BMD - Birth, Marriage and Death Registers in England and Wales

The Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates National Index

As explained elsewhere on this page, you cannot access the actual certificates for England and Wales online - instead you can access and search the indexes for the birth, marriage or death you require and use that information to order a copy certificate.

Until a few years ago, looking at the indexes would have involved a trip to London to look up the details in the large volumes kept in Somerset House until 1970, then St Catherines House until 1997 and finally at the FRC in Islington. These have now closed and you need to go online to find the details.

All sites offer a search - the index entries have been transcribed either by volunteers (FreeBMD) or commercially. From 1984, all the information was compiled using computers by the GRO so most sites offer a search.

FreeBMD - free searchable national BMD indexes from 1837 to the 1950s and later. They also have images of the index pages available for view up to 1983, again for free.

FindmyPast - they offer searchable indexes up to 2006 (or 2005 for marriages). You will need a subscription to view the details or pay per view is available. A 14 day free trial is also available.

Ancestry - searchable national BMD indexes up to 2005, you need a subscription for post 1916 records but a free 14 day trial is usually available. Up to 1915 they use the FreeBMD transcriptions, from 1916 they have produced their own transcription.

Genes Reunited - they offer searchable indexes up to 2006 (or 2005 for marriages). You will need a subscription to view the details.

The Genealogist - searchable up to 2005

Obtaining the Birth, Marriage and Death Certificate

Once you have found the person in the index, certificates can be ordered from the official government GRO website. The current cost is 9.25 - beware of other sites offering to order the certificates - all they do is take a lot more money from you to get the same certificate.

Information held on Births, Marriages and Deaths

Births

The index contains:

  • Surname and forename(s)
  • From Sep 1911 Mother's maiden name
  • The district, volume and page

(up to around 1911 the first two forenames plus initial are shown in the index, e.g. Alfred William H., after that just the first forename plus initials, e.g. Alfred W.H.).

The birth certificate shows:

  • When and where born
  • Forename(s) (if any is given)
  • Sex
  • Name and surname of the father
  • Name, surname and maiden name of the mother
  • Occupation of the father
  • From 1969, the father's and mother's place of birth
  • Signature, description and residence of the informant
  • When registered and signature of registrar
  • Name entered after registration

Marriages

The index contains

  • Surname and forename(s)
  • From Mar 1912, spouse's surname
  • The district, volume and page

(up to around 1911 the first two forenames plus initial are shown in the index, e.g. Alfred William H., after that just the first forename plus initials, e.g. Alfred W.H.).

The marriage certificate shows:

  • When married
  • Name and surname of the groom and of the bride
  • Age of the groom and of the bride
  • Condition of the groom and of the bride (e.g. bachelor, spinster, widower, widow)
  • Rank or profession of the groom and of the bride
  • Residence at the time of marriage of the groom and of the bride
  • Father's (both groom and bride) name and surname
  • Father's (both groom and bride) rank or profession
  • Signature of bride and groom
  • Signature of witnesses

The age is often shown as "of full age" meaning 21 or over, especially before 1855.

Deaths

The index contains

  • Surname and forename(s)
  • From Mar 1866 to Mar 1969 the age at death
  • From Jun 1969 the the date of birth
  • The district, volume and page

(up to around 1911 the first two forenames plus initial are shown in the index, e.g. Alfred William H., after that just the first forename plus initials, e.g. Alfred W.H.).

The death certificate shows

  • When and where died
  • Name and surname
  • From 1969, maiden name for a married or widowed woman
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation (or name and occupation of husband)
  • Cause of death
  • Signature, description and residence of the informant
  • When registered and signature of registrar

The informant was usually a family member.

Introduction

Birth, marriage and death records are probably the most valuable source of archive information when trying to unravel your family history - they enable you to discover the dates and details of these three key life events.

Until the summer of 1837, the main source of this information for England and Wales were parish records - details kept by the church of baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish record books.

However in 1836 an act was published requiring that all marriages, births and deaths be registered. The idea was that a uniform and consistent system of recording births, marriages and deaths would be introduced and a certificate would be issued. Like the census, its introduction had much to do with monitoring the growth and age profile of the country's population. The act received the royal assent on the 17th August 1836.

There was opposition from some members of the clergy to the introduction of the register of births. Despite assurances that the new register was a register only of births while the church register was a register only of baptisms, there was concern, probably justifiable, that many parents had their children baptised in church to ensure a formal record of birth and when the new system was introduced, they would not bother with the baptism.

The original plan was that registration should start in March 1837 but in February that year it was delayed by four months because all the administrative arrangements had not been completed (there is a report of this in The Times for February 2nd 1837 but unfortunately the reporter was unable to hear what was being said in Parliament except that it related to the union of parishes). And so registration started in England and Wales on 1st July 1837 with births, marriages and deaths which occurred on or after that date being registered.

In the case of births, the onus was on the parents to register the birth. They had 42 days to do it at no charge, otherwise up to six months at a fee of 7s6d. It was not lawful to register the birth of a child after 6 months. This is one reason to never completely trust the birth date since if for some reason the birth had not been registed within the 6 weeks free period, there must have been a temptation for poorer families to lie about the date to avoid the 7s6d fee.

For various reasons it is estimated that up to 20% of births were not registered initially. However in 1875 the law was tightened making it a legal requirement to register the birth within 42 days, otherwise the parents were liable to a 40s fine. The limit for registering the birth was raised to 7 years and was removed completely in 1922.

Deaths had to be registered within 5 days unless there was an inquest (in which case the coroner ensured that the death was registered). Again be wary of the age on death certificates since the person registering the death may well not have known the age of the deceased.

The General Register Office was created in 1837 and was in charge of collecting and collating this data. The birth, marriage or death would be registered in the district where it happened, then every three months, the registrar would send a copy of all the entries to the Registrar General in London. This means there should be two entries - one local, one national - for every birth, marriage and death since July 1837.

For each of these, quarterly indexes were created, March covering Jan-Mar, June covering Apr-Jun, September covering Jul-Sep and December covering Oct-Dec.

Today these records have survived, both the quarterly index and the certificates themselves. The actual certificates cannot be viewed by the public but copies from the national index can be bought from the GRO, the General Register Office, for just under 10. What can be viewed is the index which gives summary details of each birth, marriage and death plus a reference (the registration district, volume and page) which enables the original certificate to be retrieved by the GRO.

Marriages were recorded in the quarter in which the marriage took place but Births and Deaths were recorded in the quarter in which the Birth or Death was registered which could have been several weeks after the actual Birth or Death. So for example someone born in mid-March 1861 could be recorded in the Jan-Mar 1861 index or in the Apr-Jun 1861 index.

Local Register Office Certificates

Copies of certificates can also be bought from local register offices if you know which area in which the birth, marriage or death occurred. They use a different reference system. There are occasional differences between the national and local indexes; sometimes entries were missed, or details were copied incorrectly from the register. Generally speaking, registers and indexes held by the local offices are less prone to error, and should therefore be more accurate than those at the GRO but this only affects a very few records.

In most cases if you want to purchase a certificate from a local office, you have to apply by post or in person. As a general rule, you have to provide the date and place where the birth, death or marriage occurred, and the name(s) of the person(s) involved.

However a few districts have made an index of local births, marriages and deaths available online and in some districts they provide more information than can be found when you search the national BMD indexes, for example for births you can search on mother's maiden name, for deaths the age at death is shown (only available from 1866 in the national indexes) or for marriages the name of the spouse is shown (only surnames available from 1911 in the national indexes)

Among the districts where an online search is available are: