Vital Records in England and Wales:
Civil Registration

Searching for vital records in England and Wales between 1837 and the present?

The civil registration system for vital records - births, marriages and deaths - in place from 1837 to the present, plays an important role in Welsh and English genealogy research.





Effective July 1, 1837, the government of England and Wales took over responsibility for the registration of births, marriages, and deaths.

Thereafter, although parents could continue to have their children christened in the local Anglican church, they had to file the appropriate registration papers with the government for a birth.

Registry Offices were opened across the country for this purpose. Marriages could take place in the Registry Office itself, as an alternative to a church, so long as the local Registrar was there to sign the documentation.

Deaths also had to be registered with the government.

Therefore, for vital records (births, marriages, or deaths) which occurred after July 1, 1837, the records would be found in the local Registry Office. These were known as civil records, and were part of the civil registration system.


Kingston Registry Office. Wikimedia Commons.

There are also copies of these vital records in the General Registry Office, which has a website for ordering certificates online. The address is https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/default.asp

The change of responsibility for recording vital records from the churches to the Registry Office was intended to standardize the procedures and make sure that all births, deaths, and marriages were captured and recorded.

However, there was a great deal of confusion among the general public as to what exactly the requirements were. Many thought that continuing to have births, marriages, and deaths recorded at the local parish church was sufficient to meet the requirements.

Others simply did not bother to register vital records with the government. I suspect this is the case with my grandfather, as I have been able to find a christening record for him, but no birth registration. I keep on looking, though!

It was not until 1875, when the government passed legislation providing for the imposition of fines for non-compliance with the statute, that things began to fall into place. It therefore is possible that many births, marriages, and deaths during the period from July 1, 1837 to 1875 went unrecorded in the Registry Office.


FreeBMD and Ancestry.com

The “"FreeBMD" database is a “sister” database to the FreeREG database, discussed on my webpage Parish Church Records in England and Wales.

The FreeBMD database contains vital records from July 1, 1837 and on. It also is partly owned by Ancestry.com, and is one of the databases on Ancestry. Access and searching are completely free. However, the search functions on Ancestry are somewhat broader than those in the FreeBMD database, and other resources on the Ancestry site complement it.

For instance, if your ancestors lived in the London, England area, the parish registers for births, banns, marriages, and burials all are on Ancestry, and have been scanned as well as transcribed and indexed.

If you find an ancestor in the FreeBMD database who was born in London, England, all you will receive at FreeBMD is a transcript of the child's name and the quarter during which s/he was born.

The same is true on Ancestry, with respect to the FreeBMD database. On Ancestry, however, you likely will be able to obtain full details of his or her vital records in the London parish records, including looking at the actual documents from the parish registers!


Family Search: The Latter-day Saints (LDS) Site

Another excellent free genealogy website and resource for vital records in England and Wales (as well as many other countries) is Family Search.

While it was not one of my favorites in the past, the site has been revamped, and a number of additional databases and digital images of records have been added, although in many cases, the images are on a pay-for-use site. I recently have been using it to find records which don't seem to be available anywhere else.



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Birth Registrations

Birth registrations in the Registry Office, as recorded online in the FreeBMD database and on Ancestry, do not list the names of the parents. They simply list the child’s name and the quarter of the year (Jan-March; Apr-June; July – Sept; and Oct to Dec) in which the child was born. If you wish any further information, you must order a copy of the child’s birth certificate.

Alternatively, you can consult the LDS Family Search website, which provides extensive information on British and Welsh births, simply by inputting the person's name and approximate date of birth.

These appear to be parish records, but if used in conjunction with the FreeBMD database, you likely will be able to obtain a great deal more information with respect to a child's parentage, and add more generations to your family tree.


Newborn's feet. Wikimedia Commons

The birth certificate will contain some or all of the following information:

  • District, Date & Place of Birth;
  • Child's ForeNames & Surname and Gender;
  • Father's Name, Place of Birth, and Occupation;
  • Mother's Name, Place of Birth, Usual Address, and Occupation;
  • Informant's Name, Qualification, Address, Inand Signature;
  • Date of Registration;
  • Registrar's Name & Signature; and
  • Child's Revised Name (if any, after registration).




