The Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths
1837: The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced.
You have an excellent chance of tracing your ancestors back to at least 1837 if you are of English or Welsh heritage. This is because copies of all births, marriages and deaths certificates issued in England and Wales since 1837 are held centrally at the General Register Office (GRO) for England and Wales. Although civil registration did not become compulsory until 1875, it is estimated that more than 90% of all births were registered before this date.
England & Wales were split into registration districts. Once every quarter, the superintendent registrar would submit records of births, marriages and deaths registered in his district to the GRO. Quarterly indexes were compiled by the GRO, based on these records. It is these indexes that family historians initially search.
|Quarterly Index||Registrations recorded in:|
|March||January, February & March|
|June||April, May & June|
|September||July, August & September|
|December||October, November & December|
Always use the rule ‘a few records forward and a few records back’ when conducting your research.
It is very important to remember that a birth, marriage or death was entered in the quarterly index according to the date of registration, not the date of the event itself. This is particularly relevant with regard to births, as parents had up to 42 days in which to register their new child’s birth. This is one reason why it is better not to focus on just one quarter when doing your research.
Why was the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths introduced?
From 1538, almost without interruption, clergymen were required to keep registers of all baptisms, marriages and burials performed in their parish. Since that time, various efforts were made to improve the quality and scope of parish registers. Pre-printed forms were introduced for marriages (w.e.f.1754), and for baptisms and burials (w.e.f. 1813).
By the early 1800s, despite the authorities’ best efforts, many baptisms, marriages and burials still went unrecorded. A registration system which relied wholly on parish records was considered to be inadequate for a number of reasons. The growth of non-conformist religions such as Methodism, Baptism and Presbyterianism; increased tolerance of Catholicism (technically still illegal) and increased movements of population to towns and cities, all contributed to many events going unrecorded. In addition, baptisms and burials were recorded rather than the more accurate births and deaths. The pre-1841 censuses exposed these deficiencies as they partly relied on parish records. It is no coincidence that the General Register Office also took over the conduct of national censuses from 1841.
Where to start?
Before searching the births, marriages and deaths (BMD) indexes, you need the following information about your ancestor(s):
- Full name. Caution: alot of people used their middle name for every day use. If you can’t find, say, ‘Albert Jones’, it could be because his full name was ‘James Albert Jones’.
- Dates: of birth, marriage and death but, most importantly of birth. This is because the information supplied on a birth certificate enables you to search back another generation. Caution: people did not have to prove their age (and sometimes didn’t even know it).
- Place of birth, marriage or death. The more accurately you can whittle down an ancestor’s location, the easier it will be for you to search the indexes which are split into registration districts.
When you have a ‘match’, the GRO will provide all the information you need to order a copy birth, death or marriage certificate from them – for a small fee.
Where to search?
For civil registration of births, marriages and deaths
To search the civil registration index of births, marriages and deaths, visit the GRO (General Registry Office).
The General Register Office also publish a very useful guide on obtaining copy certificates and using Births, Marriages and Deaths records for Family History Research.
Although subscription based, Findmypast.co.uk also has an excellent commercial index.
Where do I search my Scottish ancestry?
Scotland’s General Registry Office was established in 1855. Although the GRO is not quite as old as its English and Welsh counterpart, it was worth the wait as more details were recorded. To search Scottish BMD registers, visit ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. Remember, even if your parents did not live in Scotland, they could have married there.
Where do I search my Irish ancestry?
Ireland’s General Registry Office wasn’t established until 1864 (non-Catholic marriages from 1845). Unfortunately, very few records exist in Ireland.
Northern Ireland BMD death registers can be searched at The General Register Office Northern ireland.
How long is a piece of string! Check out the following to start with:
- Local registration Office.
- Local Records Office.
- Parish Church Records – even after the introduction of civil registration, churches continued to hold records.
- Parish magazines. These started being circulated in the 1850s. Church anouncements can provide details of a birth, marriage or death.
