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
(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.)
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.