Civil Registration

Once we have set down what we already know about our family from memory and from interviews with other family members, the next stage of our research is to trace earlier generations by using the records of births, marriages and deaths which have been kept since their introduction on 1 July 1837. There was little change in the process until 1969 and minor changes only after that. With the exception of some marriage registers deposited in Diocesan Record Offices, we are not able to examine the registers themselves but must rely on name indexes created from copies of the original registers submitted to the Registrar General.

Before 1837, there was no statutory registration process for births and deaths. Church of England ministers were required to keep registers of baptisms and burials but this requirement did not extend to the growing number of nonconformist ministers and chapels. The situation with marriage was better regulated. Since 1754 it was only possible (with the specific exceptions of Jews and Quakers) to marry in a Church of England parish church or chapel licensed for the purpose. Ministers were required to keep registers in a specified format.

On 1 July 1837 a new system of civil registration was introduced. This required all births and deaths to be notified to a civil registrar. The act enabled Church of England ministers (as well as the Secretaries of Synagogues and Quaker Quarterly Meetings) to be appointed as registrars for the purpose of conducting marriages. The system also opened up the possibility of conducting a marriage in a nonconformist chapel provided a civil registrar was present to administer the civil vows and record the marriage in his/her register.

Registration Districts
In 1834, following the Poor Law Amendment Act of that year, the country was divided into a number of Poor Law Unions. These Unions are important because they subsequently provided the basis for both Registration Districts for Civil Registration and Enumeration Districts for the decennial censuses.

England & Wales was divided into a number of Superintendent Registrars' Districts and each District further divided into several Sub-Districts. Sub-districts were the usual interface with the public. The 27 Districts were numbered in Roman numerals I (West London) to XXVII (North Wales) and the Sub-Districts given the name of the town or parish in which the Sub-Registrar was located. The boundaries were revised in 1852 and the number of Districts increased. The new Districts were given Arabic numbers with alphabetical suffixes 1a for West London to 11b for North Wales. Sub-Districts continued to be named as before though some disappeared, some new ones were reated and some saw boundary changes. The boundaries and numbering were revised again in 1946. A pair of maps published by the Institute of Heraldic & Genealogical Studies, Canterbury, show the approximate boundaries 1837-1854 and 1856-1946. Further boundary changes took place subsequently, most notably in 1974 as part of the reorganisation of local governemt. In addition there have been numerous local reorganisations within registration districts.

The Registration Process
Births and deaths must be notified to a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages within statutory time limits. Births must be notified within 42 days and deaths within 5 days (unless there is an inquest) of the event. It will normally be a Local Registrar who is informed and he or she will make out an appropriate certificate. Every 3 months, the local registrar makes a copy of the entries for the quarter which he sends to the Superintendent Registrar who in turn certifies this and forwards it to the Registrar General. When a register book is full, it is sent to the Superintendent Registrar who retains it.

For marriages, the register is completed as a part of the ceremony. If the wedding takes place in a Registry Office, the Registrar who performs the ceremony will forward copies of register entries quarterly to the Superintendent Registrar. If the marriage is in a church, the officiating minister will act as local registrar. He/she will complete two registers and send copies of the register entries quarterly to the Superintendent Registrar. When full, one register is sent to the Superintendent Registrar and the other register is retained by the church. The Superintendent Registrar will, as for births and deaths, submit these copies of the register entries to the Registrar General.

The Superintendent Registrar retains the completed registers sent to him by the Local Registrars and church ministers and has the authority to make copies on request and on payment of a statutory fee.

The Registrar General, on receipt of register copies from each Superintendent registrar, produces consolidated indexes to each of these quarterly volumes, one each for birth, marriage and death registrations.

The National Indexes
The indexes compiled by the Registrar General from the register copies sent to him by Superintendent Registrars. are arranged alphabetically by surname and forename(s) in quarterly volumes Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep and Oct-Dec according to when the event was registered. The indexes were produced in book form but have in recent years been microfilmed and microfiched so that copies may be consulted in a variety of centres including:

You will often hear them called the "St. Catherine's Indexes" after their previous home at St. Catherine's House, London. Older researchers may still call them "Somerset House Indexes" after their even earlier home. It must be noted that the index references apply to the central records only. They are meaningless to Superintendent Registrars who may, or may not have compiled indexes to their own registers.

It is more common nowadays to consult these indexes online (see below).

Civil Registration on the Internet
This is the principal route by which searches for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths are now made. The national indexes to civil registration for England & Wales are available on the internet from several commercial web sites.

The following commercial sites provide information for charges made against a credit card. The coverage, presentation and charging structures differ considerably. Increasingly, these sites provide machine-searchable indexes. The sites include:

The above sites currently only cover events registered 1837 to circa 2006. To locate later registrations you will have to use the GRO national indexes as described above.

There is a project to build a machine-searchable copy of the national indexes under the title "FreeBMD" and over 270 million index entries have already been made available covering approximately 1837-1975 with some gaps. Visit for more information,

A number of sites provide indexes to local registrar's own indexes. For Lancashire, some 15 million records are already indexed at There are also similar sites for Cumbria, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, North Wales, Wiltshire and Bath. These indexes may provide more information than the GRO indexes, for example ages at death before 186 and mother's maiden names for births before 1912. They also provide, in the case of marriages, pairing of brides and grooms and the name of the church at which the marriage took place.Visit for links to these and other sites providing access to local BMD indexes.

