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Civil Registration, Birth including illegitimacy (England & Wales)

Nature of Source

Certificates and indexes of civil registered births introduced after the passing of the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836. Civil registration was introduced from 1 July 1837 which meant that all births, marriages and deaths had to be reported to the register office in the district where the event took place. The original registration districts were usually based on the poor law union area with a Superintendent Registrar officiating in each district. In later years, the registration districts tied in with local authority administrative area. The national indexes were compiled from entries sent quarterly to the General Register Office in London. The indexed entries had been copied into national registers from those kept by the local registry office. This process created scope for errors in copying from one source to another but also be aware that many civil registration certificates contain outright lies.

The original indexes from 1837 were handwritten on velum which can be difficult to decipher but after 1866 printed indexes were introduced. In 1984 annual indexes replaced the quarterly indexes and digital indexes replaced paper indexes.  For a an explanation of the area and volume codes used in the indexes and their corresponding registration districts see here. Please note that Roman numerals were used from 1837 to 1851 and Arabic numerals and letters from 1852 to 1946 for the index reference codes.

An online ordering service is available at

It is possible that the birth went unregistered as many believed that registration was unnecessary if the child had been baptised. This was more likely to happen shortly after the introduction of civil registration in 1837, although it is not uncommon even today. Up to 1874 the registrar was responsible for recording the events, resulting in around 15 per cent of births going unrecorded. After 1875 registration was enforced more rigorously with fines imposed for non registration with the responsibility passed to the individual for registering events. Births had to be registered within 6 weeks of the event.

Since 1st July 1927 a compulsory system of stillbirth registration has been in operation in England and Wales with the cause of death being added in 1960. Compulsory registration began in 1939 for Scotland, in 1976 for Northern Ireland and in 1995 for Ireland. A stillbirth is defined as a baby born stillborn (after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, reduced from 28 weeks in 1995) that is to say without any sign of breath or any other sign of life. However, it was not until 1874 that parents could obtain an official declaration of a stillbirth. The authorities had to take action as a deterrent against instances of parents killing and disposing of an unwanted baby (infanticide) with little chance of detection and to stop parents burying a child that died shortly after birth as stillborn. Before 1874, no record will exist of a stillbirth although some incumbents did record the death in the parish register and civil death registers will register a stillbirth as ‘unknown’ or ‘unidentified’ if no one could identify the body.

From 1969, place of birth of both parents were supplied on certificate. The mother's maiden name is shown on a child's birth certificate and crucially her former married name if she had been married more than once. If so she would have married under her late married name. An example birth certificate entry should read as follows presuming that she correctly informed the registrar: Sarah Collins, late Robinson, formerly Smith, where 'formerly' refers to her maiden name under which she originally married.

It is generally presumed that a mother would give birth between the ages of 18 and 30. If a search between these dates is unsuccessful, the range should be increased. The most common cause of a missing entry is a misspelt surname. It is possible that the first letter of a name could have been erroneously substituted with another like sounding consonant or vowel. Likewise, letters within the name could be missing or replaced with other letters or transcribed. Also the information provided by the informant could be unintentionally false or misheard by the registrar. At some point in the copying process the information could be corrupted even if the event was initially correctly recorded. A missing entry might be due to a person changing their name by deed poll or becoming known by their second forename or by a nickname. In a number of cases the child's name was not decided at the time of registration and was simply registered as 'Male' or 'Female'. Also note that after 1911, the indexes do not include the person’s full middle name but only the initial.

If a name is still not found try looking for entries in parish magazines and check the Vaccination Registers which held monthly returns of births and infant deaths as reported to the vaccination officer. It is also worth considering that the marriage or birth may not have occurred in England or Wales or may have taken place at sea.

The Channel Islands began civil registration in the 1840s. In the Isle of Man, births and deaths from 1878 and marriages from 1884.

Check the local superintendent registrar's office if an entry is missing from the national index as local registrars compiled their own indexes from their original records. Some of these registers have been deposited at the local record office and some are online. Check with UK BMD for links to local transcriptions. The site provides links to web sites that offer on-line transcriptions of UK births, marriages, deaths, parish registers and census returns. The links are mainly to local registrars that are offering on line access to their civil registration indexes. Users can also carry out a multi-region UKBMD search at which allows for searches across one or more county. Other miscellaneous indexes are also covered.


