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Certficates: England and Wales


  • Certificates: England and Wales

    The images and information relate to certificates issued by the General Register Office. A certificate issued by a local office will be broadly similar in appearance, but the wording and layout may differ slightly from the illustrations. There are also some subtle differences between certificates depending on the date of the event. Where possible, the text will explain any notable variations between certificates of different dates.
    Birth Certificates

    Birth Certificate Heading
    The heading of the birth certificate will list the registration district (and any sub-district which applies) along with the county name. Many large registration districts have smaller sub-districts; a largely rural area may have several smaller sub-districts based around strategic towns. If you have an ancestor born in a small rural village, don't be too surprised to find the birth registered in a district some distance away.


    Columns across the certificate
    There are several columns across the certificate, each one has a different heading and information recorded within it. Information contained on a certificate is only as accurate as that given by the informant at the time. If you have a large collection of certificates, then you may find the odd "discrepancy" somewhere. The image shows the column headings, with a detailed explanation for each column given below.

    In the first (far left) column, the entry number and General Register Office (GRO) reference are given. If the certificate is issued by a local register office, then the local entry number (not illustrated) will be recorded.

    Column 1: Where and when born
    Used to record the place and date of birth. The earliest certificates had very little in the way of an address/place of birth recorded. Often just a village or town name was entered. By the mid/late 1800s, more precise address details were usually recorded.

    Column 2: Name
    This column is used to record any forename(s) of the child. Not every child has been named by the parents and there are instances where the name may be recorded as "male" or "female".

    Column 3: Sex
    The gender of the child will be recorded in this column. Before 1969, certificates will state boy or girl, and post 1969, certificates will state male or female. It isn't unknown for this information to be incorrect.

    Column 4: Name and Surname of father
    An entry here depends on whether the parents of the child were a married couple or not.

    Where the parents were married to one another, the father's details had to be entered in the register and only one parent needed to sign the register - in column 7 (this may be some other informant).

    If the parents were not married to one another, then Column 4 (father's name) and Column 6 (his occupation) will be blank.

    If the parents were not married to each other but both attended the register office together, then details can be entered in Column 4 and Column 6 and both parents can sign the register.

    Column 5: Name, Surname and Maiden Name of Mother
    There are a few different combinations that you may see here. Much depends on the marital status and marriages prior to the birth and the accuracy of the information given.

    An unmarried woman should have her sole name recorded e.g. Jane Brown.

    A married woman should have her married and maiden name recorded. e.g. Jane Smith formerly Brown.

    If married more than once, the entry will record the previous married and maiden names, e.g. Jane Jones late Smith formerly Brown.

    Column 6: Occupation of Father
    Fairly self explanatory - the occupation of the father (if he has been named) will be given in this column.

    If a line is drawn through the column it could mean that either the father had no occupation at the time or that the informant did not know the occupation.

    If the father died before the birth was registered, then the column may state something along the lines of "Labourer, Deceased".

    Column 7: Signature, Description and Residence of Informant
    Each birth is notified to the registrar by an informant. There are many people who could act as the informant.

    After checking the information recorded by the registrar, the informant is asked to sign (and thereby confirm) the accuracy of the entry. If, however, the informant could not read, he or she would "make his/her mark" by entering "x" for a signature. N.B. If the informant could not read, the details on the certificate may not be recorded correctly (how could they check the written entry if they could not read?).

    The description of the informant simply states the relationship or connection between the informant and the child.

    In many cases the informant is a parent of the child, but for a child born in the workhouse or institution the master would act as informant. Similarly, if the mother went to stay with a friend or relative for the birth then this person could act as informant. Another possibility is "person in charge of the child" - this could be the father of an illegitimate child or the master of the workhouse or a relative. In many cases this type of entry will appear if the mother died during or shortly after childbirth.

    Residence of informant is used to record the address of the informant. The earlier certificates can be vague, however - from around the mid 1870s the details were more precise. If the mother went to stay with relatives for the birth then you have no real clue as to where she actually lived before and after the birth.

