Suffolk parish registers on Ancestry

Tristram Shandy’s baptism, by Hogarth

The news is out now that Suffolk’s parish registers (PRs) are going to be on Ancestry. Work has already started to scan the many thousands of pages, and they aim to be online in 2025. This is both good news… and bad.

This is obviously good news because the only way to access them before has been on microfiche – either visiting one of the Suffolk Record Office’s (SRO) branches or a Family History Centre (to access them on FamilySearch), paying for a search, or purchasing copies of the fiche (known as microfiche). For years now, I’ve been buying microfiche and because I work in a library, I have access to microform readers. Part of the reason I started transcribing was because I knew I could access the records far easily than people who didn’t work in the same building as a microform reader!

Transcriptions have been available from the Suffolk Family History Society (SFHS), and while they’ve managed to transcribe all burials up to 1900, they’re still working on baptisms and marriages. Many of their transcriptions are available on Findmypast, and of course transcriptions are available on this website and FreeREG – but it’s slow progress.

So having the scans on Ancestry will be an improvement. The microfiche images are black and white, and full colour scans can be easier to read where the ink has faded or the page is damaged. Being able to see black ink and a brown spot can make all the difference when it comes to deciphering a word.

Now the bad…

I’ve had an Ancestry account for years, and while it’s been great having access to images of parish registers for London, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and many other places, it’s not all roses. As you can tell from the huge amount of time it’s taking the SFHS and FreeREG to transcribe Suffolk PRs, it’s not a quick job; ensuring accuracy can be a slow, painstaking task. And at the risk of people thinking I’m being rude about others’ work, I find some pretty bad accuracy issues with Ancestry, especially with old handwriting.

Anyone who’s ever tried to find a Prerogative Court of Canterbury will has no doubt discovered some howlers – I once found someone’s abode given as “Crap’s Inn” instead of “Gray’s Inn”! It’s incredibly frustrating when you’re paying to use the site and you have hurdles in your way caused by poor indexing.

Recently I was looking through a parish register page on Ancestry for Oxfordshire, and not one transcription on the page was error-free – to the point that had anyone been searching for someone who was on that page, they would never have found them by searching for the name. I hate to think how many brick walls could be knocked down just by the indexing being improved.

The thing is, you can learn to read old handwriting, and it frankly perplexes me that Ancestry, who charge people money to access their records, are clearly hiring people who cannot read it. It doesn’t appear to be checked by anyone either, because surely if it had been, that terrible page of Oxfordshire records would’ve been addressed. Yes, Ancestry users can submit error corrections, but I’m not going to sit there correcting an entire page which I have paid to access!

Allied to this are problems with coverage information not being given clearly. You’ll have noticed that each parish on this site comes with notes which will tell you when there’s years missing, or parts of years, so you can work out if the reason you can’t find someone is because, for instance, the register they would’ve appeared in has been lost. This information isn’t clear on Ancestry.

And… there’s problems on Ancestry with missing pages. I’ve reported several, which appear to have been skipped by accident during scanning, and once I’ve managed to work out how to report it (at one point I ended up being referred to an “Ancestry expert” who would answer my family history questions – which had nothing to do with missing pages), I’ve been told there’s no guarantee that the missing page will be added!

I dread to say this, but in my experience, indexing is more accurate on Findmypast, and I would’ve been more confident if the news was that SRO had gone with them, rather than Ancestry. Sorry – I don’t wish to insult or offend anyone, but I’m just being honest, based on my own experience.

So at least we’ll be able to access the images far more easily than we ever have been before. That’s the good bit. But I would suggest anyone struggling to find their family among the records use transcriptions from SFHS and FreeREG, to make up for the dodgy indexing.