British Births, Marriages and Deaths Overseas
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Why people go from one place to another if often an unanswered question for the genealogist. In the years 1637-9, however, we know, because those who left the port of Great Yarmouth in this period were asked why they were going to Holland.
Many said they were going to see relatives or friends or intended to stay. Others sought work, to work at their trade ‘until trade be better at home’, to live as servants, to collect debts, to buy commodities or to improve their skills. The latter included several surgeons as well as weavers, carpenters and other trades. Some went to buy goods, ‘strong waters’, pewter ware, earthen vessels; a gardener went to buy seeds at Leyden. Others travelled to see the country, three to learn the language and Mary Cossey went ‘to seek a remedy for her infirmity and to return as soon as it shall please God to give her better health’ [Norfolk Record Society, volume 25 (1954)].
In later years others went to escape imprisonment for debt; to live more cheaply at Calais, Boulogne, Paris or Brussels; to evade English laws after 1754 by marrying in France or Denmark; to improve their health at Nice, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, Naples or Lisbon; to teach trades or to act as schoolteachers or governesses. At all times there were thousands of traders, mariners and soldiers who went overseas and who sometimes married, had children, were imprisoned or died there.
There are three main groups of records of births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials, relating to British persons overseas and all three contain some records of events at sea. They are:
- The entries and registers sent to the Bishop of London through church or ecclesiastical channels, and now open to public search at the London Metropolitan Archives. They are not collectively indexed in any way though some registers, as described below, have their own indexes.
- The entries and registers deposited with the Registrar General in London for safe keeping on a voluntary basis, and now open to public search at The National Archives. Those in the record groups RG32-36 are indexed on the subscription website http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk.
- The entries sent annually to the Registrar General in London as a result of British legislation, many recorded by consuls and service chaplains abroad. They remain with the Registrar General, from whom certified copies are available on payment of fees, but (as mentioned below) duplicates of some may be found at The National Archives. The indexes (except for the Indian Service Deaths) have been published on microfiche and are (except for the un-indexed Army marriages and death/burials) included in the subscription website http://www.findmypast.co.uk.
The situation is thus complicated and unsatisfactory, with different returns at the London Metropolitan Archives, The National Archives and the General Register Office. The three series overlap and sometimes duplicate each other. In cases of difficulty all three series should undoubtedly be searched. Because of the close-knit nature of many of the communities there may be advantages in searching the registers themselves when these are available and not relying on the indexes.
- 1 Returns from Anglican Chaplains Overseas
- 2 The Non-Statutory Returns
- 2.1 Foreign Registers and Returns 1627-1958 (RG33/1-162)
- 2.2 Foreign Deaths 1830-1921 (RG35/1-44)
- 2.3 Military Deaths 1914-21 (RG35/45-49)
- 2.4 Foreign Marriages 1826-1920 (RG34/1-9)
- 2.5 Foreign Births 1831-1920 (RG32/1-5)
- 2.6 Foreign Returns 1921-1964 (RG32/6-51)
- 2.7 Protectorates in Africa and Asia 1895-1950 (RG36/1-15)
- 2.8 Indexes (RG43/1-21)
- 3 Statutory Returns
- 4 Scotland and Ireland
- 5 Newspapers
- 6 At Sea
- 7 Monumental Inscriptions
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 Acknowledgment
Returns from Anglican Chaplains Overseas
The returns of baptism, marriage and burial sent to England from the settlements formed by early migrants, particularly in Europe, parallel to some extent the yearly Bishops Transcripts sent by rectors and vicars to their diocesan registries in England and Wales, though there was never any regular or comprehensive return of such entries.
Anglican clergy overseas were licensed by the Bishop of London and when they sent details of the events at which they had officiated to England, these were usually sent to him. He claimed a spiritual jurisdiction over Englishmen abroad, a claim probably based on an Order in Council of 1633 which gave him authority over the Company of Merchant Adventurers in Delft and Hamburg ‘in all things concerning their church government’.
Where there were bishops in the colonies themselves, however, as in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, no returns were sent to England, and this was so (except for a very few isolated entries) for New England and the West Indies, where the jurisdiction of English bishops was generally resisted. From India, however, between 1698 and 1968 returns were made by the chaplains at the various factories or stations, not to the Bishop of London but to the East India Company (and are now at the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections, 96 Euston Road, St Pancras, London NW1 2DB). Similarly from the Levant, copies of registers at Aleppo in Syria, as mentioned below, were sent to the Levant Company.
Early Anglican Churches Overseas
Anglican churches were founded in various parts of Europe from the 17th century onwards. Before that Anglican visitors from England could only attend the very few Protestant churches that were available in the more tolerant countries. In Roman Catholic countries with little or no toleration, as in Italy, Spain or Portugal, the position of Protestants was no better than it was for Catholics in England and Wales. Burial was a particular problem, burial of non-Catholics not being possible in Catholic consecrated ground.
The needs of foreign trading settlements in these countries had, though, to be met, and the first churches and burials grounds are found in the cosmopolitan towns where there was greater toleration of the strange ways of foreigners.
The trading agreement between Oliver Cromwell and the King of Portugal in 1654, for instance, provided ‘that there shall be a place in Lisbon for the English to bury their dead’, though no registers survive from that period. The present cemetery, a joint British-Dutch project, was not opened until 1717. There is a gap in its registers in the 1750s and no record of the burial of the 78 British people who died in the great earthquake of 1755. In the 18th century many people went to Lisbon for medical reasons and so many burials and inscriptions relate to people not connected with the trading factory.
A cemetery was also opened at Oporto in 1717, where previously burials had taken place in a piece of land set aside for ‘Heretics and Infidels’ in Vila Nova da Gaio on the other side of the river Douro. During the worst times of the Inquisition non-Catholics were buried secretly, at low tide, on the river bank, when no service was taken and no record kept. That must often have been the case in other countries.
