It is only three years since the first appearance of the 1901 census, and although there were substantial teething problems, it is now established as one of the prime sources for British family history.
At the time, it was expected that the other nineteenth century would become progressively available online in the same format. The problems experienced with the 1901 census have resulted in a change of policy at what is now The National Archives (TNA).
Rather than provide online services directly, TNA is now inviting applications from Licensed Internet Associates. These Associates will have access to TNA records, and will bear the cost of digitising them and making them available. Associates are required to provide an “element of free search facility and a pay-per-view charging model”. Services will be accessible either directly, or via the TNA website, and will be identified as associated with TNA. Contracts will be for ten years, and associates will have to make their services available at TNA sites free of charge. Associates will not have exclusive rights, so there could be multiple providers of information, as there are now for births, marriages and deaths.
The impact of these new arrangements is already clear. The databases at ancestry.co.uk now include the 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 census, and each gives access to an image of the actual census page. The arrangements for the 1881 census are the latest to be introduced, and, for an index, use the transcription of the census published by the LDS church. The Ancestry pay-per-view option costs £6.00 plus VAT for access to 20 pages over seven days. If you access the 1881 and 1891 censuses via The National Archives homepage at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/, you will be able to see a free full index, while at www.ancestry.co.uk the index is only accessible once you have registered.
Meanwhile, more options for searching the civil registration records are appearing. I have written many times about FreeBMD, (which is transcribing the records and making them available free of charge at http://freebmd.rootsweb.com/) and 1837 Online (which has images of the registration indexes available for payment at http://www.1837online.com/). S & N Genealogy offer The Genealogist, which has subscriptions for various census name and BMD indexes. Their offering is similar to 1837online, and is slightly more expensive at £5 for 50 pages viewed. It is slower in operation, less comprehensive, and uses Acrobat, rather than a specialist image viewer, but is a useful alternative. It can be found at www.bmdindex.co.uk.
Another new pay-per-view website giving access to civil registration records is familyrelatives.org (www.familyrelatives.org). This site has transcriptions of the GRO indexes for the period 1866 to 1920, and images of the index records from 1921 to 1983. The period from 1984 is covered by the usual computerised database. Transcriptions of the period 1837 to 1865 are promised. The search method is quite efficient, although it is not very suitable for one-namers, and searching for the two partners in a marriage is not possible in the same way as with FreeBMD. The charging method is complex, and the minimum payment is 10p per unit. Viewing one page of search results costs two units (20p), and viewing a page from the GRO indexes costs four units (40p). These charges are higher than 1837online. I also have to report that I was unable to trace the 1995 death of a great-aunt using familyrelatives, although this was easily achieved using 1837online. While it is right to be disappointed with any loss of performance, one should be thankful that so much is now available online and at comparatively low cost.
Have you downloaded Mozilla Firefox yet? Most people who buy a personal computer are happy to accept the Microsoft Windows software that comes with it, but Internet Explorer is not necessarily the best browser for searching the Internet. Mozilla Firefox is a new browser which has been developed by enthusiasts working for nothing all over the world, and the result is faster and more efficient than Internet Explorer. The features that I have found most useful are the ease with which you can have several sites open simultaneously, the way that Mozilla remembers your passwords, and the ease with which you can block those irritating pop-ups. Mozilla Firefox is available free of charge, and can be downloaded from http://www.mozilla.org/.
Finally, if you have Irish ancestry, you will know of the problems with destroyed census and other records. When old age pensions were introduced, many claimants had been born before civil registration of births had started in 1864. Their eligibility was therefore established by checking the census records for 1841 and 1851. The resulting pension records have now been indexed and are gradually being made available online at www.pensear.org.