FreeBMDFreeBMD How best to Search

This page contains information on how to use the FreeBMD search facility to search for entries in the GRO Index and how to interpret the results. This page is organised into three parts Further help, especially with understanding the search results, can be found in the Search Results Help or to report a problem see the Information page

The FreeBMD Database

The FreeBMD database is an electronic version of the index created by the GRO (General Register Office). This has been done by the FreeBMD project through the efforts of thousands of volunteers who have given their time to provide you with access to this valuable resource of information (to join them click here). Information on the GRO index is contained here.

It is important to understand that the FreeBMD index is a transcription of the GRO index - it contains the same information (errors and omissions excepted) as the GRO index and is organised in the same way (e.g. by quarters). The FreeBMD project does not have access to any other information.

The GRO Index contains information about the following "life" events:

Normally when searching the index you will be concerned with only one event.

Since the index contains only a small subset of the information in the register, having found an entry you are interested in you would normally order the certificate which contains all the available information. When ordering a certificate from the General Register Office it is best to supply the GRO Reference and this reference, which consists of Year, Quarter, District, Volume and Page, can be found by searching the FreeBMD database.

The FreeBMD database covers the period September 1837 to the end of 1998 but not all quarters for all events have yet been transcribed. A breakdown by event and year can be viewed here so you should check that the quarter you are interested in has been transcribed. More records are added monthly during the database update and the home page gives the date of the latest update.

The FreeBMD database currently contains 294,311,749 distinct records (394,852,600 total records), and it is important that you specify your search properly in order to ensure that;

You should also note that the FreeBMD transcription of the GRO index is an on-going project and not all of the index has been transcribed; please see here for more details. To perform a search of the FreeBMD database you use the search page to specify the parameters of your search, e.g. the date of the event, the surname of the person you are searching for, etc. You must specify the event (Birth, Marriage or Death - or a combination) but all other parameters are optional although since there is a limit on the number of records you can view (3000) you will need to specify some other parameters.

In general the more parameters you specify the more precise the results will be but the greater the chance that you will miss the entry you are looking for. Hence you may need to adjust the parameters and repeat the search to get the best results, generally starting with fewer parameters and giving more as necessary. For example, if you specify a second given name (e.g. James Ian) you would miss an entry that was spelt differently (e.g. James Iain), whereas a search for just the first given name (e.g. James) would give you many more results but you would not miss the alternative spelling. Things you need to take into account when deciding on what to search for are:

Details of the parameters of a search

The table below gives details of the fields on the search screen, and suggests how you might use them to get the best results. The following apply to all text fields:

Wildcard searches
For all the name fields you can use a * to match any number of characters, e.g. Thorn* will find Thorn, Thorne, Thornton, etc. You can use ? to match exactly one character, e.g. Thorn? will match Thorne and Thorns but not Thorn or Thornton. However, a * has a different meaning when it is the first character of a First Name search - see here. The use of wildcards can result in too many entries being found or the search taking to long, so this facility needs to be used with care.

To assist you with using wildcard searches of surnames and givennames, and in general finding alternative spellings, FreeBMD provides a facility to allow you determine the possible alternatives. This facility, called Search Names, allows you to list all those surnames in the database that are similar to the one you are looking for. A full explanation will be found by following the link given. This facility is particularly useful when the normal wildcards are either not expressive enough or are rejected as taking too much time to run.

Character case
When searching upper and lower case letters are treated as being the same.
Literal searches
If you precede a field by backslash the search is done on the characters exactly as they follow the backslash (except that upper and lower case are still equivalent), in particular * and ? have no special meaning.
Empty fields
If a field in the index is empty it will be transcribed as question mark(?). To search specifically for records with an empty field, put \? in the field in the search form.

Type You must specify whether you are searching for Births, Marriages or Deaths. To search for a combination (e.g. Births and Marriages) select multiple events (with the menu list hold down the Control key to add an event, e.g. click Births then Control click Marriages).
Surname You should take care to try any variants of the surname. Many names were wrongly spelt, either because the Registrar made an error, or because a mistake was made during the indexing process. Selecting the Phonetic Search on Surnames option (see below) will cause FreeBMD to look at surnames with a similar sound.

Special processing is done on surnames starting with Mac or Mc and with O'. If a surname starts with Mac or Mc a search is also done for the complementary name, e.g. a search for MacArthur will return records with surnames McArthur and MacArthur. If a surname starts with O' the search is done for combinations of apostrophe and space. This special processing can be turned off by preceding the name with \ or including a wildcard character.