When the Duke of Gloucester’s son was born at Rome in 1776 his birth was registered at Leghorn (or Livorno), the only Protestant Chapel in Italy, a chaplaincy having been established there in 1707. It became a flourishing port, second only to Genoa, after Ferdinand de’ Medici proclaimed religious liberty there at the end of the 16th century. It attracted exiles from all over Europe and the East, including many Catholics from England. The old Anglican cemetery, where Tobias Smollett was buried in 1771, closed in 1839 but survives in the centre of town.
In Spain efforts to open a Protestant burial ground were widely opposed. In the mid-18th century there was a ground at Bilbao for the large, shifting population of entrepreneurs, traders and seafarers, but it does not seem to have survived (there are no known registers for Bilbao prior to 1855). No other cemetery was permitted until that opened by the consul at Malaga in 1830, another place with a large shifting population of British merchants and seafarers. Land had been bought for a cemetery at Madrid in 1797, but there was much opposition to its use, mainly from the privately owned burial grounds in the city. The land was sold and another site was not found and agreed until 1854; even then it was not consecrated until 1866. To the last moment the Catholic authorities in Spain sought to forbid any pop and publicity at the funerals or any public or private worship at the gravesides, ideas, as Lord Palmerstone firmly wrote, ‘inconsistent with the liberal spirit of the age’.
There was not much ‘liberal spirit’ in the Moslem countries at the other end of the Mediterranean. The situation at Jedda (Jidda) now in Saudi Arabia, was reminiscent of that in Oporto and, prior to 1820, Christians were ‘obliged to bury their dead at sea, or in one of the numerous sandbanks that intersect the harbour’.
At Aleppo, in what is now Syria, however, the Levant Company early gained special privileges and was able to open a cemetery in 1584, a date recorded on a stone over the entrance. The first inscription is for 1653 and the registers, which found their way into the State Papers Foreign at The National Archives, begin in 1616.
Another settlement in a Moslem country was that at Alexandretta or Iskanderon, now in Turkey, where the inscriptions begin in 1677. ‘Scanderoon’ was notorious for plague, fever and the local wine. In the 1780s, Constantin Volney described the factors as having, ‘a languid air, yellow complexions, livid eyes and dropsical bellies’. The tombs in the cemetery, he said, were more numerous than the houses in the little town.
In other countries there were difficulties stemming not from religious but racial differences. With the opening up of Japan in 1859 many Europeans, mainly British, arrived, but until 1874 the Japanese steadfastly refused to allow any men to marry Japanese women and until 1984 the children of such unions were forced to take their father’s nationality. As late as 1872, half-breed children, of which there were undoubtedly many, were liable to be buried alive beneath the foundations of bridges to ensure strength and success in the structures. If you have an ancestor who was with the East Devonshire Regiment or the Royal Marines stationed in Yokohama between 1863 and 1875 and who is recorded for a period as having been absent without leave, you may have a relation propping up a bridge somewhere!
In France there was originally greater tolerance and the keeping of registers by native Protestant congregations commenced in 1559. They had complete toleration after the Edict of Nantes in 1598 and their registers contain many references to English, Scottish and Irish families resident in France. Such entries practically ceased, however, with the Revocation of the Edict in 1685 and very few Protestant registers were kept again in France until the middle of the 18th century, they becoming more general in 1787 when civil marriages before justices were allowed.
In Belgium there are no Protestant registers before those started by the native congregations at Ypres and Mons in 1713.
In the Protestant countries of northern Europe the situation was a good deal better and several early congregations built their own churches. The earliest existing registers are those of the English church at Hamburg, which commence in 1617 and are now in the Staatsarchiv at Hamburg. There was a church at Flushing as early as 1593, but the registers were destroyed by fire in 1809. In spite of the 1633 ordinance, no registers from Hamburg or Flushing were sent back to England. The registers of the English church at The Hague, which commenced in 1627, were returned not to the Bishop of London but to the Registrar General.
In Russia the Muscovy or Russia Company obtained many trading privileges in the 16th century but then declined. It began registers of baptisms, marriage and burial at Moscow in 1706 and these were taken to St Petersburg and used there. Following the destruction of Moscow in 1812 they were brought to London in 1816. There was a surprising amount of toleration in Russia, and when Augustus Granville walked down the Nevski Prospekt in St Petersburg in the 1820s he remarked on its seven churches, dedicated to as many different forms of religion.
With the increase in the number of people travelling abroad after the fall of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, a clear need for some mechanism to provide certified copies of overseas events, particularly marriages, became apparent.
The Bishop of London was persuaded, it seems by the Chancellor of his diocese, the maritime lawyer Lord Stowell, that the job was his, and in 1816 his Deputy Registrar inserted a notice in The London Gazette, The Times and The Chronicle that, ‘The Lord Bishop of London having been applied to in numerous instances to permit the Foreign Marriages Births and Burials of British Subjects to be recorded in his Registry at No 3 Godliman Street Doctors Commons has permitted a book to be kept therein in which the memorials of the same may be entered and preserved at the request of such persons as are desirous thereof’. A fee of £1 sterling was charged for each registration and this sadly meant that the majority of events of poorer people would not be returned to England.
However, many returns came, mostly through diplomatic channels from Anglican chaplains at embassies abroad, though some were sent by clergymen travelling overseas or on board ship. Sometimes the chaplains ‘appeared personally and made oath’ as when the chaplain to the Duke of Wellington came in 1822 to give details of a marriage at Paris in 1815. The original documents were numbered, copied into large volumes, and filed. The system continued to 1924 and resulted in 13 well written and carefully indexed volumes, called the International Memoranda.
