To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:11:33

Introduction to birth, marriages and death registers in England and Wales

Matt Norman talks to Keith Mitchell about civil registration – the system for recording births, marriages and deaths in the UK. How and when did the system start? Where can you find the records? What can you see online? Find out the answers from Keith in this short podcast.

You can also use the research guides on our website to find out about birth, marriage and death records in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, as well as at sea and abroad and in the armed forces.

Please note that at the moment The National Archives is closed to visitors until further notice. Advice in the podcast about visiting us and using the facilities in our reading rooms will apply once we re-open.


Matt: Hello. Welcome to The National Archives. You’re joining us in the Map and Large Document Reading Room, here at our building in Kew, one of the publicly available reading rooms. We’re here to talk about birth, marriage, and death records. These are records we get asked about every day at The National Archives. As we’ll find out, the certificates of birth, marriage, and deaths are not actually held here at The National Archives. They’re held elsewhere. We’ll learn more about that in a second. But first, let me introduce you to Keith Mitchell, who I’m going to be putting the questions to. He’s got 20 years of experience working with these records, so we can get some reliable answers from him here about these questions that we get a lot from the public. So let’s start, Keith, with a little bit of background on birth, marriage, and death certificates and registration. Can you tell us how the system came about and explain a little bit what happened before?

Keith: Civil Registration Act of 1837 was intended and brought in to register all birth, marriage, and death records in England and Wales. Prior to that, it was just on a local parish record level. So baptisms, marriages, and burials were recorded in the local church. But from 1837, it was a national responsibility to record the records with the local government official, the registrar, in a register that he maintained.

Matt: So when people ask, as they often do, how or where they should go to find pre-1837, in other words, pre-civil registration, birth, marriage, and death records, where should they go for those?

Keith: Generally, the local county record office. There are a couple of others online; FamilySearch is a very good site, and various other websites now have started digitising the records, but they are maintained by the local county record office or with the local archives.

Matt: And are they less reliable than post-1837, post-civil registration? Are there fewer of them?

Keith: Good question. There may be. If you didn’t baptise your child there’s not going to be a baptism record. But there should be a marriage, and hopefully he was buried, so there’ll be a burial record in the local church.

Matt: Right. And so, how did the system work? The deaths were — the birth, marriage, and deaths were recorded by — did you mention a registrar?

Keith: Yes.

Matt: So did the folk who this was happening to have to find the registrar? How did it work exactly?

Keith: Yes. After 1837, for births and deaths, you would have to go and find the registrar who – it was not his main job. Might have been the local farmer. Could have been the postman. Anybody like that. So you would have had to have wandered around to find the registrar to record your event.

Matt: I see.

Keith: Marriages, slightly different because it would have been in a church or with the official. So you would have filled in two registers there and then. So that’s slightly different. But births and deaths, you have had to have found the registrar.

Matt: And so that must have changed at some point. Everyone will know and be familiar with registry offices. When did those come into — they must have come into play at some point?

Keith: The amendment to the act in 1874 meant that the registrar now had to have a specified building, whether it’s his home, his work, and a specified time when he was available to register the events.

Matt: And how did the system work geographically? Would there have been a registry office in every county, or how did it work?

Keith: It’s in those registration districts, which it depends on the size of the area. So if you take London, mid-19th century, there was approximately 33, 34 registration districts. You get somewhere slightly out in Devon, there’ll be far less. So it just depends on where the registry office was and how many people are in that area.

Matt: And so what was recorded? They were registers, right, as opposed to certificates. And what was recorded on the registers?

Keith: You’ll take down name, date of birth, place of birth, mother’s name, her maiden name if she’s married—

Matt: So let’s– we’re talking about birth certificates at this point?

Keith: Yeah. This is for birth registers?

Matt: Right.

Keith: Yeah. And the father’s name if it was known, et cetera. Might have been left blank. Death records – you’re going to get place of death, time of death, cause. You will not get where they are buried though.

Matt: And on a marriage register, what kind of stuff would you get then?

Keith: Both parties and the names of their fathers.

Matt: The names of their fathers. Gotcha. OK. So we still keep these records today in this country? Where do people go now to find these records?

Keith: You go to the General Register Office at Southport. You can access the indexes online through various different websites, such as FreeBMD, Find My Past, Ancestry, The Genealogist, et cetera. Microfiche indexes are available around the country, such as British Library, Manchester Archives, details are on the GRO website.

Matt: And so when people come to us, they usually ask, do you have a birth certificate or a marriage certificate? As you’ve explained, it’s the registers that are held at the General Register Office. So where did the certificates come into play? Presumably they get issued at the time of these events?

Keith: Yeah. From about 1874, when you register a birth, you can be issued with a certificate. It is the certified copy of the entry from the register. From the 20th century, you can get a shortened version, which a lot of people have, which will just have your name, date of birth, and where you were born. Won’t give any other information. That is a short certificate. But a full one is from the register, which is held — the original register is maintained by the registry office. To explain how the whole process works, the registrar, at the end of every quarter, will write out a duplicate register. So he makes a copy of what he’s done over the last three months. So you’ve got a quarter that ends in March, June, September, and December. If I get that right. So at the end of each quarter, he writes out a duplicate, sends that to the General Register Office. The General Register Office then–or GRO for short, save me saying that. The GRO will write out, accept all of these registers, extract pretty much all the names, and make a major index, which is what you then view. So you’ve still got all the separate registers, but they make one large index. The index was originally printed and bound. They’re no longer available to view. As I said, you can view the indexes online or at a number of different places around the country on microfiche. You then go to the GRO and say, I want a copy of the certificate. Give them all the information that you found in the index. For a fee, they will certify what they find in that register. They will extract the data from that register, put it onto a set form on a certified piece of paper, which is basically the certificate, and then send you that. You can also go to the local registry office. As long as they have the time and the resources, they can supply a copy direct from there. Their costs may vary or be more than what the GRO cost.

Matt: So basically, if like me you were imagining that there were 62 million birth certificates filed at the General Register Office, you were wrong. They create them there and then.

Keith: Yeah. It’s from the registers.

Matt: I see. OK. I can’t think of any other questions that we get asked, but I hope that that has helped everyone who’s watching with this, one of the most requested kinds of records for family history. Thanks very much, Keith.

Keith: Thank you.