Marriages

Similarly, for marriages after July 1, 1837, you can search for the couple you are looking for by name. However, you will not find the couple listed; you will find a copy of the page on which the marriage was recorded.

There could be as many as 4 couples on a page between 1837 and 1852, after which you will find that there were usually 2 couples per page. However, they are not organized by couple. The names have not been entered in any particular order.

If you know the names of the spouses, and they both are listed on the page, you don’t have a problem; you now know that the couple was married in a particular quarter of a particular year. You can order a marriage certificate, knowing you’re not wasting money on the wrong couple, and obtain many more details of the marriage.


Wedding rings. Wikimedia commons

If you don’t know the spouse’s name, you will have a choice of four individuals, if the marriage was between July 1, 1837 and 1852, or two individuals, if it was after 1852.

One way of discovering which of these four (or two) was the spouse is to search the census records immediately following the date of the marriage. Assuming that the four names on the page were different - for example, there were not two Marys or two Elizabeths among the brides - you should be able to find out which of the names on the page were couples.

Ultimately, if no other clues can be found, you may have to order a copy of the marriage certificate listing only the one spouse’s name, in order to find out who he or she married, and determine whether this is the couple you are looking for.

This situation is alleviated in records after 1912, in which the spouse’s surname is provided in the search results.

Alternatively, you can do a free genealogy search on the LDS Family Search website. It has a database of marriages in England from 1573 - 1973. While these appear to be parish records, rather than the civil records resulting from government registration, they can provide a wealth of information which you would otherwise have to pay for, by ordering a certificate.

It can also quickly resolve the question of which individuals listed on a BMD index (from 1837 and on) are spouses, as it lists the couple together, and provides a summary of the details from the original parish register.

A similar database exists for Wales, for marriages from 1541 to 1900. A separate database for Glamorgan, Wales is also available. All are searchable for free.

Marriage certificates which you order will provide some or all of the following information:

  • District, Church, Parish, and Location;
  • Date of Marriage;
  • Forename & Surname, Age, Marital Condition, Profession,and Address, for both bride and groom;
  • Father's Forename & Surname and Occupation, for both bride and groom;
  • Witness names; and
  • Priest/Vicar's Name and Signature

Interestingly, with the advent of civil marriage in England in 1837, couples from nonconformist religions who wanted to marry in their own church had to marry at the Registry Office, following which they were free to have a separate religious ceremony in their own church.

Only Anglican clergymen had the right to marry couples, in the Anglican church. It was 1898 before nonconformist clergymen were given the right to marry couples in their own church.





Deaths

Deaths also can be searched online, but very little information is given under the civil registration system, other than the name, quarter of the year during which the person was buried, the registration district, and sometimes their age at death. Again, in order to obtain additional information, the death certificate would have to be ordered.

The LDS Family Search site, however, contains databases for Wales deaths and burials, from 1586 to 1885, and for English deaths and burials, from 1538 to 1991. Again, these appear to be parish records, but combined with the civil registration information, you may well be able to obtain all the information you need. Depending on the circumstances, however, you may still wish to order the certificate, in order to be absolutely certain that you have the vital record of the right person.


Horse-Drawn Funeral Carriage.
Wikimedia Commons.

Death certificates will provide some or all of the following information:

  • District, Location, Date & Place of Death;
  • Forename and Surname, Maiden Name, and Gender;
  • Date and Place of Birth, Occupation, and Usual Address;
  • Informant's Forename and Surname, Qualification, and Address;
  • Cause of Death;
  • Signatures of Informant and Registrar; and
  • Registration Date

Some parish records are quite good even after the 1837 change-over to the Registry Office, and can provide many more details than those in the FreeBMD database. If you happen to be “lucky” (?) enough to have ancestors who came from Norfolk, England, there are extensive parish records available even after the 1837 change, on the FreeREG site.

Many of these same records are available on the LDS Family Search site, as outlined above.

I hope that this outline of vital records under the civil registration system in England and Wales will prove useful to you, in avoiding some of the pitfalls and problems that I experienced when I first began doing genealogy research.

It certainly is possible to obtain the vast majority of the vital records information which would be on the official certificate, for free, simply by using a combination of the FreeBMD and LDS Family Search sites.







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