Background to the Comedy of Errors books

These two books are not just for the genealogical expert. They will inform and entertain every family history researcher. Your research will benefit and become easier from knowing how the record system works. Click on my links to the summaries of the two books - you will see the range of topics covered. These books are a "must" for all researchers. GRO marriages, births and deaths - all had their problems.

Purchase and pricing

After six years of preparatory work, special and unprecedented permission from the Registrar General, Dr Tim Holt, for three periods of unique research at the General Register Office (the GRO) in Southport has allowed me to explore the structures and workings of this national record system. The organisation and processes of the system have been revealed for the first time. This has produced a fascinating story of the many many ways in which the records have suffered from errors and omissions. They also suffered from inadequate design. Working directly within the GRO records has produced results far exceeding any of my prior expectations.

In two ground-breaking books I have described the results of this research. They have revealed information that has been available nowhere else, information that is now helping family historians to understand the system and to overcome some of its problems. Both books, to the author's great relief, have been greeted with universal enthusiasm.

Researchers have all too often completely failed to find references to persons they have been searching for. The system has long been suspected of errors. At last this research has supplied proof of missing records, wrongly copied records, wrongly indexed records, unindexed records, mistyped indexes, errors in page references, volume references and district names. Researchers have been fascinated by the description of the system and its problems. Many have taken new ideas from these two books and have managed to find their "missing persons". Some researchers had believed that the records must be perfect - they have been relieved, though inevitably dismayed, to discover the truth. "After all", one researcher told me, "these were government records and I therefore believed that they must be correct".

The emphasis in the 1998 book was on the marriage records. "Act 2" also has a good deal to say on the records of births and deaths.

Front cover of 1998 book

These two books are companion volumes and complement each other, with liberal cross-references from the second (2002) book to the original (1998) book.

The first, 1998, book is "A Comedy of Errors" or The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899. The ISBN is 0-473-05581-3. There are 16 chapters and 10 appendices, 231 pages in total. The review in FGS Forum of Spring 2000 said "The English researcher who reads this book will understand the limitations of the indexes, the extent of the problems, and how to work around some of the flaws in the system". Anthony Camp, in Family Tree Magazine of March 1999 wrote of "..this fascinating book". He also, kindly, wrote "In frightening detail and as a result of the author's industry, page after page of sad incompetence is remorsely revealed". The magazine's editorial carried a banner headline with the words "PROOF AT LAST".

Front cover of 2002 book

The second, 2002, book is "A Comedy of Errors, Act2". It is substantially longer than the previous book. The ISBN is 0-473-07480-X. There are 30 chapters and 9 appendices, plus name indexes. There are 326 pages. Use of a tighter font has hidden the 75% growth in the amount of text. The book is entirely new and reveals even more of the inside story of the GRO records and their problems. There is more on the history and condition of the GRO indexes and there are insights into apparent breakdowns in the indexing processes. The feedback from those who read some of the material in advance of publication was enthusiastic and encouraging. The printed version of "Act 2", having been published a few months later than the CD version, has a number of amendments and updates and some significant additional material. The ISBN number shown in the CD version properly belongs to the fuller printed version, that being the version legally deposited against that ISBN. The CD version has only eight appendices.

Both books have been published privately in New Zealand. Many in recent years have been sold through the Genfair on-line bookshop but can also be bought at lower cost direct from the author.

The privilege of having been the first and only researcher allowed to work within the GRO since it was set up in 1837 has been a truly remarkable experience. That is why these books are the only account of the GRO system written from inside knowledge. If the GRO itself had ever decided to write such an account it would never have been more than an "official" view of the system. These books are the true story.

"Act2" has an index of names found in the book and also a second index for the names found in the 1998 book.

"Act2" also follows the release of the ONS White Paper on the modernisation of the GRO system. The White Paper was horrifyingly short on detail and appeared to have been written with all too little real knowledge of the system. Some of its premises were demonstrably false and untenable. Chapter 29 of "Act2" is a critique of the White Paper. The White Paper blandly based its proposals on assumptions that the GRO has operated to comfortingly high standards. The true situation is very much the opposite, with blatant errors and omissions ignored for a century and more, with countless examples of the ignorance and incompetence of many of the GRO clerks.

