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Civil registration is the government recording of births, marriages, and deaths. Civil registration records are excellent sources of names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Because they are indexed and cover most of the population, English civil registration records are important sources for genealogical research. Learn more about using these records for family history from the GOV.UK website.

Contents

General Register Office - Historical Background

Before 1837 only churches recorded birth, marriage, and death information in England (see England Church Records). In the early 1800s, Parliament recognized the need for accurate records for voting, planning, taxation, and defense purposes. Legislation was passed to create a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales and, for registering the same for British subjects abroad. England and Wales registration began on 1 July 1837 and later on, for British subjects living abroad, some records returned to England begin as early as 1790. For a brief list of all those registers of births, marriages and deaths affecting British subjects overseas, see Civil Registration of Overseas British Citizens and Military Personnel (below).

Civil Registration: in England and Wales

  • The jurisdictional basis of civil registration is the Registration District. Registration districts were based on the Poor Law Unions that were formed in 1834. Poor Law Unions contained groups of parishes that administered the new Poor Law system for that jurisdiction with a superintendent registrar appointed for each district. The district was divided into sub-districts, each with a Registrar of Births and Deaths. There would also be one or more Registrars of Marriages for the whole district.
  • Each quarter, superintendent registrars forwarded copies of their district’s registrations to the Registrar General in London. The registration districts hold the original birth and death records, and the General Register Office holds copies.
  • Ordained clergy of the Church of England, the established church, were automatically entitled to perform and register marriages. Clergy of other denominations could not perform legally valid marriages until 1898, when they could apply to become 'Authorised Persons'. Prior to that date, a Registrar of Marriages had to be present. Civil marriages could be performed in the register office, but these were rare until the 20th century.
  • There were two marriage registers that had to be completed and signed by the parties. When a register was full, one copy would be sent to the Superintendent Registrar and the other kept at the church. In addition, quarterly copies of all marriages were sent to the register office and forwarded to the Registrar General.
  • Quaker and Jewish marriages were performed by Registering Officers and Secretaries of Synagogues, respectively. They were also required to deposit completed registers at the Register Office, and to forward quarterly copies to the Registrar Genera.
Wikipedia
Wikipedia has more about this subject: General Register Office
Beginning in July 1837, registrars were required to register all births and deaths in their district. Since they were paid for every registration, that was incentive to make sure all births and deaths were recorded. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of births and nearly all deaths and marriages were reported. A new registration Act in 1874 placed the responsibility on parents to inform the registrar of all births, but this made no discernible difference to the rate of registration, which by 1875 was around 99 percent. If you cannot find a birth, marriage, or death record in civil registration, search church records.

Civil Registration: Overseas British Citizens & Military Personnel

Parliament passed legislation creating a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for English, Scots, Irish and Welsh subjects living abroad, or also known as British subjects abroad. Where registration in England and Wales began 1 July 1837, for those British and Irish subjects living overseas, registration began at differing time periods in different countries.

Returns of births, marriages and deaths of British subjects overseas, on ships, and including military personnel and their families were sent to the General Register Office, Bishop of London, and later, to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in England. These returns may begin as early as 1627 but most especially by mid-19th century.

For a brief list of the several register series of births, marriages and deaths affecting British subjects abroad, consider the various records cited below. Some of these records are held at the General Register Office (sometimes known as The Registrar General) at:

    The National Archives
    Ruskin Avenue
    Kew, Richmond
    Surrey,
    United Kingdom
    Tel: +44 (0) 20 8876 3444
    Email:  contact form (in lieu of email): web form

And some registers are held at:

    The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS)
    Overseas Registration Section
    Trafalgar Road
    Birkdale, Southport
    Merseyside, PR* 2HH
    United Kingdom
    Tel 0151 471 4801
    Email: overseas@ons.gov.uk

There are several significant records collection series, which originate from three government-sponsored categories. Some have been indexed and even scanned (imaged) and made available online. Data content and some images of records can be accessible at the following record archives and/or websites and for the following ranges of years:

