Probate research and the online revolution

 In Probate

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Stephen Rigden, Head of Research at Title Research, looks at how digitised records have transformed the search for missing beneficiaries.

When clients revert to us to resume research after a gap of many years – for instance, when dealing with ongoing complicated family trusts – the new investigative possibilities opened up by the passage of time become especially apparent. Some tasks have been made much less labour-intensive by digitisation; other things which simply were not possible five or 10 years ago have become possible today.

  1. Searching birth, marriage and death indexes used to be a manual process involving paper ledgers or their microform surrogates. Title Research was the first business to scan these indexes for internal use and the first to publish these online on its website 1837online (now www.findmypast. com), for which we won the Queen’s Award for Innovation. This means that searching the indexes has now become a desk job, with all the associated convenience and efficiencies.
  2. The decennial census returns have, until recently, been subject to a customary 100-year closure period. This meant that the 1891 census did not become available to the public till 1992, and the 1901 until 2002. These resources have not only become newly available but also delivered in more user-friendly media – instead of browsing microfilm copies, digitisation has meant that internet users can access information fully searchable by name and place.
  3. The advent this year of the 1911 census online – a couple of years early due to the Information Commissioner’s decision – opens up a new and especially valuable resource. The 1911 census is now available to search at The 1911 census is arguably of even greater value than earlier censuses to researchers such as Title Research in that, rather than just providing a snapshot of who was resident overnight at a given address, it also asks married householders to record so-called fertility information. As well as asking for the number of years married, it also requested the total number of children born to the marriage, the number of those children still living and the number now dead. This information is of great value in determining family size and composition as at 1911.

Furthermore, the 1911 census bridges the research gap between the 1901 census (published in 2002) and the appearance, coincidentally in 1911, of the mother’s maiden surname in the birth indexes. Previously, searching the birth indexes from 1901 to 1911 had exerted a brake to research; now, with the 1911 census we can move on.

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The unavoidable consequence of new and improved sources of information is that it is no longer necessary to work in the old ways, and it surprises us still to see research firms working exactly as they did in the 1970s, by shoe leather and road miles, rushing around the country.

Of course, change is a complex phenomenon and not everything simply gets easier. These days we have to spend more time than we used to dealing with the beneficiaries we find. Beneficiaries are often more cautious and sceptical, they are fearful of identity theft and fraud, and they suspect that we will pull out a demand for a commission fee (something which Title Research never does).

Other problems are a corollary of the improvements in information availability. One of the massive digitisation projects which the Title Research website completed was The National Archive’s collection of Board of Trade outgoing passenger lists from 1890 to 1960. This dataset is significant in that it allows us to identify emigrants who previously would have been invisible to us. But, of course, these leads have to be followed up and we now find ourselves conducting more research in South America, South Africa and South Island NZ on the trail of British emigrants. So change brings more challenges and keeps us agile.

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