Guide Two: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates
A Guide to Using the Records of Civil Registration
The records of civil registration in England & Wales, which commenced on 1 July 1837, relate to the birth, marriage and death of an individual. In Scotland records began in 1855 and in Ireland in 1864 (n.b. Irish non-Catholic marriages were recorded from 1845).
In England & Wales, up to that time, the government had relied very much on the church to register its population but it realised that it was not a complete record i.e. not a full listing of the population. Therefore, a single tier registration system was introduced, based on the administrative poor law unions, which had been set up in 1834, and previously the administrative hundreds. These became the registration districts. Births, not baptisms, & deaths, not burials, were recorded as well as marriages. Parish and nonconformist baptism & burial registers were still completed at the same time that the new civil registration system began. The Act also permitted marriages to be performed in Register Offices and outside the confines of the Anglican Church. Many nonconformist chapels were authorised to perform marriages. Since 1837 there has been much fine tuning of the system and various new regulations and legislation have been introduced from time to time.
Although civil registration was introduced in 1837, it was not until 1874 that the registration of a birth became compulsory. Between these dates, children may not have been registered. There was in fact a loophole as the act was not fully understood and people genuinely thought that to have a child baptised was to register that child. The 1874 Act made registration compulsory within a 6 week period and imposed a fine for non-compliance.
These are considered to be prime evidence of someone's existence. They contain valuable information, particularly parents’ names. The information recorded on a birth certificate is :
• Registration District & Sub District
• Register number
• When & where born (time also given if multiple births)
• Name & Surname of Father
• Name & Maiden Name and previous married surnames of Mother
• Occupation of Father
• Description & Residence of informant
• Date Registered
• Details of name/s entered after Registration
However, a common occurrence was the illegitimate child. It was implied, though not always the case, that the omission of the father’s name from the certificate suggested illegitimacy. From 1875 the reputed father HAD to be present at the registration to consent to his name being added. Illegitimacy may also be proved by a subsequent marriage of the parents but in such circumstances you cannot assume that this husband was in fact the father of the illegitimate child, unless there is some other known clue to confirm this.
When a time is given, this may indicate a multiple birth, so look for another child born on the same day!
When extracting the information from a birth certificate, pay special attention to the address as this will very often lead you to census returns, directories and poll books or the workhouse records. This aspect will be discussed in greater detail elsewhere. Pay particular attention also to the registration and sub-district as this may give you additional clues enabling you to locate other family members.
In 1837, the format of the marriage register changed and significantly more information is recorded. Such registers remain unchanged to the present day. The information recorded is :
• Registration District
• Place of Marriage
• Register entry number
• Names of Parties
• Age of Parties
• Status and Occupation
• Residence at time of marriage
• Father’s name & occupation - for both bride & groom and possibly
a statement that either was dead by that date
• Method of marriage - banns, licence, certificate etc
• Signature or mark of the couple and witnesses
Ages on a marriage certificate can be inaccurate or at the very least suspect. No exact age may be shown and it may simply be recorded that bride or groom was "of full age". This implies an age in excess of 21 years. That statement may have been false to avoid a minor having to obtain parental consent. Where an actual age is given, it is usually reasonably accurate but it may also have been altered for a variety of reasons.
Be wary of an address which is the same for both parties. This was often used to avoid paying two sets of banns fees if one or the other party resided in a different parish. Marriages usually took place in the parish of the bride.
The absence of a father’s name and occupation usually meant he was unknown, although the columns may have been left blank as a matter of course. This may be a good clue to two possibilities, that of illegitimacy or that the father was dead at the time of the marriage. In the latter case, the name was usually filled in and the word deceased written alongside it. The inclusion of the name of the father without the word deceased did not automatically mean that he was alive at the time of the marriage.
These carry the least information from a genealogical point of view but they are nevertheless important sources particularly with regard to genetic diseases and for the location of wills and other probate documents. They have undergone greater changes in format than the other certificates.
Death Certificates usually include the following information:
• Registration District & Sub District
• Register number
• When & Where Died
• Name & Surname
• Age (including statement of parentage in the case of a child)
• Occupation (including that of the husband of a married woman or widow)
• Cause of Death
• Description & Residence of Informant
• When Registered
From 1837, the only information requested was date and place of death, name, age, sex, occupation, and cause of death. From the middle of 1969, the information shown includes additionally, date and place of birth, usual address and, if the deceased was a married woman, her maiden name. All of which is extremely useful to the family historian.
