Projects and publications: a talk on the society’s work

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 11 May 2016

Speaker: Catherine Sampson and Brian Wilcock


The society’s data transcriptions are superior to most commercially produced sets because they:

a) aim for 100 per cent accuracy; bishops’ transcripts are used only when the original parish register has not survived;

b) are better for being transcribed by local volunteers, rather than the work being subcontracted overseas;

c) are double-checked;

d) are edited to include all the information originally recorded, such as annotations, asides, later corrections etc, details which are overlooked by commercially produced transcriptions.

Volunteers for this work include non-members as well as members, and they are scattered across the UK and the world. Some work from home, and some travel to record offices and libraries. Some can and do spare many hours a week, some a few hours a month. Ages range from 19 to 90, and no previous experience is necessary.

         Original records can present extraordinary problems calling for outstanding effort. Maidenhead parish registers were burnt in a fire, such that only the inch nearest the binding margin was legible, but transcribers were able to correlate fragments of data with entries in the surviving parish magazines to create a viable dataset. Combe St Swithun’s parish chest was dumped in the village pond by thieves, making it readable only with great care under UV light. A unique collection of early, unpublished photos of villagers in front of their cottages came to light at Sulham, and volunteers succeeded in naming them from the census.

         The society’s Berkshire publications (all now on CD, fiche having been superseded) include: burials, approaching its 12th and concluding edition; baptisms 2nd edition, which is just out; marriages; overseers’ papers, indexed by name and by place; probate index, and many more. More parish CDs, both individual and clustered, are in the pipeline. The focus is on those parishes not in the IGI. A recent search for White Waltham baptisms on FamilySearch found 350; the Berkshire FHS CD still in compilation has found 2,852, with more to come.

         The society works closely with the BRO, which has recently given permission to photograph the registers of Newbury St Nicolas, the originals being too fragile to consult, and the old fiche being nearly illegible.

         The society also seeks out odd datasets, such as a box of 1980s deeds which have recently been calendared. This type of data is published in the members’-only area of the society’s website.

         One of the principal threats to the society’s work comes from commercial organisations which bulk-buy the rights to copy registers, resulting a low-quality work with a high cost of access. Shortage of volunteers and the challenge of constantly changing technology must also be overcome.

         What are the benefits of volunteering for this kind of work?

a) personal satisfaction;

b) flexibility: choose your time and place;

c) the knowledge that you are making a difference;

d) the opportunity to learn;

e) the fun of friendly teamwork;

f) the chance to give something back to other family historians whose work has benefited yours.


Brian Wilcock followed this with an account of the society’s work in publishing transcriptions of MIs, vital work which is a race against time. Churchyards are increasingly cleared of old stones, which may be damaged in the process. Those that remain are under threat from weathering, delamination and overgrowth by vegetation.

         The society’s website lists churchyards and cemeteries which have been completed, and those which are in progress or need volunteers. Many graveyards have been transcribed in the past by hobbyists of varying competence, and old work needs checking and updating.

         The society has published two CDs: MIs collection 1, which is largely text based, and MIs collection 2, which includes plans and photos.

         War memorials are another source which has been tackled by many individuals and local groups. Berkshire FHS published its first CD in 2014, containing 30,000 names from almost 750 memorials, indexed and with 28 per cent photographed. Edition two, which is likely to have as many entries as edition one, is expected 2018. The search is on for lost memorials, and the aim is to get more photos. Volunteers are badly needed for this, and are asked to look on the website to see where memorials need to be hunted down and photographed.

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