FreeBMD Hints and Help For Beginners

This page is aimed at assisting new volunteers who have already enrolled as transcribers and are, perhaps, having problems getting started in using Transcription Software, reading the data or in uploading.

A better introductory guide for those who have not yet enrolled can be found by clicking here

Using Transcription Software - WinBMD and SpeedBMD

There are two excellent programs available for free download, which will help you to transcribe the records. WinBMD is a Windows based program, written by one of our volunteers, Ian Brooke, and SpeedBMD is a DOS based program, written by Peter Cox, another volunteer. Both programs will run in Windows.

Both programs are excellent, but new transcribers are advised to use WinBMD which has been written specially for Windows, has more features and makes uploading to FreeBMD a simple process. Download WinBMD here

Download SpeedBMD here

And for all you Mac users, Ben Hines, another volunteer has written a program just for you.
It's called MacBMD and you can download it here

It is strongly recommended that beginners use transcription software, rather then attempting to create the specialised upload files themselves with other software.
Most user difficulties will be avoided if you use one of these programs.

The programs have been designed to help FreeBMD transcribers increase their transcription rate and improve their accuracy. A significant performance improvement over other spreadsheet methods can be achieved, depending of course on the quality of the source data being deciphered.

The programs achieve this through a number of devices which minimize the keystrokes required, such as:

In addition to these features, WinBMD offers an integral image viewer, and automatic uploading of files to FreeBMD.

Using WinBMD - your first time

This section contains basic information about using WinBMD. For more detailed information you should read the WinBMD Help, either by clicking on Help when running WinBMD or selecting WinBMD Help from the program menu

The first time you start WinBMD you will be presented with the Batch Header screen. This has a number of boxes which need to be completed.

The rest of the boxes are self-explanatory. When you have completed the header click on the box labelled Ok - Start Transcribing and you will now be able to enter the data into WinBMD.

When the data screen appears you will notice that the first row has +PAGE,n in the first column. This is the page number of the scan you are transcribing, and is entered by the program from the information you put in the header. You start entering data from row 2.

If you are an ex SpeedBMD user you may wish to continue to use SpeedBMD filenames which have the extension .SCA. You can do this from the Options menu on the taskbar and selecting Use SpeedBMD Filenames at the top of the menu. WinBMD filenames have the extension .BMD.

You can also decide which method of data entry you want to use. The choice is between Horizontal Tab and Vertical Tab. In Horizontal Tab mode you enter the surname and press Tab or Enter. The cursor will then move from column to column across the screen until you reach the page number column. In Vertical Tab mode when you enter a surname and press Tab or Enter, the cursor will move down to the next row. In this mode you enter a number of surnames and then move to the top of the next column and enter a number of forenames, continuing in this manner until you reach the last column.

After you've finished transcribing a page you need to enter +PAGE,n where n is the page number following the page number you have completed. For example if the page you have transcribed is number 100, you will need to enter +PAGE,101 on the next row after the last data entry. In WinBMD, just enter +PAGE, and the program will enter the page number for you.

When you have finished transcribing and are ready to upload to FreeBMD, click on File > Send to FreeBMD. That's all there is to it! The file will be sent to FreeBMD and credited to you in the FreeBMD database.

These are just a few of the features in WinBMD to get you started. Click on 'Help' from the taskbar in WinBMD where you will find an excellent help-file.

Using SpeedBMD - your first time

This software works as a DOS application on all Windows or DOS based computers.

There is a Tutorial contained within SpeedBMD that is highly recommended as a means of learning how to use the software.  Most users become quite comfortable in less than 30 minutes. Users will need Internet access to upload their entered data.

There are 3 sources for data - Scan data (downloaded from the web or sent to you as a photocopied page), Microfiche or Microfilm.

Press F3 to create a new Project and enter the Header Screen, or if you know you are using Scan data, you can use F7 to create a Scan Data Header with some special Scan defaults already entered.