The majority of the entries are marriages, particularly in the later years, indexed under both surnames, but there are a considerable number of baptisms and, before 1892 (when the system began to decline), some burials. Most of the events took place in Europe but there are strays from all over the world including some baptisms, 1860-1921, and burials at sea. There is an analysis of the places and years covered in The British Overseas (Guildhall Library Research Guide 2, 3rd ed. 1994).
Many registrations were made up to five years after the events recorded. Some, indeed, had taken place thirty years earlier, and so, although the first entry registered was a marriage at the British Embassy at Brussels on 6 April 1815, the first event recorded is a baptism in Brazil in 1788. These entries, of course, appear in the indexes much later than one would expect.
The International Memoranda (formerly at the Guildhall Library) are now at the London Metropolitan Archives, the first ten volumes, 1816-78, being available only on microfilm, but the indexes (MS 10926C/1-2) are on the open shelves. The volumes and indexes, 1816-70, only have been microfilmed by FamilySearch [FHL microfilm 563020 etc].
Following the start of the International Memoranda in 1816, some earlier registers were also deposited at the Bishop of London’s Registry for safekeeping.
The most important of these were the registers of the British factories at Lisbon 1721-1807 and Oporto 1717-1865 in Portugal, and the first composite volume from the Russia Company with entries at Moscow, Archangel and St Petersburg 1706-27 and the registers of St Petersburg from 1737 onwards, deposited in 1816.
Other early registers deposited were those of the Anglican church at Ostend 1784-94, the Chaplain to the Forces at the Cape of Good Hope 1795-1803 and a chaplain’s rough entry book for Gibraltar 1807-12.
All these records were kept in a bad state at the Bishop of London’s Registry, latterly in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, and for many years were inaccessible. In 1955, Canon G.F. Johnson, British Chaplain at Oporto, made enquiries about one of his registers which had been deposited by the Consul, but wrote that he had ‘given up the quest as hopeless’. Two years later, when inquiring about families at Aleppo, Anthony Camp had a similar experience.
As the Bishop himself lived at Fulham Palace, rumours circulated that there were also registers there, though as early as 1898 his chaplain at Fulham wrote to the Registrar (a letter which the latter pasted into the International Memoranda) firmly denying that there were any foreign or colonial registers at Fulham Palace and, in particular, no registers for New England.
A list of registers said to have been in the Bishop’s Registry was printed in Abstracts of Arrangements Respecting Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths (HMSO, 1952) but when, in the 1960s, the whole collection was transferred to the Guildhall Library, many could not be found. Some of the places for which entries were said to have existed may be covered by registrations in the International Memoranda, but others fall outside the period 1816-1924 and have never been found or properly accounted for.
Since the 1960s many further deposits have been made through the Bishop of London to the Guildhall Library and are now at the London Metropolitan Archives. Most relate to the late 19th and 20th centuries but there are some registers from about 1820. They are listed by country and town in The British Overseas but they are not in any way centrally indexed.
Diocese of Gibraltar
The creation of the Diocese of Gibraltar in 1842, with a jurisdiction throughout southern Europe and the Mediterranean, did not affect these arrangements, but between 1921 and 1969 the Bishop of Gibraltar himself recorded some entries from Algeria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Yugoslavia, and at sea, in a miscellaneous memorandum book. This is also at the London Metropolitan Archives (MS 23607) with an index on the open shelves (MS 23607A). For events in Gibraltar itself, where the civilian registers commence in 1696 and the military ones in 1769, one has to make application in Gibraltar.
However, in 1996 the Guildhall Library received the main Anglican registers which had been kept at Valletta, Malta, since 1809. These are now at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Copies of several, by the late Mr Kirkpatrick, are at the Society of Genealogists. Malta had surrendered to the British in 1800 and registers for the intervening period were kept by the Military chaplains. Lady Verney copied and Anthony Camp typed and indexed them for the Society. Nevertheless, the Military chaplains on Malta kept quite separate registers of marriages at the Garrison Chapel and three of these, 1812-78, were sent to the Registrar General in the 19th century and are now inaccessible. Archdeacon Hardy’s copies, 1801-92, of these are at Lambeth Palace Library and the entries before 1870 are included in Mr Kirkpatrick’s copies.
A few chaplains sent returns of baptisms and burials at sea to the Bishop of London, 1894-1961, and these have also been deposited at the LMA. As mentioned above, some marriages on ships, 1842-79, were entered in the International Memoranda and the original certificates for these can be seen on microfilm at The National Archives. In 1948, just to complicate the picture still further, the Chaplain to the Fleet gave a register of baptisms on board ships off Malta, 1933-8, to the church of St Dunstan, Stepney, and that is now at the London Metropolitan Archives.
The Non-Statutory Returns
Following the creation of the General Register Office in London in 1837, a great number of miscellaneous records of births, baptisms, marriage, deaths and burials outside the United Kingdom and on British and foreign ships, of British subjects, nationals of the colonies and Commonwealth and of countries under British jurisdiction, were collected there unofficially. They were not deposited as the result of any Act of Parliament and they were consequently called the Non-Statutory Returns (in distinction to the Statutory Returns, described below, that were also collected by the same Office). The Non-Statutory Returns were transferred to The National Archives in 1977.
They overlap and in some cases duplicate material to be found in the Statutory Returns (described below), in the War and Foreign Office records at The National Archives, and in the records of the Bishop of London at the London Metropolitan Archives (described above) but they provide a useful alternative and sometimes an important additional source of information.
There are six basic groups with typescript indexes: registers from specific places 1627-1958; foreign deaths 1831-1920; foreign marriages 1826-1920; foreign births 1831-1920; foreign births, marriages and deaths mixed 1921-64; and events in Protectorates 1895-1950. In the details B stands for births or baptisms, M for marriages and D for deaths or burials.
