Expert advice - Understanding birth, marriage and death certificates



1837 saw the debut of the cornerstone of modern genealogy - birth, marriage and death certificates.

Certificates of civil registration are a treasure trove of information which will help you fill in the gaps in your family research.

For example, on a birth certificate you will find

The child"s forenames
Sex
Date and place of birth
The mother"s maiden name (essential in opening new avenues of investigation)
The father"s full name and occupation - if he actually married the mother
Don"t knock information such as occupation. Throughout your research you should remember that genealogy is so much more than just names and numbers.

By discovering occupations you can see a little glimpse of how your ancestor spent their days, bringing the history to life, as well as opening up new possibilities such as finding out information from trade organisations of the time.

Beyond the family you"ll also find the name, address and relationship to the child of the person registering the birth and the date the certificate was added to the register.

This date is of great importance when tracking down certificates.

Since the current system of civil registrations became law on 1 July 1837, the indexes of every certificate registered in England and Wales can be found at the National Archives - and online at this site.

The indexes are arranged chronologically and grouped into births, marriages and deaths. The birth records on findmypast.co.uk are fully indexed, meaning that when you search for someone, you will be able to view a list of individual names. Marriage and death records are split up into quarters, labelled March, June, September and December, with the surnames in each quarter found in alphabetical order. The list of marriage and death results will currently only display the first and last name on the page - you will be able to search fully indexed marriages and deaths on findmypast.co.uk later this year.

Here is where the date of registration comes in, as the indexes are based on the date of the registration and not the actual event - although in the case of marriages this is almost always on the same day.

You should bear in mind that if you are searching for an ancestor who died on 18 November 1863 the death may not have been registered until January - meaning that the record would be found in the "March 1864" quarter rather than the "December 1863" index that you might expect.

For 165 years, the fundamentals of every English and Welsh citizen"s existence has been put on record. They may not be 100 per cent foolproof, but these certificates are the family historian"s best leads - here"s how to find and interpret them...

Birth Certificates

A few problems may arise due to the lax nature of the early documents. When records began, the parents had three weeks in which to register a birth and, after three months, they couldn"t register the child at all.

Soon, the laws were changed to a six week registration period, with a late registration possible up to a year later if a superintendent took the information and signed the register himself.

Any time longer than this and proof of the event had to be procured from a witness, such as a doctor or midwife. If the evidence couldn\"t be attested then the registration was null and void.

Penalties for late registrations also muddy the water as certain parents would lie through their teeth about the date of birth so it fell into the six week period and therefore avoid a hefty fine. In some cases it is possible to catch out these less than honest parents if you're lucky enough to have both the baptismal certificate and the birth registration. If the date differs, then look to the baptismal record as they were more likely to tell the truth in church.

One final thing to remember is that the fashion for having more than one forename was quite unusual until the beginning of the 20th century, so there is a chance that you may find a number of records featuring the same name, especially if the name you are searching for is quite common.

Many family historians have found themselves purchasing a copy of a certificate of the wrong person at some point in their search. We always advise viewing the original image before ordering any certificates - it is particularly important to make sure the volume and page numbers are correct.

It's annoying, but all part of the process of investigation. One titbit of information that can help you identify the right person is the Superintendent Registrar's District which is identified on each record.

The boundaries of these districts were in many cases different to parishes or even towns and were changed in 1852. You may find more information at the GENUKi website .

In the early days of registration some birth certificates actually got the gender of the child wrong, largely due to the fact that the parents may have been illiterate and couldn't check the details were correct.

Illegitimacy

At some point in your research you may stumble upon the delicate subject of illegitimacy, which affects the way birth certificates were registered.

The Act of Parliament of 1836 states "And it be enacted that the father or mother or every child born in England... shall within 42 days next after the day of every such birth give information upon being requested so to do the Register according to the best of his or her knowledge and belief of the several particulars hereby required to be known and registered touching the birth of such child provided always that it shall not be necessary to register the name of any father of a bastard child."

