FreeBMDFreeBMD Reading the Writing

Many of the indexes being transcribed by FreeBMD from the earlier years are handwritten. Whilst these indexes present special challenges to the transcriber, and take a little more effort than the typed versions, they do represent the original index, and offer greater accuracy than typed indexes.

This page seeks to offer advice on how to read the seemingly unreadable. The FreeBMD Project Team are grateful to the John Slann Institute of Transcribing for permission to reproduce parts of this material.

Aids to Transcribers

A file containing
  1. Districts sorted by Volume lists
  2. Surnames list
can be obtained from here The lists are downloaded as a zipped file, about 1 Mb. The unzipped files are in text format and can be opened using a word-processor such as Word or Notepad.

19th century writing

The pens used in the 19th Century were dip pens which had nibs shaped like a small chisel. There was a small reservoir and ink travelled from the reservoir to the tip of the nib by a split in the nib. Pressing hard on the pen caused the split to separate and a broader line was drawn. The pen was normally held with the wide part of the nib in a North-East to South-West orientation, more easily shown as

North-West to South East Pen Strokes North-East to South-West

This explains why a character varies in thickness and there are variances from character to character

How the scans came about

The pages of the index were photographed and for many years the fiches produced from the negatives have been used by genealogists. It is the digital scanning of these films that we are transcribing. On some of the scans parts of letters are missing due to the film and scanning process, similar to when photocopying a handwritten page. This effect tends to be consistent and the bits missing are usually the thin bits of the characters.

Handwriting Styles

The handwriting varies slightly with different clerks who prepared the indexes. It seems that each clerk did a run of consecutive pages so it is possible to get used to the individual styles.

In the example below;


In the example below;


In this example;


Deciphering Difficult Scans

The combination of a florid style, odd letter formation and poor reproduction can make reading some images difficult.

The next 5 examples are from a difficult scan. We will look at four from the top, pretty unreadable, and one from the bottom, readable.

The bottom part first


Now the very difficult top parts of the scan. We have to break down our detective work into manageable chunks and use some of the tools mentioned at the top of this web page. We have 2 unreadable Districts in each of the four examples:

A final word of caution

In the examples above, we have seen how it is possible to use all the information at our disposal to discover what an apparently unreadable entry says. Notice, however, that in each case, having used clues to gain an idea of what an entry might be, we go back and test whether the entry really does correspond to our theory. If it doesn't, then no matter how convinced we are that the entry must say that, we don't make the assumption.

In this respect, the transcriber should place himself in the place of a detective. He may be sure in his own mind of the culprit, but unless he can prove it beyond doubt, he cannot proceed.

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