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Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Beginners' Guide

Find my past author
23 December 2015

Birth, Marriage and Death Records (BMDs) are the first kind of records you'll discover when starting your family history research. The BMDs provide an incredible resource for tracing important events in your family's history, and are often the key to growing your family tree.

But what are they, exactly? And how can they help you?

A Brief History

The story of Findmypast's British BMDs starts way back in 1538. The Church of England split with Rome, and it was decided that every parish priest should keep a register of any birth, marriage or death that happened under their jurisdiction.

It's from these original register books, featuring the very words that those priests penned nearly 500 years ago, that Findmypast's online records are compiled. The books are scanned and transcribed, before being uploaded onto our database. These parish records, which, depending on the priest, could be either highly detailed or not kept at all, are the source of all BMD information up the 1837, when the lack of consistency in record keeping saw the beginning of civil registration.

What's the Difference Between Parish Records and GRO Records?

GRO (General Register Office) records are those civil registration records that started in 1837. The main difference between those and parish records is the amount of information available. As a rule, the GRO records will contain a more standard set of information as listed below (see What you'll find), whereas parish registers can vary greatly, such as marriage registers including information of the newlywed's parents' names and occupations.

As well as these records, on Findmypast you can also find records of British nationals who lived or served overseas, people who were born or died in workhouses, non-conformist life events, and indexes of wills and probate. Basically, people who wouldn't necessarily have been recorded by the church.

Getting Started

The most likely starting point for new users will be the more recent civil registers, which are fully name indexed and much easier to search than their parish predecessors. The smart search features allow you to include name variants in your search, in case a record was transcribed wrong (easily done when you see some of the handwriting!) or your relative recorded themselves under a shortened name (e.g. Maggie instead of Margaret).

Most BMDs have a scanned image accompanying the transcription for extra reference, but you'll need toorder the full certificate to get access to all of the information the original record holds.

What You'll Find

The amount of information listed in BMDs will vary depending on the record, but usually they will consist of a combination of the following personal information:

Birth Records:

  • Name
  • Birth year/date
  • Mother's surname
  • District
  • County
  • Country

GRO births contain the mother's maiden name for any births registered in the 3rd quarter of 1911 onwards.

Marriage Records:

  • Name
  • Name of spouse
  • Year and quarter of marriage
  • district

With the GRO marriages we offer 'marriage match' to show potential spouses. We show the exact spouse for marriages registered in the 1st quarter of 1912 onwards. At the same time, the married and maiden name of the woman was also recorded, if they had been married before.

Death Records:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Birth date
  • Death date
  • District
  • County
  • Country

With the GRO death indexes, the date of birth was added from the 2nd quarter of 1969 onwards.

The birth and marriage records will most likely be the most useful for adding new names to your family tree, while the death records can provide an insight into the life of an individual and their family.

Try Searching For Your Relatives Now...

Findmypast - London office

Looking beyond 1837? Discover more handy hints for searching parish registers