This was open to wide interpretation and some certificates entered the father's name even if they weren't married, while others omitted the father's name.

In 1850 the situation changed and the law now said that "No putative father is to be allowed to sign an entry in the character of Father."

This lasted until 1953 when the social situation regarding illegitimacy had shifted and the father could be acknowledged outside wedlock.

Marriage Certificates

Once you get hold of the certificate, where do you go from there?

Well, first of all you have what is called "primary evidence", albeit a copy. This first generation evidence is vital in proving who your ancestors were. But most importantly, having a certificate enables you to step back further in time.

For example, say you were researching a relative by the name of David Abberton. You get hold of Abberton's birth certificate and are greeted by his mother's maiden name. Now you can search the indexes on her name and find the registration of her marriage to the boy's father.

An index of marriages contain records of the both the bride's and groom's first and last names, the district where the happy event occurred, and the volume and page numbers that you need to obtain a copy in the same way you would for births.

When you receive the actual certificate you'll find out

  • Where the ceremony was carried out
  • The name of the church or registry office
  • The date of the wedding.
  • The couple's full names
  • Their ages at the time of the wedding
  • Their marital condition (whether they are spinster, bachelor, widow or widower).
  • Their occupations
  • Where they lived at the time of their marriage
  • The name and occupation of the respective fathers.

If the field for father's name is suspiciously empty, then you know that there may well have been some doubt over the father's identity.

Age of marriage

The age is useful in working back further, but be warned, it is only accurate if both parties were telling the truth.

Unless you looked as if you were under the age of consent, you were simply never asked to prove your age and at times the details on the certificate were tweaked. If the blushing bride was older than her husband-to-be, she would quite often lie about her age, or he would add on a few years to save her dignity.

Times were certainly different: the ages a person could marry set at 14 for a boy and only 12 for a girl back in 1837. However, both parents needed to consent to their child marrying so young, until they were 21 when they no longer needed consent.

In 1926 the age you could marry was raised to 16 for both sexes, with consent from parents still needed if under 21. The age you can marry still stands at 16 today, although the age of consent has dropped to 18.

The other point about ages that needs to be considered is that in times of illiteracy and poor information some people simply didn't know how old they actually were. In cases like this they often guessed.

Before 1870, where the age was in doubt, the register merely states "of full age". This formula is also used where either bride or groom preferred not to disclose their age.

Death Certificates

Finally we have death certificates, which can be interesting in any case to learn how our relatives met their maker.

Diseases, or at least recorded causes of death, that have enjoyed prominence include 'consumption' or just 'wasting'. If the form merely states the cause of death as 'Climacteric' it means either the death was unexpected, such as a heart attack, or quite simply that the doctor didn't know.

Once again, you might have to do some work to uncover where your ancestor drew their last breath, as, for example, the hospital they were in could have been in a different district to where they lived and again, some of the details, such as age, may have been a guess.

This is the eternal problem, especially with older records. As well as the strange districts to keep an eye on, entries may be difficult to find due to human error, as details were copied from one index to another, with mistakes inevitably creeping in.

Throw into the mix the problems of illiteracy, which meant that a lot of the details could never be checked, and that people's names often changed due to spelling errors, and you can see how certain records remain elusive. However, part of the joy of family history is carrying on when you feel you've hit a brick wall, only to suddenly make a discovery.

Ordering birth, marriage and death certificates

When you've correctly identified the person, you can get hold of the certificate itself. Make a record of all the details you found in the index including the district, volume and page number, plus the year and quarter.

As the original documents are not available to the public, the copy of the certificate is your primary link back to your ancestors. But be warned, each new copy is freshly made by the General Register Office and while every effort will be taken to ensure the information is correct, an error in the transcription may creep in.

If the original data is too difficult to read, a photocopy will be provided instead. Please also note that certificates for overseas records may not contain as much information as the UK Birth, Marriage and Death certificates.

Simply use this site to search for index numbers for certificates and apply online (registered users only)