Civil Registration

Civil Registration or the national recording of vital statistics began 1 July 1837. The English counties had been subdivided into regions known as poor law unions in 1834. These same regions became the first registration districts for civil registration. A Superintendent Registrar was appointed to preside over the recording of births, marriages and deaths in each district with instructions to forward copies of the same quarterly to the General Register Office in London where a national index was produced. The records were recopied at the central office in London and filed not by the date and place of the event, but by the quarter and district in which each was registered.

Initially, there was under registration of births, perhaps as high as 15% for some counties, until 1875. This fact underscores the need for the researcher to know not only the contents of the records and their indexes, but the dates in which subsequent changes were made. Detailed information concerning contents and dates of changes is online. Start with Find My Past. First examine the "Introduction" for the key dates. Then "BMD Certificates" to see photos of each of the birth, marriage and death certificates.

Before starting research in civil registration, find the ancestor in at least three subsequent census records taken between 1851-1911, to confirm the year of birth, place of birth, and how long the family was in that registration district. Census records can also aid in determining the district and approximate year of marriage and death. Then check to see if the FHL has the church records for the same time period. If so, you could search those records for their marriages and burials, and perhaps the christenings for some of the children in the family. However, the ideal would be to get the birth and marriage certificates for each person in your direct line, and death certificates especially in the time period of 1837-1865 (when the death indexes fail to give the age recorded on the death certificate) from civil registration.

For further examples of the civil registration index and birth/marriage certificates as well as coordinating this material with research in the census records, see the FHL publication “England, Finding Your Ancestors, 1837-1901,” pages 5-7 and 11. To see this publication on line, go to Family Search

Searching for Certificates from the General Register Office in London

  1. The volume numbers in the index also indicate the county where the district is located. Roman numerals were used before 1852 and an Arabic number followed by a letter of the alphabet after 1851. Example: volume XIII represented the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. After 1851 the volume number for Norfolk was 4b. Start by determining the volume number for your county and time period. Click on GENUKI and then the topic of "Civil Registration." When that screen comes up, click on Mike Wheatley’s "mapping" to see the reference numbers for each county.
  2. Next locate your place of interest to find the name of its registration district and the names of the neighboring districts. If you have access to Internet Explorer 7 or a higher version, go to FamilySearch Maps and type the name of your place in the search box. The pin number on the map represents your place. The tab at the top of the box labeled Jurisdictions provides the name of the registration district. Click on the name of the registration district to see a list of the districts that border it. (If you do not have access to this web site, return to geographic location and use the reference tools listed there.)
  3. There are free searches on line for the civil registration indexes from 1837-2005. For images from the national index in London start with This is a subscription site but the public has free access when searching at the FHL or using the computers in the Family History section of the BYU library. This site also allows you to switch to the FreeBMD index at FreeBMD. The latter index provides options to search on the county and/or district level as well as nationally. The indexes are also free at Find My Past
  4. The easiest way to order a certificate on line is by using a credit card and the complete information taken from the above indexes, including the name of the last month in the quarter of interest: March, June, September or December. This government site is located at Registration Services.

Searching for Certificates from the Local Registration Districts

(This routine is useful if the name is too common, can not seem to be found in the national indexes or you wish to see a copy of the original record. This approach will be even more desirable as more of the indexes of the local districts come on line. The obvious drawback is if the family moved out of the district.)

  1. Visit GENUKI and then under "Information Related to all of England" go to the topic of "Civil Registration." When the screen for that topic comes up, click on "Registration Districts appropriate to particular towns."
  2. On the screen for "Registration Districts in England and Wales (1837-1974)" click on the name of the county of interest for fuller details on the district name located in step #2 of the preceding procedure for the General Register Office. If that district was abolished, the name of the succeeding district is provided. Now go back to the top of the preceding screen and press "addresses of current register offices." The last column indicates any online indexes for that district. One can also keep up to date with what is on line for the various districts at UKBMD. Click in the left margin on "Local BMD."

Two Other Types of Vital Statistics On-Line

Births, marriages and deaths at sea on board British ships were recorded separately for 1854-1890 and may assist in solving migration problems. Civil divorce for the general public began in 1858. See Find My Past for free indexes to both events. "Births 1761-2006" or "Deaths 1796-2006" or "Marriages 1796-2005" and scroll down to the listings for "British nationals born (died or married) at sea." For the divorce index, go back to Marriages and click on “Divorces and matrimonial causes 1858-1903.” The actual records for the events at sea are available on FHL and BYU films 1419469-1419472, and the index to divorce, 1858-1958, is on FHL films 2358042-2358057. Divorce before World War I was still quite rare. If divorce records are pertinent to your research, the above web site can assist you in going beyond this index. This is a fee site but free to those using the computers at the FHL and in the family history section of the BYU library.

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