This page contains tips on how you can best search the FreeReg database, beginning with how to find out details of what the database contains.
- The digital Gazetteer published by the Association of British Counties, eBook and Data Extract (Oct 2013)
- The 1834 Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales: Counties and Places, by James Bell
- Phillimore's Atlas of pre-1832 parishes
Exploring the transcriptions
If you want to know what has been transcribed in the various Registers, Churches and Places in the database, or what gaps may exist in the records and possibly why you are not finding what you are looking for in your searches, then look into the Transcriptions. You will likely find answers to your questions.
The information contained in these pages is orders of magnitude more than we were able to provide in our first version of FreeReg.Kirk Dawson (FreeReg Developer)
From the Search (home) page choose Transcriptions. Choose a County and then click on Select. If the county has fewer than 500,000 records, you will see a summary of information for the whole county, and a listing of all Places, Churches and Registers that have records in the database. If the county has more than 500,000 records, you will be asked to select a specific Place, or an alphabetical group of Places.
Clicking on a Register name will give you a list of numbers of transcribed records by decade and type — Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. Below this is information about the register itself.
Selecting a Church name gives you a list of registers for that church, plus information about the church itself.
Selecting a Place name will give you a list of its churches, plus information about the place itself, including the total number of records transcribed, the last date the records were amended and the year range of the transcriptions.
We recommend that you navigate through these pages using the buttons above the results. (Using your browser's Back button may not work as expected.)
Nature of the search
The minimum information required for a search is a county plus a surname (or forename). The maximum number of records that can be shown is 250. If your search is giving too many results, you need to narrow it down by giving more information.
Please note that including a year range will tend to make a search run for longer as it increases the number of checks that have to be made. If your search hits the time limit (which is shown at the foot of the search form), then please clear the date range boxes. We introduced the search time limit to avoid very long searches that slow down the site for all users. We will continue to monitor the effects of the time limit on searching.
In a basic search, any name found will belong to the person being baptised or married or buried. To also search for that name in another role, we now have two options: Witnesses and Family Members. For a marriage, checking the Witnesses option will also find any witnesses to a marriage that match the search name.
- for a baptism, any child whose parent matches the name (i.e. surname and/or forename) you have entered
- for a marriage, any bride or groom whose father matches the name (surname and/or forename) you have entered.
- for a burial, anyone whose given relative matches the forename and surname you have entered — you need to enter both
Checking the Family Members or the Witnesses options may produce a lot of matches, so please think about also narrowing your search (by place, name or record type), especially if searching for a common name.
Unless other options are used, only exact matches will be found for a name. However, you can use the Soundex option for both forenames and surnames, or you can now use a wildcard for surnames — see under Surnames for details of each.
Surnames are entered into the database exactly as they appear in the register.
There may well be several (or many) variations of essentially the same surname in the database as there was no real standardisation of the way that names were spelled until well into the 1800s. Even then people made mistakes. So don't assume that your name was always spelled the same way that it is now. There will always be variations, even for the same person's baptism, marriage and burial. It is really a matter of getting used to, and allowing for, the possible variations of the name when searching the database. You can use a wildcard or the Soundex option (both described below) to help with finding variant spellings.
Transcribers could be uncertain of a name even when they have entered all letters. In these situations they will have added a ? at the end. Transcribers will also have used the Uncertain Character Format (UCF) if the letters were unclear. To find such entries, use a wildcard or check the Soundex option.
This is a significant new feature of a search, making it easier to find variant spellings of a surname.
You can now search using the wildcard * which stands for zero or more characters. As the use of a wildcard increases the number of possible matches, be prepared to constrain your search: consider adding a forename and/or choosing a single record type. In addition, there are some limits on how a wildcard search can be used:
- You must select a County and a Place
- You must type at least two (2) characters before the wildcard
If you use a wildcard, one is automatically added to the end of name: the examples illustrate the results of this.
With this option checked, the search will be conducted for similar sounding names, as pronounced in English. Soundex is the most widely known of all phonetic algorithms (a set of rules to be followed in deciding which groups of letters might sound alike). It is important to remember that the Soundex algorithm assumes that the first letter of the name is correct. So, you may wish to consider additional searches for similar sounding surnames but using different first letters.
If using Soundex, enter the surname as you might expect it spelled. In particular, do not enter the Soundex Code itself.
Forenames and abbreviations
Transcribers are encouraged to transcribe the forenames as they were written in the register, except in those situations where the transcriber is unable to input what was actually written. For instance, a horizontal line was sometimes added to an abbreviation, (something like this: Wm.), but this line cannot be entered easily into the database.
Because of the different ways of spelling a name, together with its abbreviations, both in English and in Latin, the database will contain many variations for a specific forename. If the register states Gulielmus or Gul. or Wm. or Willm. then this is what will be in the database if the transcriber followed the rules. You can view the forename abbreviations and Latin names that will be found automatically in a search.
