Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Birth, Death and Marriage Registration

birth certificate

Looking at the registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages in England and Wales.


The civil registration of births, deaths and marriages is a primary source of information for the family history researcher. This article looks at how it operates, what information is available, how to obtain the information, and its drawbacks.

Birth, Death and Marriage Registration

In July 1837 the civil registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages began in England and Wales. The country was divided into superintendent registrations districts and then sub-divided into registration districts. By law, every birth, death or marriage is required to be notified to the registrar of the registration district where the event occurred. The person providing the details for a birth or death is known as the Informant - often the father, mother or relation. The details are entered into a register and stored in the registration office while certified copies are sent to the Registrar General at the General Register Office, London. A copy of the entry - a certificate - is supplied to the informant. Certified copies of the register can be obtained when researching a family history.


Certified copy certificates supply the following information:

Birth Certificate - Date and place of birth, forenames, sex, father's name, mother's name, father's occupation, signature, description and residence of the informant, date of registration and signature of registrar

Death Certificate - Date and place of death, sex, age, occupation, cause of death, name and surname of the deceased, informant's details, date of registration and registrar's signature.

Marriage Certificate - Names of bride and groom, age at the date of marriage, marital status, occupation, address, name and occupation of the father of the bride / groom, signatures.

Access to Certificates

The original birth, marriage and death registers are not open to the public to search. There are, however, indexes to the registers. These supply reference information which is then quoted when applying for a copy of the certificate.


The indexes supply the following information:

Name - surname, first name(s) of the subject of the certificate
Record type - Birth, Death or Marriage (in separate indexes)
Quarter (March, June, September, and December. But bear in mind that if a birth was, for example, in December, it may not have been registered until January the following year)
Registration District
Page number

The aim when searching the indexes is to note and record all of this information as it will be needed when applying for a certificate.

The indexes are available offline at The National Archives in London, County Record Offices, family history societies or Mormon genealogical libraries.

Online there are now two different indexes which can be searched:

A new index at the General Register Office This new index (since Nov. 2016) covers births from 1837 to 1915 and 1837 to 1957 for deaths. On this index the mother's maiden name is also included in the search facility and the results. This facility does not exist on the other indexes until after 1911.

Original Index:
Free BMD - ongoing transcription of the indexes and images - free, but not all may be indexed. - images of the indexes and transcription of the indexes - pay to view - images and transcriptions of the indexes - pay to view

Applying for a Certificate

Certificates may be obtained from The General Register Office or the local Register Office.

The General Register Office
Once armed with the information from the indexes, you may apply for a copy of the certificate. The General Register Office provides full information on how to do this and the relevant fees. A certificate can be ordered online.

Local Register Office
The website Genuki provides details on local Register Offices in England and Wales where application may be made in person or by post.

Problems with Certificates

Certifications are a primary source of information for family history, providing the information given by the original informant is correct; and apart from the occasional strange spelling of surnames, or unclear handwriting, normally their reliability is good.

The biggest problem lies with the indexes and the limited information they provide when trying to identify whether a particular entry is the person you are seeking. Often it can work out to be very expensive applying for certificates, only to discover when they arrive, that they are not the person you are seeking. The Register Office does allow for checking information which cuts down on the cost, but a payment of some sort is unavoidable.


Despite the problems the certificates raise, they are a primary source of information for the family history researcher.

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