Genealogy Help

Self-help - Birth Records

Making genealogy accessible

Birth records are very useful as they can pinpoint where and when your ancestor was born. They also often give the mother's maiden name, father's name and occupation. This can help you trace the parents' marriage and the family residence. The main sources of birth records include:

  • birth certificates
  • church or parish records
  • newspapers

Birth certificates in England or Wales

An 1836 Act of Parliament led to the setting up of the General Register Office to record births (and also marriages and deaths) in England and Wales. Records officially began on 1 July 1837 and were loosely reinforced by law, although take up was slow in some areas. Birth certificates provide vital information for you to find out more about your family history.

Did your ancestor have a birth certificate?

If your ancestor was born before 1 July 1837, then they won't have a birth certificate, so you must look at the other potential sources. The best sources are church (parish) records but be warned, these may have been transcribed from notes perhaps once a year. Baptisms (remember that the register was for the baptism, not the birth) also cost money, so children may not have been baptised until years after their birth (or even on their wedding day).


They may not have a birth certificate, but does your target person have any younger siblings born after 1837? If so, it's worth searching for their birth certificates - it won't help with your target person's date or place of birth, but will give details of parents and addresses, and may lead to additional information.

If your ancestor was born after 1 July 1837, then they should have a birth certificate. When the new system of registering births was set up, many people did not bother to register. It was only after 1874 that people were fined for not registering a birth, so before that date, there's no guarantee you'll find a certificate. Even after then, not everyone complied with the law [and some still slip through!].

You can't see the original registers, so first you must search the birth record indexes to find your ancestor, and then send off for the certificate. The registers list the name, quarter (a particular month since 1983), volume and page of the record (modern records may have additional volume references).

Birth certificates in Scotland

If your Scottish ancestor was born before 1 January 1855, then they won't have a birth certificate, so you must look for other sources, such as the parish register.

If your ancestor was born after 1 January 1855, civil registration was compulsory for all religious denominations. In 1855, the birth records were very detailed - as well as the information found on English and Welsh certificates, they also include extra information (on siblings, the ages and birthplaces of both parents, their usual residence and the date and place of marriage). This was simplified in 1856, and this extra information was no longer recorded. However, since 1861, the date and place of the parents' marriage were reinstated.

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The UK birth certificate

England and Wales Birth Certificate

1 - Date And Place Of Birth

The date of birth should be written in the form " Third February 1840" although some of the early registers have variations on that.

There was an amazing number of people celebrating birthdays on days that were not their birth dates! One reason is that parents lied about the date of birth to bring the birth dates within the 6-week registration period. I have also heard (without evidence) that some children were baptised before they were [officially] born! Until 1926 there were no registrations at all of a stillborn child.

You need to look at the place of birth against the informant and address in Column 7. If mother has registered and the names are given in Column 2, and 7 are identical you have probably got mothers address at the time of the birth. Ditto for father. But if, for example, you have an illegitimate child born in the workhouse and the workhouse master registered it - quite a common occurrence - then you are unlikely to have a permanent address for the mother of the child. What you should have is the address at which the birth took place - the workhouse - and the address of the informant who lives at the workhouse.

In early registrations, the mother probably did not travel far from home to give birth, but even so may have come from several parishes away, and many seemed to go to their mother's for a first child. Later mothers could travel very long distances from home especially when the baby was going to be adopted and the pregnancy hidden from the rest of the family/village. Although this may have happened before, it was less likely to be recorded – adoption was only ‘recorded’ from 1926 onwards.

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2 - Forenames

The name(s) entered in Column 2 of a birth certificate is/are the forenames only. A child could be registered without a first name and even today that is occasionally done. Sometimes that is because - despite after nearly 9 months + 6 weeks to register in - the family has not yet chosen a name. Sometimes this was because the baby had already died and the family was registering both the birth and death and therefore did not want or bother to name the child. This could also be because the baby was going to be adopted and the mother could not cope with naming the child - it is said that it gives the baby more of an identity and makes it harder for the mother to give it away.

Children registered with two first names were frequently called by the second. And it is not uncommon to find names being reused - so a boy called George who died, say aged 4, and a year or two later another child will be born called George. I even have a recycled name used before the death of the first child – I don’t have other information on this.

3 - Sex

Before 1969, the sex of the child was denoted by boy or girl and after that date by male or female. There have been mistakes made in the sex of the child, some well documented.

It can always be a problem if the child is being given a name which does not denote a sex e.g. Alex. This was a particular problem where parents were illiterate and couldn’t read the register for themselves to check it is right, it is quite possible for mistakes to be made in any part of the information including the sex of the child.

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4 - Father's Name

The early registrations between 1837 and approximately 1850 are a little mixed. The Act of Parliament of 1836 reads ""and it be enacted that the father or mother of every child born in England... shall within 42 days next after the day of every such birth give information upon being requested so to do to the Registrar, according to the best of his or her knowledge and belief of the several particulars hereby required to be known and registered touching the birth of such child provided always that it shall not be necessary to register the name of any father of a bastard child.""

