Birth records - expert advice

The churches in England & Wales have recorded baptisms, marriages and burials at parish level for centuries. Some searches even reveal records with church locations where individual baptisms took place. However, civil registration of births, marriages and deaths didn’t begin until July 1837.

At that time, England & Wales were subdivided, for the purposes of registration, into administrative areas known as registration districts. Within each, a district registrar was appointed to record the births, marriages and deaths within their district. Four times a year, a copy of the district registers was made for the Registrar General, who collated all the birth, marriage and death registers for England & Wales into a single countrywide index, arranged alphabetically by surname (and then alphabetically by forename within each surname).

When searching our fully indexed birth records, it's advisable to leave the 'county' field blank to start with. Your ancestor may not have been born in the county you think, so selecting this county will not lead you to your ancestor. If they were born on the border of two counties this could also mean you don't get the results you're expecting.

You can also search Irish birth records on findmypast

Births - Legitimate/illegitimate

Legitimate births

Those where the two parents of the child were married to one another at the time of birth (not necessarily also at the time of conception) should have been indexed only under the surname of the father.

Illegitimate births

Those where the parents of the child were not married to one another at the time of birth should be registered under the surname of the mother.

Where paternity was acknowledged and the name of the father is given in the register, the birth may in addition be registered under the surname of the father.

Missing forenames - males and females.

Children do not have to be named before they can be registered.

If a child is unnamed at registration, they will appear in the index as either "male" or "female". "Males" and "females" appear at the end of the alphabetical sequence of forenames under the given surname. Very rarely, these births will be indexed as "boy" or "girl". The fully indexed birth records highlight unnamed children - this was especially common in the Victorian period.

Do not assume that a "male" or a "female" will have died in early infancy, although this is indeed a common reason for the birth being registered in this way. Many "males" and "females" were merely named later, at the time of baptism.

Births - age adjustments

If, despite having an exact date, you do not find the entry for the birth you are looking for at or immediately after that date, treat the year with some caution.

• If the date is from a modern (post-1969) death certificate, it may well be the case that the day and month are correct but the year is not.
• It is not at all uncommon to find that a person has modified their age - for instance, when declaring their age at marriage - and then this fiction has stuck with them over time.
• In respect of other people, their ages simply may have become hazy over time.

In any event, in these circumstances, try checking a year or two either side of the given date.

Spelling variations

If you still have no success, you may wish to consider spelling variations, either those genuinely in use by the family, or those accidentally created by registrars or by those copying them or preparing the indexes. Ticking the 'Include variants' boxes when you search first and last names should ensure that any variation of your ancestor's name is included in the search results.

Finding surnames

If you treat the indexes as you would a telephone directory, searching them should become intuitive in no time at all.

They are arranged alphabetically from A-Z. However, some comment is needed in respect of certain types of surname.


In the case of births and deaths, surnames beginning with Z may well be followed by a short sequence of registrations where the surname was unknown.

Mc and Mac

The methodology used by the GRO when indexing Mac and Mc surnames changed over time.

•Before June quarter 1969 these are indexed separately
•From June quarter 1969 these surnames are interfiled - when searching June 1969 to December 1983 you must remember that they are all indexed as MAC.

For example, MacDonald & McDonald are both indexed under MAC. Again, ticking the 'Include variants' boxes by first and last name should improve your chances of finding your ancestors.

Double-barrelled surnames

These should be indexed after the entries for the first component of the hyphenated name.

•For example, you should look for Harvey-Smith after the Harvey entries. It would be after, say, Harvey-Jones but before Harvey-Wood.
•However, if a registrar or indexer did not interpret Harvey-Smith as a surname, but Harvey as a middle name and Smith as the surname, then the entry could be under Smith.

It is not at all unusual to find that an indexer has erred on the side of caution and where in doubt entered the registration under both names in the index.

De or Le or St or Van / Van Der or Von names

If your name is, say, De Burgh or Le Jeune or St John or Van Horne or Van der Zyden or Von Essen, you should be listed under the first component of your name as if there were no space between the two components.

For instance, De Burgh should therefore be in the index between surnames such as Debney and Debus.


The deaths of nuns are often entered not under their true given name but using the formula Sister Mary, Mother Maria and so on.

These are then indexed under S for Sisters, M for Mothers etc. Sometimes, they appear to be entered under the forename, so that a Sister Cecilia might be indexed under Cecilia or under Sister.

Jewish and Eastern European names

Immigrants in, for example, the 1890s were unlikely to be literate in English and, of course, registrars in England & Wales were unlikely to be fluent in the native language of the immigrant, such as Yiddish, Polish or Russian.

Russian, of course, uses a different alphabet and can be transliterated in different ways from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet used in English. Accordingly, you should be very cautious when looking for events under immigrant surnames and try to think of possible variants.


If you are researching a German name containing an umlaut, such as Müller, remember that you may need to check under Muller and Mueller.


Births of persons bearing hereditary titles should appear under the true given names but their deaths may well appear under their titles.

Marriages could be under either the true surname or the title, depending upon whether or not they have already assumed their title from the previous holder.


Births of royalty will usually be registered under their surnames - such as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Battenberg or Mountbatten, Windsor.

For example, the 1926 birth of HM Queen was entered in the index as the name Elizabeth A M Windsor.