England Civil Registration

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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.
  • 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.
  • 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 General.
Wikipedia
Wikipedia has more about this subject: General Register Office
One problem with England Civil Registration is non-universal coverage. 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.

It is thus important to realize the two distinct types of Civil Registration that are referred to throughout this article:

  • Indexes are the alphabetical lists of birth, marriages and deaths drawn up by the General Register Office(GRO) for each quarter.
  • Certificates refer to the original documents that recorded the information. You need to have the index entry for a record to be able to find the certificate.

Civil Registration: Overseas and Military

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
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:

- Registers and Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Protectorates (RG36) - 1895-1965
- Indexes to all the above "Miscellaneous" series from 1826-1945 are found in RG43

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.

Stillbirths

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.

Adoptions

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.)
Abandoned Children

Since 1977 the births of abandoned babies, whose parentage is unknown have been recorded in the Abandoned Children Register. Before this, these births were registered at the register office in the district where the child was found. 

Application for certificates can be made in writing to:

General Register Office, Adoptions,

Trafalgar Road, Southport, PR8 2HH.

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

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.

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
Websites for Online Searching

The Family History Library has:

To learn more about divorce records, visit the following Websites.

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.

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, these indexes cover 1854-1890.

Finding England Civil Registration Records

Locating England Civil Registration Records is a two-step process:

  1. Find the GRO Index Entry
  2. Order the Certificate

Indexes

There are two forms of the GRO Index:

GRO Searchable Index. For free, anyone can register at the site of the GRO, and search the indexes for Births and Deaths only. These indexes contain the names of the people involved, but not parents or spouses, as well as Age of the deceased (Death Records) and Maiden Name of the Mother (Birth Records)

Traditional Indexes. Alphabetically-arranged indexes were created by the GRO at the end of each quarter, for births, marriages and deaths. images and searchable Indexes of these appear on several sites. Coverage may not be 100%. Maiden name of Mothers are not included before 1911.

  • FreeBMD. An ongoing project, accessible for free. A useful feature for marriages lists all the possible spouses.
  • UKBMD website lists many local BMD websites (e.g. LancashireBMD). Some of these sites may include more information than FreeBMD, including Mother's Maiden Name before 1911.
  • The Genealogist website , FindmypastAncestry.co.uk, WorldVitalRecords.com All these subscription sites also include the GRO Indexes. There may be value in searching multiple sites, due to occasional mis-transcriptions.

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.

Ordering Certificates Online

Tip for Marriages: If your ancestors married in the Anglican church after 1837, there is no need to pay £9.25, as the Church marriage register will be an exact duplicate of the civil marriages.

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, telephone or post. The quickest 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 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, 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

You can download an application form via GOV.UK

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

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 and UKBMD.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 FamilySearch 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.