BMDReg = BMDRegister.co.uk
FMP = FindMyPast.co.uk
TGEN =  TheGenealogist.co.uk
TNA = NationalArchives.gov.uk
Civil Registration of Births, Marriages & Deaths - Foreign Office (FO) (1761-on) online Indexes

Baptisms Marriages Burials
TNA
1849-2006
1849-2006 1849-2006
Regimental Registers of Army Soldiers & Their Families Births Indexes (1761-on) online

Baptisms Marriages Burials
FMP 1761-1924
1761-1924
1761-1924
TGEN 1761-1924 1761-1924
1761-1924
TNA None None None
  Miscellaneous Overseas Births, Marriages & Deaths British Subjects & onShips (RGs 32-34) - (from 1627) online Indexes

Baptisms Marriages Burials
TNA
None
None None
BMDReg
1627-1969
1627-1969
1627-1969
TGEN 1627-1969
1627-1969
1627-1969
Miscellaneous Foreign Marriages - (1861) online Indexes

Baptisms Marriages Burials
TNA
None
None None
BMDReg
NA
1861-1921
NA
TGEN NA 1861-1921 NA
Miscellaneous Foreign Deaths (RG35) - (from 1791) online Indexes

Baptisms Marriages Burials
TNA
None
None None
BMDReg
1791-1921
1791-1921
1791-1921
TGEN 1791-1921
1791-1921
1791-1921

Here are available military records and where applicable, the respective links to online accessibility:

  1. Military Records (including Merchant ships) of personnel abroad:

           - Regimental Registers of births (indexed), marriages and deaths 1761-date (OPCS/FMP)

           - Army Chaplains returns of birth, marriage and death 1796-1880 (all indexed)

           - Marine births and Marine deaths at sea from 1837-1965 (indexed)

           - Merchant Marine Births, marriages and deaths 1854-1891

   2. The Registrar General also had custody of non-statutory registers of births, marriages, deaths and burials overseas from 1826-1951 which originally were sent to the Bishop of London's diocesan office. These registers are now held at The National Archives, and some copies at FamilySearch include:


Indexes at The Family History Library

[More to be added] While finding British subjects who were born, married or died abroad can be a challenge, indexes are now available to make the task easier. In additional to the above listed links to online indices to British citizens living overseas, the Family History Library also has many indexes as well as microfilm copies of many British church records for persons that lived in foreign countries and for ecclesiastical returns from British Army (the military establishment). See

Further information: British Persons Abroad a guide to British Overseas in records at the Family History Library and The National Archives, UK

FamilySearch's British (and Irish) collections in the Family History Library has obtained copies of available General Register Office's series of indices. These may be ordered for and obtained for viewing and researching at any of its 4,600 FamilySearch Centers worldwide. Before ordering however, be certain to view the above table for currently available online indexed registers as most have by now, been indexed and accessible online at various websites.

The National Archives is custodian to the vast collections of the British overseas and in military returns. However, these have now been indexed to a significant extent. To view each index series, see the links listed in the above table and/or view the following links to find even more options available to the researcher in the use and availability of these precious registers:

Information Recorded in Civil Registers

Births

A birth certificate usually gives:

  • birth date and birthplace
  • child’s name and sex
  • father's name and occupation
  • mother's full name including her maiden name
  • informant’s name, relationship to the baby, and residence
  • when registered and the name of the registrar

The father, mother, neighbor, or other person present at the birth must register a birth within 42 days.  The 1874 act imposed a fee for late registration (43 days to 6 months).  This penalty may have persuaded some parents to "adjust" their child's birth date to avoid paying the fee.  After six months the birth could not be registered.

A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:

Marriages

A marriage certificate gives:

  • marriage data and place
  • names of the bride and groom, their ages, their marital "condition" (single or widowed), their professions, and their residences at the time of the marriage
  • names and occupations of their fathers (and often whether they were deceased)
  • signatures or marks of the bride, groom, and witnesses
  • also notes whether the bride and groom were married in a church (with the denomination given) and, if so, whether they were married by banns or by license.