If the child was illegitimate, the space for the father's name will invariably be left blank on the birth certificate. The informant, normally the mother, would register the newborn under her own maiden name unless accompanied by the father, in which case both names would appear on the certificate. In the absence of a named father on the certificate, it is worth searching for the possible father in the parish baptism register or poor law records, quarter session records or possibly school admission registers. It is also worth considering that a putative father might have named his illegitimate offspring in his will. Check the illegitimate child's later marriage certificate as this might name the father. However, it is also worth considering that a blank space in the father’s name column of a marriage certificate normally indicates illegitimacy. The bride or groom might even erroneously declare the father as ‘deceased’ to obscure their own illegitimacy.

Between 1837 and 1875, a mother could name a father without any checks on the reliability of the claim. After this date the consent of the father was required for his name to appear, together with his attendance when the birth was registered.

Problems can arise with finding the birth entry of an illegitimate child in the indexes for the following reasons usually associated with naming patterns and conventions:

·  The mother erroneously registers the child’s name after the biological father (e.g. Berry) or in her married name (e.g. Cook) but subsequently uses her maiden name for the child (e.g. Hall). Obviously a search in the birth indexes using her maiden name (Hall) will not find the correct person. Try searching for the newborn using the name of any men closely associated with the mother of the illegitimate child (in this instance Berry or Cook).

·  The mother correctly registers the child under her own maiden name (e.g. Hall) but subsequently uses the name of the biological father (e.g. Berry) or her married name (e.g. Cook) for the child. Obviously a search in the birth indexes using the biological father’s name (Berry) or her married name (Cook) will not find the correct person. Try searching for the newborn using the mother’s maiden name if known. If the maiden name is not known, look for her father’s name.

If the mother was unmarried at the time of the birth of the illegitimate child and later married, similar problems would exist with finding her in the marriage indexes if she gave the father's name (e.g. Berry) to the illegitimate child and therefore herself and then later married using her maiden name (e.g. Hall). A similar problem would then exist when looking back for the mother's birth entry in the indexes if she gave the biological father's name (Berry) or her husband's name (Cook) to the illegitimate child and not her maiden name (Hall).

Further complications could arise if the mother herself was illegitimate. It is presumed that her mother would have registered the child under her maiden name. However, if the mother later married with the illegitimate child assuming this name (or the name of a stepfather), then the child would grow up using this name and would therefore mislead those looking for her birth certificate. Problems would also occur if the mother registered her illegitimate daughter under the father's name, but crucially, continued to use her name for herself and her daughter. This would clearly result in false leads later on if the daughter herself gave birth to a bastard child and the daughter correctly registered her illegitimate son under her maiden name.

It was not uncommon for a married couple to assign a family surname as a middle name. However, in the event of an unmarried mother giving the illegitimate child a surname as a middle name, this could indicate the paternity of the child. . It worth looking for the will of the father of a bastard as illegitimate children had to be acknowledged as such in the will, often described as the ‘reputed’ son. The Family Law Reform Act of 1969 gave illegitimate children equal inheritance rights. The Illegitimacy Act of 1926 legitimised a bastard child if the parents subsequently married provided neither parent was married to a third party at the time of birth. The legitimised birth was then re-registered in the birth indexes. This proviso was abolished in 1959. Before the Act, an illegitimate child retained that status throughout his or her life.

Also see
Bastardy Bonds & Documents
Civil Registration - Birth, Marriages & Deaths At Sea
Civil Registration, Death
Civil Registration, Marriage
Consular and Overseas Records of Births/Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths/Burials
Parish Registers-Baptisms
Vaccination Registers & Certificates

Where Found

General Register Office for England and Wales (Full Certificates of birth marriage and death.The facility to search GRO historic birth and death index references online is now available through the website. See below for more details)

Complete set of indexes are available at the following sites:
British Library Social Sciences Reading Room (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)
City of Westminster Archives Centre (The centre provides access to the General Register Office's published indexes of births, marriages and deaths on microfiche as well as indexes to adopted children 1927 to 2016 and overseas indexes. Free access is available to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast)
Manchester City Library (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)
Birmingham Central Library (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)
Bridgend Local and Family History Centre (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)
Plymouth Central Library (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)
Newcastle City Library (General Register Office indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to present. The records are available on microfiche with additional free access to digitised GRO indexes via Ancestry and FindMyPast websites covering 1837 to 2005/6)

County Record Offices (Regional coverage)

Period Covered

1837 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Name, Registration District, Volume and Page, (Mother's maiden name from September 1911).
Date and place (address) of birth. Name of father and his occupation. Name and maiden name of mother. Name and residence of informant. Date of registration.

