After the Civil Registration act in 1837, it became law to officially register every birth, marriage and death in the United Kingdom. As a result, it became much easier to track how many people were being born, where, how many people were dying, and so forth. Hundreds of years later, the hatch match and dispatch records are invaluable for doing your family tree.
Every birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership or death registered in England or Wales has a General Register Office (GRO) index reference number. It usually consists of the year, volume number, page number and district in which the event was registered. For example, my great-grandparents marriage certificate in Portsmouth in 1917 has the reference ‘1917, 2b, 865, Portsmouth’.
You can find a certificate even if you are not completely sure when an event took place. As long as you know which quarter it happened in, this makes things much easier, as you can search the BMD indexes, at sites such as FreeBMD and Ancestry. The indexes are also available to search in many local librarys and archives. From 1837 to 1984 the index information for each year is divided into quarters. The quarters are split as follows:
* March quarter – events registered in January, February and March
* June quarter – April, May and June
* September quarter – July, August and September
* December quarter – October, November and December
The earliest index is for September quarter 1837. After 1984 the indexes are organised by year only.
Once you have an index number, you can apply for a copy certificate from either the General Register Office in London, or the local Register office where the event took place. There is normally a charge for this, depending on what exactly it is you want, and how long it takes the staff to search for the original entry.
The make up of the certificates and the information that they contain has changed slightly over time, but most of the common features remain.
Birth certificates -these are normally red – tell you when and where the birth took place, the name of the child, gender, full name of father (if known or entered, of course!), full name and maiden name of mother, occupation of father, details of the informant, when registered and the name of the registrar.
Marriage certificates – these are usually in the green – tell you when the marriage took place, the full names of the husband and wife, their ages and conditions, rank or profession, residence at time of marriage, fathers surname and profession. Interestingly, it also tells you what parish the marriage took place in, if it was in the rites of any chuch or religion, and the minister who officiated.
Death certificates – suitable in black – tell you when and where someone died, the deceased’s name, gender, age, occupation, cause of death, signature description and residence of the informant, when registered, and a signature of the registrar.
So you can see how for every certificate you manage to get hold of, it will give you a step backwards to the next generation. That way, used alongside the census returns, you can trace your family back one step at a time.
Not only do certificates give you an idea of names, dates, places, but they give you a lot more social information too, that colours what is otherwise a very impersonal family tree. You can find out about the jobs that your ancestors did, how they migrated and moved around the country, any illnesses that they might have had, and what religion they were. So something that could be just any other family history suddenly becomes very personal to you.