Click here to print this page

Planning Retirement Online

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Ancestors Magazine cover - March 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 certificates

Certificates are probably the most important records you will use in your research. They are expensive – currently ?7 each – but if used the right way, they can really help track your ancestors and save a lot of money in the long term.

Separate certificates are issued for births, marriages and deaths. They began to be issued on 1 July 1837. And although it was not compulsory to register events until 1874, it is clear that most people did from the late 1830s.

Certificates will tell you the full name of the individuals and the date and place where the event took place.

Birth certificates also include full names of the parents, the occupation of the father, and the mother’s maiden name. If the father is not given it means that the child was illegitimate: something regarded deeply shameful a century ago. You will have to look for twins or triplets if an exact time was given in the birth column.

Marriage certificates contain the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom and where they were living before marriage. If the couple were over 21 the entry may read ‘of full age’, although it is unusual to find this after the 1870s. In order to get married at a particular church, couples had to be resident in the parish for at least three weeks. To overcome this they often gave the same address: this did not necessarily mean that they were cohabiting.

Death certificates are the least informative, but they do give cause of death. If you are lucky you may find your ancestor at their workplace or in an accident, or very occasionally even a murder. Where this happens there is normally a coroner’s inquest and full coverage in the local papers. Otherwise you may need to work out the medical shorthand to discover how your ancestor died. There are several online medical dictionaries which may provide an explanation of the terms used, one of which can be found at

The certificates aren’t perfect by any means. Individuals and registrars made mistakes in entering the names of individuals. For example, when my brother registered our mother’s death recently he got her middle name slightly wrong. This may well confuse a family historian in 200 years time trying to trace the Fowler family tree.

Individuals are also known to have lied, particularly on marriage certificates. Brides and grooms told the registrar that they were over 21 when they were not in order to avoid parental displeasure. More seriously, men and women claimed they were single when in fact they were married. This is understandable because it was almost impossible to divorce cheaply before the 1920s. In most cases people turned a blind eye, but occasionally there was a court case.

You can our more about certificates and their value for family historians at
Certificates/indexbd.htm .

Can’t find an entry in the indexes?
Here are some tips:

• The names may be spelt wrong – try all the variations you can think of. Either the person registering the event got the details wrong or the registrar mistranscribed the information. Recent research has shown that the registers (see last month’s article) are littered with mistakes and omissions. The General Register Office is reindexing both the registers and the indexes, but it may be a few years before this project has been completed.
• It is a good idea to search ten years either side of the date you think the event took place, just in case your information was wrong.
• Information can be missing from the indexes provided by the commercial online services. The most complete data (and easiest to use) is provided by FreeBMD at .
• The event might have taken place outside England and Wales. Scottish records are online at www.scotlands , and events registered at British consuls overseas are at . Irish records are not yet online, but you can find more information at .
• For some reason the event has not been registered. If you know where they lived you could try the local register office or parish registers to see whether they have the missing information.


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

Site map and site search



Advertise on