• The Shipway Pedigree Fraud

    With 10 years’ experience of deciphering 16th-18th century registers, FreeREG transcriber Cathy Jury has come across some interesting entries. She even wrote about the challenges of transcribing difficult entries, back in 2017. But the following note, referring to a baptism of ‘John Shipway, the son of John Shipway’ in the Charfield, GLS register, she says caps them all:

    “Note that the entry of May 31st 1619 is a forgery, written at a much later date and forming part of the notorious Shipway Forgery. See also marriage 4 Feb 1617 and burial 9 Dec 1684.”

    Cathy looked into the story behind the entry, and says that it’s worth the read…


    When the church records show a BMD record for your ancestor, you’re inclined to accept it as a fact. Mistakes are made, of course – but usually only in the spelling or order of names. The possibility that an entry is fraudulent is unthinkable.

    That’s why Lt Col Robert Shipway of Grove House, Chiswick, who knew he had some 'ancestral connections' within Gloucestershire, was happy to accept the findings presented to him by the 'principal genealogical specialist' Dr Herbert Davies BA, MD, who he had hired to research the Shipway pedigree, in 1897.

    But Lt Col Shipway was deceived. ‘Dr’ Davies was actually a 22-year-old former assistant school teacher who had assumed the BA (Oxon) degree of one Herbert Davies (who was now in Australia), and whose MD degree diploma from the University of Heidelberg was a complete forgery.
    And, in fact, the ‘findings’ Davies presented to Lt Col Shipway had actually involved the desecration of several historical relics (including the addition to the Charfield register almost 270 years later, which Cathy had seen), and one unfortunate death following an exhumation. It all resulted in a three-year prison sentence for their perpetrator.

    Remarkable fraud

    During the next year following his engagement, Davies had pursued the Shipway line and traced it back to John Shipway (c1615-1690) of Beverston Castle. But his research had stalled with the lack of Shipway entries in the parish register prior to 1639, so Davies then commenced a remarkable series of fraudulent activities in order to establish a more ancient and far more important pedigree for the Shipways. 
    It should be noted that, throughout this period, Davies was being paid daily, plus expenses – in total he received £683 in fees and expenses (equivalent to c£91k today, according to the Bank of England’s calculator). 
    Using his impressive academic status, Davies gained free access to the Beverston registers and convinced the vicar to supply legal certificates of the entries he had 'found'. He also gained permission to inspect the contents of some graves, leading to the 'discovery' of an inscription on the plate of a lead coffin (discovered after Davies was left alone to 'clean' it).

    Imago of the register with a note about the fraudulent entry

    Image of the register page, with a note about the fraudulent entry.
    Reference P74/IN/1/5, Courtesy of Gloucestershire Archives

    “A lesson to all”

    Davies’ next act was to forge various wills. But this was to be his undoing.
    Lt Col Shipway showed the wills to the eminent genealogist WPW Phillimore, who felt that the content was suspicious and alerted the appropriate authority. The result was a prosecution lasting from September to November 1897, which was avidly followed by the local and national press. Davies was sentenced to three years penal servitude.
    Read more details on the story here and in this blog on the AmericanAncestors website, where the author wisely notes: 

    “The case of ‘Dr’ Davies serves as a lesson to all: even the most detailed attempts at crafting a fraudulent story will be unravelled by well-trained researchers.”

    Open, Global Genealogy

    Of course, if all data was truly open and accessible to everyone - which is our aim at UK Free Genealogy, con-artists such as Davies would find it more difficult to work their scams!

    OPEN, GLOBAL GENEALOGY is the theme of our annual conference which will take place (online) on 22 and 29 May. Find out more about our plans for the conference and register to join us on the 2021 Conference page.

  • What Word Should Replace "Transcriptions"?

