Members and visitors have often asked about the history of FIBIS. So, although we always prefer to be a forward-looking society, a little research has revealed the following about our past.
In the mid 1990’s the “British Ancestors in India Society”(whose aims were similar to those of FIBIS today) was created. However, it soon became apparent that some of the Committee felt that it should be run as a commercial business, whereas others felt that it should be a charity with information freely available to the general public who had ancestors in India. So, in the late 1990’s a break-away group established the Families in British India Society which was established as a charity in the latter half of 1998. Original members (with their membership numbers) included (1) Donald Jaques, Treasurer, who put up a modest sum of money to get the Society going; (2) Jenny Law, Assistant Secretary; (3) Tony Fuller, Secretary; (4) Geraldine Charles, Archives Liaison; and (5) Rosemary Taylor, Chairman.
The Charity’s primary aim was, and still is, educational – to help individuals research their ancestors and the society in which they lived. The geographical area covered is pre 1947 India and associated countries such as Burma (Myanmar), St. Helena, Straits Settlements (Singapore and Penang – formerly Price of Wales Island) and other parts of Asia of interest to British India, such as Persia (Iran), the Gulf and China.
The annual subscription rate was set at £10 for UK members and £15 for overseas and that did not change until 2007 when the membership was increased to £15 for the UK, £16 for Europe and £18 for the rest of the world. Those membership rates have been held since then, but in 2021 FIBIS introduced a reduced rate of £12 for paperless membership as postage costs had increased significantly over the years.
The first open meeting was held on 25 September 1999 at St Matthias Old Church in Poplar, formerly the chapel of the East India Company Alms Houses. Thirty-five people attended to hear a talk by Tony Farrington, who had recently retired as the Deputy Director of the Oriental and India Office Collections at the British Library. The meeting also welcomed Cathy Day from Australia, who had established the Rootsweb “India List” and her own renowned “Family History in India” website.
In the same month, FIBIS published the first issue of its hugely successful twice-yearly Journal. It looks a little basic from today’s perspective, but fore shadows the brilliant publication that it has become. A membership list included indicates our numbers at that time were 171 (now nearly 2000 members). Still published twice a year, our Journal has been very capably edited and produced by a series of editors over the years, including Tony Fuller, Jenny Law, Peter Bailey, David Blake, followed by Sarah Bilton, Margaret Murray, Emma Oram, Valerie Haye, Mark Young, Jacob Bailey and when all else fails, by Chairman Pat Scully.
The Society submitted transcribed data to Cathy Day’s website and in early 2001 met with the Oriental and India Office Collections staff of the British Library in order to collaborate on the provision of transcriptions of India Office Births, Deaths, & Marriage Records. By early 2003, FIBIS’s database had increased in size to 70,000 entries and it was clear that a searchable version was needed. A basic website had been established by FIBIS member Anne Kelsall, and not long after, another FIBIS member and website designer, John Kendall, came forward with the software for a fully searchable online database, i.e. “Frontis Archive Publishing System” a flexible system now used by a number of other family history societies as well as FIBIS.
By early 2005, the FIBIS database had up to 200,000 entries. That year saw the start of several major advances – Sylvia Murphy became coordinator for our Australian and New Zealand activities, a role now held by Mary Ann Gourley in Melbourne and Eleanor Neil in New Zealand; Valmay Young agreed to take over the role of Webmaster and in due course she greatly expanded the website, enabling the scope and activity of the Society to increase enormously. Further notable events occurred in 2007 when FIBIS adopted a more modern logo and format for the Society’s constitution and one of our FIBIS Trustees, Elaine MacGregor organized our first trip to India through Indus Discoveries Ltd.
By this time, membership had increased to over 700 in the hands of membership secretaries and Treasurers Lawrie Butler and Elaine MacGregor. Today, we have nearly 2000 members due to the untiring efforts of their successors Emma Sullivan in 2007, Suzanne Webber in 2013, Luci Martin St Valery in 2016, followed shortly after in 2017, and still in office, in 2022 by Libby Rice. Funds have grown over the years thanks chiefly to the subscriptions of our members plus some donations, these have been carefully nurtured by a series of able treasurers: Donald Jaques, Lawrie Butler, Elaine MacGregor, John Lawrence, Hugh Wilding and latterly since 2015 by John Napper.
