England Civil Registration

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Historical Background[edit | edit source]

Before 1837 only churches recorded birth, marriage, and death information in England (see England Church Records). In the early 1800s, Parliament recognized the need for accurate records for voting, planning, taxation, and defense purposes. Legislation was passed to create a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales and, for registering the same for British subjects abroad. England and Wales registration began on 1 July 1837, and covered births, marriages, divorces and deaths. However one problem with English civil registration is that coverage was not universal, especially in the earlier years before tougher laws in 1874. Use Church Records in these cases.

Separate legislation and records exist for events at sea, overseas and for those in the army. See the section Overseas and Military Civil Registration

It is thus important to realize the two distinct types of Civil Registration that are referred to throughout this article:

  • Indexes are the alphabetical lists of birth, marriages and deaths drawn up by the General Register Office(GRO) for each quarter.
  • Certificates refer to the original documents that recorded the information. You need to have the index entry for a record to be able to find the certificate.

Information Recorded in Civil Registers[edit | edit source]

Births[edit | edit source]

A birth certificate usually gives:

  • birth date and birthplace
  • child’s name and sex
  • father's name and occupation
  • mother's full name including her maiden name
  • informant’s name, relationship to the baby, and residence
  • when registered and the name of the registrar

The father, mother, neighbor, or other person present at the birth must register a birth within 42 days. The 1874 act imposed a fee for late registration (43 days to 6 months). This penalty may have persuaded some parents to "adjust" their child's birth date to avoid paying the fee. After six months the birth could not be registered.

Stillbirths[edit | edit source]

No provision was made for registering stillbirths until 1874, when a new law required a death certificate before burying stillborn children. Since 1927, all stillbirths (any birth where the child never took a breath) are recorded in the Register of Stillbirths, which is not available to the public.

Adoptions[edit | edit source]

Civil registration adoption certificates began in 1927, giving the child’s new name, birth date, court, entry date and reference number, and district and sub district of birth as well as the adoptive parents’ names, addresses, and occupation(s). Adoption records may be consulted only by arrangement with the Office for National Statistics.

Pre-1927 adoption records are kept by the agency or institution which handled the adoption and are very difficult to locate. Many no longer exist. For more information, see:

  • Stafford, Georgina. Where to Find Adoption Records: A Guide for Counsellors. London, England: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, 1993. (Family History Library book Ref 942 D27sgw.)

Abandoned Children[edit | edit source]

Since 1977 the births of abandoned babies, whose parentage is unknown have been recorded in the Abandoned Children Register. Before this, these births were registered at the register office in the district where the child was found. 

Application for certificates can be made in writing to:

General Register Office, Adoptions,

Trafalgar Road, Southport, PR8 2HH.

Marriages[edit | edit source]

A marriage certificate gives:

  • marriage date and place
  • names of the bride and groom, their ages, their marital "condition" (single or widowed), their professions, and their residences at the time of the marriage
  • names and occupations of their fathers (and sometimes whether they were deceased)
  • signatures or marks of the bride, groom, and witnesses
  • also notes whether the bride and groom were married in a church (with the denomination given) and, if so, whether they were married by banns or by license.

The law required all marriages to be recorded in a civil register immediately after the ceremony. Marriages were often performed at the bride’s parish

Because the marriage information found in the civil certificates of marriage, are an exact replica of the church registers of marriage, there is no need to consult civil records(for which payment is requirement) if the Anglican Church records are more freely available elsewhere.

Divorces[edit | edit source]

Divorce records contain information on family members, their marital history (including marriage date and place), property, residences, and sometimes dates of events such as children’s births. To search an index to Divorce Records, see "Key Websites" below.

Pre-1858[edit | edit source]

Before 1858, a divorce required an Act of Parliament, restricting it to the aristocratic and wealthy whose marital lives were of concern to Parliament. Divorces were a type of "Private Act", lists in chronological order are available on the Private and Personal Acts page of legislation.gov.uk. Information may also be available at the Parliamentary Archives

1858 onwards[edit | edit source]

Civil divorce registration began in 1858. These divorce records are confidential for 75 years. The National Archives has a useful Help Page for Divorces. Records up to 1916 can be searched on Ancestry in the collection England and Wales, Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1916.

