Family Tree Folk Free Family History Course: Beginners Course

Starting out in genealogy by Dr Kathryn Senior

5  Birth certificates

One of the most informative documents you can use when starting out in family history is the birth certificate. Dating back to July 1837 at the earliest, a person's birth certificate provides detail about their birth, their parent's and their background. It can prove relationships, telling you whether the person on the certificate is part of your family or not.

Here is an example of a UK standard birth certificate with the names removed for privacy reasons. It opens in a new window. Keep referring to it as you read on.

The main information on a certificate is fairly obvious - the name of the child, the date and place of birth and the name of the person who registered the birth, usually one of the parents. But, a birth certificate can contain a lot more if you look a bit deeper...

Registration Districts

The heading at the very top of a birth certificate tells you which district the birth was registered in. You might not think this is immediately relevant as the main panel of the certificate tells you where the birth took place, but it is useful if you want to find related births, marriages or deaths of people with the same surname in the same district.

A house in the heart of a small village will be located in that village in 1837, 1851, 1881 and perhaps is still there today. However, like parish boundaries, county boundaries and city limits, registration districts have changed over the years. A village may ‘move’ between registration districts during different time periods because of boundary reorganisation.

You can find a really useful list of registration districts with links to lists of place names in England and Wales, which tell you which registration district a particular village or town was during different periods of history between 1837 and the present day.

If you cannot find a birth registration where and when you expect, it is worth looking at adjacent registration districts, as the family may have belonged to a church in a parish very close to where they lived, but in a completely different registration district.

The GRO reference

When looking for birth certificates, its a good idea to use an index such as the FreeBMD index, which has now completed its coverage of some years. (They have up to date coverage statistics on their site.)

Understanding the indexes involves understanding how birth certificates are made, and how the index is made in the first place. Take a child born in December 1895. Assuming its parents did everything correctly, they would have registered the birth within six weeks with their local registrar. My great uncle was born on this date and registered early the following year, in Pontefract. He has a peculiar name, Oliver Strangward, which makes it easy to see how he is indexed on FreeBMD.

If you search for him you will come up with the reference Pontefract 9c 123. When his birth was registered, his parents got one copy of his birth certificate. Another copy was held by the local registrar, and another copy was sent to the General Registration Office (GRO). It is the GRO index that these numbers refer to. 9c is the code for Pontefract, and 123 is the page number of the registration book.

These numbers mean nothing to the local registrar, whose index of births was made completely independently, and who find certificates by using the date of birth.

One tip if you are having real difficulty finding a record of a birth in any GRO index - either on FreeBMD or using the original page indexes that are now digitised and available on Ancestry or Findmypast - is to approach the local registrar whose district you think the birth was registered in. Because they have different indexes, it is possible that the birth is listed there, even if it has been omitted from the national index through a transcription or other error made at the time.

Apparently, this is more common that most people think - millions of births, marraiges and deaths have been missed off the GRO index by mistake.

Whey you eventually get your certificate copy, remember that even if it is a scan, it is a scan of the original registrar's hand or copy, not the writing of the child's parents.

Is the date of birth accurate?

Every birth certificate contains information about the child's date of birth. This is documentary evidence that you can be sure of. Or can you? Remember that the time limit for registration of a birth is 42 days - 6 weeks. There was a financial penalty for not registering a birth but, in times past, some people forgot. Quite a lot of them probably.

So, what did they do?

Not wanting to end up paying a fee they could hardly afford, the family would generally lie about the date of birth of the child, bringing it forward sufficiently to make it come within six weeks of the registration date, when they eventually got round to it. Very little checking was done, so a lot of people got away with it. After all, there isn't much difference between a 6 month old baby and a 9 month old baby to most adult eyes, specially men, who tended to be the registrars.

This can explain why some people discover their grandma or grandad is born on a particular day, but always knew them to celebrate their birthday on a completely different day and month.

Baptisms, strangely enough, are not subject to the same white lies. There was not a time limit for baptisms and some families would wait until they had two or three children in a clutch and have them baptised together. My great great grandfather was baptised with two of his siblings in 1825 - so I have never been able to accurately locate his birth year, as the record doesn't state how old the three children were at the time.

Working backwards

One of the most important things that you can do with a birth certificate is to prove the relationship between a child and its mother and father. Seems obvious, but a birth certificate will reveal if a child is illegitimate, whether its parents were married, what the maiden name of the mother was, and where he or she was born. All of this information can help prove family relationships and can give information about the surnames of the previous generation. It can also help you find a useful address to search a census that took place shortly after the birth. Even in these days of census indexes, none are perfect, and you can search for someone for weeks, only to find them living at the address given on their birth certificate, victim of a creative transcription error.

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