Further References

Annal, David. Using Birth, Marriage and Death Records: Public Record Office, 2002  Buy Now on Amazon
Annal, David & Collins, Audrey. Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2012  
Cohen, Deborah, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day: Viking, 2013  Buy Now on Amazon
General Register Office, Abstract of Arrangements Respecting Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths in the United Kingdom and other Countries of the British Commonwealth and in the Republic of Ireland: HMSO, 1952  
Higgs, Edward. Life, Death And Statistics: Civil Registration, Censuses And The Work Of The General Register Office, 1836-1952: Local Population Studies, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Langston, Brett. A Handbook to the Civil Registration Districts of England and Wales: Family History Partnership, 2003  Buy Now on Amazon
Paley, Ruth. My Ancestor Was a Bastard: A Family Historian's Guide to Sources for Illegitimacy in England and Wales: Society of Genealogists, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Paley, Ruth & Fowler, Simon. Family Skeletons: Exploring the Lives of our Disreputable Ancestors: The National Archives, 2005 (see chapter on ‘Bastards’) Buy Now on Amazon
Pugh, Gillian. London's Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital: The History Press, 2007 Buy Now on Amazon
Raymond, Stuart. Births, Marriage & Deaths on the Web: Southern England, The Marches and Wales. Vol 1: Family History Partnership, 2005  
Raymond, Stuart. Births, Marriage & Deaths on the Web: Midlands, Northern England and East Anglia. Vol 2: Family History Partnership, 2005  
Raymond, Stuart. Birth and Baptism Records For Family Historians: Family History Partnership, 2010  Buy Now on Amazon
Robinson , Jane. In the Family Way: Illegitimacy Between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties: Viking, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon
Teichman, Jenny. Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy: Cornell University Press, 1982  
Wiggins, Ray. Registration Districts: An Alphabetical List of Over 650 Districts: Society of Genealogists, 2001  Buy Now on Amazon
Wilkes, Sue. Tracing Your Ancestors' Childhood: Pen and Sword Books, 2013  
Wood, Tom. An Introduction to British Civil Registration. 2nd ed: FFHS, 2001  
Zunshine, Lisa. Bastards and Foundlings: Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century England: Ohio University Press, 2005 (Preview available from Google Books)  Buy Now on Amazon

Websites (General Register Office: Discover your family history. This booklet tells you how to use the GRO when you research your family tree and family history (General Register Office guides to researching your family tree: guide to birth certificates; guide to marriage certificates; guide to death certificates) (Research your family history using the General Register Office) (GRO Guide: Most customers want to know) (The National Archives Media: Early civil registration) (England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information) (England: Civil Registration guide) (GRO Indexes Registration Districts with codes for areas and volumes) (UKBMD: Registration Districts in England and Wales: Composition of the civil registration districts in England since 1837 to the present and in Wales between 1837 and 1996. The same districts were also used to compile the census for the years 1851 to 1911. See here for an alphabetical list of the registration districts) (UKBMD: Index of Places in England and Wales. For each place listed this index shows the county and registration district in which it was situated between 1837 and 1974 at which latter date the districts were considerably altered)
(FreeBMD: Registration District Information. Information about Registration Districts with a list of official districts) (Maps showing the administrative areas and units of England. For each place name the parish is shown and gives start date for parish registers and Bishop Transcripts. The name of the appropriate Probate Court, Diocese, Province, Poor Law Union and Hundred is shown. Contiguous parishes and parishes within a specified radius can be displayed. In addition map layers can be displayed showing boundaries for the Civil Registration District, the Parish, the County, the Diocese and other administrative areas) (Ancestry Solutions: Civil Registration: Content, commencement date, indexes and how to obtain civil birth, marriage and death certificates)
(Keighley and District Family History Society: Research Guide: Birth Marriage and Death records in England & Wales - Key Dates) (Links to online genealogy records & other useful information) (Wishful Thinking: A Historical Account of the Development of Local Registration Offices in England and Wales, by Rosemary Lockie) (LostCousins Newsletter MASTERCLASS: Finding birth certificates in England & Wales) (GRO guide to family history including links to local resister offices) (FamilySearch Research Wiki: Illegitimacy in England) (Period Approximation Chart, adapted from "Basic Course in Genealogy," Vol.II, by Derek Harland. Use to calculate the approximate date of a birth, marriage or death)
(Birthdate Calculator: Calculate birth date from death date and age on tombstones and death certificates) (Calculator Site: Birthday Calculator. Discover what day you were born on your star sign, your Chinese zodiac sign, your birthstone and other facts about your birthday) (Multi-country historical calendar for the years 1000 to 2100)

