One of the first things that need to be done when you are beginning your family tree is to find records for birth, deaths and marriages in the civil registration records. These go back to 1837. However, as registration was not compulsory until 1875 not everyone is included, so do not be too surprised if you cannot find your ancestor in these records. Even after 1875 people did not always register and preferred to pay a fine.
Before heading for the indexes, you should make notes of any information you already have and what information you do not have. This will prevent you from wasting money ordering certificates that you do not need. You then need to decide which certificates you will want to order.
To help you decide, I have given a breakdown of the information included on the certificates below.
Birth Certificates will give you the following information:
* Date and place of birth
* Name of child
* Sex of child
* Name and surname of father
* Name, surname and maiden name of mother
* Occupation of father
This is a very useful certificate if you do not know the mother's maiden name. If you already have information about both parents, it might be better to order a marriage certificate for the parents (see below).
Marriage Certificates will give you the following information:
* Place of marriage, including name of church
* Date of marriage
* Ages of bride and groom
* Status (i.e. whether bachelor/spinster or widower/widow)
* Occupation of both
* Place of residence at time of marriage
* Names of both fathers
* Occupations of both fathers
* Names of witnesses
This certificate can take you back an extra generation as it carries information about both fathers.
Names of witnesses should not be overlooked as they can be clues to other family members; often siblings or cousins.
Death Certificates give you the following information:
* Age at death
* Residence at death
* Cause of death
* Name of person registering the death
It is not always worth paying for a death certificate unless you are trying to establish an approximate date of birth (though age in death certificates can often be inaccurate), or if you are interested in the cause of death. Also, if it is the only document you can find for an ancestor, it may be useful for establishing where a person was living, and the name of the registree could also be a family member.
Where to find the Indexes
It is quite easy to search indexes online nowadays. The two main places on the internet are Ancestry and FindMyPast. Both sites require payment to search indexes, though at Ancestry you can pay a general site subscription which will also enable you to search census and other records. At FindMyPast you register for free and then pay for search units.
Searching the Indexes
The indexes are divided into quarters for each year (Jan-Mar; Apr-Jun, July-Sept and Oct to Dec). In the past, you had to trawl through all the indexes for each quarter, and if you were not sure of the date of the event, it could be like searching for a needle in a haystack! Name search indexes such as the one at Ancestry.co.uk have now made this much easier. However, these are not always accurate. Remember that these indexes have been transcribed by human beings and are subject to error. If you still cannot find your ancestor, even after trying several name variations, it is advisable to go to the main indexes.
When you find your entry, you will find the district name and the volume and page number of the relevant certificate, like this for my grandfather's marriage in 1923:
Manley, Francis Reid Prestwich 8d 755
The surname Reid in this case is the maiden name of the spouse. This does not show up in earlier records.
You must make a note of all these details for when you order your certificates.
You can order certificates online at a cost of GBP 8.50 each (at the time of writing) from the GRO. If you are not sure that you are ordering the correct certificate, you can ask for the certificate to be checked, if you have information that you know should be included. If it turns out to be the wrong certificate, the GRO will refund half of your fee.
Certificates should arrive within three days if you are within the UK, five days in Europe and seven days for the rest of the world, unless they are extremely busy in which case it may take a little longer.
Once you have obtained all the birth, deaths and marriages certificates you need, you can use the information gained to look at other resources such as census records and parish registers.
Ros is a professional genealogist and writer.