Foreign Registers and Returns 1627-1958 (RG33/1-162)
The group of registers and returns which relate to specific places is as follows:
Belgium: Antwerp BD 1817-52 (RG33/1), M 1820-49 (RG33/2); Brussels, British Legation, M 1816-90 (RG33/3-8); Ghent M 1849-50 (RG3/9, includes list of ships in port 1849).
Burma: Rangoon M 1929-46 mostly at Scots Kirk (RG33/10).
China: Hong Kong D 1941-5, many killed in action (RG33/11); Shanghai M 1852-1951 (RG33/12-32); Shantung Province M 1912-42 (RG33/33); Wei Hai Wei BMD 1899-1930 (RG33/34, indexed in RG43/19).
Denmark: Copenhagen M 1853-74 (RG33/35).
England, Lundy Island: B 1865-9 (RG33/36, there is one death in RG 35/20). Lundy Island was accidentally omitted from the 1837 registration legislation.
France: Boulogne Episcopal Church BD 1815-96 (RG33/37-41), M 1829-95 (RG33/42-44); Boulogne Upper Town Chapel BMD 1831-36 (RG33/45), B 1843-69 (RG33/46), D 1843-67 (RG33/47), M 1846-68 (RG33/48), index to RG33/37-48 in RG 33/161; Calais and St Omer B 1817-47 (RG33/50); Calais B 1839-78 (RG33/51), D 1819-47 (RG33/52), D 1840-1878 (RG33/53), M 1818-72 (RG33/54-5), index to RG33/50-55 in RG33/49; Havre BMD 1817-63 (RG33/56-7); Paris, British Embassy, BMD 1784-89 (RG33/58), BMD 1801-9 (RG33/59), BMD 1815-1890 (RG33/60-77), in 1828 the Chaplain wrote (RG33/65) that he did not marry English women to French men unless they were already married under French law as it left the woman unprotected, the marriage not being recognised in France, and this was approved; Rouen B 1843-4 (RG33/78, these baptisms at Rouen, which relate to births from 1818 onwards, mainly concern families involved in building railways).
Germany: Dresden BMD 1817-36 (RG33/79), BD 1859-66 (RG33/80); Hanover B 1838-59, M 1844-58, D 1845-58 (RG33/81), this item is an informal register with 87 entries kept by the Revd C.A. Wilkinson, domestic chaplain to the King of Hanover, including lists of communicants 1843-51, which he left at the British Legation in Hanover and which was sent to the Foreign Office; when in 1866 he applied for permission to copy it he commented, ‘The Register was not sent regularly to the Bishop of London’s office on account of the exorbitant charge of one guinea for each entry which the parties in general, either servants or mechanics, were always unwilling and sometimes unable to pay’, but was told, ‘As it appears from your letter that the registers kept by you were not regularly sent to this country Lord Stanley does not feel justified in incurring the responsibility of surrendering to your private care a book which may contain the only existing certificates with regard to the birth, deaths and marriages of certain British subjects’, and it was sent to the Registrar General. Wilkinson had wanted a copy of the baptismal entry of George Poulson, son of a page to the King, ‘in order to set up business in Hanover’.
Greece: Zante BMD 1849-59 (RG33/82).
Holland: The Hague, English Church, BM 1627-1688 (RG33/83), BM 1677-1821 (RG33/84), M 1819-37 (RG33/85), B 1837-39 and 1859-94 (RG33/86), M 1838-1889 (RG33/87), D 1859-1907 (RG33/88); Rotterdam, St Mary’s Episcopal Church, BM 1708-1794 (RG33/89).
India: Bikaner BD 1940-1 (RG33/90-1); East Rajputana BD 1940-3 (RG33/92-4); Gwalio BD 1935-47 (RG33/95-6); Hyderabad BD 1932-47 (RG33/97-9); Jaipur BD 1926-44 (RG33/100-2); Jammu and Kashmir State B 1917-47 (RG33/157); Srinagar D 1926-47 (RG33/159); Madras State BD 1931-47 (RG33/103-5); Mysore 1906-47 (RG33/106-8); Punjab State 1928-37 (RG33/109); Kulhapur and Deccan States B 1930-46 (RG33/158); Udaipur, Rajputana B 1938-47 (RG33/160); Various states BD 1894 and 1915-47 (RG33/110-13). RG33/90-113 are indexed in RG43/15.
Italy: Florence M 1840-55 (RG33/114), M 1865-71 (RG33/115); Leghorn BMD 1707-1824 (RG33/116-7); Naples BMD 1817-22 (RG33/118); Rome M 1872-89 (RG33/119); Turin M 1858-64 (RG33/120); Venice M 1874-1947 (RG33/121).
Japan: Kobe B 1874-1941, M 1876-1940, D 1902-41 (RG33/122-6); Osaka M 1892-1904 (RG33/127-30).
Malaya: Federation B 1920-48 (RG33/131); Borneo and Sarawak D 1941-5, many killed in action (RG33/132).
Mesopotamia (Iraq): BMD 1915-31 (RG33/133-7, indexed in RG 43/16).
Mexico: Vera Cruz BD 1858-67 (RG33/140).
Palestine: BD 1920-35 (RG33/141, indexed in RG 43/17).
Portugal: Oporto BMD 1814-74 (RG33/142).
Roumania (Lower Danube): M 1868-1914 (RG33/143).
Russia: St Petersburg, British and American Congregational Church, Alexandroffsky, B 1885-95, M 1888-95, D 1886-1895 (RG33/144, the entries do not begin in 1840 as stated), M 1844-1888 (RG33/145), BMD 1858-85 (RG33/146), B (mostly at home) 1872-89 (RG33/147), B 1886-1917, M 1886-1916, D 1886-1918 (RG33/148-152, indexed in RG 33/162). In 1906 the minister, James Key, wrote that his declining congregation had originally consisted mainly of workers at an American firm which provided rolling stock for the Moscow railway: recently under the cry of ‘Russia for the Russians’ overseas employees had been dismissed.
