FreeBMD Frequently Asked Questions

The following questions and answers give general information about the project. There is more detailed information, mainly relevant to people transcribing the indexes rather than searching them, in the Transcribers' Knowlege Base.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the FreeBMD Project?
  2. Why is the FreeBMD Project necessary?
  3. How will the FreeBMD system work?
  4. How will the FreeBMD Project operate?
  5. How big is the FreeBMD Project?
  6. How may I help?
  7. Who are the leaders of the FreeBMD Project?
  8. On what authority is the FreeBMD Project based?
  9. Who owns the BMD index data?
  10. Who owns the FreeBMD database?
  11. Could the database ever be used to create a commercial product or service?
  12. Aren't the GRO/ONS already computerising the indexes?
  13. Couldn't the GRO/ONS give volunteers access to the source records?
  14. Why doesn't FreeBMD simply scan/OCR the records?
  15. Withdrawn
  16. Withdrawn
  17. Isn't this information covered by the Data Protection Act?
  18. Why does my virus checker report that I am attempting to open "dangerous" spyware when I open FreeBMD?
  19. I am using a MAC - why does the page link not work?
  20. Why doesn't Phonetic search return the results I expect?
  21. How is the FreeBMD Project funded?
  22. Why doesn't FreeBMD correct errors in the index?
  23. Why is it so difficult to submit a correction?
  24. Is information about the armed forces included in the index?
  25. Why don't some facilities work on my new computer?
  26. Can you help with a problem finding my ancestors?
  27. Do you have overseas information in the FreeBMD database?
  28. Can the FreeBMD database help me find a living person?

Questions and Answers

1. What is the FreeBMD Project?

FreeBMD stands for Free Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The FreeBMD Project's objective is to provide free Internet access to the Civil Registration index information for England and Wales, generally referred to as the GRO index from the government department, the General Register Office, that is responsible for it. The Civil Registration system for recording births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales has been in place since 1837 and is one of the most significant single resources for genealogical research back to Victorian times.

The FreeBMD Project is therefore placing the Civil Registration index information (the GRO index) on the internet. The project started with the early years (that is from 1837) and is progressing through to 1983.

The indexes to this information on births, marriages, and deaths provide a first step to the genealogy researcher in determining important facts about an individual ancestor. The GENUKI page Civil Registration in England and Wales provides guidance as to how one can then make use of these entries to purchase the certificate(s) which provide actual genealogical information.

Additional information regarding using Civil Registration certificates in genealogical research may be found at England & Wales Registration Certificate Tutorials. FreeBMD has its own pages, too.

2. Why is the FreeBMD Project necessary?

The Civil Registration indexes have been freely available from a variety of non-electronic sources for some time now. Small parts of the indexes have already been placed on the Internet. In addition, the Civil Registration indexes for Scotland, which are separate from those of England and Wales, have already been placed online on a pay-per-view basis at Scotland's People.

Usually available on microfilm or microfiche, the Civil Registration indexes can be illegible due to the varying quality of microreproduction. There is not currently any centrally available method for rapidly searching the indexes. They were originally created alphabetically by quarters and have not been consolidated into a master index. Older marriage records have not been cross-indexed, making them extremely tedious to use.

The creation of a freely accessible Internet-based database of the Civil Registration index information coupled with a free search engine facility will greatly enhance a researcher's ability to quickly and easily locate all the index entries of potential relevance. It will also permit the double-checking and eventual correction of the indexes.

3. How does the FreeBMD system work?

A researcher will visit the FreeBMD web site and enter their ancestor's surname, first name(s), whether a birth, marriage or death is of interest and so on. Additional search criteria such as year of the event, registration district, etc. may also be entered to help narrow the search. Wildcards and multiple selections can also be used (e.g. select several registration districts to be searched simultaneously).

The search facility will return all results which match the search criteria (though we limit the total number to avoid overload). The information provided in the results is:

Plus, where applicable, the following information is also provided:

the researcher will hopefully be able to ascertain the correct index reference (volume and page numbers) for the birth, marriage, or death of interest. These reference numbers can then be used further to research this ancestor (see FAQ 1 above). There are a number of other facilities to help the researcher which FreeBMD provides through analysis of the overall data:

The FreeBMD database is available for search.

