England Civil Registration

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Civil registration is the government recording of births, marriages, and deaths. Civil registration records are excellent sources of names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Because they are indexed and cover most of the population, English civil registration records are important sources for genealogical research. Learn more about using these records for family history from the Directgov website.

General Historical Background

Before 1837 only churches recorded birth, marriage, and death information in England (see the "Church Records" section of this outline). In the early 1800s, Parliament recognized the need for accurate records for voting, planning, and defense purposes. Legislation was passed to create a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales and began on 1 July 1837.

  • The jurisdictional basis of civil registration is the Registration District. Registration districts were based on the Poor Law Unions that were formed in 1834. Poor Law Unions contained groups of parishes that administered the new Poor Law system for that jurisdiction with a superintendent registrar appointed for each district. The district was divided into sub-districts, each with a Registrar of Births and Deaths. There would also be one or more Registrars of Marriages for the whole district.
  • Each quarter, superintendent registrars forwarded copies of their district’s registrations to the Registrar General in London. The registration districts hold the original birth and death records, and the General Register Office hold copies.
  • Ordained clergy of the Church of England, the established church, were automatically entitled to perform and register marriages. Clergy of other denominations could not perform legally valid marriages until 1898, when they could apply to become 'Authorised Persons'. Prior to that date, a Registrar of Marriages had to be present. Civil marriages could be performed in the register office, but these were rare until the 20th century. 
  • There were two marriage registers that had to be completed and signed by the parties. When a register was full, one copy would be sent to the Superintendent Registrar and the other kept at the church. In addition, quarterly copies of all marriages were sent to the register office and forwarded to the Registrar General. 
  • Quaker and Jewish marriages were performed by Registering Officers and Secretaries of Synagogues, respectively. They were also required to deposit completed registers at the Register Office, and to forward quarterly copies to the Registrar General 
Wikipedia has more about this subject: General Register Office
Beginning in July 1837, registrars were required to register all births and deaths in their district. Since they were paid for every registration, that was incentive to make sure all births and deaths were recorded. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of births and nearly all deaths and marriages were reported. A new registration Act in 1874 placed the responsibility on parents to inform the registrar of all births, but this made no discernible difference to the rate of registration, which by 1875 was around 99 percent. If you cannot find a birth, marriage, or death record in civil registration, search church records.

Information Recorded in Civil Registers


A birth certificate usually gives the birth date and birthplace, the child’s name and sex, the father's name, the mother's full name including her maiden name, the father’s occupation and the informant’s name, relationship to baby, residence and when the event was registered.  The name of the registrar is also included. 

The father, mother, neighbor, or other person present at the birth must register a birth within 42 days.


A marriage certificate gives the year and place where the marriage was solemnized at the top of the certificate  It also gives the marriage date, the 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.  Also included are the names and occupations of the fathers (and often whether they were deceased) as well as the signatures of the bride, groom, and witnesses.  It 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.


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.

Divorce required an act of Parliament until 1857 and was uncommon before the mid-20th century. Records of parliamentary divorce acts are at:

Parliamentary Archives
Houses of Parliament
London, SW1A 0PW
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7219 3074
Fax: +44 (0)20 7219 2570
E-mail: archives@parliament.uk
Internet: Parliamentary Archives

Civil divorce registration began in 1858. These divorce records are confidential for 75 years. Records older than 75 years can be consulted at the National Archives in London.  Indexes for 1858 to 1937 are available.

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

To learn more about divorce records, visit the following Web sites.

The Family History Library has:


A death certificate usually gives the death date and death place, the full name of the decedent, their sex and age, their occupation (with children usually a parent is named here), the cause of death and the name, residence and relationship to decedent of the witness.  Also included is the date that the event was 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.

Stillbirths and Adoptions

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.)

British Persons Christened, Married or Buried Abroad

British subjects who were born, married or died abroad can be a challenge to find. The Family History Library has many British church records for persons that lived in foreign countries.

Further information: British Persons Abroad

Locating and Ordering Civil Registration Records

Civil registration records are kept at the superintendent registrar’s district office. Duplicates are kept at the General Regisrter Office, part of the Identity and Passport Service.

