Tips for Navigating Civil Registration Records from England and Wales
Unlike parish records which may often be found online, the British government controls access to civil registration records. Learn tips and tricks for accessing these vital documents.
Before 1837, births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales were only recorded by the local Anglican Parish. Beginning in 1837, however, the British government required civil registration as well. While many parish registers are available on microfilm or online, the British government controls access to the civil registration records. Fees for copies are not astronomical but ordering the right record can be a little tricky. These tips can help ensure money is not wasted ordering the wrong record.
Understand that online indexes do not contain complete information
Civil registration records are indexed by the year and quarter the events occurred and are organized by registration district rather than by parish. It is common to see entries in family trees like “John Smith was born Jan-Feb-Mar 1853 in Huddersfield district.” This format reflects the index entry rather than the original document. Most index entries for births do not contain parents’ names; marriage indexes often contain several possible spouses; and death indexes do not contain any identifying information about the deceased beyond the person’s name. The full certificate is available to order from England’s General Register Office and should always be obtained for the additional information they contain.
Become acquainted with the area of interest
Civil registration districts usually cover many parishes and can overlap parish and county boundaries. Available for free through FamilySearch, England Jurisdictions 1851 is a map of England and Wales that allows users to pinpoint which jurisdiction a particular parish fell within. Search for the parish name and then choose the appropriate parish from the list of options shown on the left of the screen. The map then scales larger to show the parish boundaries and the surrounding parishes. The following map shows the parish of Almondbury in Yorkshire along with surrounding parishes.
An information box also pops open which includes information about the parish, another tab with jurisdictions, and a third with options to search for nearby places or locate other information about the parish. The second tab lists the civil registration district.
Locate your family in census records if the parish is unknown
The 1841 Census of England and Wales did not include the individuals’ parish of birth, though later censuses do. Censuses are available every ten years from 1841 to 1911. Find your family in as many censuses as possible to get an idea of the family structure, including the children’s names, approximate birth years and places, addresses where the family lived, and the probable decade of family members’ deaths. Use the England Jurisdictions 1851 map to chart the corresponding civil registration districts and likely time frame for each event.
Find the pertinent index entries at the General Register Office website
The web address for the General Register Office is https://gro.gov.uk. The index is free, but does require registration with a username and password. Indexes at the GRO for births and deaths contain a little more information than popular research sites but take more time to navigate. Each search can only cover a five-year span and males and females must be searched separately. However, births and deaths can be searched by registration district, and birth records can be searched by the mother’s maiden name. Using the information gathered from the censuses, search the birth index for the family surname in the registration district and note the mother’s maiden name for the children that match your family in censuses, along with the year, district, volume and page number for each entry. Be sure to use “fuzzy matching” on all names so that misspelled or mistranscribed entries are not overlooked. Next, search for the parents’ marriage record at a general research site and again note the volume and page number. If the parents were married after 1837, there should be a matching return within a few years before the birth of their eldest child. Search the GRO death index in a similar manner, using the registration district for the person’s last known residence and age on censuses to identify possible candidates; the GRO index includes the person’s age at death from the death certificate.
Order the records
Use the information gathered from the indexes to order certificates directly from the GRO. PDF copies of birth and death records can be obtained for £7, or fully certified copies can be sent by mail for £11; marriage records must be ordered by mail. Birth records will contain the child’s name; date and place of birth, often including a specific address as well as the parish; the parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name; and the father’s occupation. Marriage records contain the date and place of marriage; the names, marital statuses, occupations, and usual addresses of the bride and groom; the names and occupations of each party’s father; the names of the witnesses and the person who performed the marriage. Death records include the deceased’s name, age, occupation, and usual address; the date, place, and cause of death; and the name of the informant. Once the certificates arrive, double-check the information against the facts already known about the family from censuses and other documents to be sure you have the correct record. It is common to find several individuals with the same names and similar ages in death records, especially, so care must be taken to match known addresses and family members who might have served as informants.
A common saying asserts that family trees without documentation are just fairy tales. It takes time and a little expense to go beyond index entries but obtaining full dates and places for the births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales from 1837 onward is possible – and worth the effort.
If you have British ancestry and need help locating birth, marriage and/or death information for your ancestors, or would like assistance with obtaining vital records for them, we would love to help! Contact us today to discuss your project goal(s).