    Update: We changed the link to "Records" in November 2020

    A few months ago, we asked in our newsletter for suggestions to replace the hyperlinked word "TRANSCRIPTIONS" on our website as it doesn't fully communicate what we want it to: 

    In the redevelopment of the FreeBMD interface (FreeBMD2), we want to standardise our terminology to provide consistency across all of our websites. Each of the sister projects has an area where we provide information on the data we've transcribed, and what places, churches or districts, registers or volumes are included. This is being extended on FreeREG to include what we would like to transcribe if we could get the images, what gaps exist in the transcriptions and why, and where we cannot provide results because of embargoes imposed by an organisation. This is currently called COVERAGE on FreeBMD, and has been known on FreeCEN (up until recently) as DATABASE COVERAGE. We've also tried DATABASE and CONTENTS.

    Currently, we're using TRANSCRIPTIONS in the menu bar (see image above) but this doesn't convey the entirety of what this area contains, i.e. places, gaps etc. We're struggling to decide on a 'one-word-fits all' solution, so we would really like to hear your ideas and opinions.

    We've narrowed down the responses to three potential words, and now we're asking you, our volunteers, to vote for your choice in our poll, below.

    bike tracks
  • Get Closer to Your Family Whilst Physically Distancing (Part Two)

    Following activities 1-5  of this post, here are the last 5 things you can do to bring your family into focus at this time of being physically distant. We hope you enjoyed the conversation starters to get your relatives sharing their memories and that you're ready to dive a bit deeper into your family history!

    6) Look everybody up on FreeREG

    When the FreeREG project started with the ambition of transcribing all the Church of England registers from before civil registration began in 1837 (or later) it soon expanded to include registers of baptism, marriage and burial from other religious and secular organisations. The registers often contain information which is not available from the FreeBMD indexes.

    Been there, done that? 

    Try again - we are adding records all the time.  And use the new 'Unique Names' feature to see if Great Uncle Jonathan can’t be found because his name was misspelt.

    7) Call people again

    Now you have more information, call everybody again. You can ask more questions and check your research against people's memories.

    Been there, done that?  

    Use social media to see if anyone recalls deceased members of your family, or see if there is anything online about a school or other institution your ancestors were associated with. Famous ancestor? Make sure the Wikipedia article links to them on Wikitree or other publically available family tree. Check the Guild of One Name Studies to see if there are others researching the same name.

    8) Getting on a bit? Censuses are your friend!

    You may by now have people in your tree born more than 100 years ago. Three free resources you can use to find out more for people born before 1920:

    FreeCEN (if born 1891 or earlier). While not complete, the transcriptions are of high quality, and lots of detail is given that you may not find on other free websites, and the search engine is great if you are looking for more common names.

    FamilySearch (if born 1911 or earlier). More complete than FreeCEN, but the transcriptions do not give all the detail.

    Similar to a census, the 1939 Register basic search is free but after that, behind a paywall - make a note as you can often get free access at a public library, and you can visit once social contact is again possible.

    Been there, done that? 

    Use the census information (and information from civil and other registrations) to look deeper at the lives of your ancestors - the local museums and parishes and towns where they lived often have great resources, trade associations and professions and often have fascinating websites.

    9) Remember those who went before

    Whether you are an old hand, or new to family history, if you are still able to get out of the house (but need to keep in the open and away from others) you might like to visit graveyards that you’ve identified could commemorate your ancestors; you may find further information there. 

    You can ask others to go look on your behalf if you can’t get out, or by contacting relatives and friends living locally. Or you can answer requests from others, or record the graveyard on FindAGrave.

    You can also remember people by celebrating their birthday or marriage anniversary - perhaps via social media, perhaps by doing a little deeper research into their lives.

    10) Giving something back

    We’ve already mentioned a few ways you can support others interested in family history.  We hope that you have found the high-quality transcriptions on our websites FreeBMD, FreeREG and FreeCEN useful, and would love to have you as a volunteer. There are vacancies for transcribers on all three projects (at all skill levels). We also have vacancies for people to work on help pages (editing, or proofreading or using html), and a great need for Ruby on Rails, MongoDB, MySQL and HTML/CSS developers. Or you could make a financial donation to our work: £5 helps us get almost 400 extra records in our databases and £30 runs our servers for one day.

