It sounds obvious (and it is), but as you begin to research your family tree you can save yourself a lot of time, money and effort by familiarising yourself with the sources of specific pieces of genealogical information. This is the first in a series of posts designed to help acquaint you with the types of information you can expect from key records, and how to get hold of them.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837. Before that records were kept locally by the church, or other religious bodies. The new system, in which events were officially recorded by local District registrars, who reported to the General Registrar Office (GRO) in London, means that today we have a central, publicly accessible index of births, marriages and deaths. Although prior to 1875, the registration of events was not strictly enforced (and a few were never registered), this index records with a fairly high degree of accuracy the key rites of passage in our ancestors’ lives. We are lucky that in England and Wales, unlike in many other countries, the GRO’s index can be accessed free of charge.
What will a birth certificate tell you?
A birth certificate is the foundation of any family historian’s research into an individual, primarily because it will help take you back to the next generation. Specifically, it should tell you:
- When and where a birth took place (including the date of registration and the district in which the birth was registered)
- The full name and sex of the child
- The name, surname, occupation and often the address of the father (the occupation and circumstantial information may help you determine you have got the right record, especially if the name is a common one )
- The name and maiden name of the mother
- The name and address of the informant (usually the father or mother, or both).
What information will you need to order a birth certificate?
In order to order a birth certificate for a relative, you will need a few key pieces of information:
- the full name of the person on the certificate (as it was recorded, not what you think it might be)
- the year and quarter in which the birth was registered (indexes are organised by quarters – Jan-Mar = Q1, Apr-Jun = Q2 and so on)
- the registration district
- the volume and page number of the relevant entry
How to find the relevant information to order a birth certificate
You should be able to find these by searching the FreeBMD website, which is also available at most public libraries and record offices. Enter as much information as you know. If you’re not sure about a piece of information, it is better to keep your search terms open ended. For example, if you are not sure about a name, search by an initial or just a surname; if you are not sure about the date, search a range of 10-15 years in which you think the birth is likely to have taken place; and, if you are not sure about the likely registration district, search by county or simply leave it the search field blank. You can always narrow down your search terms if you get too many results. Bear in mind that the registration of a birth may have happened in the quarter after it took place, and the name you know your ancestor by might not be the one that appears on their birth certificate (many people go by their middle names, for example). It pays to think flexibly and consider the balance of probabilities!
How to order the original record, costs and timings
Once you have found the entry you are looking for, you can order a copy of the record itself through the local registration district registry office (see here for a complete list) or through the GRO. I find it simplest to use the GRO’s website, especially when ordering multiple certificates from different registration districts. It is necessary to create an account (free of charge) but at £9.25 per certificate generally costs little more than ordering certificates through local registry offices. It is usually faster too – certificates are despatched within 4 working days. You can pay £23.40 for a next day service.
If you cannot find the record you are looking for using the FreeBMD index, you can ask the GRO to conduct a search for you. You will need to provide the person’s name and birth year. A search will be conducted that covers 3 years either side of the date provided. However, if you have trouble finding the relevant birth entry using the FreeBMD index, do consider whether there are other ways of locating it. If you have had trouble, the GRO may too. Try to think whether you have any circumstantial information at your disposal that will help, e.g. can you find siblings’ births, or use the mother’s maiden name (for births after 1911 only), to help you pinpoint when and where the birth you are looking for took place. The GRO should provide a refund if a search is unsuccessful.
Other things to consider
- You can search birth records from 1837-1984 in England and Wales on the FreeBMD index. Additional records from 1984-2006 are available through Find My Past. You can search the indexes for free which will provide a year and location of birth. You can then ask the GRO to conduct a search for you – this costs no more than ordering a certificate. If you wish to access the volume reference and page numbers of the entry, however, it is necessary to purchase credits on Find My Past. Be aware you may need to provide some details to verify your identity and interest in the records for more recent births.
- The GRO also holds records for some British nationals born overseas dating back to 1761. Unfortunately, births of British nationals born abroad cannot be searched through FreeBMD. The most user-friendly way to do this is through Find My Past. Again, you can search the indexes for free to find a year and location of birth, and ask the GRO to conduct a search for you.
- If the birth did not take place in England or Wales, could it have taken place in Scotland? Search Scottish Records at Scotlands People.
- International birth records usually contain very similar information to those in England and Wales, but it is not always as easy to access them. Different countries adopt varied approaches and systems. Sometimes you have to be able to prove your relationship to, or interest in, the subject. Please get in touch if you would like help accessing birth records internationally.
Hopefully, these steps should help you to locate your ancestors birth records. You now have enough information to approach marriage records…