On 1 July 1837 a civil registration system for births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales. Registration was undertaken by civil registrars who reported to the Registrar General at the General Register Office (GRO) in London. Copies of anyone’s birth, marriage or death certificates can be obtained by the public although, as noted in the introduction, the government is considering significant restrictions on the availability of records from the last 100 years. Civil registration records are vital to family historians because of the genealogical information that they include.

The Registration System

From 1 July 1837 all births and deaths had to be reported to a local registrar, who in turn reported them to the superintendent registrar of the registration district. The superintendent registrar retained his own records but copied them, every three months, to the Registrar General at the GRO. Marriages also had to be registered. A marriage certificate (retained by the married couple) and two registers are completed at Church of England weddings. One register of the marriages is kept by the church. When the other register has been filled with entries (sometimes many years after some of the weddings took place) it is sent by the minister to the superintendent registrar of the registration district in which the church is situated. However, every three months the minister must also prepare a further copy, from his register, of any entries of marriages taking place during that last quarter and send that copy directly to the Registrar General. Between 1754 and 1837 marriages had to take place in a parish church of the Church of England in order to be valid (the only exceptions were ceremonies in accordance with Quaker or Jewish rites). The acts of Parliament of 1836 and 1837 that established the civil registration system also provided that marriages would be valid if they took place either as a civil ceremony before a local registrar in a civil registry office or in the presence of a civil registrar (or, from 1898, certain authorised persons) in buildings used for Roman Catholic or non-conformist worship and registered for the celebration of marriages. These civil and non-conformist marriages were subject to the system, described above, regarding the keeping of marriage registers and so similar registers were retained by a church but also sent to the Registrar General and superintendent registrars.

Obtaining Certificates

The original registers that record births, marriages and deaths cannot be inspected by the public, but the GRO has national indexes, for each of births, marriages and deaths, most of which are divided into periods of three months. These quarterly volumes list the names, in alphabetical order, of the people who were born, who married or who died. You may obtain a certificate that includes a copy of the register entry of any birth, marriage or death, if you can locate it in an index. The indexes can be searched online. However, certificates of entries can only be obtained from the GRO.

The GRO Indexes

The major difficulty in obtaining civil registration certificates is finding the correct index entry. To put into perspective your search for the record of a birth that took place in about 1838, you should bear in mind that the indexes for the first year of registration alone contain 463,000 entries of births and the annual number of registrations has increased substantially since then, partly because of the growing population but also because the registration system became increasingly effective and complete. During 1896 about 915,000 births, 242,700 marriages and 526,700 deaths were registered. By 1998 the GRO records included about 246 million births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales since 1837 and there are now about 7,500 volumes of indexes. You must therefore prepare thoroughly before a search, especially if you are looking for a fairly common name.

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