    If you have suggestions for improvements to these activities, or any others, please let us know in the comments.

  • Get Closer to Your Family Whilst Physically Distant (Part One)

    As many of us around the world are in quarantine, self-isolating, or reducing our social contacts due to Covid-19, it seems a good time to talk about family history as something to do which keeps people in touch and is a source of new friendships while not needing anything other than an internet connection and smartphone, tablet or computer (and possibly a pencil, eraser and some paper).  

    We've written a guide, with 10 things to do if you have never thought about family history before, with alternative things to do if you are more - or very - experienced. Here, in Part One, we share the first five. Part Two is coming soon.

    1) Talk to older people in your family

    Give the older people in your family a phone call. We’ve put together some questions you could ask; probably over a lot of calls.
    Remember to ask for the names and numbers of others you could call. As well as talking to members of the older generation, try seeking out cousins and others more distant to your family: ask them what they remember of their parents and their grandparents, as this can be helpful with your tree too.
    If you’re adopted and are interested in your birth family history we have some  links to resources here which will help you make a start.

    Been there, done that?
    It’s worth going back to immediate family with additional questions. There are some suggestions here https://eu.tennessean.com/story/life/shopping/ms-cheap/2017/04/26/20-questions-100-year-old-nashville-lady/100558152/ and here

    2) Write down what you find out

    You may find it helpful to make a recording of your phone calls so you can write down what you learned for clarification, or go back to it at a later date. If you speak to your relatives by video call you can use a free recording service, like Loom.com, to record both the video and audio of your conversations. Otherwise, you can take notes as you go.

    Been there, done that?
    Are your notes perfectly organised? Do others know what they are, and where they are? If password protected, do they know where your passwords are? Do others know what you wish to be done with your research materials, should you not have the opportunity to pass them on yourself?

    3) Draw a traditional family tree

    A 'skeleton' tree with very basic information under each name can help you with the future phone calls. For example if someone mentions the name John you can ask is that John the son of Richard or John who was Richard’s brother? 

    Been there, done that?
    Have you identified all those who share a great-grandparent with you? Get in touch to see what your cousins know about the past, find out more about their lives, and ask if they’ve had a DNA test (many younger people take them now to find out health information, or to look at their deep ancestry).

    4) Check what you know

    (and what you find out)

    If the people on your tree come from England or Wales, the easiest place to check details is on FreeBMD. At the moment, FreeBMD has data up to 1990, and back to 1837. It doesn't give you a precise date of birth and if someone was born married or died late in the year, the event may not have been registered until the following year. But a check on FreeBMD will confirm what you have been told.

    FreeBMD will also tell you which registration District the event took place in. This may not be the place you were told - a registration District may include many towns and villages. Or your relative may have been born, married or died in a hospital some distance from where they lived. Many mothers went back to have a child in their mother's household.

    Copy and paste the citation from FreeBMD into a document together with the name of the person, District and reference.

    There are also BMD records available for Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

    www.familysearch.org has records from around the world. Check out the wiki about places to find out more about the records available in the country/region you're interested in.

    Been there, done that?
    Post the contents of your certificates as Postems on FreeBMD so others don't have to pay. If you've had to buy a certificate and it turns out not to be your relative, their relatives can benefit, and you might meet new cousins through the certificates of your relatives.

    5. Put what you know on Wikitree

    We particularly recommend Wikitree because it has online training in family history. You may wish to join a specialist project team where you can get additional support on a particular area of interest (such as Scottish ancestors) and help to make others’ work more useful. Remember to mark yourself, and other living persons as private.

    Wikitree's welcome page for those stuck at home looking for a diversion.

    If Wikitree isn’t for you, FamilySearch.org is a good alternative; the mobile app is very nifty!

    Been there, done that?
    Keep your skills sharp by answering questions in the Wikitree Genealogist to Genealogist forum or Genealogy StackExchange.