Introduction to Civil Registration
Civil registration was introduced on 1 July 1837 in England & Wales, although until 1875 it was the resposibility of the local registrar and not of the individual to make sure that events were registered, and there were no penalties for not registering an event. The country was divided into 619 registration districts, based upon Poor Law unions, later reorganised into 623 in 1851, and subsequently re-organised several times over the decades.
For details of these see the Genuki Districts page:
Copies of the local registrars registers were sent to the General Register Office each quarter, from which alphabetical indexes were prepared based upon surname, then first name and it is only these indexes that may be searched. The paper indexes contain around 250 million references to Births, Marriages and Deaths in 7,500 volumes.
The quarters are:
- March: for events registered in January, February and March
- June: for events registered in April, May and June
- September: for events registered in July, August and September
- December: for events registered in October, November and December
To order a copy of the entry in the register (aka a certificate) it is generally necessary to find the full name(s), as well as the district and quarter in which the event was registered and these are most easily found from these quarterly indexes. Traditionally it was necessary to visit one of the 7 places in the country which held full copies of the indexes and search the relevant quarterly volume for the district in question, assuming that one knew a likely place and date for the event! More recently images of these quarterly index pages were put on-line and can still be searched, e.g. on Ancestry, or Find My Past. In this case an index search will just find the index pages where the name might appear (by using the first and last name on each page) and you have to view each page to check whether the name that you are seeking is actually present.
Having found the index reference, one still cannot view the "original copy" of the certificates at the GRO or anywhere else, but certificates can be ordered by post or online from the GRO and you will receive a photocopy on paper resembling the original register entry.
Online GRO Index databases
Over the last few years the individual index entries have been inserted by thousands of volunteers into the FreeBMD database that may be freely searched. A copy of this database is also available on the subscription website:- Ancestry, but it will not be as up to date nor are the search facilities as good as the main copy at FreeBMD. Note that Ancestry and other commercial "pay-per-view" genealogy websites e.g. Find My Past and Family Relatives have also prepared and published their own transcriptions of the GRO Indexes.
The databases do not hold every index reference since 1837, but there are currently around 220 million entries and most years for each type of record are complete until around the mid-fifties, see details from this FreeBMD Progress page.
N.B. Unlike some other well known paid for databases, FreeBMD is transcribed wholly in the UK by volunteers who are largely native English speakers, and all entries are entered twice for cross-checking. Thus, even where the source records are not typed (which they generally were after the middle of the 19th century), mis-transcribing of personal or places name is unusual.
Basic Search techniques
The database can get very busy with over 200,000 searches per day; sometimes this can lead to the search timing out and you are asked to try again later! Although more and more servers are being added from time to time, the service grows ever more popular and at some times on some days it is just not worth keeping on trying, so give up and choose another avenue of research. Usually searches are quicker before researchers in North America start to get on-line in the early afternoon.
In any case it is generally best to do a count first and then try to reduce the number of results as much as possible (ideally less than 100) before going for the full records. Broadly speaking, the more details you give the better the chance of restricting the number of results to something that will quickly identify the person you are seeking. But equally, the greater the chance that because of a minor discrepancy in one detail you will miss the record altogether, so getting the balance right is the trick.
It is best to search for one type of record, i.e. Birth, Marriage or Death at one time to reduce response times but you can search for All Types in one go (e.g. for someone with a very unusual name e.g. Sharpson). To search again use the “Revise Search” link from the results page which will preserve the data that you have already entered for you to amend one or two details. Beware when making a fresh search for a different person that you do not use this option and forget to change some boxes.
Note that upper and lower case letters are treated as the same and where the exact spelling is not clear or may vary, then wild-card characters may be used. The question mark character "?" stands for one one character, while the asterisk "*" stands for any number of characters or none. So entering franc?s will find just Frances or Francis, while fran will find Frank etc. as well. Entering t*ll*y will find all the variants of Tilly, Tylly, Tilley etc. while ros* will find all variants of Rose or Rosanna, but note that there are actually special rules for both surname and the first name box to help with spelling problems (see below).
Details of what to enter in each box
- Surname: the surname, plus the type of record and date range is probably the minimum amount of data that you will need to enter for a successful search. You may tick the option “Phonetic search surnames” to avoid spelling problems with this particular box.
- First Name(s): Uniquely, any letters you enter automatically have an asterisk added at the end , so meaning “First name starting with...” whatever you enter. It is best to use a letter in place of a middle name, where you need to enter this detail, in order to get the best results. To search just for a second name, put an asterisk in front of the name e.g. “David”, would find “Richard David” etc. Use two asterisks to find the name as a third or later name. If you are not sure whether the name you have is actually a first or second name put a plus sign in front of the name, e.g. “+jane” will find Mary Jane and Jane Elizabeth.
- Date Range: Give as small a range of dates as possible to speed up the search and reduce the number of results. Don't forget births and deaths may not have been registered until the quarter after the event took place and so may even fall over into the next year.
- County(ies): You cannot enter both County and District in the same search, so generally start with County first unless you are sure about the location of the event. Hold down the Ctrl key before clicking to select more than one county from the list (a technique that you can use for any list on any web page). The words “One or more counties selected” is displayed if you search again using “Revise Query” because you may not be able to see what has been selected further down the list.
- District(s): You may use the Genuki pages to try to work out in which District the event occurred if you know which town or village may have been the location and you are getting too many results just by using County. Hold down the Ctrl key before clicking to select more than one District from the list. The words “One or more districts selected” is displayed if you search again using “Revise Query” because you may not be able to see what has been selected further down the list.
- Volume/Page: You are unlikely to need to enter values into these fields unless you are trying to find the other people on a page, for example you are trying to find the spouse for a marriage where you have already located the other party (see below).