First Name (s) In contrast to the other names, by default First Names are matched to names starting with the characters given (unless Exact match on First Names is checked - see below).

Once again, beware of names that are wrongly spelt, particularly unusual names or names not spelt with the conventional spelling. Common names sometimes appear in the index using the conventional abbreviation for the name (e.g. William = Wm).

Where the person you are looking for has middle names, this can be a great help in narrowing down the search, but you should remember that the middle names may have been omitted from the index, or shortened to initials. If the person you are searching for was called David William Robert (for example) This may appear as David W. R. or David W R or perhaps David W. Searching for David W is probably the best starting point but see our analysis of initials in the index which could affect your decision on the search term to use.

You can search based on the second given name by preceding the name with an asterisk (which means that the asterisk loses its meaning of matching anything). So if you have a middle name that was commonly used in your family you can use this type of search to find possible relatives, for example Surname=Carpenter, Givenname=*Joshua. Such a search matches from the start of the second given name (e.g. it would find "David Joshua" but not "David Peter Joshua"). To search for a name anywhere from the second given name onwards use a double asterisk, e.g. Givenname=**Joshua which would find both the above examples.

You can search on both the first and middle given names by preceding the name with a plus (+), thus "+jane" will find entries for which the first or second given names start with jane.

Please note that only names that do not include UCF characters can be found in such a search.

Spouse/Mother Surname When searching for a marriage, the search returns the entries that have the name specified as the spouse surname in the entry (from 1912 onwards) or may be the spouse of the name specified as the spouse surname (prior to 1912).

From 1912 onwards the records contain the spouse's surname and a search is done on this (with the same special processing of names starting with Mac or Mc that is done for Surnames). If a Spouse First Name is given as well an entry will be returned if (a) we have the spouse record and the given name matches or (b) we do not have the spouse record and Identifiable Spouse only has not been checked (and in this case the spouse name will be in italics).

For entries prior to 1912, entering a value here will return all entries where the quarter, volume and page are the same for entries with the Surname given and the Spouse Surname given. Note that this does not mean that any pair of entries represent spouses. To see all the results for that page click on the Page in the search results. See here for more information about finding a spouse.

The Phonetic search on Surnames and Exact match on First Names options apply to the Spouse's Names as well, as do the * and + conventions (see above).

The search process for records prior to 1912 is very complex and is unlikely to succeed unless you limit the scope of the search. Searches using the Spouse details that span the start of 1912 are performed as two separate searches and the results combined, so the results returned prior to 1912 and those from 1912 onward have a different significance as explained above.

When searching for a birth, entering a surname will return only those births that have the specified mother's maiden name. Only records from the September quarter 1911 onwards contain the mothers maiden name so entering a value in this field will return only records from the September quarter 1911 onwards.

A search for a mother's maiden name can be combined with a search on the mother's married name to greatly limit the number of results when searching for possible offspring.

The Phonetic search on Surnames option applies to the Mother's Surname as well.

Spouse First Name (s)
Death age/DoB The index only contains information about the Date of Birth (or Age at Death) for Death entries so you can only specify these for searches that only specify Deaths as the type of entry to be searched for. To restrict a search for a death registration to only entries with a particular age at death or date of birth enter one of the following
  • an age (e.g. 65),
  • a range of ages (e.g. 60-70 or 65±5),
  • a date of birth (e.g. 23June1910) or
  • a range of dates of birth (e.g. 1910-1912 or 1911±1).
A fuller explanation of Age at Death searching is here. You may only enter a value in this field when searching for a death. The index contains the age at death from 1st Jan 1866 and the date of birth from 1st Apr 1969 (although you can search the FreeBMD database for either an age at death or date of birth from Jan 1866 onwards). Searches specifying age at death or date of birth will return all those entries where an age at death or date of birth is not present (e.g. prior to Jan 1866) or not comprehensible (e.g. 31JE1910) unless Match only recorded ages/DoB is specified (see below).

The following formats are supported for specifying the Date of Birth

  • dd/mm/yyyy (e.g. 23/7/1910) where the day and month may be one or two digits
  • ddMMMyyyy (e.g. 23July1910) where the day is one or two digits and the month may be specified as the full month name, the first three letters of the month or the abbreviation used in the index (see here for details) and upper and lower case are treated as equivalent.
The day may be omitted (meaning any day in the month) or the day and month may be omitted (meaning any day in the year).

