Civil Registration, the national recording of vital statistics, began 1 July 1837. The English counties had been subdivided into regions known as poor law unions in 1834. These same regions became the first registration districts for civil registration. A Superintendent Registrar was appointed to preside over the recording of births, marriages and deaths in each district with instructions to forward copies of the records quarterly to the General Register Office in London where a national index was produced. The records were recopied at the central office in London and filed not by the date and place of the event, but by the quarter and district in which each was registered.
Initially, there was an under registration of births, perhaps as high as 15% for some counties, until 1875. This fact underscores the need for the researcher to know not only the contents of the records and their indexes, but the dates in which subsequent changes were made. Detailed information concerning contents and dates of changes is online. Start with FindMyPast. First examine the "Introduction" for the key dates and then "BMD Certificates" to see photos of each of the birth, marriage and death certificates. Also check out the FamilySearch Wiki.
Before starting research in civil registration, find the ancestor in at least three subsequent census records taken between 1851-1911 to confirm the year of birth, place of birth, and how long the family was in that registration district. Census records can also aid in determining the district and approximate year of marriage and death. Then check to see if there are church records available for the same time period on such websites as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, and FamilySearch.org. If church records exist, you could search those records for the christening, marriage, and burial records for each family member. Based on the information found in census and church records, you can then locate their birth, marriage, and death certificates. The ideal would be to get the birth and marriage certificates for each person in your direct line, and death certificates especially in the time period of 1837-1865 (when the death indexes fail to give the age recorded on the death certificate) from civil registration. The General Register Office (GRO), where these certificates can be ordered from, now has an online searchable index for their birth and death certificates. You will need to register for a free account to search their indexes. The GRO index search engine requires a surname, gender, and year for results to appear. For birth certificates (1837-1916), the results will give the name, year, quarter, registration place, and mother’s maiden name for each birth certificate that fits the criteria. For death certificates (1837-1957), the results will give the name, year, quarter, registration place, and age at death. These certificates can be ordered from this website. Altogether, the censuses, church registers, and GRO index can be used to determine when an ancestor was born (by the birth certificate or age at death) and when they died and can confirm marriage records (by examining the mother's maiden name listed on the birth certificate).
For further examples of the civil registration index and birth/marriage/death certificates as well as coordinating this material with research in the census records, see the research guide found on the Society of Genealogist’s website.
Searching for Certificates from the General Register Office in London
- Locate your place of interest to find the name of its registration district and the names of the neighboring districts. Go to FamilySearch Maps and type the name of your place in the search box. The pin number on the map represents your place. The tab at the top of the box labeled Jurisdictions provides the name of the registration district. Click on the name of the registration district to see a list of the districts that border it.
- There are many websites with searchable civil registration indexes. Ancestry.com (a subscription site but free through an account with FamilySearch through Partner Access), FindMyPast.com (a subscription site but free through an account FamilySearch through Partner Access), and FamilySearch.org have civil registration indexes from 1837-1915. These can be searched with a name, year, and place. The results will show the name, registration year, registration quarter, registration district, and volume and page of the certificate. These search engines are valuable in broad searches but do not often give enough information to narrow down which is your ancestor. A more narrow and specific search can be conducted on the GRO website. As previously stated, this GRO index search produces all the results that Ancestry.com does, but also includes the maiden name of the mother listed on birth certificates and age at death listed on death certificate. Furthermore, the actual certificates can be ordered directly from this index. The downside of the GRO index is that a year is required and the search only goes up to a range of 2 years from that date. The other search engines do not need a specific year, but can include a broad range. Therefore, Ancestry.com and other similar indexes can be used to find all possibilities of certificates and the GRO index can narrow that search and find the right certificate for your ancestor. Also, if the year of birth is known from a christening or census record, the GRO index can be quickly used to find the birth certificate. Used together, these search engines can be used to satisfactorily find the birth, death, and even marriage certificates for your ancestors.
- As previously stated, certificates can be ordered online on the General Register Office's website. The easiest way to order a certificate online is by using a credit card and the complete information taken from the above indexes, including the name of the last month in the quarter of interest: March, June, September or December. This government site is located here.
- The volume numbers in the index also indicate the county where the district is located. Roman numerals were used before 1852 and an Arabic number followed by a letter of the alphabet after 1851. Example: volume XIII represented the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. After 1851 the volume number for Norfolk was 4b. Start by determining the volume number for your county and time period. Click on GENUKI and then the topic of "Civil Registration." When that screen comes up, click on Mike Wheatley's "mapping" to see the reference numbers for each county.
Searching for Certificates from the Local Registration Districts
This routine is useful if the name is too common, cannot be found in the national indexes, or if you wish to see a copy of the original record. This approach will be even more desirable as more of the indexes of the local districts come online. The obvious drawback is if the family moved out of the district.
- Visit GENUKI and click on "England," and then click on "England – Civil Registration" under the Civil Registration subheading. Once there click on "For further information see Civil Registration in England and Wales" under the first bullet point. Finally, click on "Registration Districts In England and Wales (1837-1930)" which is located about one third of the way down the page.
- On the screen for "Registration Districts in England and Wales (1837-1974)" click on the name of the county of interest for fuller details on the district name located in step #2 of the preceding procedure for the General Register Office. If that district was abolished, the name of the succeeding district is provided. Now go back to the top of the preceding screen and press "addresses of current register offices." The last column indicates any online indexes for that district. One can also keep up to date with what is online for the various districts at UKBMD. Click in the left margin on "Local BMD."
Two Other Types of Vital Statistics Online
Births, marriages and deaths at sea onboard British ships were recorded separately for 1854-1890 and may assist in solving migration problems. Civil divorce for the general public began in 1858. FindMyPast has collections for both events. To find the records of births, marriages, and deaths overseas first go to FindMyPast and click on Search. Then click ‘A-Z of record sets’ and type ‘British Nationals’ in the search bar. Then choose between the three collections of those born/died/married overseas. For the divorce index, go back to the ‘A-Z of record sets’ and click on ‘United Kingdom record sets’ (located on the left side of the webpage). In this search bar type ‘Divorce’ and then click on the Divorce Index. The actual records for the events at sea are available on FHL and BYU films 1419469-1419472, and the index to divorce, 1858-1958, is on FHL films 2358042-2358057. Divorce before World War I was still quite rare. If divorce records are pertinent to your research, the above website can assist you in going beyond this index. This is a subscription site but free to those using the computers at the FHL and in the family history section of the BYU library and is also free through an account with FamilySearch (through Partner Access).