The Genealogist’s Internet

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5. Civil Registration

England and Wales




Certificate exchanges


Birth, marriage and death certificates are generally the first official documents the family historian encounters. In an ideal world — for the genealogist at least — all of them would be online. But privacy concerns make it unlikely that full certificate details for ‘recent’ events will be easily accessible on the web, and so far only a small percentage of the ‘historical’ certificates, those from Scotland, are available online.

But even where certificates are not online, there is much information about birth, death and marriage records on the web to help you identify and order paper certificates, including a wide range of sites with the civil registration indexes, which hold the information you need to apply for a paper certificate.

Divorce is under the jurisdiction of the courts rather than the registration service and is therefore covered with other records of the civil courts on p. 127.

England and Wales

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in England and Wales on 1 July 1837, and the original certificates are held in duplicate by the original local register office and by the General Register Office (GRO), which in 2008 became part of the Home Office’s Identity and Passport Service (IPS). The original certificates are not yet available online, but copies can be ordered from the GRO via the web, by post or phone. The indexes to the certificates can all be consulted online on free or commercial sites.

The GRO no longer has its own website, but has pages on the government website <>.

In addition to information about ordering certificates, the site has two articles aimed at genealogists. ‘Using the General Register Office to research family history’ contains basic information, designed for those new to genealogy, about the GRO indexes, and it links to a document showing exactly which pieces of information are contained in the birth, marriage, and death indexes at different periods. ‘Researching family history using official records’ takes this further, with details of what information is on the certificates themselves and various other registers held by the GRO.

The GRO does not yet have a data service — the planned project for making certificates available online has been repeatedly delayed, and this is discussed below. However, there is an online service for ordering certificates, which is still on the old GRO site at <> (covering England and Wales only). In order to use the online ordering system you need to log in, and if you register (rather than using a one-off guest login) your details will be stored for future use and will not have to be re-entered for subsequent orders. If you do not already know the GRO index reference for the event, you will need to give quite detailed information including the exact date and place of the event. This is fine if it’s your own birth certificate, but for deceased ancestors you are unlikely to have the complete and accurate information required for this, so before ordering a certificate you will need to refer to one of the services discussed below to establish the index reference for a particular certificate.

Beyond these sites, there are many unofficial sources of information on general registration which will be helpful for initial orientation. Genuki has a page devoted to civil registration in England and Wales at <>. Barbara Dixon’s Registration Certificate Tutorials site at <> describes how to order certificates and gives a detailed description of the fields on the three types of certificate. Another useful guide is Kimberley Powell’s ‘Civil Registration in England and Wales. How to Get Birth, Death & Marriage Certificates’ at <>.

In addition to the mainland records, the GRO holds records of events registered by UK nationals overseas. They mainly comprise records for the armed forces and events notified to British consuls or UK High Commissioners, but they also include births and deaths at sea, for example.

Digitization of certificates

While Scotland, as described later in this chapter, has had most of its civil registration records online since 1998, the story for England and Wales has been a very different one. The process has been long and tortuous, and hardly reflects well on the GRO, with plenty of controversy and still no firm end in sight.

As early as January 2002, a government white paper Civil Registration: Vital Change proposed moving to an online certificate service. After the initial proposals ran into objections, both genealogical and parliamentary, in 2005 the GRO eventually launched the DOVE (Digitization of Vital Events) project. This aimed to digitize all birth, marriage and death records up to 2006, and the contract for the project was awarded to Siemens. Meanwhile, the closure of the Family Records Centre in Islington went ahead, partly justified by the claim that, with all the records imminently online, there was no need for GRO indexes to have a physical home. In January 2007, it was announced that online searching of the indexes would be available from early 2008. But then, in July 2008, the GRO announced that, with roughly half the work done, the contract with Siemens had expired and was not being renewed. In 2009, they announced that it was reviewing the whole matter, and future progress would apparently depend on whether ‘the business case confirms that sufficient benefits will result from digitization’. In November 2011, it was announced on the IPS’s website that the project, now called ‘Digitization and Indexing’, had actually been on ‘pause status’ since September 2010 but in 2012 the IPS would be coming to a decision on the future. Given that half of the work is still to be done, we must assume that the certificates will not be available online until 2015 at the very earliest.

