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Cliff Webb - Biography

I was born in London in 1948. After reading Economics and Economic History at Pembroke College, Cambridge, I knew three basic things:
  1. I wanted to marry Dianne. Very luckily she agreed and we have two lovely boys in their 20s.
  2. Because of 1. above I needed to get a job. I started work in a City insurance broker and am today a director of an international brokerage house.
  3. I didn't care for economics at all but loved history.
Shortly after graduating my brother in law (who was living in Japan) asked me for help as he was researching his family history and had got stuck. The rest, as they say, is indeed history. I am currently working for my doctorate at Roehampton University on City Livery Company apprenticeships and what they can tell us about migration into 17th century London.

I became fascinated with the struggles of people to survive, often against the odds, and in particular how, why and when people came to London. Far more than just researching my own family, I wanted to make records more accessible to searchers. The principles of that have not changed; early documents can be difficult to read and those of interest are impossible to find without adequate finding aids, especially indexes. I was always sure that to make documents available to all historians, not just family historians, should be our aim and we should build bridges with local and other historians, in particular by always indexing by place and subject wherever possible.

The methods of purveying that material to the public have changed and changed radically and very much for the better. I started with a few typescript copies of parish registers and moved through electric typewriters to word processors, and in storage from paper to fiche, CD-Rom and now (soon) DVD. None of us in the early 1970s working, for example, with essentially no name indexes to census returns could have envisaged the current situation, where the Internet has transformed genealogical research to the point where, sadly, it is a grave handicap not to be computer literate. But, overall, the progress has been marvellous.

My own interest remain the making of records available, and the Internet is one of the best (but not the only) ways of doing that. I have compiled some 40 volumes of apprenticeship records which the Society of Genealogists have published. There are several more in the pipeline, and I do not believe that the printed book will ever be passé. My own local family history society (West Surrey FHS) has printed a large number of indexes and indexed transcripts, most of which I have been involved in, and a series of booklets on tracing ancestry which I have largely compiled. For many years I was general editor of the National Index of Parish Registers, published by the Society of Genealogists, and we now have for England and Wales lists of all surviving registers, bishop's transcripts and copies of the same for every county, though some are very out of date. I am currently joint general editor of the British Record Society, which prints indexes to wills and has also embarked on a landmark series of indexed transcripts of Hearth Tax records, invaluable sources for mid-17th century names.

However, the amount of information that can be published in any one index or transcript is limited. Paper and printing not only costs money, books take up space, at a premium in modern housing conditions. There is no limit, however, to the amount of information which can be made available in index form on the Internet. There, for a modest cost, one can provide whole libraries of information to people in the comfort of their own home (or at least the corner their spouse grudgingly allots them). Research can be done in Aberdare or Abu Dhabi, Zagreb or Zululand. Nobody will be as disadvantaged as they have been for living so far from their ancestral sources, for being unable to leave their homes due to personal commitments or disabilities or for having to earn their livings during the time when Record Offices are open.

King George III (no academic colossus) is reputed to have said to Edward Gibbon on seeing the results of his enormous labours in compiling The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire: 'Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon', as long as I can, it will be 'tap, tap, tap [on the keyboard], Mr Webb'.