The law required all marriages to be recorded in a civil register immediately after the ceremony. Marriages were often performed at the bride’s parish.

Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:

Because the marriage information found in the civil certificates of marriage, are an exact replica of the church registers of marriage, the records of the churches represent an original copy of each marriage certificate sent to the General Register Office.

FamilySearch has microfilmed or scanned millions of the 1837-1900 marriage records. To view these for the time period (usually pre-1900) and parish/chapel, search the Family History Library Catalog (online) under the name of the parish; click on Church Records to obtain the microfilm number for ordering to a FamilySearch Center near you.

Divorces

Divorce records contain information on family members, their marital history (including marriage date and place), property, residences, and sometimes dates of events such as children’s births. To search an index to Divorce Records, see "Key Web Sites" below.

Divorce required an act of Parliament until 1857 and was uncommon before the mid-20th century. Records of parliamentary divorce acts are at:

Parliamentary Archives
Houses of Parliament
London, SW1A 0PW
England
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7219 3074
Fax: +44 (0)20 7219 2570
E-mail: archives@parliament.uk
Internet: Parliamentary Archives

Civil divorce registration began in 1858. These divorce records are confidential for 75 years. Records older than 75 years can be consulted at the National Archives in London. Indexes for 1858 to 1937 are available.

Relatives of divorced persons may obtain information on divorces that occurred in the last 75 years by contacting:

First Avenue House, High Holborn, London.jpg

Principal Registry of the Family Division
Decree Absolute Section
First Avenue House
42-49 High Holborn
London WC1V 6NP
England

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7947 7017
Internet: Family Division

To learn more about divorce records, visit the following Web sites.

The Family History Library has:

Web Sites for Online Searching

  • The National Archives - offers a free online index search for Divorce Records (J77 series) from 1858-1937. See their online Catalog, for searches made.
  • See The Times - to search for and view historical articles from 1785-1985 of divorce cases in the news(nobility, prominent merchants, political figures, and those of the ruling class who often are listed/ mentioned)
  • Parliamentary Acts: Chronological Tables of the Private and Personal Acts - this lists numerous tables of divorce decrees in court cases prior to 1858.

Deaths

A death certificate usually gives:

  • death date and place
  • full name of the decedent, their sex and age, their occupation (or for a child, usually the name of a parent)
  • cause of death
  • name, residence and relationship of the informant to the decedent
  • date registered and the name of the registrar.

On certificates for adults, the names of parents are never given. In considering whether to order a death certificate, remember that the information on the certificate may be limited or inaccurate because it is based on the informant’s knowledge. It can be helpful for those looking for clues about persons born or married before July 1837.

A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:

Merchant Shipping Act

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 stated that the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen should record and certify the death of seamen at sea. Prior to this the General Registrar Office (GRO) maintined registers of deaths at sea. These are indexed by the Registrar General of Shipping under Board of Trade references from about 1855. Another location to check for a death at sea is in the ships log.

Indexes for Deaths at sea are also located on FindMyPast.co.uk, these indexes cover 1854-1890.

Stillbirths and Adoptions

No provision was made for registering stillbirths until 1874, when a new law required a death certificate before burying stillborn children. Since 1927, all stillbirths (any birth where the child never took a breath) are recorded in the Register of Stillbirths, which is not available to the public.

Civil registration adoption certificates began in 1927, giving the child’s new name, birth date, court, entry date and reference number, and district and subdistrict of birth as well as the adoptive parents’ names, addresses, and occupation(s). Adoption records may be consulted only by arrangement with the Office for National Statistics.

Pre-1927 adoption records are kept by the agency or institution which handled the adoption and are very difficult to locate. Many no longer exist. For more information, see:

  • Stafford, Georgina. Where to Find Adoption Records: A Guide for Counsellors. London, England: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, 1993. (Family History Library book Ref 942 D27sgw.)

