July 2011

When we began our careers in the early 1990s there was plenty of exercise involved. Being a professional probate genealogist back then generally meant working in central London where the records were. These were the days before digitized records, Who Do You Think You Are and Heir Hunters, when hardly anybody had heard of probate research and genealogy was generally pronounced ‘gene-o-logy’. Our formative years involved daily sprints between St Catherine’s House, Somerset House and the Public Record Office (then situated on Chancery Lane), in order to get to that vital record before a competitor.

St Catherine’s House was our main place of work. Situated on the corner of Kingsway and the Aldwych, not far from Covent Garden, it held large tomes of quarterly indexed births, marriages and deaths. Most of our time was spent ‘pulling books’ and making lists in our filofaxes (colonised by genealogists long before the yuppies made them famous).  If you want to see exactly how it used to look, Mike Leigh’s 1996 film ‘Secrets and Lies’ contains a scene where Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s character searches for and orders a copy of her birth certificate. They were appealing for extras on the day of filming and had we known what a great film they were making, we might have stayed behind!

Alas, the days of ‘pulling books’ are no more. The Family Records Centre closed several years ago and genealogists must research births, marriages and deaths on microfiche or online. We have substituted the strain on our forearms and the soles of our feet for eye strain!  Another significant change is the development of the search engine. A birth, marriage or death record can now be found in seconds and a family’s entry on a census, which might once have taken days to find, may now be tracked down in a matter of minutes.

Of course, to the professional, computerisation is a mixed blessing.  Whilst we too can now base ourselves outside of central London, there is an increasing perception that cases can be solved with the touch of a button, or that people can be found by simply typing a name into Google. Hey presto! A beneficiary.  Sometimes though a search engine is no substitute for a search in the original indexes. Indeed, a professional genealogist’s skills are honed by manually searching the indexes. The ability to see the significance of any marriages occurring in a different area of the country, or the slight misspelling of a name, or a double-barreled name appearing at the foot of the page: these details can be spotted when the page is in front of you but cannot easily be factored into the parameters employed by a search engine.

Despite the advantages of digitisation, there are still many challenges ahead and, in certain cases, new technology can limit the amount of information available to us. An example of this is the introduction of the edited electoral roll in 2003. The edited roll is generally a good thing.  Your address is not so readily available online to members of the public, to marketing companies or to probate genealogists! The desire for privacy in these days of cold-call telemarketing and instant access everything is understandable.  However, a consequence of this is that the more privacy a person has in terms of their public profile, the more difficult they are to find!  The good news is that, as career probate genealogists, we are able to use our experience to overcome such challenges.  We make use of a number of current and historical databases (and yes, the internet) to track people down and where necessary, we make use of local agents to undertake enquiries.

Mining the wealth of information online certainly requires an amount of skill and tenacity and at Martlets we take full advantage of the latest databases. However, sometimes the old-fashioned methods still pay dividends and the genealogical skills we have acquired down the years continue to serve us in good stead today. Having said that, we’re not too sad to see the back of shelves of telephone directories.  And don’t get us started on room 319…


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