If any decision has been made by the time you read this, you should find an official announcement on the IPS’s ‘Modernising civil registration’ page at <>, and new developments (or the lack of them) are widely discussed on genealogy blogs (see p. 383) and discussion forums (Chapter 18).

The GRO indexes

In 1998, in the absence of any official programme to digitize either the original certificates or the GRO indexes, a volunteer project called FreeBMD secured official permission to transcribe the indexes over 100 years old for free online access. In 2003, the GRO announced a completely open policy — any organization which has purchased the microfiche indexes is now free to transcribe or digitize the original pages and make them available online, free or charged, with no cut-off in years of coverage. This has provided impetus for a number of online services offering digitized images of the original indexes.

While the older indexes are contained in physical books, scans of which are available online, the material from 1984 onwards is rather different: the GRO has electronic records from this date, held in a number of databases. It has permitted these, too, to be made available online. The advantage of the databases over the older material is that entries can be searched for individually — rather than having to look at a series of pages in the hope of identifying the correct entry, you can search the whole range of years at once. However, most of the services described below have now actually transcribed all or most of the pre-1984 indexes.


Figure 5-1: An image of the original GRO indexes (Findmypast)

The GRO ceased to supply indexes to third parties after 2005, and these can only be consulted in person at seven libraries around the country, listed on the ‘Using the General Register Office to research family history’ article mentioned above.


FreeBMD is one of the most successful collaborative projects the genealogy world has seen. It has a massive group of over 11,500 volunteers, who either transcribe the indexes from digital images in planned extractions or simply submit entries from their own extractions along with the surrounding entries. It has two sites: <> is the home site, and there is also a copy on RootsWeb at <>, which can be useful in periods when the main site is busy and therefore slow to respond to searches. Also, Ancestry includes FreeBMD data up to 1915 in its general BMD search (see below).

By the start of 2012, the project’s database had reached 210 million distinct records. The original plan was to capture all the nineteenth-century entries and this has more or less been achieved. The data is in fact largely complete up to 1938, with significant inroads already made into the 1940s and 1950s, particularly for marriages and deaths. Up-to-date information on the percentage of coverage for each year and each type of event will be found at <>, and it is a good idea to check this before carrying out a search — even for the nineteenth century there are one or two years with small gaps still to be filled.

All the entries so far transcribed can be searched online. A comprehensive search page (Figure 5-2) allows you to search for a specific person in a chosen place and date range, or to extract all the entries for a particular surname.


Figure 5-2: Searching FreeBMD

Figure 5-2 shows a search for the marriage of Frederick Marshall in London between 1885 and 1890. Figure 5-3 shows the results of this search. On the results page, clicking on the links in the ‘district’ column will take you to information on the registration district, while following the link in the ‘page’ column brings up a list of all the events on that page in the original register (not the index). The reason this is useful is that, in the case of a marriage, one of the other names on that same page will be the name of the spouse. In this case, Figure 5-4 shows that Frederick must have married either Harriett Ann Bishop (as he in fact did, they are my great-grandparents) or Cecilia Julia Stevenson. And of course the other of these ladies will have married John Alfred Parker. If you have already found this family in a later census, and know the husband’s name and the wife’s forename, it means you should be able to establish a wife’s maiden name without even ordering the marriage certificate.


Figure 5-3: FreeBMD search results


Figure 5-4: Identifying a spouse in FreeBMD

A very useful feature is the ability to save a search and re-run it at any time. When you repeat a saved search, you see only new records that have been added since you saved. One limitation you may encounter with a common name is that the maximum number of search results for any search is 3,000 records.

Although the main focus of the project is the transcription of indexes, FreeBMD also makes digitized images of the original index pages available free of charge. There is no search facility for this — once you have selected the type of event, the year and quarter, and the initial letter of the surname, it is up to you to judge where in the pages for that letter your surname occurs. In some cases, therefore, you may need to view several images to get the right one. The site gives you several image formats to choose from: PDF, GIF, JPG and TIFF. Of these, the JPG is the largest, with files around 3Mb in size. The GIFs are around 450Mb and the other formats around half that.

FreeBMD is always looking for new volunteers, and details of what is involved can be found on the website. You can keep up to date with the progress of the project by joining the FreeBMD-News-L mailing list — subscription information will be found at <>.

