Finding birth, marriage and death records

By Jon Bauckham, 31 July 2013 - 11:00pm

Birth, marriage and death certificates can help you trace your ancestors

In 1836, the General Register Office (GRO) was established to maintain a central record of all the births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales.

Today the GRO index to civil registration certificates forms the main building block of genealogical research. In theory all deaths and marriages from 1 July 1837 should have been registered within six weeks, but the registration of births was not compulsory until 1875, so coverage can be patchy before then.

Though the certificates are not online, the original central indexes can be searched from July 1837 to 2007 in several places, making it easy to order hard copies of certificates from the GRO.

• Microfiche copies are held at the British Library and some regional libraries
• Digitised indexes can be searched by name on FreeBMD, Findmypast, Ancestry, TheGenealogist, FamilyRelatives, GenesReunited or UKCensusOnline. There are occasional errors in the digital indexes, so if you can’t find your ancestor using one website, try another.
• Some regional indexes are gradually going online and can be found using the free site

The GRO indexes list the name under which the event was registered (which could be spelled differently to how you were expecting), the quarter and year it was registered, the district of registration and a volume and page number. Once you have this information, you can order a copy of the full certificate from for £9.25.

1920s English wedding

Using certificates to build your tree

Certificates are vitally important for building your family tree and proving the connections between each person. 

Births registered from September quarter 1911 include the mother’s maiden name in the index, which makes it easier to pinpoint the right birth during the 20th century. Victorian census returns provide places of birth, however, which can help to identify earlier entries in the birth index. 
Click here for an example birth certificate

If you’ve found a marriage certificate (which will confirm the ages of the bride and groom and names of their fathers), the next step is to look for birth certificates for the happy couple. There may be more than one likely entry in the index, particularly for common names, so you may need to purchase several certificates to establish which one is correct.

The GRO marriage index cross-references the spouses’ names from 1912 onwards, nevertheless, it is still possible to identify a marital match between two surnames prior to 1912 with a little bit of trickery online. One method is to search for a bride and groom with the same year, quarter and place of marriage and registration numbers. Alternatively, FreeBMD does the hard work for you, automatically locating those names with matching registration details.
Click here for an example marriage certificate

English and Welsh death certificates are not as informative as birth and marriage certificates but can still be helpful, particularly for researching older generations born before July 1837. A death certificate confirms the deceased’s age, and from 1969 exact dates of birth are given. The informant was usually a relative and their details can be useful for confirming suspected links in your tree. Birth, marriage and death certificates also provide home addresses, which might help to locate your family in other records like electoral registers. 
Click here for an example death certificate

Scotland and Ireland

Although civil registration was not introduced to Scotland until 1st January 1855, the statutory records are more detailed than their English and Welsh counterparts. Furthermore, full scanned images can be instantly downloaded online for births in 1855–1913, marriages in 1855–1938 and deaths in 1855–1963.

In Ireland, civil registration began on 1st January 1864, though non-Catholic marriages were registered from April 1845. Recently the GRO of Northern Ireland launched an online search and order facility at for births, marriages and deaths registered in the north from 1845. 

Indexes up to 1958 for the Republic of Ireland can be searched for free using FamilySearch, and are also available on and Ancestry. Order Irish certificates online from


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