• Stillbirth

    A stillbirth is the death of a foetus any time after the 24th week of pregnancy. (Previous to 1992, this would have been after the 20th week.)

    An infant who draws a spontaneous breath - even just one - is not classed as stillborn. Sadly, the subject is very emotive, and in the past was not considered suitable for family conversations. Nowadays, thank goodness, we appear to be more sensitive to the grief of the parents.

    Unfortunately, until the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1926 made stillbirths registerable from 1st July 1927, the only regulation that existed was the 1874 requirement for a declaration of stillbirth to be obtained, so that a child who had been born alive but died a short time afterwards could not be buried as a stillborn delivery. Prior to this, many such neonatal deaths went unregistered because otherwise the parent would have been liable for the cost of a birth certificate as well as a death certificate. This cost must have been beyond the means of many parents in the 19th century.

    Some cemeteries maintain a list of stillborn children buried in their grounds but it is unusual for the actual plot to be pinpointed, let alone a headstone erected. Often children were born at home possibly with a midwife present rather than a doctor. If the children were prematurely stillborn, what happened to the babies after birth is a very sensitive and 'grey' area, it is likely that the decision was often made by the midwife. Some midwives kept a record of every confinement they attended and sometimes a note would be made of a stillborn child but not what happened to the baby.

    If the baby was stillborn full term although it is possible that there could have been a funeral, almost certainly the parents would not have attended. Sometimes a stillborn child was placed in the coffin of an unrelated adult who was about to be buried, and although the sexton kept a list of such stillbirth burials by child's name, only he knew in which coffin the baby had been laid.

    Tracing a Stillbirth

    There is no index of names of stillbirths (since 1st July 1927) available for researchers, and no copy of the certificate issued on registration of the stillbirth is allowed to be made apart from exceptional circumstances, e.g., medical/genetic. In such cases a copy is available at the discretion of the Registrar General.
    A lady called Teresa Williams runs a stillbirths index (and a multiple births index). If you would like Mrs Williams to conduct a search for you, please write to her with as much information as you have, including addresses where possible, and enclose a SAE for the reply.
    Mrs Teresa Williams
    87 Pasture Road
    North Wembley
    HA0 3JW
    Mrs Williams says: "It was because I kept seeing these pathetic notices in the births columns of many national and local newspapers, especially in the second half of the 19th century, that I decided to start the stillbirths index. These notices are often the only intimation that the woman had given birth, as before the 1874 Act of Registration of Births and Deaths, there were no regulations of any kind regarding stillborn children.
    The stillbirths index is really reliant upon newspaper notices for its content, the exceptions being a notation in a Parish Burial Register, or the very occasional Sexton's list of cemetery burials for children."

    Obtaining Stillbirth Certificates

    Due to the sensitive nature of stillbirth registrations, the procedure for ordering a certificate of the entry differs from other types of certificate. The GRO will only send out the application form after having been contacted by phone or in writing by the mother or father (if he is named on the certificate). In cases where the parents are deceased, a brother or sister can apply if they can provide their parents’ dates of death.

    Phone: +44 (0)845 603 7788

    Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm

    Or write to the GRO at:
    General Register Office
    PO Box 2

    GRO Stillbirth Information

    GRONI Stillbirths

    GRO Ireland Stillbirths

    Back to Research Guides

    Back to Getting Started