Header Screen

NB TAB key moves between fields,
Down/Up arrow to select options.
Select appropriately from : If Data is OK, press ENTER to access Row Data Entry screen

Row Data Entry Screen

Press TAB to start entering rows.
Press TAB to move between fields
Press Number of any displayed field choice to accept choice To finish a page
Type +PAGE, (or +PAGE;) in the surname field immediately underneath the last entry.
Remember to use capitals and yes, the comma (or semi-colon) is important, as Speedbmd will automatically then put in the page number, which is useful for checking at a later date. (If you use a semi-colon it is changed automatically to a comma.)
If you haven't been doing this, don't worry - just start doing it NOW!

Press F3 to save rows in Batch,
Press ESC twice to save and quit.

It will also be worth looking at the SpeedBMD Help file by pressing F1 from within SpeedBMD.
This is a Windows Help file and all the answers you will need are there, how to start the project, the first batch, what to put in the headings, how to transcribe special characters, what to do if you can't read something, what file names to use, etc. (If your question is not answered by the help file or the Transcribers' Knowledge Base, try e-mailing your question to your Syndicate Co-ordinator or even the FreeBMD mailing list.

Hints & Advice

Further Information about WinBMD

For more detailed information about WinBMD you should read the WinBMD Help, either by clicking on Help when running WinBMD or selecting WinBMD Help from the program menu

View your data alongside the transcription software while you transcribe

For Scanned data obtained online, or for paper copies you are able to scan into your computer, many transcribers find it is easiest to overlay the transcription software window over or alongside the image of the source data viewed in a suitable image viewer. By zooming into the source image, uncertain rows and eyestrain can be avoided.

Check your entered data

PROOF READ your entries to make sure they are as accurate as possible when they arrive at FreeBMD. Don't forget they may be published on the web-site almost immediately, although you can alter them at any time afterwards.

An excellent proof reading aid is BMDVerify, a program written by volunteer David Lang. Using this program will help to ensure accuracy in your transcriptions. Download it here

Keep things simple

Volunteers are asked to copy exactly what is on the original page; this is known as Type What You See, or TWYS for short. This is most important - transcribers must not try and correct the original indexes as this will cause problems. There is a page giving a few transcribing guidelines which can be accessed by clicking here.

Volunteers are also advised not to worry too much if all the data is unclear. If you are working from handwritten pages and you have not tried to read Victorian handwriting before you may not recognize the style of writing a lower-case p or s or x or z, or the florid style for many of the upper-case letters. There is a page giving guidance on reading Victorian handwriting which can be accessed by clicking here. Please enter as much as you can and flag the uncertain characters or fields so that corrections can be performed later by volunteers with access to source microfiche or microfilm.

Some common types of uncertainty that you are likely to encounter in your first few batches of transcription, and the technique to use for each of them, are given in the table below. The section after the table describes each of the formats.

Uncertainty Which Uncertain Character Format (UCF) to Use
Can't tell if it's an l or a t Use the [lt] style of UCF
Can tell how many letters I can't read Use the _ style of UCF, one _ for each letter
I think I can read the letter Use the [x_] style of UCF, where x is what you think the letter is
It's 2 or 3 letters I can't read Use the _{2,3} style of UCF
Don't know how many letters I can't read Use the * style of UCF
Not sure if that's a letter or an ink blob Use the _{0,1} style of UCF
There's nothing in one of the columns Use the ? style of UCF

Uncertain character format

_ (Underscore) A single uncertain character. It could be anything but is definitely one character. It can be repeated for each uncertain character.
* (Asterisk) Several adjacent uncertain characters. A single * is used when there are 1 or more adjacent uncertain characters. It is not used immediately before or after a _ or another *.
Note: If it is clear there is a space, then * * is used to represent 2 words, neither of which can be read.
[abc] A single character that could be any one of the contained characters and only those characters. There must be at least two characters between the brackets.
For example, [79] would mean either a 7 or a 9, whereas [C_] would mean a C or some other character.
{min,max} Repeat count - the preceding character occurs somewhere between min and max times. max may be omitted, meaning there is no upper limit. So _{1,} would be equivalent to *, and _{0,1} means that it is unclear if there is any character. Ensure the complete field is enclosed in quotes to avoid the comma being taken as a field separator, e.g. "williams{0,1}".
? (Question mark) Only used where it is unambiguous that there are no characters in the field, e.g a missing Volume. The question mark must be the only character in the field.
Note: If it is unclear whether the field is empty or not _{0,1} is used.