Online Databases

National GRO Coverage (FreeBMD: FreeBMD is an ongoing project, the aim of which is to transcribe the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, and to provide free Internet access to the transcribed records. Free access to the records is also available via covering 1837-1915) (General Register Office for England and Wales: Search the GRO historic birth and death indexes and order certificates online. These are birth records from 1837 to 1915 and death records from 1837 to 1957. Please note that the mother's maiden name is shown on all the GRO online birth indexes from 1837 onwards. Marriages have not yet been digitised. Customers must have a registered GRO online certificate ordering account to use the service) (GRO Birth, Marriage and Death indexes, including overseas BMD indexes. The civil birth and death registers are fully indexed by name covering 1837-2006. Marriage indexes are fully indexed from 1837-2005 and the MarriageFinder which will match up your ancestors' records providing you with one definite marriage match or a list of possible matches) (BMD Records 1837-2005: Complete Birth, Marriage & Death records index for England and Wales as published by the GRO. The indexes are searchable in database format from 1837-2005 for Marriages with the facility to match and cross-reference one name with another surname, 1837-2005 for Births and 1950-2005 for Deaths) (England & Wales, Birth and Marriage Indexes, 1916-2005; Death Index, 1916-2006. Searchable, digitized version of the indices of civil registrations in England and Wales reported quarterly to the General Register Office in London. Also free access to the FreeBMD Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, 1837-1915) (General Register Office Civil Birth, Marriage and Death Registration Indexes 1837-2005. Records between 1866 to 1920 and 1984 to 2005 have been fully transcribed and are fully searchable. For the period between 1837 to 1865 and 1921 to 1983 the images are not fully transcribed but searchable on surname range and browseable with images of the GRO Index. Users also have free access to British overseas BMDs from 1761)
(England and Wales, Birth Index, 1800-1920)
BMD Registers (BMDs at sea, 1854-1891)
Local Coverage (Tower Hamlets Indexes of Births, Deaths & Marriages)
(Derbyshire Registrar's Birth, Marriage and Death Index) (Gloucestershire BMD Indexes: The aim of the project is to index all the registers held by the Gloucestershire Registration Service. All births registered in the county between 1837 and at least 1912 have been indexed; All deaths registered in Gloucestershire between 1837 and at least 1900 have been indexed and all marriage registers stored by GRS at Gloucestershire Archives have been indexed. The indexing is carried out by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Family History Society in conjunction with the Gloucestershire Registration Service and Gloucestershire Archives) (Lancashire BMD. Online access to the birth, marriage and death indexes held by the local registration services developed in partnership with the county's Family History Societies. See website for date coverage and registration districts covered. Lancashire BMD is part of the UKBMD group of Family History and Genealogy web sites)
(CAMDEX: Index of Births, Marriages, Civil Partnerships and Deaths in Cambridgeshire since 1837 in association with the Cambridgeshire Family History Society and Cambridgeshire County Council. The index is available to review by members of the public free of charge: copies of BMD certificates can be ordered and paid for on-line from the CCC Registration Service)
(Calderdale Council. Indexed birth, marriage and death notices for the entire period of the Halifax Guardian’s existence from December 1832 to April 1921) (Whereabouts of local registrar and links to online transcribed indexes) (Pickard's Pink Pages for Warwickshire: Warwickshire newspaper extracts covering births, marriages and deaths) (Family announcements from newspapers in the UK and Ireland covering obituaries, death, marriage, birth and other family announcements)
(England, Andrews Newspaper Index Cards, 1790-1976. The index which is kept by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies features a collection of notices from newspapers and various official sources including announcements of births, marriages, obituaries, and deaths abroad; notices of wills, unclaimed estates and advertisements for missing persons and people seeking next of kin)

CD Roms

S & N Genealogy Supplies (Indexes to Overseas BMDs, 1916-1940) (Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society: Andrew Todd's map of Lancashire 1851 showing the Registration Districts of Births, Marriages & Deaths, Registration Sub-Districts, Parishes, Townships and all Anglican churches and dates of their earliest registers)