    Column 8: Date of Registration
    This is the date the birth was registered, and not the date the birth took place. Legally there is a time limit in which a birth can be registered. Exceptional circumstances allow a birth to be registered very late (possibly in excess of a year) but such cases are very rare.

    Remember that a child born in the latter part of a quarter (the quarters run from Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, July-Sept and Oct-Dec) will often be registered in the following quarter after the event. For example, a child born at Christmas in 1890 could well be registered in the first quarter of 1891.

    Column 9: Signature of Registrar
    Usually just one signature will be shown. If, however, the Registrar and Superintendent Registrar sign, this may indicate either a late registration or a re-registered birth.

    Column 10: Name entered after Registration
    The main reason for such an entry relates to the early days of registration when baptism was considered more important than civil registration (prior to 1837 the church was responsible for recording births, marriages and deaths).

    If a child was registered without a forename and was then baptised, or if a child was registered with forenames that were changed at baptism, the facility was available to change the forename(s). Surnames, however, could not be changed.

    Another entry you may find in the column (or to the right of the column) is the single word "adopted", this indicates that the child was adopted at a later date. There will be no indication of the date of adoption, name of the adopting family or the name given to the child after the adoption process was completed.

    Birth Certificates and Adopted children

    adopt.jpgA birth certificate is issued after the birth in the normal way, with the exception of the word "adopted" and countersigned by the registrar (either in Column 10 or more often noted to the right of the column) the certificate cannot be distinguished from any other birth certificate. The image illustrates how an adoption is noted on a birth certificate.

    The certificate will show any name given to the child by the birth mother, the certificate will not give any further details relating to the adoption, (no date of adoption, post adoption name or details of the adopting couple), the certificate purely relates to the registration of the birth and the pre-adoption details.

    The birth index will only show the pre-adoption (birth) name, there are no post adoption details shown in the BMD index.

    Certificates issued after an adoption

    Post adoption details can be found on an "adoption certificate". An adoption certificate is a replacement birth certificate but in an adopted person's new name. The main difference between the two documents is the addition of court particulars on an adoption certificate.

    The details entered on a full adoption certificate are date of birth, place and country of birth, (early adoption certificates may lack certain details, it is largely dependant on the information entered on the adoption order).
    • adoptive forename and surname

    • sex

    • name and surname, address and occupation of adoptive parent(s)

    • date of adoption order

    • date on which adoption granted and the name of the court

    Adoption Certificate Applications

    Applications for adoption certificates can be made to the General Register Office, for full details of what information is required and how to apply see the Adoption Certificate Application Information on the GRO website.

    Further Information

    Further information about adoption, tracing a birth family and how to trace a child given for adoption can be found in the FTF Guide: Adoption.

    Many adoptees and adoptive parents have contributed support, advice and experiences on the Sensitive Research Section on the main Family Tree Forum site.

    Marriage Certificates

    Marriage certificates often raise questions from researchers. Often, the information recorded on a certificate can come as a surprise. Such surprises tend to centre around the residence and details of the father recorded on the certificate. Often the answer lies in how (or whether) the questions were asked of the couple.

    The Marriage Locator. Using the GRO code, this website helps you to find out in which Anglican church the marriage took place.

    Marriage Certificate Heading
    The heading of a marriage certificate will record the venue (church, chapel or register office) as well as the parish and city/town/village along with the county in which the marriage occurred. The registration district is usually recorded at the bottom of the certificate, though this may appear within the certificate heading in some cases, especially for the earlier certificates.

    Columns across the certificate
    The columns across the certificate are used to record the information supplied by both the bride and groom. Each column is used for different information.

    This will be the entry number from either the BMD index (for a certificate issued by the GRO) or the register (for a certificate issued by a local register office).

    Column 1: When Married
    The date of the marriage will be recorded here. A marriage on Christmas Day isn't that unusual, as in Victorian times it was often a busy day for marriages.