Relatives of divorced persons may obtain information on divorces that occurred in the last 75 years by contacting:

Principal Registry of the Family Division
Decree Absolute Section
First Avenue House
42-49 High Holborn
London WC1V 6NP

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7947 7017
Internet: Family Division

Historic newspapers may mention divorces if the figures involved were well known. The Times - to search for and view historical articles from 1785-1985 of divorce cases in the news

The Family History Library has:

Deaths[edit | edit source]

A death certificate usually gives:

  • death date and place
  • full name of the decedent, their sex and age, their occupation (or for a child, usually the name of a parent)
  • cause of death
  • name, residence and relationship of the informant to the decedent
  • date registered and the name of the registrar.

On certificates for adults, the names of parents are never given. In considering whether to order a death certificate, remember that the information on the certificate may be limited or inaccurate because it is based on the informant’s knowledge. It can be helpful for those looking for clues about persons born or married before July 1837.

Overseas and Military Civil Registration[edit | edit source]

Parliament passed legislation creating a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for English, Scots, Irish and Welsh subjects living abroad, or also known as British subjects abroad. Where registration in England and Wales began 1 July 1837, for those British and Irish subjects living overseas, registration began at differing time periods in different countries. British subjects living abroad were not required to report births, marriages, and deaths. Their vital life events may have been recorded with the civil registration of the country in which they were living instead of the registers sent back to the British Isles. It is wise to check the Wiki page for the country of residence to see if civil registration records are available. When searching overseas and military civil registration, be sure that you are not simply selecting someone of the same name as your ancestor. Use other knowledge such as relationships and occupations to verify that you have the correct person.

Returns of births, marriages and deaths of British subjects overseas, on ships, and including military personnel and their families were sent to the General Register Office, Bishop of London, and later, to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in England. These returns may begin as early as 1627 but most especially by mid-19th century. Marriages performed at sea might be recorded in the ship's log but were not legally valid.

Some of these records are held at the General Register Office (GRO). The GRO has a list of events recorded abroad that they hold.

And some registers are held at:

The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS)
Overseas Registration Section
Trafalgar Road
Birkdale, Southport
Merseyside, PR* 2HH
United Kingdom
Tel 0151 471 4801

Online Indexes[edit | edit source]

There are several significant records collections online created from multiple record sets from the General Register Office and The National Archives.

Military Births, Marriages, and Deaths[edit | edit source]

Here are available military records and where applicable, the respective links to online accessibility:

1. Military Records (including Merchant ships) of personnel abroad:

- Regimental Registers of births (indexed), marriages and deaths 1761-date (OPCS/FMP)
- Army Chaplains returns of birth, marriage and death 1796-1880 (all indexed)
- Marine births and Marine deaths at sea from 1837-1965 (indexed)
- Merchant Marine Births, marriages and deaths 1854-1891

2. The Registrar General also had custody of non-statutory registers of births, marriages, deaths and burials overseas from 1826-1951 which originally were sent to the Bishop of London's diocesan office. These registers are now held at The National Archives, some are indexed on Findmypast in the British Armed Forces and Overseas collections, and some copies at FamilySearch include:

- Registers and Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Protectorates (RG36) - 1895-1965
- Indexes to all the above "Miscellaneous" series from 1826-1945 are found in RG43

Merchant Shipping[edit | edit source]

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 stated that the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen should record and certify the death of seamen at sea. Prior to this the General Registrar Office (GRO) maintained registers of deaths at sea. These are indexed by the Registrar General of Shipping under Board of Trade references from about 1855. Another location to check for a death at sea is in the ships log.

Indexes for Deaths at sea are also located on Findmypast($), these indexes cover 1854-1890.

