Joining the Dots

Joining the Dots

Powerful tools online can help you link birth, marriage and death records – and the censuses – together.

Research Advice, Discover Your Ancestors

Research Advice

Discover Your Ancestors

Family history is of course about making connections between people, parent to child, spouse to spouse, as we gradually piece together a family tree.

What can often help shed new light on those connections, get past problems and open up new avenues of research is making connections between different types of record, too. In this article we’ll look specifically at birth, marriage and death records since civil registration began in 1837 (for England and Wales). This time span means that in theory you can piece together as many as six generations of one family.

Making connections with SmartSearch: TheGenealogist’s unique technology finds the links between BMD records, and with the censuses, without even needing to order full certificates.

You can search all the BMD indexes from 2005 right back to 1837 at TheGenealogist. Traditionally the indexes have only been seen as useful for ordering the full certificates, but TheGenealogist’s SmartSearch technology has now opened them up as a much more useful resource in themselves.

The actual certificates, of course, can then yield even more information for your research. (These are not online as a government plan to digitise them ground to a halt a few years ago: you will need to order them from the General Register Office for a fee, currently £9.25 for the standard service – see .)

The basic indexes for births, marriages and deaths from 1 July 1837 onwards all have a similar format. They provide a person’s first name and surname, and initials for any middle names (earlier indexes sometimes had these in full).

Also detailed are the registration district where the event was registered and a reference number, plus the quarter of the year when the birth was registered (or the month from 1983).

The numbers of regions, districts and subdistricts have changed over time – in some cases these details can help confirm whether you have the right ancestor. You can find a full list of districts and their changes at Also useful to know is that from 1841 the district was the same as that for census enumeration, making it easier to cross-refer between BMDs and census records.

Even the reference code can be useful in occasional cases: in birth indexes it would establish the likelihood of twins, for example.

All three types of index saw changes in later decades which provided extra information and prove powerful in connecting records together.

In birth indexes, from September 1911 onwards the mother’s maiden name was included, which of course is an immediate way to connect back to the mother as well as the father.

The district might also provide a clue to tracing the parents’ marriage record. The easiest way to do this is using the SmartSearch system at TheGenealogist (see the case study on page 19) – potential parents can be listed at a click of a button, with far more precise results from 1911 onwards due to the mother’s maiden name field. If you think your ancestors didn’t move much, you may find the parents’ marriage in the same district as the birth – but of course you may not, in which case the SmartSearch results will still give you strong leads to follow.

As for the actual birth certificates, these of course provide more detail. This includes the name and surname of both father and mother (maiden name), which will provide the strongest links for following them up in marriage records and of course back to their own births. This is assuming both names were given at the time – illegitimate births may have a blank where the father’s name should be, for example (thus the surname in a pre-1911 index could in some cases be that of the mother rather than the father).

Other essential information you will gain from the birth certificate itself includes the precise date of birth (bear in mind that registration could have taken place a few weeks later, and even be listed in the following quarter), full name and the father’s occupation. The column for details of the informant can confirm where the family was living, or list another member of the family to follow up in BMD and other records.

If there’s a gap between the dates of birth and registration, it could indicate illness or that the child was not born where the family usually resided.

All of this information, including father’s occupation, could help corroborate findings in contemporary census records (all of those available for England and Wales, from 1841 to 1911, are also at It works the other way round, too: TheGenealogist has built SmartSearch into all of the censuses from 1851 to 1911 inclusive, so you can find potential children of a marriage. For the 1911 census only, you can even link straight to potential marriage indexes for a husband and wife in the household.

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Moving on to marriages, the indexes effectively list the marriage twice: once under the groom’s name, and once under the bride’s maiden name. From the second quarter of 1912 onwards, in each case a second column lists just the surname of the other party – so you can check both to be cast iron sure there hasn’t been an error somewhere (rare, but not impossible). This also means you can find out the other spouse’s first name.

Once again, SmartSearch at TheGenealogist can straight away connect you to other family members: every marriage index entry will take you to a list of potential children of the marriage (more accurate from September 1911 again because of both parents’ surnames being listed in the birth index).

The marriage certificate itself (technically, what you order from the GRO is a copy) then provides strong leads for links to other records. Most notably it will give you the ages of both parties – assuming they told the truth! You can then follow these up in birth indexes if they don’t take you beyond 1837; otherwise your first port of call would be parish records. Aiding this will be the marriage certificate’s column for the names of the fathers of each spouse – and of course they take you back a generation anyway. Earlier marriages may just say ‘of full age’ (ie 21 or over), mind, which will make your connecting work rather harder!

Finally, other useful information in the certificate includes whether each party had been married before (which could help find a previous marriage record or even one for a divorce), their occupation and that of their father.

With death indexes, once again there were changes which provide useful extra info. In this case, the age of the deceased was provided from March 1866, and this was replaced by their precise date of birth from March 1969. Either way, the obvious link is then to birth records – and once again TheGenealogist’s SmartSearch makes the most of this, by automating the birth search for you. (Naturally, for deaths before 1869 the chances of finding the birth index by this means are less likely, given the lack of age information, and in any case they would have had to have died young.)

The full death certificate then adds when and where the person died (a potential link to censuses), age, occupation and cause of death. A field for the name and address of the informant can be helpful – it may just be the deceased’s doctor, but of course it could also be a spouse or a family member to follow up in other records.

One final comment: civil registration was only compulsory after 1875, and with births in particular as many as a third were probably not registered between 1837 and then, so you can’t always guarantee finding your ancestor.

But if you do, you can now see there are myriad ways of connecting them to other BMD records (even if you don’t want to pay for the full certificates) and indeed other records, especially censuses and parish registers.

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