    Column 2: Name and Surname
    The names of the couple are recorded in this column. The groom is always listed above the bride. The names recorded are those used at the time of marriage and may not match with the names on a birth certificate. For example, a bride may have been married previously.

    Column 3: Age
    This column is where things can get interesting or confusing, depending on what you know or expect to see.

    The ages can often be inaccurate. Marriage under the age of 21 required parental consent (until 1969 when the age was lowered to 18) and, if one or both parties thought they could get away with adding a year or two and claim to be 21 or older, they often would.

    No proof of age was required unless either party to the marriage was obviously younger than the age they claimed.

    Similarly the answer would often be given as Full Age which indicates anything from 21 years of age upwards, (Full age doesn't mean exactly 21, though many researchers ignore this little fact).

    If the bride was older than the groom they would often amend their ages to make the groom appear older. This was quite common for reasons of "appearance and respectability".

    People often married very young, and it is wise to remember the legal age for marriage has changed over time.


    Girls could marry at 12. Boys could marry at 14. Parental consent was required by those under 21 years of age.


    Girls and boys could marry at 16. Again, parental consent was required for those under 21 years.

    Since 1969 the age has remained at 16, but consent is required only for those under the age of 18.

    Technically, if a "minor" misclaims his or her age and marries without parental consent, then it's not a legal marriage.

    Column 4: Condition
    The usual entries found here are "spinster, bachelor, widow or widower". Occasionally this can be incorrect. It is easy to prove that someone has married previously, but nearly impossible to prove that they haven't. Quite a few bachelors and spinsters may in truth be bigamists, but it is easy to tell a lie and get away with it!

    Column 5: Rank or Profession
    The occupation (if given) will be recorded in this column, and only paid employment is shown. In the case of the bride it is not uncommon for the entry to be omitted even if she did have paid employment. It is not inconceivable for someone to claim that his occupation was somewhat better or grander than it actually was.

    Column 6: Residence at time of Marriage
    Another misleading column. If a couple wanted to marry in a registration district some distance from where they actually lived (perhaps because one of them was under age, for instance), they only had to be resident in the district for 7 days prior to the marriage. This could mean that the couple would either move into lodgings or stay within the district for a week before the marriage, and then return to their own district afterwards. Often, the residence column for the couple will seem to show that they lived together when in truth they were just "temporary" residents in the district.

    Column 7: Father's Name and Surname
    This is another "grey area" on a certificate. The name of the natural father should be quoted. However, the name may be omitted (it is not compulsory to reveal the details) or the name may be fictitious (in the case of an illegitimate child, a fictitious name may have been given to save face).

    Similarly, a father may be recorded as "deceased" when in fact he is alive and well, or he may not be recorded as deceased when he died many years earlier. In most cases it is wise to check the death index (along with the census if the time-frame fits) for a father, regardless of the entry on a marriage certificate.

    Column 8: Rank or Profession of Father
    If a profession is given, it can help tremendously to confirm the true bloodline if you are faced with similar names. Unfortunately, in the case of a retired father the entry often simply says "retired" but omits the occupation. In such cases there is no way to distinguish between a retired hawker and a retired MP.

    The remainder of the certificate
    You may find an entry which indicates marriage "by certificate", "after banns" or "by licence", although there are others. There are various reasons for the different entries, which can relate to residence, denomination and length of notice prior to the marriage.

    Signatures and Witnesses
    A certificate does not legally have to be signed by the couple, and many registrars insisted that the couple enter their full names (which will appear differently to a signature). Someone who could not write would "make his mark" in the form of a cross.

    Witnesses should be known to the couple. Often they would be family members or neighbours. The witnesses may be siblings of the bride or groom (possibly unknown family members whom you discover at a later date) or they may be younger members of the family who seem too young to be a witness. The age of a witness is often a cause for concern among researchers. Ages are not quoted and there is no lower age limit - the witness just has to be able to function as a witness.

