Investigate vital events

Investigate vital events

Birth, marriage and death are the most typical fixed points in people’s lives – and since Victorian times civil registration records have provided a wealth of information

How to, How to

How to

How to

Only 11 days after Queen Victoria came to the throne, a major change in the way births, marriages and deaths (‘BMDs’) in England and Wales were recorded came into force. Civil registration created a legal, state-based system in order to be more reliable and comprehensive than the parish register system for recording baptisms, marriages and burials. Genealogists have benefited ever since.

Ordering certificates is a slightly complicated process, involving checking indexes first – most of these are online, as explained below. Once you have a certified copy of the actual certificate, however – and these are not yet available online – you can open up major new avenues in your research.

Birth certificates reveal a name, date and place of birth, along with the names of the person’s parents, including mother’s maiden name. This can help you go back a generation – although if the person was illegitimate, the father’s name may not be given. Father’s occupation is also listed, but the mother’s was only given from 1984. Marriages, of course, represent two families coming together, and you can glean details of both in the certificate, from each spouse’s address to the names and occupations of their fathers. Death certificates, meanwhile, are not just useful for details of the person’s address, and where and when they died: you also learn their age, which can help to find their birth certificate or a parish record. From 1969, the place of birth was also noted. Marriage and death certificates can also yield extra information about family members who were witnesses or informants.

life for a woman
A mid-19th century illustration of life for a woman from cradle to grave – civil registration began in England and Wales in 1837 and has recorded the majority of births, marriages and deaths ever since

Discover your ancestors through civil registration records

Head to TheGenealogist and click ‘Search' for extensive collections of BMD indexes. Enter whatever details you have.
TheGenealogist search
Here are the results for a Thomas Spratling, assumed to have been born around 1840. There's one match for his birth. Let’s look at the birth
TheGenealogist Transcript
The transcription provides all the information you need to order a copy of the actual certificate: name, quarter (or just year from 1984 onwards), registration district, volume and page number. Write these down carefully.
Birth Index
An original index page. In the early years these were handwritten as shown here; later they were typed. From 1911, birth indexes show mother’s maiden name, and from 1912 marriage indexes show the spouse’s surname. From 1866, death indexes show the persons age or date of birth
To order the certificate copy, head to You will need to register for free with a username and password. This screen shows where you enter basic information such as the type of certificate and the date – click Yes to confirm you have the full reference number
After confirming your postal address, you can enter the details you copied down earlier from TheGenealogist’s index information. You can then choose for standard delivery for a fee of £9.25 or £23.40 for priority delivery per certificate. What you get in the post will look like one of the images above.

In focus: BMD certificates

Marriage records can give you information about both sides of the family, but all three types will reveal new information about your forebears

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  1. This certificate shows a spring wedding in a wealthy family – but poorer couples often wed at Christmas when the family was already going to be together
  2. Middle names are not always given, but there they are; if the bride was a widow, her previous married name will be shown
  3. Many marriage certificates show the precise ages of the people, but some as here merely state that the couple were of ‘full’ age (21 or over); under 21 it would say ‘minor’
  4. An occupation is given for the spouses (often just the groom, though) and their fathers – sometimes you’ll spot that the groom might have been an apprentice to the bride’s father
  5. A blank for father’s name usually suggests illegitimacy. In this certificate a name is given, but the bride’s birth certificate doesn’t, suggesting a cover up!

  1. The maiden surname of the mother is a crucial detail for helping you go back another generation on both sides; if they had been previously married the earlier married surname should also be given
  2. This is likely to indicate whether the parent registering the birth could read and write or not – here there’s just an ‘X’

  1. The cause of death won’t help grow the family tree but might provide clues to your ancestor’s lifestyle
  2. The informant may have been a close relative – an address might help cross-refer with census records, for example

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