4. How does the FreeBMD Project operate?

Using volunteers throughout the world, the FreeBMD Project leadership (see FAQ 7 below) co-ordinates the entry of the Civil Registration indexes. Data entered into the database will be available for access through the search facility. The database will be updated periodically (approximately monthly) with the latest available data.

The transcription of the Civil Registration index is co-ordinated under the guidance of the FreeBMD Project leadership by volunteer co-ordinators so the FreeBMD Project makes orderly progress towards its goal.

Data is also be accepted from previous extractions by those performing one-name studies.

Data is accepted in a variety of formats, including a simple text format which can be prepared off-line using basic word-processing, spreadsheet or database management software. Special transcription software is available to assist with the task of transcribing pages of the index.

Ultimately, all data will be entered at least twice by independent transcribers in order to improve the accuracy.

5. How big is the FreeBMD Project?

You think it's a long way to the chip shop... FreeBMD is big. Really big! It'll take a long time from start to finish, but it is already being useful to researchers a lot earlier than our estimated end date. Of course, the more people help, the sooner it will be done.

It was estimated that at the start of the Project we would complete the years 1837 to 1901 by the end of December 2007.

This target was substantially achieved in July 2005.

By the end of December 2007 the years 1837 to 1919 were substantially completed.

By the end of December 2010 the years 1837 to 1948 were substantially completed.

By the end of December 2012 the years 1837 to 1960 were substantially completed.

Current estimates are that the years 1837-1970 will be substantially completed by the end of December 2013.

And finally... current estimates are that the years 1837-1983 (the end of the transcribing element of the Project) will be completed by the end of May 2016.

Current statistics on the database to date are available here and here.

6. How may I help?

The FreeBMD Project is ENTIRELY dependent on the efforts of volunteers all over the world in order to complete the project.

For information on contributing to the project as a transcriber click here.

You can also join one of our FreeBMD mailing lists by clicking here.

Currently, we are looking for people to help in the following areas:

7. Who are the leaders of the FreeBMD Project?

The FreeBMD Project Leadership consists of Graham Hart, Ben Laurie, Camilla von Massenbach, and David Mayall. These individuals are responsible for the FreeBMD Project (see FAQ 8 and 11 below).

Graham Hart has worked for 15 years in the computer industry, and has been a genealogist for as long.

Ben Laurie is a member of the Apache Group, author of Apache: The Definitive Guide and Technical Director of A.L. Digital Ltd.. He doesn't claim to be an expert genealogist, but he knows how to make computers do tricks.

Camilla von Massenbach finds herself incapable of writing a CV and is eager for someone else to do it. She spends many a happy hour at the PRO in Kew.

David Mayall is an amateur genealogist and professional IT researcher.

8. On what authority is the FreeBMD Project based?

The Office for National Statistics has granted the FreeBMD Project leadership permission to place the Civil Registration on the Internet. As stated in the ONS' letter, there are certain restrictions to this grant of permission including:

9. Who owns the BMD index data?

The Civil Registration indexes are under Crown copyright. They are the intellectual property of the British government.

10. Who owns the FreeBMD database?

Authority to reproduce the information for free access on the Internet was originally granted to the FreeBMD Project leadership.

In order to ensure the long term stability of the project, and to gain access to grant funding, the project leaders established FreeBMD as a trust in June 2002. The trust is registered with the Charity Commissioners, Number 1096940. The Deed of Trust can be viewed on-line.

All rights in data submitted to the site are now owned by the charitable trust.

The trustees of the trust are Graham Hart, Ben Laurie, Camilla von Massenbach, and David Mayall.

11. Could the database ever be used to create a commercial product or service?

No. The ONS granted the right to place the database on the Internet on the condition that access to it be free of charge. Any commercialisation of the database would require the ONS' prior and very improbable authorisation.

