guide 2 contd.

How to search for Birth, Marriage and Death certificates 2/2.

Locating your ancestor using civil registration

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.  links to register office sites where the appropriate local reference can be obtained. See below for information about obtaining information online.

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. 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

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 1837-1919, 1984-2004 and deaths 1837-1957, 1984-2019

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:

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. 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

Commercial organisations such as or 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 Each official paper certificate currently costs £11.00 and takes four days to prepare.  However the GRO makes available some cheaper non-certified PDFs of documents via email at a cost of £7. 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 ,
PR8 2JD.

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  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 (

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:  See  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:

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 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

The Irish Genealogy website 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 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

Indexes for some civil birth, marriages and deaths registered in Ireland up to 1959 can be found on: and

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, 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

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.

Common challenges

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.

3. Non-Registration

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 - nicknames etc

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.

7. The wrong name - remarrying

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.

8. 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.

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