Note: Using a single * is preferable to spending a long time trying to decide the min and max values to use in the _{min,max} format, which is more precise.

Technical note: Although this UCF format has many similarities to regular expressions (e.g. Perl, Unix) it is not identical and in particular there is no escape mechanism.

Hints and Tips:

  1. Please do not put comments such a "illegible", "unreadable", etc. to indicate unclear characters.
  2. Don't forget that possibly the most important information is Surname, Forenames, Year & Quarter and District/Volume. With as much of this information as possible, many researchers can access a fiche quickly to make a judgement on other uncertain data themselves.
  3. Don't spend too long trying to puzzle out or guess a troublesome row. Keep in sight that we have 100 million rows to enter. Better to flag the character or field as uncertain, and go on to enter the next !!
  4. Similarly, please don't aim for perfection and decide to give up the data input as too hard after only a few pages. Do the best you can, and let our data validation, entry duplication and future users correct any mistakes. Don't forget that the errors you catch yourself making will be only a small part of the errors you actually make. We are but human - and even the source data has mistakes.
Most transcribing problems will be solved by a visit to our Transcribers' Knowledge Base, which can be accessed by clicking here and there is also page of Frequently Asked Questions about the project as a whole which can be accessed by clicking here

Deviations from "Type What You See"

Do not transcribe:
  1. Commas between fields
  2. The rows of identical dots that separate fields in the later printed index.
  3. Full stops after Age, Volume or Page Number.
These are all merely data separators, and carry no data value.

All accented characters should be transcribed with the accent (use the special characters feature).

Dipthongs are considered to be typographic conventions, rather than letters in their own right, and should be transcribed as such (the "oe" in Phoebe is two letters not one).

The German "sz" dipthong (the one that looks like a large open "B") is an exception to this and should be transcribed "as is".

Where repeated surnames are shown as "____" (or similar), your transcription should include the surname from the record above.

Transcribing Full Stops (Periods)

You will sometimes see a full stop at the end of a forename. If you can be certain that a full stop is present, then you SHOULD TRANSCRIBE IT. If you are certain that a full stop is not present, or if you are in any doubt as to whether there is one, then do not transcribe one.


Smith  John.......Aston,6d   999
Smith  John J.....Aston,6d   999
These assume NO full stop and none should be transcribed

Smith  John. .....Aston,6d   999
Smith  John J. ...Aston,6d   999
These assume full stop and should be transcribed.

Transcribing District Names

When transcribing you will often come across district names which seem to be misspelt. However, even though you may feel certain it is incorrect, you must TYPE WHAT YOU SEE.

Here are two examples:
You come across the district Scorborough, which you feel sure should be Scarborough. Nevertheless you should type it as it appears in the source file. If you are using transcription software, you will be given the option of adding the district to the "picklist" of districts that is built in to the program. In a case like this you are advised not to add it, as you may inadvertently select the incorrect spelling in the future.

On the other hand you will quite often see shortened versions of the full names in the indexes, such as Scarbro', or Scarboro', and in these instances you may want to add the variations to the picklist.

It is important that when using the picklist you enter the district name exactly as seen on the source file. If the district is shown on the source file as Scarbro', but this spelling is not in the picklist, as you begin to type the name, the picklist is likely to suggest Scarborough. However, you should ignore this and enter it exactly as shown on the source file e.g. Scarbro'.

Instructions for the use of +PAGE,n.

In order to ensure that FreeBMD can properly build the complete data for a quarter, it is VERY IMPORTANT that a +PAGE,n line is inserted at every page break in the index - in particular at the beginning and end of every transcribed page.

The +PAGE,n line has two functions, namely,

  1. it identifies the index page of any transcript which follows it,
  2. if it immediately follows any transcript entries, it signifies that the transcript of the index page above is complete.

To enable the FreeBMD software to operate properly, the rule is that, in any particular file, the two or more +PAGE,n lines must have values of n which are in numerically sequential order. To illustrate this, the following is how the file of the complete transcript of an index page 256 should look,

Latham,William,St. Martin in the Fields,1,142
... (other entries in index page 256)
Laurence,Sarah Frances,West Derby,20,629

Please note the +PAGE,n line at the end. This must be there, but in this position at the end of the file, it only signifies that the transcript of the previous page (257-1=256) is complete; it says nothing about the actual page 257 (which may not even exist!)

