Civil Registration – Lesson 2

Civil Registration

The recording of births, marriages and deaths since 1837 has been the responsibility of the General Register Office, often referred to as the GRO. This government department was first set up under the Birth and Death Registration Act of 1836.

Old Registry Office sign - genealogyRegistration Districts were set up around the country usually based on the Poor Law Union areas. Within these registration districts were sub districts, it was the responsibility of the Superintendent Registration who was the main official at the district registry office. The whole system started on 1st July 1837.

You need to be very clear in your mind that the birth and death records described in this lesson are quite different from the baptism and burials that are recorded in parish registers. Marriages were recorded in books of forms which were sent out to churches around the country and so those records from 1837 are the same. Parish records will be dealt with in a further lesson.

Marriages were only legal if they took place in a Church of England church, a Jewish place of worship or a Quaker Meeting House. After the 1837 other religious denomination such as Roman Catholics, Methodists and other non-conformist religions.

Once an event was registered a certificate would be issued and it is copies of these certificate that we can obtain copies of today.

Before You Can Order

Before you can order a certificate you will need to get details of the entry in the indexes. If you don’t the certificate will cost you much more. So where can you find the indexes, the good news is there are several sites where you can find the information you need.

Free BMD is a genealogy community site where over quite a number of years volunteers have indexed the information and set it up on the website. The site is now hosted by, but is free of charge.

The subscription websites; Ancestry, FindMyPast, The Genealogist and GenesReunited also have the indexes online so if you have a membership to one of those then you can use them. Remember that your local library may well have free internet access to some or all of these sites, ask your librarian and they will be able to help. You will need to be a member of the library, but that is usually free of charge.

There are also local BMD projects such as the Berkshire BMD. There isn’t a 100% coverage of the Britain, it all depends on volunteers getting together. However it is well worth a look to see if your county is covered. These sites may have added additional information on their indexes such as spouses surnames on all marriages not just those from 1912. The indexes are made from the local registry office certificates not the main indexes so have the advantage of picking up any entries that have been missed when submitting copies to head office.

On all these websites you simply fill in what you know about the person you seek and press the “search” button. If you have trouble locating the right person remember that in most family history searches less is more. Only fill in what is absolutely necessary and then filter out from there.

Bear in mind that the name that the person has been known by may not be the name they were given at birth, used on their marriage or had their death registered under. Also take note of the fact that when looking for a death entry in the index the information given will not have come from the person registered because they are dead at the time !

Lastly the indexes are arranged in quarters. Events which were registered in January, February & March are under the March quarter, April, May & June are under the June quarter, July, August, September are under the September quarter and October, November, December are under the December quarter. The events are indexed under the date of registration, not the date of the event so if a birth occurred in late December 1856 and the parents didn’t register the birth until towards the end of the 6 week period allowed for registration then the birth would be in the index in the March quarter 1857.

Once you have found the entry then you will need the following –

  • Quarter and year
  • Name as written in the index
  • Superintendent Registrars District
  • Volume & Page Number
  • Age as show on Death Index if the event happened after1866

Then you can register on the GRO website and order your certificate.

Obtaining Certificates

Firstly certificates aren’t cheap, but any interest or hobby you pursue is going to have some cost attached to it and the costs involved with family history probably aren’t going to be anywhere near as expensive as say golf or sky diving !

The trick is to see if you can get the information you require somewhere else, preferably somewhere inexpensive. Baptism and burial records might fill in the gaps that you would otherwise be buying a certificate for. Take a look at the lesson on parish records.

Marriages that take place in churches will be recorded in two identical registers, one register is kept by the church and the other is sent to the Superintendent Registrar so if you can find a copy of the church marriage register and can view it for less then the cost of a certificate then you have won out !

Subscription sites such as Ancestry and Find my past have some marriages registers online so it is always worth checking these out. Both of these sites offer a 14 day free trial so that is a good way to try before you buy.

Birth CertificatesBuster Brown baby - Wikimedia out of copyright

A birth certificate may be the first certificate that you purchase, it contains much valuable information as it gives the full names of the parents.

On a birth certificate you can expect to find

  • Where & when born.
  • Name – a child doesn’t have to be named to have it’s birth registered so you may find a certificate simply says “male” or “female” in this column.
  • Sex
  • Name & surname of father. If the child was illegitimate then there may not be a father’s name in this column. If the couple were not married then the father had to be present at the registration of the birth and give his permission for his name to be entered onto the certificate.
  • Name & surname and maiden name of mother.
  • Occupation of father. Again this may be left blank if there is no name of the father entered.
  • Signature, description & residence of informant. This is a column that is often ignored, but it can be quite useful. If the mother or father registers the birth and their place of residence is different to that given for the birth of the child then this may indicate that the child was born either in a hospital, workhouse hospital or at a relatives home. If the mother registers the birth it will indicate that she had recovered from the birth well enough to travel to the registrars office, in times when it wasn’t unusual for childbirth complications and deaths this can be a useful indication of her health. Lastly if someone who you haven’t heard of before registers the birth ask yourself the question who this person is? Could it be a midwife, a relative on either side of the family or a family friend.
  • When registered. Births had to be registered within 6 weeks of the event.
  • Signature of registrar.

Birth Certificate Example

Family History Genealogy Birth Certificate

Marriage Certificates

Marriage certificates can open up your research to another generation of ancestors.

John Henry Frederick Bacon - The wedding morning. Wikimedia out of copyright

On a marriage certificate you can expect to find

  • Where the marriage took place
  • Date
  • Name & surname of both parties
  • Age
  • Condition – bachelor, spinster, widow, widower
  • Rank or profession. Often this section was left blank as it wasn’t “the done thing” for a woman to admit that she worked. The truth of course was often quite different and they worked long hours sometimes in menial jobs
  • Residence at the time of marriage. This may or may not have been their normal place where they lived. Extra fees would have to be paid if the groom and bride lived in different parishes as the banns would have to be read in both parish churches and perhaps a licence would have to be purchased. It is said that many people thought that if they parked a bag with some of their clothes in it at an address they could then claim they lived there !
  • Father’s name & surname. Sometimes you will find the word “deceased”, often in brackets after a father’s name. This can be very helpful in narrowing down a time between say a census and a marriage when the father has died.
  • Father’s rank or profession. I have seen quite a few examples where the occupation of a father has been upgraded. My grandmother gave her father’s occupation as a commercial traveller when in fact he was a porter in Covent Garden market ! This column may be left blank if the father was deceased.

Marriage Certificate Example


Death Certificates

Death certificates are the document that you are least likely to purchase as they don’t name a parent or a spouse of the deceased unless they are the person who registers the birth or if the deceased is a child whereby the certificate may name the father. Sometimes though death certificates can lead onto a number of interesting documents such as newspaper reports of the death and/or funeral or Coroners reports where the death was from un-natural causes, so don’t dismiss buying these certificates entirely.

The example given below shows that Alonzo’s death was in hospital and was from natural causes so an inquest was held which lead to a coroners report and several newspaper reports of his funeral. As the death took place in hospital and the coroner was the informant no address was given for Alonzo, but this was discovered in the coroners report.

Kensal Green Cemetery

On a death certificate you can expect to find

  • When & where the death took place
  • Name & surname
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Signature, description & residence of informant
  • When registered

Death Certificate Example

Family History Genealogy Death Certificate

Causes of Death

You may come across some unfamiliar terms written in the cause of death column there is a helpful website which takes the old terms and translates them into modern definitions.

Significant Dates

Family History Genealogy Significant Dates