Birth, marriage and death records for family tree research

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30 March 2017
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A guide to using birth, marriage and death records for family tree research, looking at how these key resources can help you find your ancestors.

A guide to using birth, marriage and death records for family tree research, looking at how these key resources can help you find your ancestors.

Birth, marriage and death (BMD) records are one of the key building blocks of family history and will help you to identify major events in your ancestor’s life.

By obtaining certificates from the General Register Office (GRO) for these three key events, you’ll obtain important dates and facts about your ancestor and can take your family tree back another generation by discovering other family members, as we show you here, an exploration of birth, marriage and death records.

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The official registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales began on 1 July 1837 (1855 for Scotland and 1864 for Ireland). Before 1837, such records had been kept by the church (these are known as parish records) but because this record keeping wasn’t compulsory, not all births, marriages and deaths were recorded, and not all such events that were recorded have survived.

The beginning of civil registration meant that the information collected about births, marriages and deaths was standardised and centralised, giving you a much better chance of discovering information about your ancestors.

In this video, professional genealogist Celia Heritage, who runs the popular family history e-course, shares her tips for the best and cheapest way to order English & Welsh birth, marriage and death certificates from the General Register Office:

Subscribe to Celia's Heritage on Heritage YouTube channel.

Birth, marriage and death certificate overviews

Read on to discover what information you can find out from birth, marriage and death records.

Birth certificate

A birth certificate gives the date and place of birth, name and occupation of the father, name of the mother (with maiden name). If the father isn’t named, this can indicate that the couple weren’t  married or the father was unknown.

Having the name of the mother and father of an ancestor will help you to track down their marriage, which in turn will provide you with the names of the fathers of the bride and groom, taking your research back another generation. The place of birth can also be a help in finding the family in sources such as the census and street directories.

Marriage certificate

A marriage certificate gives the date and place of marriage, name, occupation and residence of the bride and groom, and name and occupation of both fathers. Other information includes marital status (for example, bachelor/spinster or widower/widow) and the names of witnesses, who were often family members or friends. When searching for a marriage certificate, remember that not all marriages took place before the birth of a child.

Death certificate

A death certificate gives the date, place and cause of death, as well as the age and occupation of the deceased. The informant named on the certificate was often a family member.  Bear in mind that the informant supplies the age of death, so allow for a margin of error.

The date of death can help if you want to find a will, and it can be illuminating to see where an ancestor died, for example, a hospital or the workhouse. If an inquest took place, this will be noted on the certificate, giving you another research avenue to pursue.

How to obtain a birth, marriage or death certificate

The quickest way to obtain a birth, marriage or death certificate is to find out the GRO reference before placing your order. This shows the year the event was recorded (not necessarily the year it took place), the quarter of the year in which it was recorded, the district of registration, and the volume and page number.

Your search for the reference will be quicker and more accurate if you can narrow down in which district the event would have taken place. You can search the GRO indexes for free online at Freebmd and on commercial websites including Ancestry and Find My Past, which charge for the information.

 Six large libraries (in Birmingham, Bridgend, Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth and The British Library) plus the City of Westminster Archives Centre,  offer  free of charge access to the GRO indexes on microfiche, whilst a list of organisations which hold full or regional index microfiches can be found on the GRO website.

Once you’ve found the reference, visit the GRO website to order the certificate, or tel: 0300 123 1837. Delivery is four working days if you gave the GRO reference, or fifteen working days if not.

Scottish and Irish birth, marriage and death records

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Scotland began in 1855 and you can obtain records from the ScotlandsPeople website.

BMD registration in Ireland dates to 1864, with certificates available from GRO Ireland and GRO Northern Ireland.

How To Start Your Family Tree is an interactive beginners guide giving you everything you need to get started with tracing your family history and discovering your ancestors. 

This collected edition of beginner features, previously published in Family Tree, is packed full of expert tips, how-to advice and lots of ideas for starting your family tree from scratch and writing up your family history.