Commercial indexes

The complete set of GRO indexes up to 2005 is available on many of the commercial data services. With the progress of FreeBMD up to the 1930s and the expansion of other data on these services, you are no longer likely to be choosing your data service mainly on the basis of their GRO indexes as was the case perhaps five years ago. For that reason, only the differences in coverage (rather than price, search facilities, etc.) are discussed here.

All the services included here offer:

The problem with the latter material is that, unless you know exactly when an event was registered, you will have to check the index page image for each quarter individually. For that reason, the data services have all created their own databases of the individual entries from the period before 1984 for at least part of the material.

The Genealogist, BMDindex, Findmypast and Genes Reunited all include the overseas records mentioned on p. 68.

Local BMD projects

While all the sites mentioned so far are national in coverage, there are a number of projects centred on local register offices. These go under the generic name UKBMD, and links to all local BMD projects will be found on Ian Hartas’s UKBMD site at <>.

It’s not just that these sites supplement the national datasets. An important difference between these and all the national sites mentioned above is that they work from the original local registration records and so will be largely free of the errors that dog the GRO indexes. (The latter were made from copies of the original registrations, putting them at two removes from the originals.) If your family comes from one of the parts of the country covered, these should be used in preference to the services mentioned in the previous sections.

The first of these projects was CheshireBMD at <>, a collaboration between Cheshire County Council, Wirral Metropolitan Borough, and the Family History Society of Cheshire.

Cheshire aims to have all index entries for births, marriages and deaths online for the period 1837—1950. The site has detailed information on the coverage so far for each registration district, and makes the ordering of certificates very straightforward — a link from each search result brings up a form for printing off, with the certificate reference (though not the other details) already filled in (Figure 5-5). The Cheshire site already has over six million entries available for searching.


Figure 5-5: CheshireBMD search results

So far seven similar projects have taken a lead from the example of Cheshire, and use the same website design and software:

Quite a number of other local authorities are developing indexes on similar lines, sometimes with the help of local family history societies. Links to all these projects will be found on UKBMD by clicking on the ‘Local BMD’ button on the left of the page. There is also a link to UKBMD’s ‘multi-region search’. NortheastBMD at <> provides a gateway to all projects covering the north east of England.

There is wide variation in the coverage of these various services — some are complete or nearly so, others do not cover all events or the full period since 1837 — so it is a good idea to check the details of coverage before spending time searching for an entry.

Register offices and registration districts

While the LocalBMD projects are very useful, they will not be much help if you do not know where an event was registered. Also, if you want to order a certificate from a local registrar, you will need to know which office to approach. For both these reasons knowledge of registration districts is valuable, and there is extensive information available online.

For historical information about registration districts (up to 1930), Genuki has a set of pages prepared by Brett Langston at <> which provide comprehensive details about registration districts in England and Wales, giving:

There is an alphabetical list of districts at <>, with links to lists for individual counties, and if you are not sure what registration district a particular place is in, you can download a place-name index in PDF format from <>.

Genuki also has tables matching the GRO volume numbers to registration districts at <>. The names and current contact details of individual register offices will also be found on Genuki, at <>. This lists includes email addresses and links to the websites. It also links to any LocalBMD sites which include that registration district.

Alternatives to civil registration records

With the increasing number of parish registers available online for England and Wales (see Chapter 7), it may sometimes be possible to bypass civil registration records of marriages and instead use church records: the church’s record of a post-1837 wedding will be exactly the same as the GRO’s. If you have already identified a marriage in the GRO indexes, it will be worth investigating whether any church records for the relevant area are online for that date. Many of the registers available at Medway’s CityArk site, for example, go well into the twentieth century (see p. 105).

In fact, because of the way the GRO’s index volumes for marriages are arranged, it is possible, in principle at least, to work out from the volume and page number given for an event precisely which church the marriage was conducted in. The Marriage Locator at <> attempts to do exactly that for the period 1837–1911. The data is somewhat patchy, but the site has over 250,000 entries.


In Scotland, general registration dates from 1 January 1855. The General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) is the official online source of information about these records. In April 2011, it was merged with the National Archives of Scotland to form a new body, National Records of Scotland, with a website at <>.

Genuki’s ‘Introduction to Scottish Family History’ at <> has information on civil registration in Scotland, and GROS has a page ‘Statutory Registers of Births, Deaths and Marriages’ at <> with basic information about what records are held and where they are. It also provides a list of local register offices with contact details at <>. Links to websites are not provided in this listing, but the domain name given in the email address (the part after the @) prefixed with www. will probably get you to the local authority website which hosts the pages for the local registration service. GROS also has a list of parish and registration districts available in PDF or Excel spreadsheet format from <>.

The situation with the Scottish general registration records is much better than that for England and Wales. The indexes to births, marriages and deaths are available, along with images of the older records, via the pay-per-view system at ScotlandsPeople (described in detail on p. 50). The site currently offers indexes for all civil registration records (‘Statutory Records’) from 1855 to the present. Images of the original records are available for:

Each year, coverage is extended by a further year, with the new data added just after New Year. See <> for up-to-date details of the coverage. Where certificates are not available online, the indexes provide the information needed to order a certificate (called an ‘Official Extract’ in Scotland). The National Records of Scotland website provides ordering information at <>.

As well as the Statutory Records, the site also includes a range of other, minor categories of civil registration records, such as overseas and army registrations. Details are given on the ‘Record Types & Examples’ pages, accessed via the ‘About our records’. These pages also list exactly what information to expect on the records from various periods, with images of typical records (the images, alas, are in TIFF format, so you will need to download them and view them in a graphics viewer rather than in your browser).


Figure 5-6: A marriage register image at ScotlandsPeople

Back in 2008 news from GROS suggested the likelihood was that some time in the not too distant future the Scottish civil registration records would also be available on other commercial sites. But at the time of writing, almost four years on, there seems to be no sign of this happening.

The University of Glasgow has an extensive and informative website devoted to the history of general registration in Scotland in The Scottish Way of Birth and Death at <>.


In Ireland, registration of Protestant marriages dates from 1 April 1845, while full registration began on 1 January 1864. The records for the whole of Ireland up to 31 December 1921 are held by the Registrar General in Dublin, who also holds those from that date for the Irish Free State and then the Republic of Ireland. It has a website at <>. The equivalent records for Northern Ireland are held by the General Register Office (Northern Ireland), GRONI. As in the UK, GRONI no longer has an independent website, and all the material is on nidirect, the government services website for Northern Ireland, resulting, I’m afraid, in some truly mammoth URLs. The main GRO page on nidirect is at <>.

For the Republic, certificates can be ordered online from the Health Service website at <>. Northern Ireland’s certificate ordering service is on nidirect at <>. GRONI’s fee is significantly higher (£14 rather than €10), so for the period before partition, you will be better off ordering certificates from the Republic.

A list of Irish registration districts, which are based on Poor Law Unions, is provided by Sean Murphy at <> and by ConnorsGenealogy <>, which includes the volume numbers and links to a map of registration districts at <>.

From-Ireland has a page devoted to Civil Registration at <>, which links to some small extracts for a wide range of registration districts at <>.

Sean Murphy’s very useful Guide to the General Register Office of Ireland at <> covers all aspects of civil registration in Ireland, though it has not been updated since 2002 and is therefore not the place to look for latest developments.


While Scotland had already solved the issues of online access to historical civil registration records by the end of the last century, it seems as if the Irish authorities, North and South, are a long way behind, and there is no official civil registration data for Ireland currently available on the web. In the Republic, a consultation document Bringing Civil Registration into the 21st Century at <> was published by the government in May 2001. In October 2003 they announced the official launch of the ‘government approved modernization of the civil registration service’, with the promise that ‘Further developments within the modernized Civil Registration Service will include the introduction of automated genealogy/family research facilities and the provision of a range of services over the Internet’. In September 2011, in a written answer in the Irish parliament (see <>), the responsible minister indicated that the bulk of the project had been completed, but, that with current budgetary constraints, the end was still some four years away. Also, there seems to be, in spite of the 2003 announcement, no firm commitment to putting any records online, which will in any case apparently require additional legislation.

The Genealogical Society of Ireland’s page (on its old website) devoted to civil registration proposals at <> provides a highly critical account both of the detail of the proposals and of the failure to make progress. The Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations reports on its own campaign to secure improvements to civil registration and access to the records in the Republic at <>.

The first signs of progress in Northern Ireland came in a consultation document Civil Registration in the 21st century, published in October 2003, which revealed that all the indexes had been electronically indexed. The Registrar General’s Annual Report for 2009 announced (and that for 2010 repeated) ‘significant progress in the digitizing of paper based records’. While it expects the digitization project to be ‘on target for completion in early 2011’, this covers only the in-house use of the data and does not seem to constitute a commitment to make any data available online.[1] Indeed the GRO’s aims include only the production of ‘certified copies’ and make no mention of public access to electronic records.