Sweden: Gothenburg M 1845-91 (RG33/153, in it is a note ‘The previous Register is deposited in the same Box with the Communion Plate’; registers from 1774 are now with the Landsarkivet at Gothenburg).
Turkey: Istanbul: All Saints, Kadikeuy, M 1885-1958 (RG33/154).
Various countries: BMD 1809-53 (RG33/155). This volume contains entries sent by Consuls to the Foreign Office from Antwerp 1831-42; Bahia and Rio de Janeiro 1809-44; Bogota and Carthagena M 1824-7; Peru 1827-41; Oporto BMD 1833 and Ponta Delgada (Azores) 1835-7; Honolulu M 1850-3; Havana M 1842-9; Naples 1835-6 and Palermo 1839; Smyrna BMD 1833-49; Venezuela M 1836-8; Brest B 1842 and Riga B 1853. Most entries are for Antwerp and Smyrna, but the earliest is the marriage at Rio de Janeiro of James Williams of Islington to Elizabeth Dale, conducted by Sir James Gambier, Consul General, in 1809. The legality of such marriages in Brazil itself was questioned in 1824. The Consul in Peru stressed in 1837 that the registration of deaths with him was only voluntary ‘and has not hitherto been much resorted to’.
HM Ships: M 1842-89 (RG33/156). A voluntary registration of births, marriages and deaths overseas, set up by the Bishop of London in 1816 (see below), had included Anglican marriages on ships. In 1880 questions arose about the registration of Catholic and Presbyterian marriages and it was agreed that details of future marriages on ships should be sent to the Registrar General. The existing certificates 1842-80 were then handed over and, with a few of later date, form this group, indexed at its start. The first entry is a marriage on HM Brig Water Witch at St Helena in 1842, but it was sent without the bishop’s fee; the regulations about fees had been sent to the Naval Commanders in Chief but had not reached St Helena in time. In 1880 the Registrar General improved the form, but again news took time to circulate and in 1885 the captain of HMS Swiftsure at Sandy Point wrote saying ‘no printed form procurable’.
Foreign Deaths 1830-1921 (RG35/1-44)
Large numbers of individual certificates relating to deaths and burials of British subjects overseas and on board ships were collected. The deaths of some nationals of colonies and foreigners in places under British jurisdiction, for example Greeks from the Ionian Islands who died in Russia, are included. The entries came (often without clear reason or system) from British Embassies, incumbents, chaplains and burial authorities as well as from foreign embassies, legations and registration authorities, sometimes when acting on Britain’s behalf in time of war.
There are separate series for Belgium 1830-71 (RG35/1-3), Denmark and its colonies 1842-72 (RG35/4-7), France 1831-1871 (RG35/8-13) and its colonies 1836-71 (RG35/14-16), the Netherlands and its colonies 1839-71 (RG35/17) and Russia 1835-70 (RG35/18-19). These Russian entries include deaths of sailors and marines in hospitals in the Crimean War as well as burials ashore by the chaplain of HMS Furious. Many entries from Russia include valuations or inventories of the goods left by the deceased (in Russian), and the names of their next of kin. A few certificates have original passports attached and several include mariners’ register tickets. The inventories are not translated but the actual certificates are usually also given in French.
For example, the passport of Mary Anne Quinton who died in Russia in 1855 is included, and there is an inventory of the goods of Anne Marie Evans from Gloucester who died of malaria at Kalouga in 1851. When Elizabeth Leake died in Russia in 1845 an agreement made out by John Leake of Limehouse, plumber, to teach plumbing and the casting of lead pipes in Russia for three years from 1836, was attached to the certificate. When John Herald died at Belgorod in 1860 his effects were searched and the title page of a Spelling Dictionary was sent to England to help identify his place of origin, it having written on its back, ‘John Herald, Near Bury St Edmunds, 1795, Gardener and farmer for Honble Lord Calthorpe in the Village [of] Ampton’. In most cases there is something about the deceased’s place of origin as when Hugh Adams an 18-year-old sailor drowned in the Dwina in 1861 is said to be from Belfast. When Denis Shepley, engineer, a native of Bolton, died at Moscow in 1848, the record says that his widow Anne and children Thomas, James and Fanny were returning to England with a passport.
Various Countries, 1831-1920 (RG35/20-44). This is a mixed bag of deaths from a very wide group of ‘Various Countries’ ranging from the Falkland Islands and Egypt to the Gold Coast and Sweden, and including additional entries from the places already mentioned. Included is a run of burials in the British Cemetery at Rio de Janeiro from 1850 to at least 1873.
Captain Charles Frederick Sorrell, on leave from his regiment at Hyderabad, died at an inn in Austria in 1847. There are long statements about the decline in his health, details of his mother and two sisters, and about his belongings. The Chaplain at the General Cemetery at Northampton sent a burial certificate for Sir James Brown Gibson whose body had been brought from Rome in 1868 saying, ‘death having taken place abroad cannot be registered’.
The diverse nature of the collection is illustrated by RG35/21 which starts with a large number of certificates of Maltese dying in Algerian Military Hospitals in 1871, and has entries from the usual run of countries including some from ships and others from the French colonies of Guadaloupe, Reunion, Saigon and Senegal. In RG35/30 is Francis George Raikes, 3rd Officer of the Belgian ship SS Kepler, born at Hilton, Dorset, in 1867, who died in the harbour at Rio de Janeiro in 1889. In RG 35/44 there is a list of deaths in Hawaii 1916-20 showing cause of death, birthplace and parentage; entries from the chaplain at Baku 1916-17; lists of prisoners who died in Turkey 1915-16; and burials at Mhow Cemetery, Central India, 1917-19. In RG35/45 for 1916-20, amongst other series, are some deaths in Belgian hospitals and of prisoners of war, and many from the Belgian Congo. The Spanish Embassy at Vienna sent the death certificate of Alice Edith Pratt, who died at Budapest in Hungary in 1916 (and was born at Sprattshaye, Devon, in 1852) to the Spanish Legation at Berne for forwarding to the Foreign Office.