A range can be specified in two ways (for both ages and dates)

  • A start and an end separated by a hyphen, e.g. 60-70 or 1910-1912
  • A plus-minus range (±) as a number following a percent sign (%), e.g. 65%5 or 1911%1 (for dates only the year can be specified in this type of range)

It should be noted that the index contains two conventions for approximate dates of birth which are handled by FreeBMD

  • a hyphen (or two hyphens) replacing the day (e.g. -JY1910) which we take to mean any day in the month
  • the word "about" (or similar) following by a year which we take to mean one year either side of the year given
Search results will include these approximate dates of birth, for example if you search for 23/7/1910 you would get entries that had -JY1910 or about 1909 as the Date of Birth
Date Range The Date Range limits the search to those events registered between the quarters you specify. You should always specify as small a range of dates as possible to search in order to speed up the search by reducing the number of results.

Remember that events at the end of a quarter may not have been registered until the start of the next quarter, so adjust your search dates to suit.

From 1984 onward the GRO index is organised by year, so the quarter is ignored.

Leaving the first year blank means "from the start" and leaving the second year blank means "to the end". To search just one quarter specify the same start and end quarter, or specify the end year as the characters start.

Volume If you are searching for a common name, it may help to narrow your search down to a particular part of the country. A list of which part of the country is covered by each volume is given here. An explanation of how the Volume relates to District and Page is given here.
Page This option is useful in researching marriages where it may be used to search for an unknown spouse (whose Marriage index reference Volume and Page details will be the same as that for their known spouse) - see here for more information. An explanation of how the Page relates to District and Volume is given here.
Options - Mono Check this box if you are using a monochrome screen
Options - Exact match on First Names If this box is checked the search for the First Name is done on the characters as typed. Otherwise the search is done as if a * was appended to the characters. If you check Exact match you can still use * and ? in the name.
Options - Phonetic search on Surnames If this box is checked FreeBMD will attempt to match surnames using the Soundex code appropriate to the surname entered. Note that you should not use wildcard characters when doing a phonetic search.
Options - Match only recorded ages/DoB If this box is checked, when an Age at Death/DOB search is performed FreeBMD will only return results where there is a recorded Age at Death/Date of Birth in the index. See here for more details.
Options - Identifiable Spouse only If this box is checked, when a post 1912 search is performed for a spouse given name FreeBMD will only return results where there is an entry that the given name can be checked against. If this box is not checked, FreeBMD will return entries that match the given name and entries for which the given name could not be determined.
Districts If you know with reasonable certainty which district an event occurred in, you should select the District from the list. Select multiple entries by holding down the Ctrl key before clicking on individual entries, or by holding down the Shift key to select a block of entries. If you have already selected a County or multiple Counties (see below) only those districts in those counties will be shown.

You should take care when searching using a district because each district appears in the index under a variety of spellings (and misspellings) and the district may not be what you expect. Districts are grouped together under one standard spelling which is what appears in this list, as explained in the District Help Page. An explanation of how the District relates to Volume and Page is given here. Information on districts and the dates when they were in use is given in the District Help Page.

If One or more districts initially selected is displayed this is a reminder that you have one or more districts selected although they may not be in the displayed part of the Districts list. This happens when you do a Revise Query when searching specific districts.

Counties Each District is linked by FreeBMD to all of the Counties that are covered by that District - see the mapping of districts onto counties. Select multiple entries by holding down the Ctrl key before clicking on individual entries, or by holding down the Shift key to select a block of entries. Once you have selected one or more Counties the District list will only show the districts in those counties.

You should note that some Districts, whilst largely within one County also covered small areas of adjacent Counties (e.g. the District Ashton-under-Lyne is in Lancashire, but included small areas of Cheshire). In such cases it is impossible to determine from the index which County the event occurred in, so a search for a County will include Districts from adjoining Counties which extend into that County.

If One or more counties initially selected is displayed this is a reminder that you have one or more counties selected although they may not be in the displayed part of the Counties list. This happens when you do a Revise Query when searching specific counties.

Find Find will start your search. It may be helpful in some cases to use the faster "Count" option to check whether your search will find a manageable number of records.
Count Count will return the number of records your search found.
Reset Reset changes the data in the search form back to the search parameters when the form was loaded. After a Revise Query it will therefore change the data back to the search parameters of the original search.

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