Locating and Ordering Civil Registration Records

Civil registration records are kept at the superintendent registrar’s district office. Duplicates are kept at the General Register Office, part of the Identity and Passport Service.

Ordering Certificates Online

Civil registration certificates are closed to the public. The only way to obtain one is to order a copy from the Register General Office for England and Wales. You may order through the Internet, mail or FAX. The cheapest way is to order online, quoting the full reference. You should also take care to order only through the official GRO site, and not through any other site, which will often charge more, and take longer. The current online price of a certificate is £9.25 pounds sterling with full reference. Full Reference includes the type of certificate requested, individual's name, registration district, quarter, year, volume and page number from the indexes. For more information, see their Web site at:

Ordering Certificates by Telephone

Using Visa, Visa Electron, Mastercard, Solo, Delta or Maestro, call +44 (0)845 603 7788 and have your details in hand.

The telephone lines are open: Monday to Friday 8:00 am – 8:00pm (excluding Bank Holidays) and Saturday 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (GMT). Have your credit or debit card ready.

Ordering Certificates by Mail

GRO PO Box 2 Southport Merseyside PR8 2JD

Fax - 44(0) 1704 550 013

When requesting a certificate by mail, send the following:

  • A check or money order for the search fee (the amount varies)
  • The full name and sex of the person sought
  • The names of the parents, if known
  • An approximate date and place of the event

Certificates from the General Register Office are less expensive if you supply index reference numbers.

Indexes to Civil Registration (England & Wales) Registers

Indexes can help you find an entry for your ancestor. The General Register Office (GRO) creates nationwide indexes after receiving quarterly returns.

Content

These indexes are arranged by calendar quarter and year, alphabetically. The index gives the name, registration district, volume, and page number. Later indexes also include the following:

  • Age at death (post-1865 death indexes)
  • Mother’s maiden name (post-June 1911 birth indexes)
  • Spouse’s surname (post-1911 marriage indexes)
  • Birth date (post-March 1969 death indexes)

With the index reference you can send for the certificate (see above).

Search Tips

If you cannot locate an index entry, consider the following reasons:

  • Surnames are often found under unexpected spellings.
  • Events are filed by the date registered, not the date they occurred (for example, a birth on 20 March which was registered on 6 April will be in the April-May-June quarter).
  • Indexes were prepared by hand and may contain copying errors (for example, "T" for "F") or omissions.
  • A person may have been registered under a different name than he or she used later in life.
  • Some marriages were indexed by the name of only one spouse.
  • A woman’s surname in the marriage index may be her surname from a previous marriage.
  • Family information (particularly age at death) is often misleading.
  • Persons with common names may be difficult to identify in the index.
  • Some deaths were registered as "unknown."
  • A child born before the parents’ marriage may be registered under the mother’s maiden name.
  • Some children were registered as "male" or "female" if a name had not been selected before registration.

Knowing the district name and at least an approximate year in which the birth, marriage, or death occurred will reduce your search time.

Using the indexes in FreeBMD to find where a marriage took place

Find a marriage record in FreeBMD, but don’t know which parish it was in? An article, “Get more out of FreeBMD,” in the October, 2010 issue of Family Tree Magazine UK discusses how you could use FreeBMD to find the parish where a marriage took place. This article was followed up in the December, 2010 issue with another article on the subject, “Parish Match” by Sophie Pigott. Roughly the steps, as listed in these articles, include the following:


1. Search in www.freebmd.org.uk for the district, volume and page number of the marriage entry.
2. Go back to the Home Page. Select the Information Link in the middle of the Home Page (it is red and has a box around it).
3. Scroll down to the Statistics section and click on the Districts link.
4. Scroll down to the Page Ranges section, then click on the second ‘here’ link, “Index by District.”
5. Using the entry for your marriage in FreeBMD, find and select your district.
6. Scroll down to the marriages and use the year and quarter to identify the page numbers.
7. Determine if the page number listed falls at the beginning, middle or end of the pages by:
a. Finding a list of parishes in the district that existed at the time of the marriage.
b. Alphabetize the list. (You can use maps.familysearch.org to generate a list of all parishes in a county in 1851. Beyond that they suggest you Google ‘old parishes in …’)
c. Calculate from the list how many parishes were in the district. Then figure out from step 6 how many pages were used during that quarter. You should get a feel for whether the marriage was in the beginning, middle or ending parishes of the list.
8. Choose a parish near the middle of the list and go to the parish registers to find the numbers of the first and last marriages in that quarter. That will give you context for where your marriage might land.
9. Calculate whether your number is before or after those of the parish you chose. You should be able to spot check the marriage pages and quickly work your way to the one you need.

