Civil Registration Records for England & Wales

The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England & Wales in June 1837, and these records are the building blocks of family history. The records have been indexed centrally from the beginning, firstly as hand-written indexes. Later indexes were printed, while after 1983 all records have been computerised. These indexes have now been transcribed by different organisations, and their websites offer different ways of searching. There are advantages to each site regarding its coverage and its search options, and this table shows the advantages of each offering.

None of these indexes is perfect. All may have transcription errors, and sometimes records are left out. The GRO website is the result of a new indexing of the original certificates, while all the others have transcribed the original indexes and converted them into a database.

These websites can be found as follows:

FreeBMD - https://www.freebmd.org.uk/

General Register Office - https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/

Ancestry – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/

Findmypast – https://www.findmypast.co.uk/

The Genealogist - https://www.thegenealogist.co.uk/

 

BIRTHS

Dates covered

Years searched

Area searched

Pros and cons

FreeBMD

(Free)

1837-1983.

In process to 1992

Any period can be specified

Can specify registration district and/or county

First names shown may vary.

Mother’s maiden name shown from July 1911

Can search with first name only

GRO website

(Free)

1837-1919, 1984-2019

Year +/- 2  

Can specify registration district

Always shows mother’s maiden name and full first names.

Can search for more than one forename

Cannot search without a surname

The only site to require gender

Ancestry

(Subscription)

1837-1915 & 1916-2005

Year +/- 10

Can specify exact place, with options for county, neighbouring county & country

First names shown may vary. Mother’s maiden name shown from July 1911

Findmypast

(Subscription)

1837-2006

Year +/- 40

Can specify place and extend by 5, 10, miles, etc

First names shown may vary. Mother’s maiden name shown from July 1911

The Genealogist

(Subscription)

1837-2005

Year +/-

Customisable up to 50 or all

Can specify registration district and/or county

First names shown may vary. Mother’s maiden name shown from July 1911

Can view a map of results

Can use * wildcard

Can search for mother’s maiden name using keywords, but this can be confusing

 

 

MARRIAGES

Dates covered

Years searched

Area searched

Pros and cons

FreeBMD

(Free)

1837-1983.

In process to 1992

Any period can be specified

Can specify registration district and/or county

Surname of spouse shown from January 1912 onwards

Shows names on that register page

GRO website

None

 

Ancestry

(Subscription)

1837-1915 & 1916-2005

Year +/- 10

Can specify exact place, with options for county, neighbouring county & country

Surname of spouse shown from January 1912 onwards

Shows names on that register page

Findmypast

(Subscription)

1837-2005

Year +/- 40

Can specify place and extend by 5, 10, miles, etc

Surname of spouse shown from January 1912 onwards

Shows names on that register page

The Genealogist

(Subscription)

1837-2005

Year +/-

Customisable up to 50 or all

Can specify registration district and/or county

First names shown may vary. Spouse’s surname shown from July 1911

Can view a map of results

Can use * wildcard

 

DEATHS

Dates covered

Years searched

Area searched

Pros and cons

FreeBMD

(Free)

1837-1983.

In process to 1992

Any period can be specified

Can specify registration district and/or county

Age at death or date of birth shown after 1866

GRO website

(Free)

1837-1957 & 1984-2019

Year +/- 2  

Can specify registration district

Always shows age at death or date of birth

Ancestry

(Subscription)

1837-1915 &

1916 -2007

Year +/- 10

Can specify exact place, with options for county, neighbouring county & country

Age at death or date of birth shown after 1866

Findmypast

(Subscription)

1837-2007, 2007-2018

Year +/- 40

Can specify place and extend by 5, 10, miles, etc

Age at death or date of birth shown after 1866

The Genealogist

(Subscription)

1837-2005

Year +/-

Customisable up to 50 or all

Can specify registration district and/or county

Age at death or date of birth shown after 1866

 

Both Ancestry and Findmypast have death indexes from 2006 to 2018 provided by Wilmington Millennium, although it is unclear how comprehensive this is, or its source.

Deaths can also be traced through the Probate Record, which has details of anyone who died and left property in England and Wales which had to be administered. The death may have taken place overseas, including Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands, etc. A link to a table showing the probate sources can be found below.

Church records are also available for baptisms, marriages and burials. Civil records correspond to the place where the event occurred, while church records for baptism and burial indicate where the ceremony took place, and not necessarily where the birth or death occurred.

There are also indexes to the records held in the local register office. The formats of these are not always consistent, but they may offer information not available on the national GRO records (actual place of marriage, for example). They may also differ from the national records because of different interpretations of handwriting, or because records have been mislaid. Indexes are not available for all local register offices – in our area, Bath, some Wiltshire and some Gloucestershire have been published, while the Bristol project is proceeding slowly. Go to https://www.ukbmd.org.uk/ for information about availability.

Probate Records for England & Wales since 1858

When a person dies, probate has to be granted before property can be collected together and distributed. Since 1858, probate has been granted by civil courts in England and Wales. Before that date, it was granted by church courts and the position is much more complicated. Technically, probate is granted where someone has left a will, while a Grant of Administration will be given when there is no will but there are assets to be administered. Both types of record are listed in the same indexes, but there is often much more interesting detail when the deceased has left a will. Children could not leave a will, and they are rare for married women.

All of the online probate records are based on the printed calendars which were published in large volumes from 1858 to 1996, when records were computerised. Because the calendars have always been printed, transcription errors should be less common. Some sites also have access to the computerised records from 1996 to the present day. Copies of the grant of probate, together with the will, can be ordered online at a cost of £1.50. They are then sent as e-mail attachments. Wills are public documents, and anyone can order one; you don’t have to be a relative.

Wills are available shortly after probate has been granted. However, probate may not be granted for some time after death, and can sometimes be granted more than once if further assets are discovered later.

Searching for a will can be a good short cut to finding a death. As a formal legal document, they usually have the full first name of the deceased.

The location of the Probate Registry is not necessarily significant. Any will can be proved anywhere, so it does not relate to the normal residence of the deceased or the place where they died. It is usually the place most convenient for the executors, since they have to attend the probate office to swear an oath. During the Second World War, many provincial probate offices were used rather than London.

Probate Office Website – 1858 to 2020
(https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate)

This is the website where you order copies of wills, and it has a full index of all the wills that are available. However, its search system is the least helpful. For the period up to 1996, you can only search for a surname, and only one year at a time. You will then have to scroll through all the pages of that surname, enlarging each one as you go to make it legible. There is an advanced search system for wills after 1996.

Ancestry – 1858 to 1996

The index is very easy to use. The search screen has the usual Ancestry flexibility regarding name spelling and date, and the results are shown as a list of possible hits. You then click on the one you want and this takes you to a full-size image of the page from the original calendar.

Findmypast – 1858 to 2019

The index is very easy to use. The search screen has the usual Findmypast flexibility regarding name spelling and date, and the results are shown as a list of possible hits. You then click on the one you want, and this takes you to a full-size image of the page from the original calendar, or from the computerised index for later wills. However, some surnames have been found to be missing from the Findmypast indexes, although not from the page images. If you cannot find an expected entry, it may be worth checking one of the other websites.

The Genealogist

This site does not have the post 1858 probate records.

 

Bob Lawrence

April 2020