- Newspaper Archives.
- The National Probate calendar – for details of wills. These will also provide the same details as a death certificate. Check out our Wills and Probate page.
Where can I find earlier records?
For those family historians wishing to trace births, marriages and deaths prior to civil registration, research becomes a lot more complicated and there are a number of places, both online and in person, that you may need to visit.
Start by checking out our Parish Records page.
I’ve search everywhere and can’t find anything – where next?
Check out our brick wall page.
What you can expect to find on a birth, marriage or death certificate
The information provided in birth, marriage and death certificates has hardly altered since civil registration was first introduced.
The birth certificate is the most important document in any family history research. Not only because of the information if provides on the ancestor concerned, but also because it is the essential link to the previous generation back: it provides details of the parents and gives an indication of when they might have married.
INFORMATION ON A BIRTH CERTIFICATE
- Date and place of birth
- Name (if any)
- Gender (boy or girl)
- Name and surname
- place of birth (w.e.f. 1969)
- Name, surname and maiden name.
- place of birth (w.e.f. 1969).
- occupation (w.e.f. 1984).
- Signature, description and address of ‘informant’ (usually one of the parents).
- Date registered.
- Names entered after registration.
- If no father’s details were provided, then the birth was illegitimate. If the parents had different surnames, then this also means that the birth was illegitimate. Different surnames can cause confusion because the birth is often entered twice in the GRO index (i.e. one entry for each surname); however, there will only be one birth certificate.
- Mother and father’s place of birth was introduced in 1969.
- Mother’s occupation was introduced in 1984.
- Date registered. The parents had 42 days in which to register the birth.
- Names entered after registration – this could be up to a year after the registration date.
Marriage certificates provide the essential link between two family groups. They provide the bride’s maiden name, enabling research to continue back along the maternal line. It also provides occupations of the groom and both fathers of bride and groom. Remember to check out the witnesses; this may throw up something interesting.
INFORMATION ON A MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE
- Date of marriage.
- Name and surname of bride and groom.
- Ages of bride and groom.
- Marital condition of bride and groom.
- Rank or profession.
- Residence ‘at the time of marriage’ of bride and groom.
- Fathers of both bride and groom: name, surname and profession.
- Church in which they were married.
- Signed by the bride and groom.
- Signed by two witnesses.
- Signed by church minister.
- Ages. These could be ‘flexible’. ‘Of full age’ meant the bride and groom were (or claimed to be) over 21 years of age and didn’t know (or didn’t want to give) their age.
- Marital condition. This could be spinster, bachelor, widow or widower (obviously not married!)
- Residence ‘at the time of marriage’. This could refer to where they were living temporarily in the weeks leading up to their marriage. If the bride and groom had the same address, this does not mean they were living together; it just meant they were marrying in her parish.
- If the father(s) details were not provided, then they were not known or declared.
- Signatures. The duplicate certificate(s) you receive from the GRO, are actually transcripts – they will not show the actual signatures of the parties. You may be able to find a ‘true’ copy with original signatures by ordering via the Local Registrar Office or Local Register Office. Any signature shown as ‘x’, means that the signatory couldn’t write.
Death certificates can often throw up interesting nuggets of information. Is the occupation the same as that on the marriage certificate? Who is the ‘informant’ on the death certificate? Where did your ancestor die and what off?
INFORMATION ON A DEATH CERTIFICATE
- When and where died.
- Name and surname.
- Age (w.e.f. 1866).
- Cause of death.
- Details of the informant: signature, address and, w.e.f. 1875, relationship to deceased.
- When registered.
- Signature of registrar.
- Age. Question introduced in 1866.
- Occupation. Often a female’s occupation was ‘widow of….’
- Cause of death. ‘Certified by…’ means signed off by a Doctor who was in attendance at the time of death
- Informant. The informant was usually a spouse or near relative. In 1875, relationship to the deceased was also provided.
- When registered. This needed to occur before burial so the date was usually near the date of death.