Civil Registration in England and Wales
For other areas see the Civil Registration section of the UK & Ireland page.
Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths started on 1 July 1837 in England and Wales. This was later expanded in 1927 to also include still births, and adoptions. For details about the current arrangements check the General Register Office web pages.
For an overview of researching using GRO records, look at this GRO page Research your family history using the General Register Office which explains the index references and the county codes used at different times. This PDF file, as well as web sites, lists locations worldwide where the indexes can be viewed: Public holders of the GRO Indexes.
These indexes may still be available in some large libraries in the UK and in some family history research centres but in most they have been withdrawn. These indexess took up valuable space and the indexes are are now readily available online (more below ...).
The indexes were held at Somerset House and then at St.Catherine's House until 1997. They were then at the Family Records Centre until they were withdrawn in 2008. See above for where they may now be seen. You cannot however see the registers themselves, but you can look at the indexes for the events and having found the relevant reference you can then buy a certificate which hopefully contains the information you want.
If you are unable to look at the indexes in person, it is possible to employ an agent to do this for you but it is now very easy to look at images of the indexes on the world wide web (more below ...)
Re. Agents:. The agent's fee will be a little higher than the GRO fee, even when you have all the reference details. You can usually find the name of an agent by looking for an advertisment in one of the periodic magazines. Such agents are normally much faster than the official GRO postal service and are much cheaper than the GRO priority service. However, the GRO Postal and Priority Services, which can accept applications by, telephone, fax or e-mail, and payment by credit/debit card, has obvious advantages to overseas applicants and in urgent cases.
Re. Indexes on the world wide web: An extensive but not yet fully complete set of transcriptions of the GRO indexes is available from the FreeBMD web site - http://www.freebmd.org.uk - is should be your first port of call as it is the only site to index every name on he GRO index pages. Most sites (e.g. FindMyPast, Ancestry) index only the first and last name on each index page and charge for sight of the pages themselves.
Mark Howells has provided some useful information on Ordering Birth Registration Certificates from England and Wales using the LDS Family History Center's Resources but please note this page is now very dated!
The current price of certificates is given on the GRO web page: Order a copy of a birth, death or marriage certificate.
You can also get copies of certificates from the local District Register Office now covering the registration district in which the event was originally recorded. The charge may vary from office to office but should be broadly the same as from the GRO (above), check with the local Register Office concerned. The disadvantage is that the local offices maintain their own indexes and so the GRO index reference is no good to them. Addresses of local Register Offices can be found on English and Welsh Register Offices, or in the appropriate telephone directory under Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Details are also available of Registration Districts In England And Wales (1837-1930).
If you are ordering certificates from a local Register Office, you may have to supply more information - some offices require the exact place of birth for birth certificates, and for a marriage certificate the exact place of marriage, (i.e. the name of the church or register office), is essential as these are all indexed separately. There may well be 50 or more churches in a district and the the staff cannot search 50 indexes for you!
When requesting certificates from the GRO, you can use the checking system. The GRO will only produce a certifcate if the details requested to be checked match. These are the references used for the checking system for BMD's:
If any of the checking references do not match, a certificate will not be issued and the ONS will refund part of your fee.
One of the first things that you will do in your research, is to consult the GRO indexes. There are separate indexes for births, marriages and deaths, filed in date order. Each year is split up into quarters with for example all events registered between 1 Jan and 31 Mar held in the index labelled March. Remember it is upon when events were registered, which for marriages is normally the same day as when the marriage took place. However births may be registered up to 6 weeks after they occur, so a December birth is likely to be indexed in the March volume for the following year.
The microfilm copies are held at a number of sites throughout the country, usually at libraries or local record offices, and at LDS Family History centres. However there is a normally a heavy demand to consult them, and you may have to book well in advance. Some sites not have a complete set of indexes but they normally cover the 19th century.
In the index the registration districts have reference number. A mapping of these to the names of the districts to which they refer is given by Mike Wheatley.
The detail on the index records varies slightly, depending on whether, its a birth, marriage or death. For example a birth record looks like:
sex of child
Vol Page SANDHAM Cicely Sarah W.Derby 8b 493
In addition from Sept 1911 the mother's maiden name is also included.
A marriage entry is of a similar form:
Surname Forename(s) Registration
Vol Page Cross James Haslingden 8e 213 Haighton Ellen Haslingden 8e 213
These are examples from before March 1912 when the surname of the spouse also appears in each entry. These are actually examples from the 4th quarter of 1870, and in this case both surnames had to be searched to find the correct entry. When you start searching, you soon find it is quickest to find the uncommon name first and only when it is found look for the other in the same quarter. In this case Ellen Haighton is an uncommon name, whilst there were a number of James Cross's in each quarter.
Once you have found the entry you want, write it down exactly as it is written, as you must have it exactly correct if you apply for a certificate. Do not forget to write down the year and quarter as well. In fact it can save a lot of effort to have a separate sheet of paper for each individual search you are making. Write on it whether it is a birth, marriage or death that you are searching for. Then carefully mark on it each year and quarter as you search it and note down all the likely references in full, even if they are not the exact ones you are looking for.
You will normally find that when searching the indexes you are trying to find a number of different items of information, in a limited time and probably in cramped conditions. If you have a complete record of your searches then if you have problems and have to resume your search later you will not have to repeat any work. This can be especially frustrating if you have to wait some time before you can book a session on a reader.
Once you have the index entry you will then need to obtain a certificate to get any more information than you had when you started. The only exceptions to this are:
Researchers have found from experience with marriage indexes before 1900 the number of unmatched pairs runs quite high. If the woman is a widow when she marries, she will most likely be using her previously married surname, not her maiden surname. Then on subsequent birth certificates her maiden surname will be listed. As an example: say a Mary Brown married a Joe Smith, her surname would be Smith on her next marriage certificate but would be shown as Brown on any subsequent Birth certificates.
If you request a marriage certificate from the details shown on the birth certificate - Mary Brown - the ONS will not produce a certificate if the person is shown as Mary Smith. The ONS also only tell you that the person is not Mary Brown, they do not tell you her name was Mary Smith! This re-marriage problem is often the cause when you cannot find a matching entry in the indexes, you are looking for a match with Brown when in fact she will be in the index as Smith.
Barbara Dixon has provided some useful England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information