A keen researcher in Canada, reading the earlier CD version of "Act2", wrote to me "I'm still reading Act II, it's fascinating and boggles my mind how much you have done. You sure were a dedicated researcher, leaving no stone unturned". And a reader in Australia, with the printed version, wrote "I have read about two thirds in two days. It is fantastic and thank you so much for all your great work". The President of one Family History Society in England wrote "What an enormous amount of extra research you have done !" Another reader from Australia wrote "How incredible that you were able to do so much research there". A researcher in England bought both books and has written "They are fascinating books and have really made me stop and think". In a recent letter from Surrey - "Would you please send me one each of your two books, which have been highly recommended to me". Also from England ... "fascinating to learn of the internal structures of the indices and records".

A New Zealander wrote "I had a look at a copy in the National Library and it's terrific". And finally (and I really mustn't keep adding these comments) "Many thanks for the book which arrived earlier this week. Have not put it down yet ! Fantastic read ! Should be required reading in all archive offices. Explains problems I have had..."

From what we now know of the widespread errors and omissions in the GRO records, illustrated in these two books, we can see that the fatal flaw has been that this national record system has trusted to inadequately checked copies of original register entries for nearly two centuries. It would have been so very easy to call in a number of completed registers each year and to check them against the GRO's quarterly copies. Just one of the army of GRO clerks could have done that job. Errors would quickly have been found and steps could have been taken to improve the system. This simple precaution was never taken. The system that the legislators had optimistically designed was trusted to operate correctly. The result is a flawed system of records and an even more flawed index system caused by internal failings.

As I conclude this work I am left with feelings that are a mixture of sadness and respect. Having worked so long within the GRO I have felt almost a part of the organisation. I can see that it could yet become a great system. My hope is that the genealogical community may be able to act in concert to bring about the positive changes that these books argue for. That is why it is so important that these books should be widely read. The possibility for change is still there. Indeed if ONS had acted promptly on the proposals made in my 1998 book, we would already be enjoying a rebuilt and accurate record system with new and informative indexes.

Since "Act 2" was published there were new items of information that I gradually added to the published text, extending it by several pages. Some of the new material was then gathered into an article for the "New Zealand Genealogist". That material continued to grow in size and I made it available as a small addendum. As it soon grew to well over 50 pages of A5, I decided to withdraw the addendum and reshape the material into "Comedy, Act 3", a small addition to the "Comedy" series.

Now, by January 2013, is has grown to more than 130 pages, including some significant new material. Within the next month or so, I shall be adding other items, such as :

Photographs in and around the General Register Office, with descriptive text

Copies of the 1836 legislation

Copies of the RG's notes to clergy about marriage registration

Copies of some other GRO material

All this will be in the form of PDF documents on a CD. I will endeavour to price it separately, and/or as a package together with Acts 1 and 2. It will ideally include, eventually but perhaps not immediately, a subject index to the entire "Comedy" material which will then be well over 500 tightly packed pages.

Thanks to changes in exchange rates, postage rates and the costs of depositing foreign cheques in a New Zealand bank account, the prices quoted on this web site have not been enough to cover costs and I have reluctantly had to increase prices and also to mail by economy airmail rather than the premium rate. My prices at Genfair likewise had to be increased. Even so, considering that today's NZ dollar is worth much less than the dollars that I spent on publishing the book, the reality is probably that I am still not recovering true costs. Reprinting today would certainly cost me more.

Autobiographical notes etc

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Entrance to GRO/Certificate services/Film storage/Birth indexes/ Copy of vellum/Aperture fiche/Marriage indexes/

The following links will take you to some of our family trees . . .

Tree 1 - Our earliest Watkinsons in Essex
Tree 2 - The Watkinsons at Stantons, Black Notley
Tree 3 - Watkinson family tree, Lavenham to Connecticut
Tree 4 - Descent from Sarah Watkinson & Robt Barnard
Tree 5 - Descent from "Sukey" Watkinson & Stephen Clement
Tree 6 - The Watkinsons at Grand Courts (Graunt Gourts)

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