Getting Started

Gathering Documents

Civil Registration – the process of registering births, marriages and deaths with the state – was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837. Scotland followed suit on 1 January 1855, and Ireland on 1 January 1864.
The legacy of these bureaucratic landmarks – designed to keep track of the ever-expanding population – is a wealth of documentary evidence, the building blocks of any family history.

Grasping how these records are organised will make it much easier for you to find the relevant information for your ancestor. Each “event” – that’s family-history-speak for a birth, marriage or death (BMD) – was recorded by a local registrar.

Every three months, the registrar forwarded the details they had collected to the General Register Office (GRO), who indexed them in quarterly volumes, arranged alphabetically by surname.
Years of political upheaval, including a fire at Ireland’s Public Record Office in 1922, have destroyed many irreplaceable Irish records – this makes researching ancestors in Eire and Northern Ireland a much more difficult task.

Consulting the GRO index: online

From this centralised index you need to extract the reference number relating to the event you are interested in, allowing you to order a duplicate certificate.

Several websites offer access to the GRO indexes, either pay-per-view or as part of a subscription fee. Try:

A collaborative project aiming to create a free searchable database of the indexes – so far it is nearly complete up to 1911.

Portal for local authorities offering online access to regional BMD indexes.

Offers a free name search of Scottish GRO indexes – you can then pay to search for births, deaths and marriages and then view the certificate online.
You can also view the GRO indexes at a number of commercial websites including:,, and

Consulting the GRO index: in person

If you prefer a hands-on approach, those with roots in England and Wales can often find the GRO indexes on microfiche at their local reference library. Most reference libraries can offer lots of regionally-specific advice to new family historians, so they are well worth a visit.

Scots have a separate registry at New Register House in Edinburgh, while Irish records are divided between the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (Belfast), and the General Register Office of Ireland (Dublin).
By visiting these places in person you’ll also be able to draw upon the extensive expertise of the archivists, who are usually happy to offer guidance to a bewildered beginner.


Which quarterly volume the event you are looking for appears in depends on when it was registered, not the actual date of the event itself. Remember that an event could be registered up to six weeks after it happened – so you may find a baby born in November or December of one year registered in the first quarter of the next.

Finding a certificate

The same principles apply whether you consult the GRO index online or at one of the nation’s many archive facilities. Using the information you have, search for a known event – your mother’s birth, for example. Events are separated by type – births, marriages, deaths – and for each year there are four quarterly volumes.

Finding an entry in the register is only the first step and garners limited information. To get the full story you will need to order the certificate online at

If your name is a common one, you may spot several possible candidates listed in the indexes. Be as sure as you can that you’ve identified the correct individual before ordering a certificate – at £7 a pop, the costs soon mount up if you have to buy several before finding who you’re looking for.
Irritating perhaps, but entirely necessary – a wrong step at this early stage could lead you to waste valuable time inadvertently investigating someone else’s family!

What if you can’t find who you’re looking for?

Because the GRO records are secular almost everyone will feature (the same does not apply with parish registers – see step 7). If you can’t find the event you are looking for it is a possibility that it was never registered, but there are other possible explanations:

  • - You might be wrong about when the event happened – try widening your search by a couple of years either side of the date you think it occurred.
  • - The name by which you know them is not the one under which the event was recorded, or has been spelled differently.
  • - The information on the relevant certificate has been transcribed inaccurately, preventing you from finding it.

You don’t need to track down every possible certificate before moving on to the next stage – use the information you glean from each new BMD in conjunction with the other keystone of family history research: census returns.

Next Page - Using the Census

Previous Page - Collecting Family Items



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