British war-dead records go online
A single line of smudgy black type reads "OWEN, Wilfred, lieutenant, Fifth Battalion Manchester Regiment". It is just one of more than 700,000 reminders of the carnage of the Great War kept in the dusty ledgers of a London archive. But now the entry of the poet Wilfred Owen in the official index of war dead, along with those of his comrades fallen in both world wars, has leapt from the corridors of the General Register Office (GRO) to cyberspace.
From today, amateur historians and genealogists will be able to search a website for scanned images of the original death records of more than a million British soldiers killed in conflicts from the Boer War to the Korean War.
The records, provided by the GRO, which is responsible for registering births, deaths and marriages in Britain and abroad, are part of a database which includes several million documents gathered by officials while overseas.
Colin Miller, managing director of the website, www.1837online.com, said: "These are unique records of what happened to Britons abroad, from war to registrations at a foreign embassy or births while on board a ship.
"Until now people have had to get on a train to look at them but now they can be traced at home. It is poignant to think that so many thousands of men who died in two world wars can be traced at the click of a button."
According to one survey, one in eight Britons, some 7 million people, are actively tracing their family trees, spawning a succession of websites and discussion groups for genealogists.
An attempt last year by the National Archives to place the 1901 census online collapsed under the weight of demand - three million hits in three hours. The service has since resumed but the thirst for online research has also attracted private "pay-per-view" companies, raising questions about their use of public records for profit. Some websites, such as the American-based Rootsweb, offer their information for free.
The Mormon church, which counts prayer for named ancestors as a tenet of its faith, has entered much of the data in the 12,000 parish registers in England and Wales for free.
Under current legislation companies can also buy a licence to use the records as a business but have to invest to scan and enter the data for their own use.
Mr Miller, whose company is charging its 250,000 registered users a minimum of 10p for every page from the records viewed, insisted that the service was not over-priced. He said: "We are not into ripping people off. Putting these records online is a time-consuming and expensive process.
"The growth in interest in genealogy goes across all age groups - we have many customers in their 20s. People want to know who they are, what their background is and the internet allows people to achieve that in a time frame that was simply impossible before now."
The website, which includes entries for other First World War poets such as Rupert Brooke and the man responsible for recruiting many British volunteers, Lord Kitchener, provides the name, rank, unit and reference number to obtain the death certificate of each soldier. It also features a number of unusual archives such as the register of births at sea, under which it was customary for the child's second name to be that of the ship, and births in aircraft. One entry, for an Osman Fayyad born in 1954, reads: "Born over Syria, 30 miles east of home."