Notes on Searching for a Reference
If you are looking for a reference in the GRO Indexes, the following notes may be helpful:

  • Obey the search room rules.

  • Remember that many record offices insist you take notes in pencil. Always keep one with your research papers.

  • Ask the librarian/archivist how the fiche/film issuing or control system operates and follow it! Use the marker cards or boxes provided.

  • Keep a record of quarters searched. There are standard (Allen & Todd) forms for this or you can create your own.

  • Search all likely name variants and record which ones you have searched.

  • Note any references which look likely even if registered in unexpected places.

  • Double check the details of any reference from which you expect to order a certificate.

  • Search for marriages under the less common surname first, then cross check the other

  • Check the bottom of each page for a late manuscript addition

Finding a reference in the indexes is not always easy. There are several problems which you may encounter:

  • Poor quality microfiche - some of the images are virtually illegible. If you encounter this, you may find a better copy at another centre. There are at least two different filmings in existence.

  • Entry lost in the system - The forwarding and copying of registers and the indexing process provide many opportunities for error and omission. You may need to check with the Superintendent Registrar if an entry cannot be found in the national indexes.

  • Entry lost in typing - there are typed copies of many of the early manuscript books. Errors and omissions crept in during the process. Many of the original books were filmed before typing. Try another centre - they may have a copy made before the books were typed.

  • Surname indexed under variant spelling - This is very common. The name may not have been spelled the way you expect either through change over time or by Registrar's whim/error. Check all known variants. It may also have been mis-transcribed during indexing. The Superintendent Registrar may be able to identify the correct entry in his original register.

  • Unexpected Forename(s) - You may know the person by a familiar name such as Jack or Sally when the name they were registered/married under was John or Sarah. Forenames may be reversed. William John may become John William. Middle names may be dropped or acquired.

  • Birth not registered - particularly before 1875 when there was no penalty.

  • Couple not married - even though they represented themselves as married.

  • Child not named - The child may not have been named at the time of registration and is indexed under "Male" or "Female" only.

  • Unidentified body - A deceased person might not have been identified and so is indexed under "Unknown"

  • Late amendments - The entry may have been missed when the book was written/typed. Watch out for manuscript entries at the bottom of the page.

  • Change of name - A child may have been illegitimate and registered under his mother's maiden name but changed this upon her subsequent marriage. A child may have been registered with its father's surname but adopted a stepfather's surname following its widowed mother's re-marriage.

  • Wrong Information - Your source information is wrong and the entry is recorded at a different time or in an unexpected registration district

Obtaining a Certificate
There are several ways in which you can obtain a certificate once you have found out when and where the birth, marriage or death took place:

  • By mail, quoting the index reference, from Office of National Statistics, PO Box 2, Southport, PR8 2JD. An additional charge is made for this service. They will search the indexes for an additional fee. Certificates should be supplied within about a week but can be provided next working day for an additional fee.

  • On line quoting the index reference, from Office of National Statistics at They will search the indexes for an additional fee.

  • By using an agent to order in person. You may either quote the index reference or ask the agent to search. Charges are comparable to ONS Southport but usually certificates will be sent within 10 days.

  • By direct approach to the Superintendent Registrar. Give all the details you can including the year and quarter registered if known from the indexes. The index references themselves, however, are meaningless to Registrars. Registrars may not be prepared to search for marriages since it can mean searching up to 100 or more registers if you are unable to specify where the marriage took place. Registrars may be prepared to undertake a more flexible search than others. You will need to find out to whom cheques should be made payable as this varies considerably. Turn-around can vary from next day to over a month depending upon the office concerned. Some local Register Offices offer online ordering and payment.

  • If you know the church where a marriage took place, you may find the church copy of the register has been deposited at the local county record office and a photocopy may be obtained. An increasing number of post-1837 marriage registers are now available online as part of the Ancestry and Findmypast databases. This does NOT apply to marriages conducted in a Register Office for which the only register is retained by the Register Office concerned.

There is only one form of marriage or death certificate which you can order but there are options of a "short" and a "full" birth certificate. The short certificate contains very little information and is genealogically more or less useless. You should always order the full certificate for research purposes.

Registrars' addresses can be found on the GENUKI pages at

You may find index entries and possibly certificate transcripts for specific surnames at web sites relating to one name studies.

There are many publications which describe the registration system and how to interpret the information which it provides or which support research. Some useful titles specific to the subject include:

General Register Office - Eve McLaughlin

Introduction to Civil Registration - Tom Wood

Birth & Death Certificates - £4 from author: Barbara Dixon, 22 Redwood, Burnham, Slough, SL1 8JN

The Family Tree Detective - Colin Rogers

St. Catherine's House Districts - Ray Wiggins (lists districts and sub-districts)

District Register Offices in England & Wales - E. Yorkshire FHS

Registration District Maps 1837-1852, 1852-1946, 1946 on - IHGS, Northgate, Canterbury, CT1 1BA

Amended 20 December 2018 - John Marsden