This is really an exciting strategy that will save hours of searching through parish registers to find where a marriage was solemnized.

For more detailed information see the above issues of Family Tree Magazine.

Online Index to England and Wales Civil Registration

In recent years volunteers began transcribing the microfiched indexes and placing them online. Two sites with online civil registration indexes to births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales are located at:

1. FreeBMD - After selecting the event to search, features include:

  • Name
  • Date the event was registered (with date range)
  • Name of the district or county
  • Name of parents or spouse
  • Search by exact or phonetic match

The results show the following for each individual:

  • Type of event (birth, marriage, or death)
  • Name of the individual
  • Year and quarter of the year when registered. (Only the last month of the quarter is given, i.e. March, June, September, or December.)
  • Name of the district where the event was registered. (Remember: A district could encompass a number of locations and was responsible to register the event.)
  • Volume number and page number

Since this is an ongoing project, there are always additional years being added to the online indexes. A set of graphs on the site shows which years have already been indexed. On the Home Page, click 'Information', choose 'Statistics' and select 'Coverage Charts' for the latest updates. It is also possible to report transcription errors and add "Postem" notes if you locate an entry which is incorrect or that you have more information about.

You should bear in mind the way in which national indexes were compiled from 1837 onward. The quarterly returns sent were manually arranged in alphabetical order and the index compiled was manually written by clerks up to 1865. From 1866 to 1910 the indexes were typeset from the handwritten slips, then typewritten until the 1960s, when computers were first used. From 1984 onwards the indexes have been 'born digital'. Some of the early handwritten indexes between 1837 and 1865 were withdrawn when they became worn, and replaced with typed copies. This extra stage of copying means that these indexes have a higher level of errors.

There have always been checking procedures, but there was rarely enough time or funding to carry them out properly, so it is not surprising that the indexes are incomplete and contain inaccurate entries. If you cannot locate an entry, it is sensible to go to the primary source of registration at the local Registration District.

2. UKBMD website - Select the desired county to determine if there is a local bmd index project. (Not all counties are currently indexing the civil registration indexes for births, marriages, and deaths.) Most county-wide indexes include through 1950. All the counties have incomplete indexes and the project is on-going. Continue to check back often for updated and added information. By signing up, e-mail updates are available from the county extraction directors.

Search features include:

  • Name
  • Date the event was registered
  • Name of the district and county
  • Date range
  • Names of parents or spouse

The results show the following for each individual. This is the information you need if you want to order a copy of a certificate from a local register office in England and Wales.

  • Type of event (birth, marriage, or death)
  • Name of the individual.
  • Year when event registered.
  • Name of the region. The name of the local BMD project area
  • Name of the place where the event was registered. For births and deaths this is the district name, a district is a geographic area that was responsible to register the event. For marriages the name of the church or register office is given.
  • Name of the register office that now holds the registers. This is the office to which applications should be made for copy certificates.
  • Reference number. The unique reference number required to order a certificate from the local register office.

The registers in local Registration Districts in both England and Wales are the primary registration information of births marriages and deaths. Research has shown that the national index contains many errors and omissions. The indexation of primary records is based on year of event unlike the national index which is compiled from quarterly returns and is therefore more likely to locate the event you seek.

3. The Genealogist website has indexed and posted online most of the births, marriages and deaths throughout the country. The indexes provide the same information as listed above.