Although up to 1874, the onus of registering a death was placed on the registrar, the information was provided by an informant. Later it was the responsibility of the next of kin or closest relative of the deceased to ensure the death was registered. Also the Births & Deaths Registration Act meant that the registration had to be supported by a medical certificate. You will find causes of death described in various ways, some often simplistically, e.g. fever, turn of life, water on the head, decline etc.
Beware of inaccurate ages on death certificates. Often informants were not sure how old someone was and so they guessed. The Coroner is usually the informant in the case of a violent or unusual cause of death where an inquest took place. If a death certificate reveals such information, then look further for local newspaper reports of the inquest and also see if a Coroner’s report has survived. Such information will usually be quite revealing.
Additional Registration Sources
Besides the standard birth, marriage and death registration documents, there are additional sources also recording similar information. These relate to:
1. Adoption Records
Before 1927, there was no legal system of adoption and as such, any agreements prior to that date were usually made within the extended family. A certificate for an adoptive child will show the same information as that contained on a normal birth certificate except the parents’ names will be those of the adoptive parents, not the natural parents. When looking through the indexes, the entry will be recorded for the year of adoption, which will not necessarily be the year of birth. The certificate will also show details of the date and court in which the adoption order was made. After 1949, the country of birth will also be shown where the child was born abroad. Although the certificate will contain the name of the child being adopted, this may not be the same as the name with which the child was first registered. In many cases, it is possible to find the child in the ordinary birth indexes but, for many, it will be necessary to comply with the requirements of the various Adoption Acts to allow the child to obtain details of their original parentage.
Stillbirths have been registered in this country since 1 July 1927. The records are not available to the general public in the form of indexes and application to the Registrar General is needed for a certificate to be issued.
3. At Sea & In the Air
Records exist of births and deaths at sea and in the air where such an event took place on a British registered craft. Marine events have been registered since 1 July 1837, but air events only since 1947. Births and deaths on British registered hover-crafts, oil rigs and other offshore installations are also recorded. They relate to events anywhere in the world. Indexes are available and certificates can be obtained.
4. Service Records
These relate to births & baptisms and deaths of members of the armed forces or their families or to people working for or attached to the forces. They relate to events both in this country and abroad. The Army registers commence in 1761 (1796 for marriages) though are most comprehensive after 1881. There are separate registers for deaths of servicemen in the Boer, First and Second World Wars.
5. Consular & High Commission Returns
Where a birth, marriage or death took place of a British Subject in a foreign country, it may have been recorded by the British Consul and certificates of such events are available. Most returns commenced in July 1849. If similar events took place in Commonwealth countries then they are recorded in the British High Commission returns. Not all British High Commissions recorded marriages. The marriage may be recorded in any registration system operated by the country concerned.
Locating your ancestor using civil registration
Using the Civil Registration System
Civil Registration birth, marriage and death certificates are available primarily from three sources:-
• General Register Office (GRO) Southport or ordered online through its website – see below.
• Local Register Offices or their websites – see below
• Parish Churches & Record Offices - MARRIAGES ONLY
The reference numbers in the nationally available indexes relate only to requesting a certificate via the GRO. They mean nothing to local register offices. You will need to find certain information to fill out an application form to obtain your certificate or contact the local register office with details to obtain a certificate via that source. A word of advice, unless you can quote the exact date and place of marriage to a local register office, you are unlikely to be able to obtain a marriage certificate from there. www.UKBMD.org.uk links to register office sites where the appropriate local reference can be obtained. See below for information about obtaining information online.
Using the GRO indexes
Access to indexes is now through online sites. Most provide access to the original index volumes which are no longer available in paper form. The indexes are arranged on a yearly basis and each year is divided into quarters until 1983. The quarters relate to the date of registration NOT the date of the event. By law, a birth had to be registered within 42 days. If, therefore, an event took place on 17th March, it may not have been registered until 15th April in that year. As such, the event will not appear in the March quarterly index but in the June quarter - see below. As a death must recorded within the next 5 days, it is most likely to be included in the index volume for the quarter in which the event took place.
The quarterly indexes cover registrations as:
MARCH January, February & March
JUNE April, May, June
SEPTEMBER July, August, September
DECEMBER October, November, December.