All in all, it seems that not only has progress both sides of the border been slow, but a public online service is not regarded as a priority.


While the official digitization projects are still some way from completion, there has been at least some progress in making the indexes available online.

In 2009, FamilySearch (see p. 41) announced the addition of the Irish civil registration records at the pilot of the new website, and these are now at <> — from the home page select ‘Europe’ under the ‘Browse by Location’ heading, then ‘Ireland’ and ‘Ireland, Civil Registration Indexes, 1845–1958’. In fact, only the Republic of Ireland is covered for the whole period and there are no records for the North after 1921. Also, while the information on the site (click on ‘Learn more’ on the search page) carries no indication that this material is incomplete, I found that a great many entries I had previously extracted from the microfilm indexes were missing from the online index.

The original launch was on the pilot site before the new FamilySearch went live, and it linked an image of the relevant index book page to each entry. However, at the time of writing, the images are not available on the new site, though one would hope that they will be added at some point in the future.

The same indexes are available on Ancestry at <>. One advantage of Ancestry’s index is that for each marriage entry you can get a list of the other names on the original page of the register, which allows you to look for the names of probable spouses.

Findmypast’s Irish site at <> is due to add civil registration records during 2012 (see p. 54).

Local transcripts

In the absence of any national programme of digitization for Irish registration records, there are nonetheless a few local and partial transcription projects.

The only coherent project I am aware of is Waterford County Library’s online index to local death registrations, with full transcriptions of the original certificates, at <> as part of its electronic catalogue.

The following have small collections of registration data transcribed:


The Isle of Man, and the individual Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark) have their own civil registration starting from various dates.

The Isle of Man Civil Registry has a website at <>, though it is mainly devoted to new registrations. The ‘Contacts’ button at the top of the page, though, will lead you to contact details, including an email address, enabling you to make your own enquiries. The Family History Library catalogue (see p. 221) has details of microfilmed civil registration records for the island available in Family History Centers. UKBMD (p. 74) lists two BMD projects for the Isle of Man, both named ManxBMD:

The Superintendent Registrar for Jersey has web pages at <>, though there is no information about accessing records. The States of Guernsey website at <> appears to have no information about civil registration at all.

The Priaulx Library on Guernsey has a list of ‘Channel Islands Civil Records on Microfilm’ at <>.

The late John Fuller’s ‘Channel Islands Genealogy’ page at <> mentions some volunteers prepared to do lookups in the Guernsey death registers.

Certificate exchanges

Although current GRO rules specifically forbid family historians from putting scanned certificates online,[2] the BMD Certificate Exchange at <> provides a means for those with unwanted certificates, presumably purchased in error, to pass them on to another genealogist. The site has around 4,400 certificates. For Scotland, there is the Scotland BDM Exchange at <>, which has almost 80,000 entries, though this includes some entries from parish registers. The site is free. A much more limited facility for Ireland, with just over 1,000 certificates, will be found at <>.


If you have ancestors who were immigrants or emigrants, you may need access to other countries’ civil registration services. There is no single way of getting this information for every country, but there are two good places to look for links. GenWeb (see p. 25) has sites for over 100 different countries, and the index of countries on the home page at <> will take you to the relevant regional GenWeb site. Even if there is no civil registration information, there will often be a message board where you can ask. It also makes sense to check the relevant country or regional page on Cyndi’s List at <>. Sections devoted to individual countries will also be found on the pages for:

The Research Guidance leaflets for individual countries at FamilySearch (see p. 9) should also contain information on civil registration records.

Don’t expect other countries to be as far on the road to complete digital records as Scotland is, but you may be lucky. Some states in English-speaking parts of the world have indexes online. For example, New South Wales has an online index to historical registration records at <>, and British Columbia has a similar service at <>. For births, both of these sites list only events over 100 years ago, but more recent marriages and deaths are included. For the US, Cyndi’s List has detailed information for each state (under the heading ‘Records’), at <>.

Next chapter: 6 Census

1 The 2010 report is linked from <> — the relevant material is in Appendix 5.

2 ‘Guidance — Copying of Birth, Death, Marriage and Civil Partnership Certificates’, online at <>.