Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes – A Beginner’s Guide

As part of a series examining family history resources for beginners, librarian Helen Skilbeck takes an in-depth look at one of the most useful resources for beginning your family history research: birth, marriage and death index records. You can find more information in our research guide

One of the main resources you will use when doing your family tree is the birth, marriage and death indexes. Known variously as General Register Office (GRO) indexes, St Catherine’s House indexes or BMD indexes, these are indexes that record all the births, marriages and deaths registered in a particular year.  It is important to remember that these are indexes and not the actual birth, marriage or death certificates themselves.

The process of civil registration (registering births, marriages and deaths) began in July 1837 in England and Wales; in Northern Ireland this was 1864 and, in Scotland, 1855. It was now a requirement to register every birth, marriage and death officially with a local register office. A certificate would be issued to the informant – the person registering the event – and the details would then be submitted to the General Register Office (GRO), now based in Southport.

Each birth, marriage and death registered was added to the appropriate index, and it is these indexes that are available through Ancestry and other free websites. Until 1866 most of the entries were handwritten, making for occasionally difficult reading – thankfully, however, Ancestry has transcribed these records. However, there were no penalties for failing to register an event until 1875, so there may be some early records missing from the indexes.

Example of a handwritten birth index from 1840
Example of a handwritten birth index from 1840

The indexes are in alphabetical order of surname, and were produced quarterly until 1983. You may see references to the March quarter – but, remember, this covers events registered in January, February and March. Likewise, the June quarter will cover events in April, May and June, and so on. The birth indexes will tell you the quarter of the year the birth was registered – not the quarter the birth took place – i.e. these may be different. For example, a child’s birth in December 1910 may not have been registered until the start of 1911, so would not appear in the indexes under the year of their birth, but instead under the year of their birth registration.

From 1983 onward they are a straightforward list each year, but the original records cannot be viewed on Ancestry, only a typed transcript. The birth and marriage indexes on Ancestry finish in 2005 and the death indexes in 2007. You will need to contact the local register office for events that occurred later than these dates, or visit a library where the full set of indexes are held – the nearest are Manchester Central Library or Newcastle City Library.

Example of death index from 1926
Example of a death index from 1926

Some key dates to be aware of on the indexes:

  • From 1866 the death indexes show the age of the deceased
  • From 1969 the date of birth of the deceased is included
  • In 1911 the maiden name of the child’s mother appears on the birth indexes
  • From 1912 the marriage indexes show the names of both parties

Each entry on the index gives the district where the event was registered; the full certificate will be available from that local register office, or from the GRO headquarters in Southport. Ensure you record the volume and page number given on the index as you will need this if ordering from the GRO directly. The GRO website will also require you to set up free registration before ordering a certificate. Certificates can usually be ordered online or via telephone and posted out to you, but there are varying prices depending on the urgency of the request. Recently, the GRO have started a digital certificate service and are providing PDF copies for a reduced fee.  Please check that local register offices and the GRO are providing a certificate service before ordering.

How to access the indexes
To access Ancestry you must now visit a library or community hub. Free remote access has now ended. The easiest way to get to a specific birth, marriage or death index is to scroll to the bottom of the Ancestry home page and look under Quick Links. The birth, marriage and death indexes are each split into two databases, one covering 1837-1915 and the other covering 1916-2005. If you are sure of when an event took place you can select which database to search, but if the date is unknown then it is best to search both databases. Alternatively, perform a general search on the home page and narrow down your search by category once you see how many results there are.

There are a couple of free websites that also have birth, marriage and death indexes. Try YorkshireBMD for Yorkshire specific indexes or UKBMD which acts as a gateway to hundreds of local indexes. FreeBMD also has indexes, but each of the free websites is still transcribing records so are not quite as comprehensive as the Ancestry indexes.

Good luck with your research and, as always, please contact the Local and Family History Library with any queries or access difficulties – or on 0113 378 6982.

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