The indexes are in strict alphabetical order. In the marriage indexes, the event is recorded under both the groom’s name and the bride’s name. Deaths will normally be recorded under the married surname for a woman.
The country is divided up into Registration Districts. Each district has a name and a volume number which shows in which geographical area it was situated. The names and numbers have changed over the years, the main change taking place in 1851. Up to that time, all districts were identified within an all-figure system originally using roman numerals. As the indexes are replaced with computer generated lists, these are changing to normal numbers. Since 1851, numbers have been suffixed by a letter. The numbers commence with 1 for the London area and increase as the districts fan out around the country. You may find registration district maps located in the place where you are searching. Alternatively use one of the online resources. Certain other changes took place in 1946 and 1974, consolidating many of the register offices, particularly in London and the larger towns when county boundaries changed.
ALL of the information recorded in the index is required to obtain a certificate including the YEAR and QUARTER shown at the top of the index page. If you carefully complete each section of the application form, whether by post or online, you cannot go wrong.
BIRTHS: The information in the index consists of SURNAME, CHRISTIAN NAME/S, REGISTRATION DISTRICT, VOLUME No., PAGE No.. From the September quarter of 1911, the mother’s maiden name is also shown. e.g.
Year Quarter Name Mother’s Maiden Name Reg Dist Vol Page No.
1915 March Smith John Hodges Bedford 3b 456
There are slightly more spaces for information on a birth certificate application than on the others. Obviously the more information you can complete the better but don't worry if you cannot answer all the questions. The form is dual purpose i.e. to also be used if applying for your own certificate when you will know all the information requested.
MARRIAGES: The format and information is similar to birth indexes. From the March quarter of 1912, the surname of the spouse is included. If you know the name of the parties to the marriage then both names should be recorded on the application forms. If you only know the name of one party then you can still apply for a likely certificate by completing only the husband or wife section on the form. The entry in the index should match exactly for both parties. There are up to four marriages on a page. So finding a matching reference in an online version of the index will not always mean that those two parties married each other.
DEATHS: The indexes show the standard information but from the March quarter of 1866 the age at death is shown alongside the name. If a 0 appears as the age then this implies an infant dying under the age of 1 year. From the June quarter of 1969, the date of birth of the deceased is included in the death indexes instead of an age.
Searching for and ordering certificates
It is possible to view the national indexes to civil registration in England and Wales online or on microfiche. The General Register Office online ordering service includes a revised and updated online index to births 1837-1916 and deaths 1837-1957: https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/indexes_search.asp.
The website (now part of the Identity and Passport Service) also maintains a list of those record offices and libraries that have copies of the indexes: http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/@government/documents/digitalasset/dg_184626.pdf.
Note that only the fiche indexes at seven designated centres will have the indexes after 2005. These are:
• Birmingham Central Library
• Bridgend Reference and Information Library
• City of Westminster Archives Centre
• Manchester City Library
• Newcastle City Library
• Plymouth Central Library
• The British Library
There are some independent attempts to make the indexes more accessible. www.freebmd.org.uk is a collaboration amongst family historians to transcribe the birth, marriage and death indexes from 1837 on to the Internet. The database is not yet complete but the work is growing all the time. This site has images of the original indexes as well. A copy of the FREEBMD data to 1915 can also be found free on www.ancestry.co.uk.
Commercial organisations such as www.findmypast.co.uk, www.bmdindex.co.uk, www.ancestry.co.uk, www.thegenealogist.co.uk or www.familyrelatives.com have launched digital images or databases of the original printed and handwritten indexes for England and Wales to use on a pay-per-view basis. Various sites offer different ways of searching the images of the indexes and each should be examined to discover their particular search functionalities.
All these sites will give the references needed to obtain a certificate. Prices to view the indexes vary. Some sites make using the digital images of the indexes easier than others.
Having found the appropriate index references, certificates of birth, marriage and death can be ordered over the Internet via the General Register Office at http://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/default.asp. Each official paper certificate currently costs £9.25 and takes four days to prepare. However the GRO is currently experimenting with delivering cheaper non-certified PDFs of documents via email. You will need the appropriate reference from the GRO indexes to order the certificate or PDF.