Some registrars interpreted that quite freely and put the father in even where the couple were not married and only mother or someone else was signing the register, and some did not allow fathers details to be entered in the register. By about 1850 the situation had been clarified and the instructions read quite clearly " No putative father is to be allowed to sign an entry in the character of ‘Father’". From that time, therefore there are 2 kinds of entries in the register:
(1) Where the parents were married to one another, fathers details must be entered in the register and only one parent will sign the register (or some other informant)
(2) Where the parents were not married to one another there will be blanks in Column 4 (fathers name) and Column 6 (his occupation).

This situation lasted until the Registration Act of 1875 where the instruction read, " The putative father of an illegitimate child cannot be required as a father to give information respecting the birth. The name, surname and occupation of the putative father of an illegitimate child must not be entered except at the joint request of the father and mother; in which case, both the father and mother must sign the entry as informants".

The name given to father is the name he was known by at the time of the birth of the baby. These days if the father has changed his name between his own birth and that of his child he could be entered in the register as John SMITH formerly known as John BROWN but that was not the case until fairly recently. If a man adopted his stepfather's name or that of the family who brought him up or used another family name even though only the mothers’ name was shown on the birth certificate.

5 - Mother's Name

This shows the name, and previous names if any, of the mother of the baby. There are several combinations of name possible.
If a woman has not been married there will be a sole entry for her name, e.g. Maria White.
If a woman has ever been married there will be two names shown for her, e.g. Maria White formerly Black.
If a woman has been married more than once the names shown will be, e.g. Maria White late Brown formerly Black.
If a woman has been married, all previous names should be shown whether the baby being registered was legitimate or not. If the woman was married (and not a widow), the child was seldom regarded as illegitimate, and the husband would be recorded as the father.

The format of the registers changed in 1969 so that if a woman had married more than twice before her present marriage, not all her previous married names would be shown.

Married women never apparently had an occupation! Being a wife and mother was all the occupation they were allowed (or capable of). This was not altered until the late 1980's after a threatened legal action when women were finally allowed to have an occupation shown against their name and only in the last few years has there been a dedicated space for a mother's occupation.

6 - Father's Occupation

This is the ‘current’ occupation of the father. If there was no father shown in Column 4 then no occupation would be shown.

Only paid employment is recorded and, as in the census, men only had legal and respectable jobs so you won't find a burglar! A labourer might mean totally unskilled - heaving stuff about in a market - but could equally mean a quite specific skill e.g. many 'ag labs' (agricultural labourers) were quite specialised workers such as stockman.

If a father of a legitimate baby had died before his baby was born then Column 6 would read something along the lines of "Farmworker (deceased)."

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7 - Signature, Description and Residence of the Informant

Starting with the signature. Once the entry has been checked by the informant, he or she signs in Column 7 – with their usual signature. If the informant can't sign their name then they would make a mark and the registrar completed it with the words " The mark of .....". If you see this on a certificate warning bells should start to ring. It means that the informant has been unable to check the information for himself/herself and the registrar has done the best possible.

A signature does not necessarily mean that the informant could read. Many people learned to write their name but nothing else. In a way, this is worse because you don't know if they could read or not!

8 - Date of Registration

This is very relevant to the indexes because birth, death and marriage indexes are compiled by the date of registration NOT the date of the event. So a baby born on e.g. 25th November 1851 that was not registered until 2nd January 1852 would be indexed in the March quarter for 1852 not the December quarter for 1851.

Initially, the parents had 3 weeks to register in and could not register at all after 3 months. After a while this was changed to 6 weeks to register in, a late registration could be made up to a year after the birth if the superintendent took the information and signed the register too, and registration could not take place after 1 year without reference to GRO.

9 - Signature of Registrar

This is not particularly relevant unless you have an ancestor who was a registrar! If the registrar and the superintendent registrar have both signed in Column 9, then there was something unusual about the registration - such as a late one or a re-registration of a birth.

10 - Name Given After Initial Registration

This is for the entry of a name given after initial registration. This relates to the fact that before civil registration, the recording of the major life events was in the hands of the church and especially of course of the established church (Church of England). There was tremendous resistance to civil registration by the established church who felt (rightly as it happened) that people would stop baptising their children if they had an alternative piece of legal paper in a civil registration. And the church had held the power and responsibility for centuries.

11 - Entry Number and GRO reference

The first column on your birth certificate is the entry number in the register. This can be anything from 1 to 500. You can sometimes pick up twins from the fact that they might have the same GRO reference.

The GRO reference is for a whole page of a register that means 5 entries. If you have twins on the same page they will have the same reference number. However, if the twins were the last entry on one page and the first on the next they will have consecutive reference numbers not the same. And if two different families with the same surname are on the same page it will look like twins when it isn't. This is not as unusual as you might think in small communities.

12 - The Header

Poor Law Unions were made up of several parishes and the Unions could sometimes cross county boundaries. As a registration district could be quite large - especially in rural areas - the actual place of birth could be quite a long way, and in a different county from the town that gave its name to the registration district. A large registration district was divided into two or more sub-districts.

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