Military Deaths 1914-21 (RG35/45-49)
One of the most interesting parts of the this group of death records is the collection of original certificates sent from various authorities in France and Belgium of British soldiers and officers and a few civilians, mostly (but not all) dying outside the main theatres of war, in military hospitals and ambulances, and as internees or prisoners of war, during the First World War. A very few relate to Australians and Canadians.
The certificate, which were mostly issued by (and are in the language of) the registration authorities in the two countries themselves, usually show regimental details and age, but often only give the initial of the first forename. Occasionally, date and place of birth, names of parents, wife, and usual place of residence are included. Very occasionally, a place of burial is given or the cause of death of a prisoner of war.
For example, 4663 J Gardner, 9th Lancers, had died on a train arriving at Chartres Station at 7 am on 20 September 1914. G.W. Gehlea, 307 Military Police, was found dead in a canal at Harfleur in 1918. James Gemmel, born at Killington, England, died a prisoner of war, at Tourcoing, in 1917, no other details being known. There are many from Tourcoing and a great number from the ‘ambulance militaire de la rue Faidherbe, Bethune’.
These certificates are in alphabetical order and are not included in the typescript indexes; they are however indexed on http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$). There are four reels of film. The certificates are in two sequences: surnames beginning G, I-O, R-V (RG35/45-47) are followed by A-B, D-E, H, W and Y-Z (RG35/58-69). Initial letters C, F, P, Q and X are missing. Some older lists incorrectly said that the second sequence was also missing. There are further such entries in the series of Foreign Deaths mentioned above.
Foreign Marriages 1826-1920 (RG34/1-9)
As with the death entries, the diverse origin of these certificates is very apparent. There is a key at The National Archives to the countries represented in each volume. A few examples from the first volume illustrate their nature.
Alfred John Palmer of London and Caroline Constance Cottrell, daughter of the late William Cottrell and Anne his wife, both members of the Equestrian Circus, were married at Dresden in 1854. However, Pringle Wollen sent in a copy of his marriage at Dresden in 1857, he having found on enquiry that neither his marriage nor that of his brother was on file. Christopher Tatham and his wife, from Clapham Park, in 1897 sent in statements sworn before the Lord Mayor of London in 1877, about their marriage and family events in Ceylon and about their ancestry, ‘to establish our connection with England’.
Foreign Births 1831-1920 (RG32/1-5)
Although catalogued as mixed ‘Foreign Returns’ at The National Archives, this is a collection of births or baptismal entries of the same nature as those for deaths and marriages described above (though RG32/1 includes eight deaths and six marriages), coming from a wide variety of places. There are, however, far fewer entries, the first, in 1831, being a baptism at Horta on Fayal in the Azores.
Foreign Returns 1921-1964 (RG32/6-51)
In 1921 the three series of births, marriages and deaths were combined into one series which continues to 1964. A few events from the Channel Islands are included. The deaths at the time of the Second World War contain entries very similar to those for the First World War but include some from aircraft lost in flight. The indexes for entries prior to 1945 are listed below: 1946-55 is indexed in RG43/20 and 1956-60 in RG43/21.
Protectorates in Africa and Asia 1895-1950 (RG36/1-15)
The registrations in these volumes relate to events (many registered years later) in Kenya BD 1902-23; Nyasaland BD 1903-23; Somaliland BD 1905-18, M 1915-23; Sudan BMD 1908-23; Uganda BMD 1904-18; Zanzibar BMD 1915-19; Sarawak B 1898-1920, D 1910-23; Straits Settlements B 1915-23; North Borneo B 1923; and Surat (Bombay) B 1923. They are indexed in RG43/18. There are then consolidated volumes of BMD 1924-50 (including events from 1897) which include events from Palestine and Transjordan and with an index to 1965 in RG36/15. The early African volumes contain registrations of the native population as well as of British and other foreign nationals.
There are composite indexes to most of the Non-Statutory records, but where there are two for the same period both should be searched: B 1627-1917 (RG43/1), B 1831-1930 (RG43/2), D 1707-1917 (RG43/3), D 1901-30 (RG43/6), M1627-1925 (RG43/7), M 1826-1915 (RG43/8), M 1916-20 (RG43/9), BMD 1921-5 (RG43/10), BMD 1926-30 (RG43/11), BMD 1931-5 (RG43/12), BMD 1936-40 (RG43/13), BMD 1941-5 (RG43/14). Other indexes to particular series are mentioned above. Many volume numbers were unfortunately changed by the cataloguers at The National Archives and in some instances the shelf lists may need to be consulted to find particular entries. All the entries are now also indexed on the subscription website http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk where the existence of an entry can be checked without registration or charge
These are the returns of birth, marriage and death that came to the Registrar General in London as a result of various Acts of Parliament. They consist mainly of Consular Returns, Regimental Registers, Army Chaplains Returns, War Deaths, a Marine Register and some Miscellaneous Returns. As mentioned above they are all (apart from the Indian Service Deaths) indexed on microfiche available in several major British libraries and (except for the Indian Service Deaths and the un-indexed Army marriages and deaths/burials) on http://www.findmypast.co.uk (£/$).
It is said that Lorenzo Strozzi of Florence was the first person to be appointed to represent British commercial interests overseas, he being named in a patent of Richard III to be consul and president of the English merchants in Italy in 1485. During the course of the 17th and early 18th centuries consuls came to be appointed regularly in several centres of international trade: at Aleppo, Basra, Genoa, Madeira, Oporto, Salonica and Trieste. The consular system, however, mainly developed during and immediately after the wars with revolutionary France in 1790-1815 when many further consulates were established. There are lists of consuls with the dates of their appointments at the back of the annual Foreign Office List.