We have made it easier to search for people with multiple forenames, like Mary Jane, or John Edward Henry. These examples illustrate the power and limitations of such a search:
- A search for Mary will find Mary, Mary Jane and Mary Jane Elizabeth.
- Jane will find Jane, Mary Jane and Mary Jane Elizabeth.
- Mary Jane will find Mary Jane, and Mary Jane Elizabeth. It will not find Jane Mary Elizabeth.
If you put a tick in the Soundex box, your search will now return similar sounding forenames, in the same way as it does for surnames. This is a new and useful option for forenames.
Despite all these ways of searching, you may find it more useful to leave the forename box blank, at least to start with. This will ensure that you see all possible alternatives that are currently in the database.
There are two elements to localising the search: county and place. FreeReg uses the County and Place names found in the digital Gazetteer published by the Association of British Counties; and Phillimore's Atlas of Parishes and Index of Places. We use the geographical location of Place names as identified by the grid reference on the GenUKI website.
Searching all counties
You can search for a named person in all counties if you provide a year range and select just one of baptism, marriage or burial. We advise you to make the year range fairly narrow in this case, and be prepared to restrict it further if the search finds more than the maximum of 250 matching records. This is a new feature.
If your search times out, then you will need to use a different search strategy: using a date range will slow down a search. Consider searching a single County and Place, together with the Nearby places option (described in the next section).
Searching one county
Selecting a single county from the list in the County box fills the Place box. This will now contain a list of all the places that have a set of records that have been transcribed for a Church in that Place. Bear in mind that many places have more than one church. If the place name is not in the list, there are no records in the database.
To search for a person within all places in a single county, select nothing (or the blank space at the top of the Place box). Otherwise you may select just one place.
A new feature, Nearby places, when selected, enables you you search the places nearby your selected place. This is a powerful option which will include the nearest 40 places to the one selected. This is especially useful for searching around a Place that is near to a County boundary, or for dividing a large county into smaller parts. If this option generates too many records, you can repeatedly halve the radius of the search by using the Narrow Search button.
Searching two or three counties
Lastly, you may select up to three counties: simply hold down the control (Ctrl) key when selecting the second and third. On a MAC, hold down the command (cmd) key instead of the control key. You can control-click (or command-click) on a selected county to deselect it.
Selecting more than one county will empty the Place box.
If you wish to narrow the search you are making then it is possible to specify the timeframe for the search. Simply enter the first and last years to be included. You may also enter just a start or just a last year. If you leave the year boxes empty then the search will include all years available for your chosen place and county, or counties.
Please note that using a date range may make your search take longer, especially if you are searching more than a single Place. If you hit the time limit, then clearing the date range boxes should help your search complete in the time allowed.
Using the search page
When you have entered the details of your search, it could seem slow before you get a reply. Please be patient because at times our servers are very busy.
If you want to amend your search, for example if you did not find what you were looking for and want to just change the dates, then use the Revise Search button and your previously entered criteria (search terms) will still be there. Do not use your browser's Back button.
Exploring your Results
Once your results are displayed, you can sort them by clicking on any of the column headings. You will also see links to a variety of related information.
The Printable format button gives you a version of the results suitable for printing or copying. The About this Query button shows you exactly what has been looked for: this will include a list of all the Places searched, which is useful if you checked the Nearby places option.
The Details link will show you all the available information for an individual result — there just isn't enough space to include everything in the list view. You may then go directly to the details of the neighbouring results. Or follow the link to information about the place. Or return to the list view. There is also an option to see a printer-friendly view of the record details.
Dates before 1752
If you have dates in your results that are before 1752, remember that 25 March was the start of a new year then, rather than 01 January. Using 15 Feb 1624/5 as an example, the year should be read as 1625 using 01 January as the start of a new year, but as 1624 using 25 March as New Year's Day. This is standard genealogical practice, variously referred to as a double-date or an old style/new style date.
Although Scotland adopted 01 January as the start of a year from 1600, we use a double-date on Scottish records before 1752 so that all our dates are comparable.
You could find that your results include more than one version of the same event. We could have transcribed that event from more than one source: two different transcripts, for example. Or different sets of images of the same source could have been used, for instance. Whatever the reason, we leave it to you, the researcher, to assess the significance of any differences in the details in such cases.
Viewing register pages
If you would like to see an image of a particular page from a parish register, please contact the County Records Office for the relevant county: you can find the contact details from the Transcriptions page by selecting the county and using the GenUKI link. (There will be a fee for this: we cannot share our images because of the Terms and Conditions under which we were given permission to transcribe.)
Cautions and warnings
It is important to realise that we have not necessarily made a completely literal transcription of parish registers in the FreeReg Project: we have recorded as much of the data for each entry as the particular source contains and as the database allows. All new data, transcribed specifically for the project, should have been entered according to FreeReg standards. However we are only human. So, once you have found a record, we advise you to view the actual register for the full details of what was written.
Please remember that the FreeReg database is just a finding tool. An entry should not be considered to be proof of an event, neither should it be regarded as necessarily 100% accurate. It may not contain all of the information in the actual register.