In addition to the internet, certificates can also be ordered by post and by telephone. From 1 January 2009 postal applications will only be accepted on the new style application forms which will be available directly from the GRO, Local Register Offices and major city libraries throughout England and Wales which hold copies of the indexes on microfiche. The new style forms must be completed in full and returned by post to the GRO together with the correct payment either by cheque, postal order or credit card. Cheques should be made payable to ‘IPS.’ (Identity and Passport Service) and posted to:
PO Box 2, Southport ,
Telephone orders can be made using a debit/credit card from the GRO call centre. Please call 0300 123 1837.
Such events in Scotland from 1855 are available at the Scotland’s People Centre, a joint venture between the General Register Office for Scotland, the National Archives for Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. Scotland’s HM General Register House is located at 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY (for details of opening times and search fees visit www.scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk). There are copies of the indexes 1855-1920 on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists in London. Images of the Scottish GRO certificates (births 1855-1911, marriages 1855-1936 and deaths 1855-1961) can also be found on the Internet along with indexes up to 2009 via the pay-per-view website (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk).
The General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI) was instituted after the creation of Northern Ireland in 1922. However the GRONI in Belfast has computer indexes of births, Catholic marriages and deaths that occurred in the Province from 1864 and Protestant Marriages from 1845. The General Register Office for Northern Ireland is within the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and administers marriage law and the registration of births, deaths, marriages, civil partnerships and adoption in Northern Ireland. The public search room can be found at NISRA, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast, BT9 5RR. Tel: 0300 200 7890 (028 9151 3101 if calling from outside Northern Ireland). Email: email@example.com. See www.nidirect.gov.uk for details of search facilities, search fees and opening times. Online searches of the indexes and images of birth records in Northern Ireland over 100 years old, marriage records over 75 years old and deaths records over 50 years old can be made at GRONI online: geni.nidirect.gov.uk.
Certificates for the remainder of Ireland from 1864 (and Protestant marriages from 1845) can be obtained in person from the search room of the General Register Office located at Werburgh Street, Dublin 2, D08 E277. See www.groireland.ie for information about fees, opening times and search facilities. Indexes for some civil birth, marriages and deaths registered in Ireland up to 1959 can be found on www.familysearch.org, www.findmypast.co.ukand www.ancestry.co.uk.
The Irish Genealogy website https://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en makes available free online indexes to births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years old and deaths over 50 years old. Having obtained the index entry photocopies can be ordered in person or by post (see below) or via a downloaded application from the Irish genealogy website or online from http://www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/1/bdm/Certificates for €20.
If you have a date and index reference of a birth marriage and death then research copies of certificates can be ordered by post at a cost of €4. Otherwise and extra €2 is charged for a search. Postal enquiries should be addressed to General Register Office, Government Offices, Convent Road, Roscommon. Tel: 090 6632900
The Challenges of finding the correct person
If a reference cannot be found in the national indexes compiled for the Registrar General, it may be worth seeing if the information can be found in the relevant local register office. Occasionally bureaucratic errors occur in the reporting of the registered information from the local to the national level. Some local records can be accessed online via www.ukbmd.org.uk, which is a collaboration between family history societies and local register offices to make the indexes to original registrars’ records available. One of the advantages of this particular system is that grooms and brides are matched and the name of the church is given. It is also noted if it was a civil or nonconformist marriage. In fact for the counties which are currently covered, UKBMD should be the first port of call.
If the local office has no web presence, addresses of local register offices can be found via www.genuki.org.uk.
Many times people have commented - "he's not there, I can't find him"
Whilst this may be true in some cases, you will often find that from 1874, in the case of births, he or she will have been registered. There are various reasons why someone is not recorded in the place we think they should have been. In many cases, this has to do with our own assumptions rather than deficiencies in the registration system and its indexes.
1. Inadequate Search
Very often we do not look in enough volumes of the indexes to locate our ancestors. The accuracy of the information you have will determine the span of years which must be searched. Ages in documents like the census or on death certificates can be inaccurate; ages "known" by relatives are often several years out. Some marriages did not take place until after the birth of the first child and in some cases even later. Couples may not have married at all, particularly if, for example the husband left his first wife and did not obtain a divorce. Unless he committed bigamy, then he was not free to marry. Be prepared to make extended searches for a marriage up to 25 years before the birth of the first known child or at least as far back as the parents would have been legally able to marry. The absolute minimum period for a search for a birth is 5 years either side of the calculated date. Occasionally it might be necessary to widen the search even further perhaps to 15 or 20 years beyond the assumed date. Families were large in the 19th and early 20th centuries and it was not unusual for children to be born over a span of 25 years.
