The Civil Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths in the U.K.

Note: At the bottom of this page is information on how you may obtain copies of birth, marriage or death certificates.

Since the nineteenth century in the British Isles, when a birth was registered, a certificate was provided by the registrar showing information given at the time of registration. In England and Wales, this civil registration system began on 1st July 1837, although it was not compulsory to register a birth until 1875.

Upon the formation of the General Register Office in 1837, a national system of registration districts was required to implement the new procedures. Debate had raged over whether the new system would be run by the clergy acting as civil officers or whether the appointments should be purely civil. It was this latter course that was taken and the superintendent registrar's districts formed were based on the poor law unions established three years earlier under the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834. These districts were then subdivided into registration districts with individual registrars.

Each sub-district contained on average seven parishes. In the Registrar General's Annual Report of 1872, it was stated that the average size of a sub-district was twenty six and a half miles and contained, on average, a population of 10,347. There were, of course, wide variations on these figures in areas such as London and Westmorland, where population densities were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

From 1837, each registration district was allotted a reference number in the centrally held national indexes in London. Roman numerals were used up until 1851 when the boundaries of the districts were redrawn and Arabic numerals were introduced. These remained unchanged until 1946, when further administrative re-organisation required another renumbering of the districts which remained in place until 1965.

Once every three months the English and Welsh local registrars sent copies of their records to the Registrar General in London for his clerks to compile quarterly national alphabetical indexes.

In marriage certificates please be aware that it was quite common in the Victorian era for the bride to be slightly older than the groom.  At that time this age differential was not thought to be "proper". You may find, therefore, that the bridegroom "adjusted" his age upwards and the bride brought hers down by a year or so, just to make the marriage more acceptable.  Bear this in mind when estimating birth dates from ages given at marriage.

The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies currently publishes three maps showing the registrations districts which existed in England and Wales for the periods (i) 1837-1851, (ii) 1852-1946 and (iii) 1946-1965.

The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 79-82 Northgate, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 1BA, England.
Tel: +44 (0)1227 768664  Fax: +44 (0)1227 765617 - Email:

The three maps provide a very useful aid to the location of particular districts and prove especially helpful when undertaking name distribution surveys from the GRO indexes. By using the maps it is apparent, for example, that Lutterworth in 7a is an adjacent district to Brixworth in 3b. Without an extensive knowledge of the geography of all of England and Wales, this sort of fact may be missed by the casual searcher.

The General Index of Births Marriages and Deaths was often referred to as "St Catherine's House Index" after the place, which until a few years ago, they were kept and available for inspection. There is now an excellent "Family Records Centre" in London at number 1 Myddelton Street, London EC1 1UW.  This houses indexes of births, marriages and deaths (from 1837) previously kept at St Catherine's House and microfilms of Census returns (1841-1891) and wills (pre 1858) previously held at the Public Records Office's Central London Reading Room at Chancery Lane.

Microfiche copies of this register, for the periods 1837-1992, are available for public viewing at most County Records Offices and some large libraries in the UK.  They are also available for viewing in most countries across the world.
Unfortunately, the quality of these microfiche is often poor and has sometimes inhibited the accurate transcription of data.

Click here for a link to UK General Register Office from where you may order certificates. Please note that as a general rule I am not able to assist with obtaining copies of certificates. In exceptional circumstances and if payment is made in advance I may be able to help but it is better for you to approach the General Register Office directly.  If you do obtain copies of certificates, please let me have any information they contain so that I can update the family archives that are maintained on this web site.

Given the reference details from the index, copies of birth, marriage and death certificates can be obtained for (at the time of writing) 8 each, by post.  Application forms are available from:-

General Register Office
P.O. Box 2

Tel: +44 (0) 151 471 4816
Fax: +44 (0) 1704 550013

This page last updated 18th February 2001