12. Aren't the GRO/ONS already computerising the indexes?

The indexes are computerised from 1984 onwards. Unfortunately, the post-1984 indexes are not, at present, available free of charge on the internet but copies can be consulted free of charge in a small number of libraries;

Alternatively, the records (as of July 2010, to 2006 only) can be found on the pay per view website FindMyPast.

ONS/GRO were are involved in a project to computerise earlier records but this appears to have been abandoned.

13. Couldn't the GRO/ONS give volunteers access to the source records?

In a word, no. It is actually illegal for anyone except the registrars to browse the source records (and even they are only allowed to do it within strict guidelines - which, sadly, do not include checking accuracy for us).

14. Why doesn't FreeBMD simply scan/OCR the records?

There are a number of barriers to this seemingly attractive idea:

Scanner resolution
In order to successfully scan fiche, you need a very high resolution scanner. These are typically only available at a reasonable cost in the shape of film scanners, which typically will not accept a fiche (it is too big). This makes a suitable scanner extremely expensive.
Source quality
It is not generally thought that the fiche quality is good enough for OCR.
Handwritten records
No-one thinks that OCRing handwritten records is feasible.
Error rate
In the OCR world, 99% correct is considered pretty good. In our world that equates to one error every second entry. The man-power to proofread and correct even that level of error is not significantly smaller than that required to hand-type the whole lot anyway, and it seems likely we would get higher error rates.

N.B. We are not suggesting that you shouldn't experiment with OCR for your own transcriptions. If you have success, we would very much like to hear about it.

(Items 15 & 16 withdrawn as being only relevant to transcribers)

17. Isn't this information covered by the Data Protection Act?

The Data Protection Act applies to all information held about living individuals. The GRO information held by FreeBMD is publically available and therefore not confidential in itself but FreeBMD still has to ensure that the information is held and used properly, hence the conditions of use and the restrictions on the search results page. FreeBMD therefore complies with the Data Protection Act and is registered with the Information Commissioner's Office under reference number Z7436529.

18. Why does my virus checker report that I am attempting to open "dangerous" spyware www.qksz(.)net when I open FreeBMD?

In common with many websites FreeBMD uses revenue from advertisements to pay for the service provided. This link is to a facility that keeps track of advertisement leads, paying FreeBMD when these result in a "sale". The Privacy Policy for this facility is given here. An assessment (and simple explanation) by Computer Associates is given here.

Your virus software (presumably PC-cillin) has decided this consitutes Spyware. Regrettable TrendMicro (the publishers of PC-cillan) have not found it necessary to describe the threat supposedly posed by www.qksz(.)net in their Virus Encyclopedia (as of 30 Nov 2007).

It is up to you to decide if you agree or not that this is Spyware. If not you can make FreeBMD a "Trusted Site" and we understand the warnings will stop.

19. I am using a MAC and when I click on the Page to find the possible other spouses in a marriage nothing happens. Why?

This is due to a bug in Safari, the MAC browser, which is corrected in Safari version 3.0.4 which comes with the 10.4.11 update of MacOSX 10.4. Please upgrade to MacOSX 10.4.11 or later to cure this problem.

20. When I did a phonetic search on the surname BARRAND I got lots of variations that bore little or no relation to this name, but expected ones such as BARRAN, BARRON, BARON, BARREN, BAREND, BARRUN, etc. are not found. Why is this?

The phonetic search facility in FreeBMD uses a standard phonetic method called Soundex. This method creates a phonetic equivalent of any name which we then search on. The limitations experienced are inherent in Soundex.

Soundex is quite old now but we have been unable to find an alternative (e.g. Metaphone) that provides the expected result. We note that there are some genalogical sites that do provide the expected results but these seem to be based on a lookup table of alternatives for each name. This only works for smaller databases (since it requires multiple searches), not on one the size of the FreeBMD database.

We will continue to monitor this issue but at the moment there is no proposal to change the phonetic search facility.

21. How is the FreeBMD Project funded?

Please see here.

22. Why doesn't FreeBMD correct errors in the index?

The objective of FreeBMD is to provide access to an electronic version of the GRO index and as such the FreeBMD policy is that the index is transcribed exactly as it is. However, we recognise that there are errors in the index and a number of facilities are provided to address this: In each of the above cases special symbols appear next to the entries concerned (see here for more details).