Some volunteers prefer to transcribe multiple pages in one file. This is possible provided the syndicate allows it (some don't - so please check first) and also provided the pages transcribed are in sequential order. Thus the file containing the transcript of index pages 112-4 should look something like this,

... (other page 112 entries) 
Cope,Edmund Joseph,Neath,11a,595
... (other page 113 entries)
Copley,Mary Ann,Huddersfield,9a,307
Copley,Percy Alfred,Leeds,9b,535
... (other page 114 entries)
Again note the +PAGE,115 at the end - this merely signifies that the above page 114 (115-1) is complete.

There may be occasions when you don't want to, or are unable to complete a page before uploading to FreeBMD. For instance, you may have completed part of a page when a database update is due, and decide to upload the transcribed records so as not to miss the update. Or you may break off for a coffee part way through a page and return to find that your dog has torn your source file to shreds!

In either of these instances, you would not include a +PAGE,n after your last transcription, because the end +PAGE,n is only inserted at the end of a complete page. When you eventually complete the rest of the page you would then type in the end +PAGE,n before uploading to FreeBMD.

But note that in the multipage example above, the +PAGE,113 line not only identifies the index page of following entries, but also implicitly signifies that the page 112 above is complete (similarly for the +PAGE,114 line). So to obey the rules, only the last page in a file can ever be incomplete.

What page number should I use for +PAGE,n.

The page number that you should use depends upon the source that you are transcribing. Use the following flowchart to determine what the correct number is to use with +PAGE.

+PAGE decision flowchart


#THEORY (typed exactly as shown) is a special type of comment that you can use to identify a record which you think might be wrong. Using #THEORY makes it easy for the record to be identified.

For example, you might be transcribing a page of the name JONES, when you come across the following:
JONE, Albert, District, 1a, 123, after which the name JONES continues.
Following the rule of 'type what you see', you should type JONE, but then if you wish, you can insert in the row immediately following:
#THEORY Surname should be JONES.

If there is more than one record affected, say N, use the following form:

So, continuing our previous example:
JONE, Albert, District, 1a, 123
#THEORY(3) Surname should be JONES.
JONE, Charles, District, 3a, 324
JONE, David, District, 11a, 642
JONES, Edward, District, 9a, 912
Note that the #THEORY(N) is put after the first record but N is the total number of records including the first.

Do not enter too much before uploading

Before getting too far, check that you can submit data. It is suggested that you upload transcriptions at the end of each page. (There are approximately 375 entries per scanned page plus 5 header lines in the file)
Always start a new batch file after uploading.

How to Upload your data

This section only applies if you are using SpeedBMD, or WinBMD when not using the inbuilt "Send file to FreeBMD" facility.

Access the "Manage your Files" page by clicking here and add the page to your Favourites.

(Ensure that you have read the SpeedBMD Help File on submitting data).

To upload follow these steps:

How to Replace, Edit, Rename or Delete your Uploaded files

Access the "Manage your Files" page by clicking here and add the page to your Favourites.

(Ensure that you have read the SpeedBMD Help File on submitting data).

Follow these steps:

Select from Edit, Replace, Delete or Rename below:


Do the following to edit a previously uploaded file - presumably to make changes/corrections.

It is recommeded that you do not make corrections to the header lines in the file (the lines starting with +) without first consulting your co-ordinator.


Do the following to replace a previously uploaded file with a new version - presumably because changes/corrections have been made.


Do the following to delete a previously uploaded file. Note that if you do this, the information in the file (the index entries you have transcribed) will be permanently removed from FreeBMD. It is recommended that you do not do a delete without consulting with your co-ordinator first.


Do the following to rename a previously uploaded file, that is to change the name under which the file is stored in FreeBMD.

Note that this name often contains the date, event and page number of the transcription. If you want to change any of these you must make the corresponding change to the content of the file (using the Rename/edit facility described below).

For more information, have a look at our Transcribers' Knowledge Base

Last updated on 20th November 2010

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