Civil Registration

Once we have set down what we already know about our family from memory and from interviews with other family members, the next stage of our research is to trace earlier generations by using the records of births, marriages and deaths which have been kept since their introduction on 1 July 1837. There was little change in the process until 1969 and minor changes only after that. With the exception of some marriage registers deposited in Diocesan Record Offices, we are not able to examine the registers themselves but must rely on name indexes created from copies of the original registers submitted to the Registrar General.

Before 1837, there was no statutory registration process for births and deaths. Church of England ministers were required to keep registers of baptisms and burials but this requirement did not extend to the growing number of nonconformist ministers and chapels. The situation with marriage was better regulated. Since 1754 it was only possible to marry in a Church of England parish church or chapel licensed for the purpose. Ministers were required to keep registers in a specified format.

On 1 July 1837 a new system of civil registration was introduced which required all births and deaths to be notified to a civil registrar. The act enabled Church of England ministers to be appointed as registrars for the purpose of conducting marriages and also opened up the possibility of marriages in nonconformist chapels provided a registrar was present.

Registration Districts
In 1834, following the Poor Law Amendment Act of that year, the country was divided into a number of Poor Law Unions. These Unions are important because they subsequently provided the basis for both Registration Districts for Civil Registration and Enumeration Districts for the decennial censuses which we will examine later in the course.

England & Wales were divided into a number of Superintendent Registrars' Districts and each District into several Sub-Districts. The 27 Districts were numbered in Roman numerals I (West London) to XXVII (North Wales) and the Sub-Districts given the name of the town or parish in which the Sub-Registrar was located. The boundaries were revised in 1852 and the number of Districts increased. The new Districts were given Arabic numbers with alphabetical suffixes 1a for West London to 11b for North Wales. Sub-Districts continued to be named as before though new ones appeared and there were some changes. The boundaries and numbering were revised again in 1946. A series of maps published by the Institute of Heraldic & Genealogical Studies, Canterbury, show the approximate boundaries. Sub-districts were the usual interface with the public.

The Registration Process
Births and deaths must be notified to a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages within statutory time limits. Births must be notified within 42 days and deaths within 5 days (unless there is an inquest) of the event. It will normally be a Local Registrar who is informed and he or she will make out an appropriate certificate. Every 3 months, the local registrar makes a copy of the entries for the quarter which he sends to the Superintendent Registrar who in turn certifies this and forwards it to the Registrar General. When a register book is full, it is sent to the Superintendent Registrar who retains it.

For marriages, the register is completed as a part of the ceremony. If the wedding takes place in a Registry Office, the Registrar who performs the ceremony will forward copies of register entries quarterly to the Superintendent Registrar. If the marriage is in a church, the officiating minister will act as local registrar. He/she will complete two registers and send copies of the register entries quarterly to the Superintendent Registrar. When full, one register is sent to the Superintendent Registrar and the other register is retained by the church. The Superintendent Registrar will, as for births and deaths, submit these copies of the register entries to the Registrar General.

The Superintendent Registrar retains the completed registers sent to him by the Local Registrars and church ministers and has the authority to make copies on request and on payment of a statutory fee.

The Registrar General, on receipt of register copies from each Superintendent registrar, produces consolidated indexes to each of these quarterly volumes, one each for birth, marriage and death registrations.

The National Indexes
The indexes compiled by the Registrar General from the register copies sent to him by Superintendent Registrars. are arranged alphabetically by surname and forename(s) in quarterly volumes Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep and Oct-Dec according to when the event was registered. The indexes were produced in book form but have in recent years been microfilmed and microfiched so that copies may be consulted in a variety of centres including:

You will often hear them called the "St. Catherine's Indexes" after their previous home at St. Catherine's House, London. Older researchers may still call them "Somerset House Indexes" after their even earlier home. It must be noted that the index references apply to the central records only. They are meaningless to Superintendent Registrars who may, or may not have compiled indexes to their own registers.

It is more common nowadays to consult these indexes online (see below) but the following notes by-and-large continue to apply.

Notes on Searching for a Reference
If you are looking for a reference in the GRO Indexes, the following notes may be helpful:

Finding a reference in the indexes is not always easy. There are several problems which you may encounter:

Obtaining a Certificate
There are several ways in which you can obtain a certificate once you have found out when and where the birth, marriage or death took place:

There is only one form of marriage or death certificate which you can order but there are options of a "short" and a "full" birth certificate. The short certificate contains very little information and is genealogically more or less useless. You should always order the full certificate for research purposes.

Civil Registration on the Internet
The national indexes to civil registration for England & Wales are available on the internet from several web sites. This is now the principal route by which such searches are made.

The following are all commercial sites which provide information for charges made against a credit card. The coverage, presentation and charging structures differ considerably. Increasingly, these sites provide machine-searchable indexes. The sites include:

There is a project to build a machine-searchable copy of the national indexes under the title "FreeBMD" and over 200 million index entries have already been made available covering approximately 1837-1940 with some gaps. Visit for more information,

A number of sites provide indexes to local registrar's own indexes. For Lancashire, some 15 million records are already indexed at There are also similar sites for Cumbria, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, North Wales, Wiltshire and Bath. These indexes may provide more information than the GRO indexes, for example ages at death before 186 and mother's maiden names for births before 1912. They also provide, in the case of marriages, pairing of brides and grooms and the name of the church at which the marriage took place.Visit for links to these and other sites providing access to local BMD indexes.

Registrars' addresses can be found on the GENUKI pages at

You may find index entries and possibly certificate transcripts for specific surnames at web sites relating to one name studies.

There are many publications which describe the registration system and how to interpret the information which it provides or which support research. Some useful titles specific to the subject include:

General Register Office - Eve McLaughlin

Introduction to Civil Registration - Tom Wood

Birth & Death Certificates - 4 from author: Barbara Dixon, 22 Redwood, Burnham, Slough, SL1 8JN

The Family Tree Detective - Colin Rogers

St. Catherine's House Districts - Ray Wiggins (lists districts and sub-districts)

District Register Offices in England & Wales - E. Yorkshire FHS

Registration District Maps 1837-1852, 1852-1946, 1946 on - IHGS, Northgate, Canterbury, CT1 1BA

Amended 26 November 2011 - John Marsden