As is mentioned above, some consuls between 1809 and 1853 and other officials overseas from 1826 onwards, sent to the Foreign Office or to the General Register Office in London for safekeeping, copies of entries of birth or baptism, marriage and death or burial of British subjects, together with some older registers.
From July 1849, however, the Consular Marriages Act gave consuls overseas the right to celebrate civil marriages but they were required to send copies of the entries of these marriages and of others at which they were present, to the Registrar General. The same year the Foreign Office gave formal instructions for consuls to record the births and deaths of British subjects overseas.
These returns are perhaps the most important of the Statutory Returns remaining with the Registrar General. They contain entries from all over the world (but not from the Empire or Commonwealth countries that had their own form of registration), though their exact coverage is unknown and they are certainly not complete. Returns relating to the previous calendar year are received annually in February. There is no public access to the certificates and the same fees as for copies of English and Welsh certificates must be paid.
The indexes, now available only on microfiche, should be consulted with some care. They cover about five years (the actual year of death cannot be determined from them) and were bound into larger volumes in which the divisions were not clearly marked. They show full name, district, and, from 1906, the name of the spouse at marriage and the age at death. From 1966 the entries are included in the three composite series of indexes of ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths Abroad’.
Searchers may be able to avoid the certificate fees on this series by going to The National Archives at Kew. As well as their returns to the Registrar General the consuls retained duplicate copies of their registers, and many (but not all) of these have now been deposited with other consular material at The National Archives, where they are freely available, though the most recent may be subject to the 30 or 50-year closure rules (and the General Register Office index references do not apply).
The embassies and legations overseas tended to keep their records until they were forced by shortage of space to send them to England. For a long time consular records were unwelcome there and prior to 1914 The National Archives refused to accept them ‘on the grounds that they were of no historic value’ and many were destroyed.
There are, however, some registers at Kew from which the entries were not transmitted to the Registrar General (as Neil Pedlar proved when he checked the entries for Yokohama 1870-87 against the indexes at the General Register Office) and undoubtedly there are entries with the Registrar General for which no registers have been sent to Kew. It is best to search in both places, though that can only be done at Kew if the place involved is known. The places for which consular records survive at Kew are given in Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (2002) where the list is more complete than that in The British Overseas. As mentioned above some of these entries may also be found and be freely available in the Non-Statutory Returns and in the International Memoranda and both should also be checked.
Also with the Registrar General are several groups of records relating to the armed forces, for which certificate fees must be paid.
The Regimental Registers 1761-1924 are original entries of births/baptisms, marriages and (far fewer) deaths/burials kept by various regiments and relate to the families of officers and other ranks at home and on foreign stations from 1790. The indexes include the registers of Landguard Fort, Suffolk (1761-1871) and of garrisons at Walmer, Kent (1860-9) and at Weedon, Northamptonshire (1845-79).
The indexes of births/baptisms 1761-1924 show name, station, year and regiment and may lead directly to the regiment of an Army ancestor when this is unknown. There is a large, but easily overlooked, supplementary volume. However, these indexes are not complete and there are no public indexes of the marriages and of deaths/burials. The records are arranged by regiment. There is a card index at the General Register Office but it was described in 1997 as ‘incomplete and deteriorating’ and it is not unknown for official searches at different times to produce differing results. The details produced on certified ‘copies’ may also sometimes vary or be incomplete. A List of Regiments, Corps and Departments from which Records of Marriages, Births and Deaths have been received was published on microfiche by the General Register Office in 1996. There is a summary list of regiments and of dates covered for births and marriages in an Appendix to My ancestor was in the British Army by Michael J. and Christopher T. Watts (Society of Genealogists, 1995).
Army Chaplains’ Returns
The Army Chaplains’ Department was formed in 1796 and records of the baptisms, marriages and burials from stations abroad from that date are also at the General Register Office.
Single index volumes each cover baptisms, marriages and burials 1796-1880. They show name, station and year (sometimes a range of two or three) but not regiment. From 1881 they become ‘Army Returns’ and the indexes are in periods of five years but show the year and, from 1886, the age at death. From 1920 Air Force entries are included. From 1956 to 1965 they are called ‘Service Department Registers’ and include Navy entries but no deaths.
The situation about these records is far from satisfactory. As long ago as 1914 the Royal Commission on Public Records said that, ‘There is reason to believe that this class of military record has neither been preserved nor transmitted with sufficient care’. Not all chaplains overseas returned their registers and even those returned are not completely indexed. A list of some of the garrison and station registers held by the General Register Office appears in My ancestor was in the British Army (mentioned above). These records should undoubtedly be united to the few Army registers of births, marriages and deaths already at Kew and listed in Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office.
Also at the General Register Office are separate series and indexes relating to deaths in Natal and the South African (Boer) War 1899-1902 and of Army and Navy deaths in the two World Wars 1914-21 and 1939-48 (officers and other ranks being indexed separately). There are two series also for Indian Service Deaths 1914-21 and 1939-48. For the Second World War there is an additional series for Deaths in the Royal Air Force 1939-48.
Only a tiny fraction of the certificates in these Regimental Registers, Chaplains’ Returns and War Deaths are duplicated in the Non-Statutory Returns (described above) though their indexes should always be checked. Additional deaths of Army personnel may also be found in the registers of deceased soldiers’ effects 1901-21 (1901-29 for officers) held at the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT, but it is emphasised that these are not indexed in any way.
