Births, marriages & deaths

Civil registration

Before civil registration, all records of births, marriages and deaths were kept by each parish church in their parish registers. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales was introduced on 1st July 1837. Originally, the registrars had to travel around and visit the people who had an event and make a note of the details.

During the early years of registration many births were not registered because it was not compulsory and there was no penalty for failure to comply. Before 1875 it is estimated that as many as 10% of births were NOT registered. From 1875 registration was compulsory and it was up to the people to visit the local registrar office to record the event, and there was more rigorous enforcement.

Births are required to be registered within 42 days of the event. In 1837 a death had to be registered within 8 days, this was reduced to 5 days in 1875. Both are sometimes are registered late. A coroner's inquest, for example, might significantly delay the issuing of a death certificate.

In 1875, to get a death certificate, you needed a certificate from the Doctor with the cause of death. This allowed you to get the Civil Registration Death Certificate and a Certificate of Disposal to take to the undertaker. If there was no body, a death could not be registered.

The registration districts were formed from the Poor Law Unions, areas that stretched across several parishes and which had elected Overseers of the Poor who were answerable to the parishes and the area's Justice of the Peace.

The indexes

A copy of the district registers was sent to the Registrar General at the end of March, June, September and December, where they were compiled into quarterly indexes for England and Wales, so the first index is for September 1837. (Note that the quarters contain the births, marriages or deaths registered within them, which is not necessarily the same as those that actually took place within them.)

From 1837 until 1911 only the surname, first two forenames, other initials, registration district and reference number were recorded for births, marriages and deaths. From September 1911 the birth index also includes the mother's maiden name. From March 1912 the marriage index also included the spouse's surname.

From 1837 until December 1865 no age was given on the death index. From March 1866 to March 1969 the age at death is given. From June 1969 the date and place of birth of the deceased and the maiden name (in the case of a married woman) are also given. On 1st July 1927, stillbirth registration commenced.

Calendar dates

Until 1751 the year number in England and Wales changed not on 1st January but on 25th March (Lady Day), one of the quarter days. It was only from 1752, by an Act of Parliament, that the year started on 1st January. The old style is known as the Julian Calendar (after Julius Caesar) and the new style as the Gregorian Calendar (after Pope Gregory XIII).

Until the change, parish registers and other documents used the Julian Calendar, which means that entries for years up to 1750 would cover dates from 25th March to the following 24th March. The year 1751, however, started on 25th March but ended on 31st December.

When a date before 1752 is between 1st January and 24th March, it is useful to write down both the old and new year, e.g. 17th February 1748/49 means the date would have been written as 17th February 1748 in a parish register but in the new style would have been 17th February 1749.