Ordering Certificates Online

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, mail or FAX. The cheapest 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 online price of a certificate is £7.00 pounds sterling with full reference.  For more information, see their Web site at:

Ordering Certificates by Phone

Using Visa, Visa Electron, Mastercard, Solo, Delta or Maestro, call +44 (0)845 603 7788 and have your details in hand.

The telephone lines are open: Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm (excluding Bank Holidays) Saturday 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (GMT).  Have your credit or debit card ready.

Ordering Certificates by Mail

GRO PO Box 2 Southport Merseyside PR8 2JD

Fax - 44(0) 1704 550 013

When requesting a certificate by mail, send the following:

  • A check or money order for the search fee (the amount varies)
  • The full name and sex of the person sought
  • The names of the parents, if known
  • An approximate date and place of the event

Certificates from the General Register Office are less expensive if you supply index reference numbers.

Indexes to Civil Registration Records

Indexes can help you find an entry for your ancestor. The General Register Office (GRO) creates nationwide indexes after receiving quarterly returns.


These indexes are arranged by calendar quarter and year, alphabetically.  The index gives the name, registration district, volume, and page number. Later indexes also include the following:

  • Age at death (post-1865 death indexes)
  • Mother’s maiden name (post-June 1911 birth indexes)
  • Spouse’s surname (post-1911 marriage indexes)
  • Birth date (post-March 1969 death indexes)

With the index reference you can send for the certificate (see above).

Search Tips

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.

Knowing the district name and at least an approximate year in which the birth, marriage, or death occurred will reduce your search time.

Online Index to England and Wales Civil Registration

In recent years volunteers began transcribing the microfiched indexes and placing them online.  Two sites with online civil registration indexes to births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales are located at:

1.  FreeBMD - After selecting the event to search, features include:

  • Name
  • Date the event was registered (with date range)
  • Name of the district or county
  • Name of parents or spouse
  • Search by exact or phonetic match

The results show the following for each individual: 

  • Type of event (birth, marriage, or death)
  • Name of the individual
  • Year and quarter of the year when registered. (Only the last month of the quarter is given, i.e. March, June, September, or December.)
  • Name of the district where the event was registered. (Remember: A district could encompass a number of locations and was responsible to register the event.)
  • Volume number and page number

Since this is an ongoing project, there are always additional years being added to the online indexes.  A set of graphs on the site shows which years have already been indexed. On the Home Page, click 'Information', choose 'Statistics' and select 'Coverage Charts' for the latest updates. It is also possible to report transcription errors and add "Postem" notes if you locate an entry which is incorrect or that you have more information about.

You should bear in mind the way in which national indexes were compiled from 1837 onward. The quarterly returns sent were manually arranged in alphabetical order and the index compiled was manually written by clerks up to 1865. From 1866 to 1910 the indexes were typeset from the handwritten slips, then typewritten until the 1960s, when computers were first used. From 1984 onwards the indexes have been 'born digital'. Some of the early handwritten indexes between 1837 and 1865 were withdrawn when they became worn, and replaced with typed copies. This extra stage of copying means that these indexes have a higher level of errors.

There have always been checking procedures, but there was rarely enough time or funding to carry them out properly, so it is not surprising that the indexes are incomplete and contain inaccurate entries.  If you cannot locate an entry, it is sensible to go to the primary source of registration at the local Registration District.

2.  UKBMD website - Select the desired county to determine if there is a local bmd index project.  (Not all counties are currently indexing the civil registration indexes for births, marriages, and deaths.)  Most county-wide indexes include through 1950.  All the counties have incomplete indexes and the project is on-going. Continue to check back often for updated and added information. By signing up, e-mail updates are available from the county extraction directors. 

Search features include:

  • Name
  • Date the event was registered
  • Name of the district and county
  • Date range
  • Names of parents or spouse

The results show the following for each individual. This is the information you need if you want to order a copy of a certificate from a local register office in England and Wales.