Embassy and Consulate Records[edit | edit source]

Some births, marriages, and deaths of British subjects abroad were recorded in the British embassy or consulate records and many of these are available at FamilySearch. To find these records, search using Keywords in the FamilySearch Catalog. Type the name of the country of residence plus "British consulate" or "British embassy."

The surviving original embassy and consulate records are at The National Archives in England. If you need embassy or consulate records that are not at FamilySearch, use this guide to help you find the records at The National Archives.

Scottish and Irish Abroad[edit | edit source]

Overseas births, marriages, and deaths with Scottish connections beginning in 1855 may be found on ScotlandsPeople($).

For those with Irish connections, contact the appropriate General Register Office.

Accessing England Civil Registration Records[edit | edit source]

Locating England Civil Registration Records is a two-step process:

  1. Find the GRO Index Entry
  2. Order the Certificate

Indexes[edit | edit source]

There are two forms of the GRO Index:

GRO Searchable Index. For free, anyone can register at the GRO site and search the indexes for births and deaths only. These indexes contain the name of the person registered, the quarter and year of the registration, and the mother's maiden name for births. No other parent or spouse information is included. Searches must include at least the surname, sex, and year; searches can also include registration district, mother's maiden name (births only) and age at death (deaths only). Reference information (year, quarter, registration district, volume, and page) must be quoted to order a certificate.

To find a spouse in a marriage, use the fact that both parties will have the same reference numbers. Several of the websites that have the indexes do this automatically and list the possible partners (usually two or more). If you can find the couple in the census, you can usually determine the correct spouse.

Traditional Indexes. Formerly known as "St Catherine's Registers," alphabetically-arranged indexes were created by the GRO at the end of each quarter, for births, marriages and deaths. Images and searchable indexes of these appear on several sites. Coverage may not be 100%.
Mother's maiden name of before 1911 not included on most of these sites. Mother's maiden name is included pre 1911 on the GRO website.

See below for how to order the original once you have the index entry.

Search Tips[edit | edit source]

If you cannot locate an index entry, consider the following reasons:

  • Surnames are often found under unexpected spellings.
  • Events are filed by the date registered, not the date they occurred (for example, a birth on 20 March which was registered on 6 April will be in the April-May-June quarter).
  • Indexes were prepared by hand and may contain copying errors (for example, "T" for "F") or omissions.
  • A person may have been registered under a different name than he or she used later in life.
  • Some marriages were indexed by the name of only one spouse.
  • A woman’s surname in the marriage index may be her surname from a previous marriage.
  • Family information (particularly age at death) is often misleading.
  • Persons with common names may be difficult to identify in the index.
  • Some deaths were registered as "unknown."
  • A child born before the parents’ marriage may be registered under the mother’s maiden name.
  • Some children were registered as "male" or "female" if a name had not been selected before registration.

Ordering Certificates Online[edit | edit source]

Tip for Marriages: If your ancestors married in the Anglican church after 1837, there is no need to pay £9.25, as the Church marriage register will be an exact duplicate of the civil marriage.

Civil registration certificates are closed to the public. The only way to obtain one is to order a copy from the Register General Office for England and Wales. You may order through the Internet, telephone or post. The quickest way is to order online, quoting the full reference. You should also take care to order only through the official GRO site, and not through any other site, which will often charge more, and take longer.

The current price of a certificate is £9.25 pounds sterling with Full Reference. There is currently a trial for ordering digital PDF copies of the certificates for £6.00. Full Reference includes the type of certificate requested, individual's name, registration district, quarter, year, volume and page number from the indexes. For more information, see their web site at:

Registration Districts[edit | edit source]

All events in civil registration are arranged by Registration District. These districts usually lump many rural villages together and divide a city very finely.

Information about Registration Districts, the parishes they contain and boundary changes over the years can be found at UKBMD

The following work contains nineteenth century maps and lists of districts:

  • A Guide to the Arrangement of the Registration Districts Listed in the Indexes to the Civil Registration of England and Wales. Second Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Family History Library, 1977. (Family History Library book 942 V2icr 1977; film 990269 items 4–5; fiche 6020287

Tips and Guidance[edit | edit source]