2. Surname Variations
Contrary to what you may think or how proud you are of your surname, variations will exist, as in most cases registrars and incumbents wrote down what they heard rather than paying any consideration to a standardised spelling system. Many people could not read so they were unable to correct a spelling as we do today. The indexes are in a very clinical STRICT alphabetical order, hence the name of Newbury and Newberry, Collins and Collings (both sounding the same) will not be in the same place in the index. Certain capital letters can also be misinterpreted. Think about the different variants of the name that could possibly exist before setting out and write them down on your research sheet. That way you can look at all the most sensible alternatives in the indexes.
Prior to 1875, the registration of a birth was not compulsory and as such in the first 40 years from the inception of the system in 1837, registration may not have occurred. The onus for registration of births and deaths was on the individual and still is, although non-registration today is a breach of the law. If you have been unable to find someone pre 1875, don't assume non-registration until you have considered all possibilities listed here.
Even after 1874, some problems still existed. Poor families, who had a high mortality amongst their children, may have named their next child after an earlier child who had recently died. Parents might have failed to register the second child but used an existing birth certificate relating to the first child of that name. This had advantages and disadvantages in later life and also plays havoc with the methods of research. It was a very real situation and should be thought about if you cannot find a second certified entry.
4. Human Error
Of the many millions of names in the indexes even a 1% error rate will mean that millions of names are omitted from the system. If you cannot find a name in a registration index and you know where the event probably took place, it is worth contacting the local register office and requesting a certificate.
5. No name given at birth
Some children were registered before they were named. This may give a clue to the religious affiliation of a family. Tradition in some religions meant that children weren't named until baptism. On the birth certificate, column 10 allows additional entries to be made later. As far as the indexes and indeed the certificate are concerned, the child was registered as "male" or "female" followed only by the surname. Such entries are shown at the end of the alphabetical listing and should always be looked at.
6. The wrong name
Throughout their lives, people were very often known to their family and friends by different names from those which they had been given at registration or baptism. People also changed their names both formally and informally during their life either by an official deed poll or, feeling the need to become anonymous, by using an alias. Hence a name used on marriage or death certificates may not be the same as the one appearing on a birth certificate or in a baptism register. Always look for the use of nicknames, aliases and the like when searching for an event. People were also only known by one of their names and will be recorded in records of later events by just that name. For example, someone registered as Thomas William at birth may be married just as William or Thomas and both forenames should be considered when using the indexes. In some cases, without additional research or knowledge of the name the person might have used, it is almost impossible to locate some individuals.
A very common occurrence relates to the supposed name of the bride on a marriage certificate. Unbeknownst to you, the bride might have been married previously. So when looking for what is in fact her second or subsequent marriage, remember she will be listed in the indexes usually under the surname she took upon her previous marriage and not by her maiden name. This could affect your search. If a mother remarried while a child was young, then he or she may have taken the surname of the second husband, either informally or by formal adoption. That child may then have used that surname all through later life rather than the one registered on his or her birth certificate.
7. Event took place in a different country
For some unknown reason, family historians develop very staid attitudes as to where events took place without giving consideration to mobility. Even living family members may not be aware of the fact someone was born or died abroad. They may insist that an event occurred in a specific place, although it could turn out to be in another town twenty miles away, the reasons being failing memory or just not knowing the facts. Many people did travel, often extensively, if not abroad then to places like Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man or any of the Channel Islands. Each of these has its own registration system but is still part of the British Isles. Many people who spent time in this country were not born here. Many immigrants came from European countries and many British subjects were born in places like India and other Commonwealth countries. The census will help establish place of birth and should be consulted first (unless of course events are too early or late to show up on the returns.) Be prepared, therefore, to look in the miscellaneous indexes in the public search room as a matter of course and then to search registration in other countries.
This guide was written by Ian Waller and Geoff Swinfield
Edited by Else Churchill
© Society of Genealogists 2017
- Help getting started with genealogy
- Guide One: Start Your Family History with the Society of Genealogists
- Guide Two: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates
- Guide Three: Census Records (England and Wales)
- Guide Four: Probate Records
- Guide Five: Anglican Parish Registers and their Finding Aids
- Guide Six: Nonconformist Records
- Guide Seven: Criminal Records
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