Birth, marriage and death records for family tree research
Birth, marriage and death (BMD) records are one of the main family tree resources. Find out how to trace your ancestors using these crucial records.
Civil registration, vital records, life events, birth, marriage and death records... these are phrases you will come across often in your family history research as they relate to the most basic elements of your tree – births, marriages and deaths.
The General Register Office, or GRO, was set up to record the births, marriages and deaths of everyone in England and Wales from 1 July 1837 (1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland. Prior to this, churches and other places of worship kept their own records of baptisms, marriages and burials – you can find out more about these in 'Parish registers'.
Once every three months – or 'quarter' – the local records of births, marriages and deaths were sent to the GRO and from these quarterly indexes were compiled.
Where can you access birth, marriage and death records?
There are separate indexes for births, marriages and deaths and copies can be viewed online.
There are lots of websites offering access to the GRO's BMD indexes – some are free and some will charge.
- FreeBMD is a superb free online database, but bear in mind it is not yet complete.
- Findmypast.co.uk, Ancestry, TheGenealogist and Family Relatives all provide searchable access to the GRO indexes, but require a subscription or pay-per-view credits to view records.
- You can access Scottish BMD indexes at ScotlandsPeople and Irish civil registration indexes, 1845-1958, at Family Search.
It is not possible to view actual certificates online. Once you’ve searched the indexes, you can use the reference details you find to order a certificate. The best way to do this is to go directly through the GRO. You can use this link on the very useful Gov.uk site: https://www.gov.uk/general-register-office. A certificate costs £9.25 if ordered via the GRO for England and Wales. Always beware companies that charge much more than this for certificates, as the certificate itself will be exactly the same as that ordered directly from the GRO.
For BMD certificates in Scotland, visit ScotlandsPeople. Full register details are available for the older records (so you don’t need to order a certificate), but for more recent ones you will – they cost £12 each.
For BMD certificates in Northern Ireland, contact the General Register Office for Northern Ireland. Certificates cost £14 plus postage.
Keep costs down
Buying birth, marriage and death certificates is essential if you want to make sure you're following the correct family line, but to keep costs down you can ask other family members if they have copies of BMD certificates that have been passed down through the generations. You can also contact other people researching the same family to share certificate information and costs.
What can birth, marriage and death certificates can tell you?
Birth, marriage and death records each include slightly different information, and some changes occurred over the years. However, these are some of the details you can discover:
- Fathers' names
- Mother's maiden name
- Occupations of fathers and bridegrooms
- Status of bride and groom
- Marriage witnesses
- Church and parish
- Informant of birth or death
- Cause of death.
Birth, marriage and death records in three easy steps:
- Search the BMD indexes
- Order your certificate
- Work back from the known to the unknown – purchasing a birth certificate, for example, will provide the child's parents' names and enable you to research back another generation. The mother's maiden name can give you a brand new surname to search.
Image: Newlyweds outside Nottingham Register Office, 3 May 1941. © Darkroom Daze, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).