemed a likely misspelling of Hawkesbury, where Rosina was born. I downloaded an image of the census page (Richmond Terrace in Clifton, Bristol), but my reading of the birthplace is Almondsbury, and a Rosina Cooper was indeed born in the Thornbury Registration District, which includes Almondsbury, in 1862.
Incidentally, Rosina was a servant at what appears to be a girl's school, since it has scholars and more than one governess. The head of household is Ellen Glover, widow, 50, governess, but the second person listed is Sarah Peacock, 36, governess who is described as Ellen's partner. Did this mean business partner, or is it an early example of the modern use of the word partner to describe a close relationship between two people?
Work by Ancestry on indexing the 1871 and 1901 censuses is progressing, and Gloucestershire and Wiltshire have been completed for 1871, as have Dorset, Devon and Herefordshire. The end of the nineteenth century was a time when many people, both men and women, moved away from home to work, and a national index is invaluable in tracking them down. Ancestry is at http://www.ancestry.com .
Finally, FamilyHistoryOnline now includes a Somerset Marriage Index in two sections - pre and post 1754. This marriage index includes many parishes in the Bath area, and some stray events in what might normally be considered out of area. I am not sure how a 1712 marriage in "Sodbury" can appear in a post-1854 index of Somerset, nor entries for Bradford on Avon. However, it costs little to check the index, and reference to the original will help clear things up. FamilyHistoryOnline can be found at http://www.familyhistoryonline.net/ .