The size of the transcriptions database continued to increase, with substantial input from Vice-Chairman Robert Charnock and extensive additions generously contributed by a large number of volunteer transcribers from all over the world. In this respect, we should mention the special efforts which have been put into the transcriptions of the Births, Marriages and Death notices from the Times of India by David Edge and his team in Australia, and from Allen’s Indian Mail by John Gannon and his team. For the last couple of years Sandra Seager in the USA has been co-ordinating photographs and transcriptions in readiness for their upload to the FIBIS website by Valmay Young.
In 2004 FIBIS published an edition of Baxter’s Guide. This was followed by two FIBIS Research Guides, the first on Researching Ancestors in the East India Company Armies by Peter Bailey, and the second on British Ships in Indian Waters: Their owners, crew and passengers by Richard Morgan, not to mention seven “FIBIS Fact Files” designed to assist India-related family history research. At the 2014 conference Peter Bailey’s 2nd FIBIS Research Guide No. 3, Researching Ancestors in the Indian Army, 1858 to 1947 was launched.
The research services for members have been very successfully conducted by Lawrie Butler for several years up to February 2009, subsequently taken over and given a superb reputation for success and efficiency by Beverly Hallam and her team, including Xandra Sherman (who also acts as Board Minutes Secretary), Noel Gunther and Geraldine Charles
Throughout all this time, FIBIS has exhibited at the annual family history show, originally run by the Society of Genealogists and, since 2005, by the “Who Do You Think You Are?” organization. Penny Tipper, Elaine MacGregor and Chairman Pat Scully have done a superb job organizing these events, plus the three FIBIS Conferences – the first held 16-18 May 2014, the 20th Anniversary held 28-30 September 2018 and the latest (delayed by the COBVID-19 pandemic) held on 24-26 September 2021.
FIBIS has endeavored to bring the Society to people outside London by attending family history events across the country, from Exeter to Hastings, Cambridge to Kettering, Blackburn to York, and Gateshead to Glasgow, as well as around the world. Our thanks go to all those trustees and members who have given their time to help on the exhibition stand in this country, but particularly to Sylvia Murphy (now deceased) , Mary Anne Gourley and Eleanor & David Neil who have flown the flag for FIBIS in Australia and New Zealand. Whatever and wherever FIBIS is seen the aim, as always, is to sign-up new members to support the Society and to impart knowledge of the sub-continent.
FIBIS’s Open Meetings draw a large number of members and non-members alike. Although these are usually held in London, successful meetings have been held in Manchester and in Kinross, the latter attended by members who descend from the many Scots that spent their lives in India. FIBIS is always pleased to welcome overseas presenters, for example, Ian Poyntz on the occasions he came over from the USA especially to attend the meetings. Among the many lectures that have been given include a talk in Dublin on “The Irish in India”, recalling the impact of the large number of Irishmen in the East India Company Armies.
Contributing to our strong profile in the family history world with marketing and PR from 2005-2009 Norman Meadows, followed by Joy Baker, Hazel Schurch in 2011 and since 2013 until 2022 Joss O’Kelly. All have taken on the work of Public Relations, maintaining excellent contacts with the editors of the family history magazines and journals whom we partly rely for the publicity that helps FIBIS punch above its weight.
In 2016 Peter Bailey retired as Chairman of FIBIS and was made Life President for all the work he had achieved over the 15 years he had been in office. He is the guiding light of the Society partly by authoring two of the FIBIS Guides but mainly by significantly promoting FIBIS wherever he could to become the very successful society that it is today.
Since the start of the Pandemic in January 2020, FIBIS has kept its educational profile high in the family history world by having a monthly “blog” , attending various online conferences, such as Rootstech, The Genealogy Show, Federation ‘Really Useful Show’ as well as hosting bi-monthly member’s meetings using ‘Zoom’. Geraldine Charles, Valmay Young and Beverly Hallam have given many presentations on behalf of FIBIS. Now that COVID restrictions are being lifted, more Family History Shows are becoming events where visitors are able to attend in person and FIBIS has already booked space at some of these shows, for example at the York Family History Fair in June 2022.
FIBIS is one of the few Family History Societies that is still growing and is very thankful to its dedicated Trustees and Committee members as well as all the volunteers who offer their time and effort on behalf of the society.