Was There a Time Before Computers?

Rosemary Bailey

This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

In the piece from Jennifer Ball (A Blast from the Past), which appeared in the last issue, she referred to her entry in Practical Family History where she advertised for researchers of the same families as hers. This reminded me about how different (and far more time-consuming) researching family history was in the days before computers and the internet. For those members who have been researching their family history since the year dot, I apologise for this indulgent trip down memory lane to the 80s and early 90s, and for those newer researchers, read on and find out how we managed without computers…
Back then more or less all the records were in London, but I was lucky to live about 40 minutes by train from Victoria. It was always a toss-up whether to pay the extra and go on an early train to arrive as the record offices were opening for an hour or so of relative quiet or wait till after 9.30am for a cheap day return and arrive more or less with everyone else.
The first record office I ever visited was St Catherine’s House in High Holborn where indexes to the Births Deaths and Marriages were held, aged 16 I lowered the average age considerably! Indexes were in huge ledgers about 70cm by 50cm and were incredibly heavy. They were organised alphabetically by quarter and year, so after finding the one you wanted you took it to a table where, at busy times (was it ever quiet?), you had to squeeze in sideways and, if you found an entry you wanted, write it in your notepad balanced on the bottom inch of the table all the time keeping an eye on your sandwiches (over there, warming nicely by the radiator, this was at the height of the IRA, but no one seemed to care) and duck to avoid being hit by other people carrying ledgers. School holidays were worst. It was really hard work, the ledgers were heavy and you were on your feet all day. If you were actually there all day that is – because often there wasn’t a lot you could do since you had to order the certificates and wait for them to come by post before you could see what was on them to know what to look for next. As I recall certificates could take about three weeks to arrive, and then you’d be up there again to look for the next one.
If you didn’t live in London, I believe libraries in larger towns and cities held microfiche copies of the BMD ledgers. However you could only apply for certificates at St Catherine’s House and not by post so that was a problem but there were various people who advertised that if you paid a premium they would apply for your certificates for you.
The only way to look at the census records was at the PRO in Portugal Street, not far I think from St Catherine’s House. I don’t remember it being so busy and here you could look at microfilm of the actual census pages. The dreaded microfilm readers were already old and temperamental when I came to use them, and so noisy, especially when you got to the end of a spool and the film flew off! It was hard to thread the film through the spool and then when I did I had a 50:50 chance of having done it upside down and having to start again. If there was a way of knowing which way up they went, then I never worked it out. The census records weren’t indexed, it was just a case of trawling house, by house, road by road in the area you THOUGHT your ancestors came from. I was quite lucky here as mine had stayed fairly locally.

A microfilm reader, this one from the 1960s
A microfilm reader, this one from the 1960s, but the ones in the London record offices were similar. Photo San Jose library, licensed under the Creative Commons Share and Share Alike

There was no ‘coffee culture’ then, no Starbucks or Costa nearby and, especially for me when I was young, no money for coffee in any case! I think St Catherine’s had a room you could eat your sandwiches in with a couple of chocolate and crisps vending machines, but as I remember it was below ground and quite depressing.
There was a huge project in the early 1990s to transcribe and index the 1881 census. Family Historians could volunteer to copy out pages from photocopies of the original census which were then entered centrally and an index and transcription produced on CDs. I did some of this and was lucky enough to find a missing family on a page I was copying. Of course when we got the 1881 census and index for the computer it was just marvellous – mind you it came on about 10 CDs and you had to keep swopping CDs in and out to find what you were looking for.
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) produced by the Church of the Latter Day Saints was available and you could send off for pages and paid according to how many pages you received. I can’t remember how that worked because you wouldn’t have known how many pages you were going to get – for example if you asked for all the Sauls in Worcestershire in a certain time period. There must have been some degree of trust involved. In some large libraries and record offices the IGI came on microfiche. These were A5 transparencies which, when you had found the right one (because usually the previous person had filed it in the wrong place or left it in the reader) had to be read using a magnifying reader. It was a real knack moving the reader slowly enough to find the right part of the microfiche as moving it just a fraction resulted in a massive move on the screen. This is now available online as www.familysearch.org of course.
Lots of local family history societies had indexed parish records and these were kept in local libraries and county history centres. That was a great help, you could make really good progress there; I spent a lot of time at Smethwick and Oxford Libraries in the late 1980s, I used to arrange my work so that I could visit the area. Of course there was a time when you had to go out to the churches to look at parish registers, do any members have anecdotes to share about that? I remember also visiting the research centre at my local Church of the Latter Day Saints as they had a lot of material, indexes on fiche, film and paper and you could order more from Utah.
Back then it was really important that you made contact with others researching your surnames so that you could share information. There was a very thick paperback book produced each year (I forget who by, or the title) in which you could pay to advertise your interests and Family History Societies had large members’ interests sections in their journals. One red letter day I received by post 5 generations of Bassfords with loads of dates, occupations etc. And I suppose that was why a lot of one name societies were set up – we really needed each other then.
Before computers and family history software we all had our own paper way of recording our data. I had various forms, index cards, envelope files, ring binders etc.. In the early days this society kept it’s trees on A2 (four times A4) sheets with an complicated numbering system. But I think as individuals a lot of us drew out our family charts on long strips of wall paper!
So researching your family tree was very different back in the 80s and early 90s. It was much, much slower, there wasn’t often a situation where you found 3 generations in the space of 5 minutes like you easily can today. There were plenty of tiring days when you came home empty handed, but when you did find something, boy was it rewarding!