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Birth, marriage and death records

Ancestors Magazine cover - Feb editionIf you have just started researching your family tree, Simon Fowler has some sound advice in this and other articles in our ancestors series.

Simon is an experienced writer and lecturer regularly giving lectures at the Society of Genealogists. His latest book Military History on the Internet has just been published by Pen & Sword

Ancestors is the Family History Magazine from the National Archives click for the special offer they are making to laterlife visitors

Birth, marriage and death records

On 1 July 1837 the government introduced a centralised way of registering births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales. The system hasn’t changed much since then. If you have ever registered a marriage, the birth of a child or death of a loved one then you are following in the footsteps of generations of people before you.

The information given to the local registrar is recorded in local registers with a copy sent to the central General Register Office (GRO). From these registers the GRO supplies certificates. The certificates contain a copy of the register entry.

Birth register

Certificates are a very important source. For a start they are the official proof of a birth, marriage or death. They are expensive, but well worth the money as they contain lots of clues which can tell you more about your family, as well as helping you go back to previous generations.

Black Heart Marriage Certificate

At present there is no access to the original registers but there is a project to put them online. Unfortunately I understand that it is very behind schedule (as at January 2008).
The information from the registers allows the GRO to prepare a central index, which until recently was publicly available in rows and rows of large, bound volumes originally at Somerset House and more recently the Family Records Centre.

The index, but not the certificates themselves, is now available online on various commercial websites, such as ,  and , but the most useful site is , which as the name suggests is free. It is both easier to use and more informative, although it is not yet complete.

The information provided in the indexes is pretty minimal: normally the name of the person plus the registration district where the event took place and the volume and page number. You need to note down all this information to order a certificate.

From 1911, birth indexes have included the maiden name of the mother. And from 1912 the marriage index also includes the surname of the spouse, so it becomes much easier to find marriages.

It is important to remember that there are quarterly indexes, usually known as March (for events registered between January and March), June, September and December.
Once you have identified the person you are interested in, you can order the appropriate certificate. You can do it online from links on the commercial websites (but not FreeBMD), at
content/certificates  or by phone, 0845 603 7788. Certificates cost ?7 each (?8.50 if you order by phone) or ?10 (?11.50) if you do not have the full reference.

You can also order certificates from local registry offices. There are many advantages to doing this – the staff usually have more time to help enquirers and the registers themselves are more accurate - but you need to know exactly where the event took place. Indexes to some local registers are available online, and good place to start is .

If you want to know more about certificates and how they were kept then you should visit Barbara Dixon’s website
/Certificates/indexbd.htm .

Next month

How to get the most out of certificates; as well as civil registration in Scotland and Ireland.


One of my ancestors is missing

I’m often asked why people’s ancestors are missing from the registers. Here are some tips to help you:

1. Before 1874, registration was not compulsory. However, all the evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people did register births, marriages and deaths.

2. The registers themselves are not always accurate (those kept by local registrars are better).

3. There are pages missing from the microfilmed set of the registers, which the commercial websites used for their indexes. FreeBMD has indexed directly from the original registers.

4. Check all the variations of name. Often an official misheard the name or the family themselves spelt it in a different way to how they might today.

5. You should check indexes for five to ten years either side of the date you think the event took place, just in case your information was wrong.

6. They may have been born, married or died outside England and Wales, so it may be worth checking the registers of vital events registered by British citizens living overseas (free at ), or in Scotland and Ireland.


Are you interested in tracing your family history?
Ancestors, the family history magazine from The National Archives, is the essential read for all family, local and military historians. Packed full of informative features from family history experts, it gives practical advice for beginners and more experienced researchers, reveals the best family history websites and online resources and news on what is happening at The National Archives.

Articles in the series:

Get going with your family history

Census Returns

Birth, marriage and death records

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Going back before 1837

back to laterlife interest

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