    The registrar will sign the document. There may be either one or two signatures depending on the venue.

    Register Office weddings require the Superintendent Registrar (who conducts the ceremony) as well as the Registrar (who completes the marriage register) to sign.

    For a Church of England ceremony, or other denomination where the minister is licenced to perform a marriage, there is just one signature. The cleric both conducts and registers the marriage and a second signature is not required.

    Death Certificates

    Finding the correct death certificate may not be as simple as it seems, a death may occur when someone is very young or the person may live to be over 100 years old. A death can occur anywhere, at home, work, whilst visiting another area or perhaps in a hospital or institution miles away from where you may expect it to have occurred.

    The informant may be someone who knew the deceased quite well (a spouse or child for example) but can just as easily be someone with little knowledge of the deceased (perhaps a distant relative or neighbour, or possibly a doctor). For this reason death certificates can contain some of the least accurate information of all certificates available.

    Death Certificate Heading
    The heading on a death certificate includes the registration district (and sub-district if appropriate) along with the county name.


    Columns across the certificate

    The first column on the left contains the entry number from the register.

    Column 1: Date and Place of Death
    The date and place of death are recorded in this column. Note that the place of death may not be at home so you may not discover the home address from this column. If the date of death is unknown, the entry will be an approximate date of death and may read "on or about the 7th of January 1915".

    Column 2: Name and Surname
    This will give the name notified by the informant. It is hoped that this will match to what you already know, but bear in mind that there may be times when forenames are swapped around or substituted for another name.

    Column 3: Sex
    The entries for the gender of the deceased are recorded as male or female.

    Column 4: Age
    The age at death is recorded in this column. However, this column is one of the most likely to be incorrect.

    The informant may not know the true age and give an estimated age or the deceased may not have known his true age. In the past it was not so vital for people to know their correct age. There was no old age pension and schooling was not always compulsory, so the need for an accurate age was not as important as it is today. Many people simply did not know their true age or date of birth so the information in the column should at best be treated as a guide.

    Column 5: Occupation
    The last known occupation will be quoted, and may not be the deceased's lifelong occupation. Poor health could mean that someone's occupation changed towards the end of his life. Entries could also say "retired" or no occupation may quoted. Again, the information is entirely dependant on how much the informant knew.

    Married women would mostly be recorded as "wife of" or "widow of" even if they had paid employment. It has only been since 1969 that the occupations of married women have been recorded with any degree of regularity and accuracy.

    Children are recorded as "son/daughter of", with the fathers details entered. References to the mother's name were not added to certificates until 1969.

    Column 6: Cause of Death
    As well as the cause of death, one of the four following options will appear:
    • Uncertified death
    • Certification by a doctor
    • Certification by a post mortem without an Inquest
    • Certification following an inquest

    Uncertified deaths occur mostly pre-1875, indicating that a doctor did not issue a certificate (doctors would charge for this and many families could not/would not pay for the doctor).

    Certified by doctor: To qualify as certified, a doctor has to have seen the deceased during his last illness and also has to have seen the deceased within the 14 days before the death or after the death. Without certification by a doctor, the coroner has to be notified of the death.

    If the coroner is satisfied with the cause of death and the circumstances arising before the death occurred, usually no further action is taken and the cause of death as recorded by the doctor will stand.

    An inquest will be held if the circumstances surrounding the death appear to be suspicious or from unnatural causes. A violent death (including suicide) or one arising from suspected neglect are examples of cases in which an inquest may be called.

    Column 7: Signature, description and residence of informant
    The details of the informant are recorded in this column. Before 1875, it is highly unlikely that the relationship of the informant will be given. Most post-1875 certificates will give either the relationship or "description". This may be the master of a workhouse, for example, in the case of a death in an institution.

    The earlier registrations do not distinguish between relationship by blood or marriage. For instance, a "brother" may be a brother through birth or a brother-in-law (through marriage).