  • Type of event (birth, marriage, or death)
  • Name of the individual.
  • Year when event registered.
  • Name of the region. The name of the local BMD project area
  • Name of the place where the event was registered. For births and deaths this is the district name, a district is a geographic area that was responsible to register the event. For marriages the name of the church or register office is given.
  • Name of the register office that now holds the registers. This is the office to which applications should be made for copy certificates.
  • Reference number. The unique reference number required to order a certificate from the local register office.

The registers in local Registration Districts in both England and Wales are the primary registration information of births marriages and deaths. Research has shown that the national index contains many errors and omissions. The indexation of primary records is based on year of event unlike the national index which is compiled from quarterly returns and is therefore more likely to locate the event you seek.

3.  The Genealogist website has indexed and posted online most of the births, marriages and deaths throughout the country. The indexes provide the same information as listed above.

4.  Ancestry.co.uk, a paid subscription site, has all the civil registration indexes available online. This site is available for free in the Family History Library and Regional Centers.

5.  WorldVitalRecords.com, a paid subscription site, has all of these indexes available online also. This site is available for free in the Family History Library and Family History Centers. Births: 1837-1983; Marriages: 1837-1983; Deaths: 1837-1983.

Registration Districts

Places in the index are registration districts, which are usually not the same as the actual place of birth. In rural areas many villages and parishes are included in one district. Large cities have many districts.

The following sources will help identify the district that served the place where your ancestors lived:

The Imperial Gazetteer, included on the Vision of Britain web site, gives parishes and their civil districts. (See England Gazetteers.)

Population Tables are available for each census year. They give the population for the various localities and are arranged by county, district, and parish. The indexes to these tables are very helpful because they give the district for each place listed. District boundaries changed over time, so it is helpful to refer to these indexes. The Family History Library call numbers for the indexes are as follows:

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)

The Family History Library has copies of the indexes. Go to the Family History Library Catalog to find the film of fiche numbers for each year of birth, death or marriage.

  1. Go to the library catalog.
  2. Click Place Search.
  3. Type England and click Search.
  4. Click England in the list of results.
  5. Click the topic of Civil Registration-Indexes.
  6. Click one of the following titles:
    1. Index to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, 1837-1980. This set is on microfilm.
    2. Index to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, 1837-1983. This set is on microfiche.
  7. Click View Film Notes to see the film and fiche numbers.

Superintendent Registrars

If you know the registration district, you may wish to order a certificate from the superintendent registrar, since search policies are often more liberal and mail order requests less expensive than through the General Register Office (GRO). The GRO index reference numbers do not help the superintendent registrar locate records in his or her district. Registrars usually will not search marriage records because marriage registration procedures are so complex.

Addresses for superintendent registrars’ are found in:

  • The Official List of Registration Offices. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1993. (FHL book Q 942 X4g 1993.)
  • District Register Offices in England and Wales. Fourth Edition. Yorkshire, England: East Yorkshire Family History Society, 1989. (Family History Library book 942 E4ew 1989.)

Addresses for the superintendent registrars can also be found on the Internet through the GENUKI Web site at:

Keep in mind that over time district boundaries have changed, and some districts have been abolished.

Records at the Family History Library

The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the civil registration indexes of all births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales from 1837 through 1980. A microfiche copy of the indexes covering 1837–1983 is also available. The library does not have any actual civil registration certificates. However, the library may have the church baptism, marriage, or burial records for the same time period.

To locate the Indexes with their microfilm and microfiche numbers, type in ENGLAND in the 'Place Search' of the Family History Library Catalog and search the topic 'Civil Registration - Indexes'.

They are also listed in the following book:

  • England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes on Microfiche and Microfilm. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1997. (Family History Library book 942 V2ic 1997).

Family History Library Training Online

The Family History Library is now offering an online series of five lessons on genealogical research in England entitled "England Beginning Research." This video series includes one lesson on Civil Registration and is available for anyone to view at their own computer. These lessons are available on www.familysearch.org. On the home page, click on 'Library' and select 'Education'.  There are no registration or password requirements for viewing these lessons.