4. Ancestry.co.uk, a paid subscription site, has all the civil registration indexes available online from 1837 to 2010. This site is available for free in the Family History Library and Regional Centers; also available at many public libraries, university/college and many family history society search rooms.

5. WorldVitalRecords.com, a paid subscription site, has all of these indexes available online also. This site is available for free in the Family History Library and Family History Centers. Births: 1837-1983; Marriages: 1837-1983; Deaths: 1837-1983.

Registration Districts

Places in the index are registration districts, which are usually not the same as the actual place of birth. In rural areas many villages and parishes are included in one district. Large cities have many districts.

The following sources will help identify the district that served the place where your ancestors lived:

The Imperial Gazetteer, included on the Vision of Britain web site, gives parishes and their civil districts. (See England Gazetteers.) Genuki.org.uk also provides of list of Registration Districts.

Population Tables are available for each census year. They give the population for the various localities and are arranged by county, district, and parish. The indexes to these tables are very helpful because they give the district for each place listed. District boundaries changed over time, so it is helpful to refer to these indexes. The Family History Library call numbers for the indexes are as follows:

The following work contains nineteenth century maps and lists of districts:

  • A Guide to the Arrangement of the Registration Districts Listed in the Indexes to the Civil Registration of England and Wales. Second Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Family History Library, 1977. (Family History Library book 942 V2icr 1977; film 990269 items 4–5; fiche 6020287)

The Family History Library has copies of the indexes. Go to the Family History Library Catalog to find the film of fiche numbers for each year of birth, death or marriage.

  1. Go to the library catalog.
  2. Click Place Search.
  3. Type England and click Search.
  4. Click England in the list of results.
  5. Click the topic of Civil Registration-Indexes.
  6. Click one of the following titles:
    1. Index to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, 1837-1980. This set is on microfilm.
    2. Index to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, 1837-1983. This set is on microfiche.
  7. Click View Film Notes to see the film and fiche numbers.

Superintendent Registrars

If you know the registration district, you may wish to order a certificate from the superintendent registrar, since search policies are often more liberal and mail order requests less expensive than through the General Register Office (GRO). The GRO index reference numbers do not help the superintendent registrar locate records in his or her district. Registrars usually will not search marriage records because marriage registration procedures are so complex.

Addresses for superintendent registrars’ are found in:

  • The Official List of Registration Offices. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1993. (FHL book Q 942 X4g 1993.)
  • District Register Offices in England and Wales. Fourth Edition. Yorkshire, England: East Yorkshire Family History Society, 1989. (Family History Library book 942 E4ew 1989.)

Addresses for the superintendent registrars can also be found on the Internet through the GENUKI Web site at:

Keep in mind that over time district boundaries have changed, and some districts have been abolished.

Records at the Family History Library

The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the civil registration indexes of all births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales from 1837 through 1980. A microfiche copy of the indexes covering 1837–1983 is also available. The library does not have any actual civil registration certificates. However, under the section above, "Information Recorded in Civil Registers", note that post-1837 church marriages are an exact replica of the civil certificates of marriage. Thus the library has microfilms of church baptisms, marriages, or burial records for the same time period for many areas.

To locate the Indexes with their microfilm and microfiche numbers, type in ENGLAND in the 'Place Search' of the Family History Library Catalog and search the topic 'Civil Registration - Indexes'. Here's a link to catalog entry for the Civil Registration Indexes of Birth, marriages and deaths for England and Wales.

They are also listed in the following book:

  • England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes on Microfiche and Microfilm. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1997. (Family History Library book 942 V2ic 1997).

Family History Library Training Online

Hands on keyboard.png Genealogy courses: Learn how to research from an expert in Civil Registration and Beyond.


The Family History Library is now offering an online series of five lessons on genealogical research in England entitled "England Beginning Research." This video series includes one lesson on Civil Registration and is available for anyone to view at their own computer. These lessons are available on www.familysearch.org. On the home page, click on 'Library' and select 'Education'. There are no registration or password requirements for viewing these lessons.


 

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