England Civil Registration
|England Wiki Topics|
|Local Research Resources|
- 1 Historical Background
- 2 Information Recorded in Civil Registers
- 3 Overseas and Military Civil Registration
- 4 Accessing England Civil Registration Records
- 5 Registration Districts
- 6 Tips and Guidance
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
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.
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.
Civil registration adoption certificates began in 1927, giving the child’s new name, birth date, court, entry date and reference number, and district and subdistrict 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
- FamilySearch.org has indexes to the Divorce Decrees and Matrimonial causes, 1858-1958 - on microfilm.
- Index to divorces (as listed in Palmer's Indexes to "The Times" newspaper, London) 1788-1910.
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
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.
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.
For a brief list of the several register series of births, marriages and deaths affecting British subjects abroad, consider the various records cited below. Some of these records are held at the General Register Office (sometimes known as The Registrar General) at:
- The National Archives
- Ruskin Avenue
- Kew, Richmond
- United Kingdom
- Tel: +44 (0) 20 8876 3444
- Email: contact form (in lieu of email): web form
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
There are several significant records collection series, which originate from three government-sponsored categories. Some have been indexed and even scanned (imaged) and made available online. Data content and some images of records can be accessible at the following record archives and/or websites and for the following ranges of years:
|BMDReg = BMDRegister.co.uk|
|FMP = findmypast|
|TGEN = TheGenealogist.co.uk|
|TNA = NationalArchives.gov.uk|
|Civil Registration of Births, Marriages & Deaths - Foreign Office (FO) (1761-on) online Indexes|
|Regimental Registers of Army Soldiers & Their Families Births Indexes (1761-on) online|
|Miscellaneous Overseas Births, Marriages & Deaths British Subjects & onShips (RGs 32-34) - (from 1627) online Indexes|
|Miscellaneous Foreign Marriages - (1861) online Indexes|
|Miscellaneous Foreign Deaths (RG35) - (from 1791) online Indexes|
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)
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, 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
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) maintined 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.
Accessing England Civil Registration Records
Locating England Civil Registration Records is a two-step process:
- Find the GRO Index Entry
- Order the Certificate
There are two forms of the GRO Index:
GRO Searchable Index. For free, anyone can register at the site of the GRO, and search the indexes for Births and Deaths only. These indexes contain the names of the people involved, but not parents or spouses, and can also be searched by registration district, age at death and mothers maiden name(births). Reference numbers beside the name must be quoted to order the ceritificate.
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 (often 3-4). If you have a first name from a census, then hopefully this will narrow down the possible partners to one.
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%. Maiden name of Mothers are not included before 1911.
- FreeBMD. An ongoing project, accessible for free.
- UKBMD website lists many local BMD websites (e.g. LancashireBMD). Some of these sites may include more information than FreeBMD, including Mother's Maiden Name before 1911.
- The Genealogist website , Findmypast & Ancestry.co.uk, WorldVitalRecords.com All these subscription sites also include the GRO Indexes. There may be value in searching multiple sites, due to occasional mis-transcriptions.
- The FamilySearch Catalog also contains these indexes Index to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, 1837-1980.. Most years are only viewable on microfilm at the Family History Library, and the remainder only at a FHC or Affliate Library.
See below for how to order the original once you have the index entry.
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
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:
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