However, it is also possible to request that the GRO corrects the index. Contact the GRO with the appropriate information. When they agree the correction let us know (via Contact support) and we will annotate FreeBMD appropriately.

Regrettably the GRO has no method of informing the many holders of the index (both online and physical) of corrections they make.

23. Why is it so difficult to submit a correction?

Processing corrections takes a lot of effort and we need to ensure that we only investigate those corrections that comply with FreeBMD policies, particularly the policy of transcribing what is in the index (see above). Other corrections are handled by Postems.

Corrections are therefore automatically filtered to determine if they appear to comply with the instructions given on the corrections page.

The problem most people have with submitting corrections is failing to supply a valid Source field. This happens because people do not comply with the instructions on the corrections page. Unfortunately these instructions have to be long to specifically cover the things people get wrong since we know from past experience that just giving a simple statement of what should be provided does not work. The most common things people get wrong are:

In summary the process for submitting a correction is:
  1. Click on the Information button next to the entry in the search results
  2. Click on the link to submit a correction (the text on the information page To submit a correction click here)
  3. Verify that your correction falls within the scope as defined on the corrections page
  4. Check the tick box in the text to say you have read the instructions
  5. Fill in your correction
  6. Fill in what your sources is. As mentioned above is important that you just say what source you have used for determining the correction, not a justification of the correction
  7. Fill in your email address
  8. Click Submit

24. Is information about the armed forces included in the index?

Provided that a birth took place in the UK, then the registration would have been completed as normal.

For anyone born overseas (armed forces or otherwise) alternative arrangements apply and FreeBMD would not have the data. The same applies to armed forces deaths overseas.

For forces deaths, particuarly overseas, FreeBMD probably would not have a record so we suggest you do an internet search for "forces war records" to find appropriate resources. For deaths in the World Wars the Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides information and has a search facility. With information from this source you should be able to obtain a certificate from the GRO. It is possible to get the MoD to do a search for service records for a fee, but a large proportion of the WW1 service records were destroyed by German bombing in WW2. You can also get a copy of a soldier's medal record from the National Archives in Kew (it is believed that those killed in conflict were automatically awarded a posthumous medal).

25. Why don't some facilities work on my new computer?

If you have a new computer you are probably using Internet Explorer 8 which can operate in two modes: "Standards Mode" for sites that comply with the International Standards for web sites and "Compatibility Mode" for sites that use the standards associated with Internet Explorer 7. We have demonstrated that some pages that comply with the International Standards do not work properly in "Standards Mode" so we suggest you try "Compatibility Mode". To find out how to do this you can search for "ie8 compatibility mode" in whatever search engine you use. There is an archived article here but a search may find a more relevant article.

26. Can you help with a problem finding my ancestors?

FreeBMD is a volunteer organisation the objective of which is to provide free access over the internet to the GRO Index. If you have problems using the site you can use our support facility Contact support but this too is manned by volunteers and can only be used for problems specific to using FreeBMD. For help with genealogical research you need to search the internet for relevant forums and ask for help there, or contact your local library to see if you have a historical society near to you who could help. Also FreeBMD has some links here.

27. Do you have overseas information in the FreeBMD database?

FreeBMD is a transcription of the GRO index which contains records of Births, Marriages and Deaths for England and Wales. Hence, overseas events are not in FreeBMD and neither are events in Scotland, Northern Island, Eire, the Channel Islands, at sea, etc. To find information on such events we suggest you do an internet search for the relevant information, for example the National Archives have useful information on events overseas and at sea.

28. Can the FreeBMD database help me find a living person?

FreeBMD is a transcription of the GRO index and is of use for historical research. It is of very limited, if any, use for tracing living persons. We suggest you do an internet search for "Trace Person" to find available resources, e.g. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/living-person.htm. However, bear in mind that a number of resources will charge for their services whereas others are free.



We would like to thank Brian Randell and Mark Howells for their hard work in producing this FAQ.

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