The Registrar General has certified copies of births and deaths (but not of marriages) occurring on British merchant and naval vessels from 1837 to the present day. From 1875 they include events on vessels carrying passengers to or from any port in the United Kingdom. These ‘Marine Registers’ relate chiefly to British subjects from England and Wales. The indexes 1837-1965 show name and year and, from 1975 the name of the ship involved.
Duplicates of many registers of births 1854-91, marriages 1854-83 and deaths 1854-90 of seamen and passengers on merchant ships, formerly with the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, are now amongst the Board of Trade records at TNA (BT 158-160) where they may be consulted without charge. These registers include events sent to the General Register Offices in Scotland and Ireland (see below) which are not in the English GRO indexes. The records in these years relate mainly to passengers on emigrant ships to North America and Australia. They are indexed, 1854-1908, on http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk.
As mentioned above some marriages of British subjects performed on naval ships by captains or chaplains 1842-79 appear in the International Memoranda, but the original certificates for these may be seen on microfilm at TNA.
Other Statutory Returns at the GRO which are not duplicated elsewhere are the Miscellaneous Foreign Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1956-65 (mostly Gulf States, Singapore, etc.); Births and Deaths (on civil aircraft) in the Air 1947-65; Births in African and Asian Protectorates 1941-65 (partly transferred to TNA); Births, Marriages and Deaths registered by UK High Commissions 1940-65; and a series of registers relating to events in the Ionian Islands 1818-64.
From 1966 onwards index references to all the Statutory Returns now received at the GRO have been combined into a series of ‘Indexes of Births/Marriages/Deaths Abroad’. These indexes are similar to those for events in England and Wales, showing place of registration, with the maiden names of wives in the marriages and of mothers in the births, and ages at death.
Indexes to the Statutory Returns which remain with the GRO (the Consular Returns, Regimental Registers, Army Chaplains’ Returns, War Deaths, Marine Registers, Miscellaneous Returns and Eents Abroad) were first opened to the public in 1977. With the exception of the India Service Deaths for the First World War they were published on microfiche by the GRO in 1995 and are now available in many major libraries.
Scotland and Ireland
Broadly similar Statutory Returns exist also with the Registrars General in Scotland and Ireland for persons originating in those countries or, in the case of marriages, where one of the parties did so.
For Scotland there are, in Edinburgh, Consular Returns (the ‘Foreign Register’) of births, marriages and deaths from 1860 (with additional entries copied from the English returns after 1914); Army Returns of births, marriages and deaths outside the UK from 1881; Army Chaplains’ Returns of Marriages from 1892; War Deaths from 1899 (including Navy Deaths from 1914); a Marine Register of births and deaths from 1855; and an Air Register of births and deaths. These entries are now included in the Scottish online indexes.
For Ireland, at the General Register Office, Dublin, there are consular returns of births, marriages and deaths from 1864; Army Returns of births, marriages and deaths throughout the Commonwealth 1879-1921; and a Marine Register of births and deaths from 1864. All these are indexed in appendixes to the annual (from 1878 quarterly) indexes of births, marriages and death in Ireland. There is a separate index of Deaths in the Boer War 1899-1902.
For Northern Ireland, at the General Register Office, Belfast, are Consular Returns and a Marine Register, both of births and deaths from 1922; and Army births, marriages and deaths from 1923.
In the above complicated circumstances, newspaper entries of birth, marriage and death have an importance that should not be overlooked. The announcements in The Times are particularly useful, but one should not neglect the local newspapers of the countries themselves, copies of many being found at The National Archives as well as at the British Library Newspaper Library. When Palmer’s Index to The Times was printed the editors believed that the Registrar General had ‘a complete Alphabetical List from 1837 of all Births/Marriages/Deaths in the British Dominions as also of all British Subjects Born, Marrying and Dying abroad’ and so unfortunately omitted all these entries from their indexes. They can now be easily recovered through the online The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985.
In addition to the above, some entries of baptism and marriage at sea are to be found on the International Genealogical Index and for the period before 1841, the two great registers of Nonconformist baptisms, Dr Williams’s General Register 1742-1837 and the Wesleyan Metropolitan Registry 1818-41, both include some entries of events at sea and overseas.
One final record of congregations abroad, which has often come back to those in England, is that of the inscriptions in their churches and churchyards. Many a traveller has been fascinated by these records of fellow countrymen so far from home. Some, like Colonel G.S. Parry and Arthur Leveson Gower, copied thousands of stones in their travels, communicating them to periodicals such as Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica and Notes and Queries. Many are found in the library of the Society of Genealogists in London and for some years the Society collected references to them, eventually publishing the impressive list in Part Two of its catalogue Monumental Inscriptions in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (1987) now available online. They include inscriptions from a group of African countries (Basutoland, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Nyasaland, Sierra Leone and Uganda) collected under a scheme organised by Philip Blake and Anthony Camp for the Society in the 1960s. The places involved will be found in the Society’s online catalogue.
Abstract of arrangements respecting registration of births, marriages and deaths in the United Kingdom and the other countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and in the Irish Republic (London: HMSO, 1952).
Geoffrey Yeo, The British overseas: a guide to records of their births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials, available in the United Kingdom (London: Guildhall Library, 3rd ed. 1994).
Amanda Bevan, Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (London; The National Archives, 6th ed. 2002)
C.T. and M.J. Watts, Tracing births, deaths & marriages at sea (London: Society of Genealogists, 2002).
This article has been based with permission on three articles by Anthony Camp in Family Tree Magazine (UK; http://www.family-tree.co.uk), ‘Some events overseas: the non-statutory returns’ in vol. 16, no. 9 (July 2000) pages 13-15; ‘Some more events overseas: the Bishop of London and the International Memoranda’ in vol. 16, no. 10 (August 2000) pages 63-65; and ‘Even more events overseas: the Statutory Returns’ in vol. 16, no. 12 (October 2000) pages 11-12.