As promised, here is the first blog post about British research!
One of the first resources you need to know about with British research is Civil Registration. It started in 1837 and required the reporting of all births, marriages, and deaths. Before 1837, these kinds of vital records (as we call them in the US) were recorded in church records by the parishes. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about parish records a lot, just later. After 1837, they were recorded civilly and the coverage got a lot better as the years went on because fees were attached to not reporting births and deaths.
This all sounds pretty great right? A resource that tells you where someone was born or died and what day. Birth records include parents names (and mother’s maiden name!) as well as father’s occupation. Death records give age at death and residence.
But there’s a catch. You have to pay. It costs £8 to get a certificate mailed to you and it takes about two weeks. The GRO (General Register’s Office) is currently doing a pilot program in which you can pay £6 to get the certificate as a pdf in only 5 business days, which is really nice. So getting certificates can get pretty expensive pretty fast, but luckily the indexes are free and they give you all that you need (most of the time). The indexes list birth year and quarter (the British divide the year into 4 quarters: March, June, September, and December), which registration district they were born in, and mother’s maiden name. The death indexes list death year and quarter, registration district, and age at death.
One of the best places to search the birth and death indexes is on the GRO’s website (gro.gov.uk), but they are also available on findmypast.com and freebmd.org.uk. The GRO doesn’t have marriage indexes yet, but marriages are available on Find My Past and FreeBMD. Here’s an example of searching on the GRO Index:
There are a few important things to know about the GRO indexes that pertain to your research methodology. The first is that the GRO birth indexes list mother’s maiden name. That means that if there are three Alice Johnsons who were born in Dorchester in 1853, you can use the mother’s maiden name to narrow it down to who your ancestor is. Or, if you know that the mother of your family group had a child, but you have no idea the name of the child or when they were born, you can do a parent search with the mother’s maiden name. Kind of cool.
The second important thing is that death indexes list the age at death. So once again, if you have a lot of people with the same name dying around the same time, but you know when your person was born, you can check to see if the age at death matches with the birth year.
The third thing you want to do is make sure that you have the right volume and page number before you order because otherwise you pay lots of money for something that doesn’t really help you. The best way for me, is to find the entry of the person you want in the GRO index, and then click “Order Certificate” right there so you don’t have to enter any information yourself.
Find My Past and FreeBMD are also really cool and I have found a lot of information that way. (I also recommend searching with at least a +/- 2 years range on the dates.) The biggest thing to remember is that each of these websites have their own weird algorithms for the searches so if one search doesn’t work, try a different search and then head to a different website to see if one of those searches works better on a different site. It’s kind of weird that way, but let me tell you, civil registration is ultimately a blessing. Seriously. Before 1837, you just better hope that your ancestor’s parish records survived and that their parents christened them and didn’t do something weird. And we will talk more about finding parish registers later, so don’t worry. And good luck with your initial, post-1837 research!