    A common law wife had no legal status to register a death. The only exception was if she had nursed the deceased prior to the death. As a result you may find that the relationship quoted is false (many a lie has been told to enable someone to register a death).

    Column 8: When registered
    This shows the date of registration and not the date of death. Usually the date of registration is within a few days of the death, and often it is on the same day. Delayed death registration is very rare, and is usually due to a post mortem and inquest being held).

    Column 9: Signature of registrar
    Usually just one signature is present, although the Superintendent Registrar will also sign in cases of late registration (in excess of one year).

    Ordering a BMD Certificate

    There are two options available from which you can order a copy certificate:

    • Local Register Office

    Which to use depends on the type of certificate you require as well as payment and order options that are available. A brief guide to using the GRO and local offices is given below.


    Due to the increasing interest in family history, many companies have been set up which offer copies of birth, marriage and death certificates at higher prices. Typically these companies charge £25 upwards and take 15 days to supply a certificate.

    Links to most of the register offices throughout the country can be found on the relevant county pages. Should you wish to "Google" for a particular office, then please use the following guidelines to avoid the BMD certificate companies:

    Enter the name of the county or city council as your search criteria

    Once on the council website homepage you should then enter registrars or register office in the site search facility.

    The method described above will ensure you do not place an order for a certificate through a certificate supply company.

    Certificate orders via the General Register Office

    Certificates can be applied for via the following methods:
    • Online
    • Telephone
    • Postal/fax applications

    The GRO site offers an easy-to-use online order service with secure payment facilities by credit card. This is especially useful for those who live overseas (many local offices cannot accept payments by card or with cheques in non-sterling currency).

    To receive the best (cheapest) price you should always supply the PRO number (this is also known as the GRO reference number and can be found by searching the birth, marriage or death indexes).

    To help you to obtain the correct certificate you can specify a "checking point". This can be the name of a parent for example. A word of caution: if you specify that the father is called James and the certificate entry says Jim, the GRO will not supply the certificate (and will only give a partial refund of the fee). Only if all details match exactly will you receive a certificate with a checking point.

    Certificate Orders via a Local Register Office

    Which local office should you apply to

    The first problem you have to overcome is locating the correct office. Each office holds records for its own district (or sub district), so if you live in Lancashire and require a certificate for an event in Brighton, you will have to apply to the Brighton office.

    A county based list of offices can be found by selecting the relevant county from the county listings at UK County Index .

    How to apply

    There isn't a definitive answer to this question. Some offices can accept online orders, some can't. Payment options present similar problems as not every office will take credit card payments or cheque payments. Check with the relevant office before you place an order, the staff are only too pleased to help.

    What information should you supply

    The first thing to note is that you do not under any circumstances quote a GRO reference number as the local offices use a completely different index system and the GRO number will mean nothing to them.

    You should provide as much information as you know i.e. names, dates and locations etc., but if you are unsure about the accuracy of such information then make this clear. Most local offices will contact you if a piece of information does not tally exactly with the register and ask if you still require the certificate. If you do not want the certificate then you will not be charged for the search. You will only ever pay a fee if a certificate is provided.

    If you require a marriage certificate then you must supply the name of the marriage venue e.g. the name of the church or chapel. Without this information the office is unlikely to be able to supply the certificate as each marriage venue has a register (one register per church/chapel, etc.) and because a district can contain literally hundreds of churches and chapels, the staff are unable to search each and every book. In most cases the GRO is a better option for marriage certificates.

    Are the locally issued certificates different to GRO versions

    The appearance of the certificate, (typeface and colour) may differ slightly from a GRO certificate. In addition, local offices are using the details from the original register to complete your certificate. In many cases the local offices can supply a scan of this register copied onto your certificate.

    The Registration Districts in England and Wales from Genuki: Registration Districts.

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    • Caroline
      Caroline commented
      Editing a comment
      Link added:

      The Marriage Locator.
      Using the GRO code, this website helps you to find out in which Anglican church the marriage took place.
    Posting comments is disabled.



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