- Find/Count: It is best to perform a count first to see whether the number of results returned will be sensible, far too many results will cause the search to time out, a few hundred results will take a long time, it is best to aim for less than 100 or there will be too many to look through closely. Try adding more detail until you get the results down to less than 100, ideally less than 10.
Results of your Search
If you do a “Count” then you will just get a page with the total number of all results matching the details that you entered, with buttons offering a “New Query”, to “Revise Query” or “Find” which will return the full details of all results just as if you had entered “Find” on the Search page itself. The full results from a “Find” search consist of the following details which comprise all those recorded in the GRO Index itself:
- First name(s)
- Age – where available (see below)
- District (also acts as link)
- Page (also acts as link)
There are also two extra items that may appear alongside the result
- Red Info link
- Spectacles icon link
The first five fields (or six fields with Age), are all that you need in order to be able to order the full certificate from the GRO (see below). It is up to you to decide whether it is worthwhile to do so in order to get further details, or whether these details are sufficient.
Click on the District link to bring up another page giving brief details of the Registration District, or to see all parishes included in it. Click on the Page link to see all the entries on that page in the original register (see below for the use of Page in tracing spouses in marriages)
The Info button will bring up another page (generally in another TAB leaving the Search results page open) where you can see who did the transcription, submit a correction (see below) or add a postem (see below) and get the official URL for the results page to record as your “source”. It alsl has a spectables likn to the scans page.
These days nearly all results are supported by at least one copy of a scan of the relevant Index entry page and by clicking on the Spectacles icon link you can see these. The link takes you to a page with the same details given via the Info link but with an extra section in the middle giving details of the scan(s) used to extract the database details. This is an image of the page of the register index, i.e. what you would find if you went to the GRO offices and conducted the search in person. There are no more details available that are given in the database but you may sometimes be able to read what the transcriber could not in rare cases.
Advanced and Special Search Techniques
- Entering Spouse/Mother Surname:
From 1912 onwards the maiden name of the Spouse was recorded, so you may use this box to obtain a result for a Marriage where either spouse name matches or the spouse name is missing. If the marriage was before this date, the name is used to match against other names on the same page in the register (see below), so it does not matter which way round you put the surnames in the “Surname” and “Spouse” boxes.
When used for a birth then only births after Sept 1911 will be returned, since details of the mother's maiden name were not recorded prior to this date.
- Finding all children of a marriage:
Using the above technique for couples that married after 1911 (i.e. by searching for births after entering the names of the both the father and the mother), one can effectively find all children of the marriage. It is possible that couples with identical names for both partners existed in the same District but this is unlikely unless the name is very common.
- Entering Death age/DoB(Date of Birth):
Age at death was recorded from 1 Jan 1866, and the date of birth from 1 April 1969 for all deaths registered. FreeBMD converts between the two, so it does matter which you enter: enter age just as digits, but date of birth as a month and year or range of years preceded by the “@” symbol. So “@June 1910” refers to a death of someone born in June 1910, while “@1910-1914” refers to the death of someone whose birth was registered between Jan 1910 and December 1914. The content of this box is ignored for results prior to Jan 1866.
- Finding a Spouse from the other party in a Marriage:
When you click on the Page link of the results for marriages, you will see the names of the brides and grooms for all the marriages on that page in the original register (which therefore share the same values for volume and page in the GRO Index). Prior to 1852 up to 4 marriages were recorded on a register page, so giving up to 4 brides plus 4 grooms, after that generally just 4 marriages, so up to 2 brides plus 2 grooms. The Index cannot tell you who married whom so you must get the original certificate to be absolutely sure but you can try finding the family in the next Census after the marriage to see if the first name of the wife matches that of one of the brides on the page and similarly for for grooms.
Possible reasons for people being missing
If you cannot find the person where you expect them to be via FreeBMD, but the events for the year in question have been fully (100%) transcribed then you may like to consider the following possibilities:
- The event was not registered in the quarter that it occurred, in particular births may be registered some weeks after the event and so fall into the next quarter or even the next year.
- The Registration District may not be what you are expecting, this can be confusing especially in London, but also in other areas. For example, the local District for Caterham was Godstone until 1934, when it was abolished and most of the villages went to Surrey South Eastern District. The mapping to places to Districts over time is given on the Genuki pages above.
- In some years only initials were available, not first names, so only the surname can be used for searching. Hence it is sensible only to use a first name where it is necessary to reduce the results count.
- Some people were registered with a name other than that by which they were known in later life, preferring to use a diminutive form or a middle name, e.g. Daisy for Margaret, Polly for Mary, Jack for someone registered as Henry John!
- If a birth cannot be found using the mother's married name then it is possible that the child was born before the woman married and so may be found under her maiden name. Note that such children commonly used the mother's married name as their surname in later life even though there was no formal process for adoption until 1927.
- While you may be very proud of an unusual spelling of a first name or surname in your ancestry, many working class people were illiterate until late in the 19th century. They could not spell their own name or check what an official had recorded, so the name might not be registered in the way that you expect it to be spelt.
- Ministers and officials on the other hand were often well educated but coming perhaps from another part of the country to that of the people arriving at their offices to register events. They often simply wrote down what they heard without thinking too much. Local dialects and local or regional names (e.g. "Hogben" in Kent) tend to give rise to some unusual spellings. In other words do not get hung up on spelling from one old record to another.
- Even if the register is correct, the copying by hand of names into the index did produce errors and sometimes the handwriting is simply too difficult to read accurately.
- Remember that rail travel was fast and cheap in the second half of the 19th century, so people tended to travel further away from their home town home than you might expect to work and then settle. But brides often got married from their parental home and returned there for the birth of their first child. This can account for marriages and births being registered well away from other known addresses for the family.
#Submitting a Correction or Post