Researching Family History – Birth Certificates (England & Wales)

Civil Registration – Births

Since July 1st 1837 everyone born in England and Wales should have had their birth registered by the state, which is a record of the birth in the form of an entry in the register. This register entry shows the information which the informant, normally the mother or her legal husband, provided to the registrar within 6 weeks of the birth of the child.

Since the introduction of Civil Registration there should be 2 birth entries for each person born, the original with the Superintendent Registrar of the district where the birth took place and a copy at the General Register Office.

The birth certificate will tell you the:

  • Forename and surname of the child.  (Prior to 1st April 1969, the surname of the child had to be inferred from the father’s surname. Since 1st April 1969 the surname, can be any name the parents choose)
  • Sex of the child
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Father’s name and occupation
  • Mother’s name and maiden name
  • Informant’s name and address

In the case of an illegitimate child, only the mother’s name would be normally given, prior to 1875, the mother was allowed to name any man as the father, he was not required to acknowledge paternity. An illegitimate child can now be issued with a birth certificate which gives the child the surname of either the father or the mother. In order to reduce embarrassment for illegitimate children the so-called ‘short’ birth certificate was introduced in 1947, but is of no genealogical value.

Why can’t I find a birth entry in the indexes?

This happens quite often and there are a number of reasons why:-

  • Birth was registered in another district

Births are registered in the district in which they occur, this may not necessarily be the district in which the parents lived. Also, some early registrars were paid on commission, which encouraged registration in the wrong district.

  • Birth not registered

In some parts of England and Wales as many as 15 per cent of all births were not registered during the first decade after 1837. At this time there was no penalty imposed on parents’ who failed to register a birth until 1875, as many believed that registration was not necessary if they had the child baptised. In 1844, the Registrar General complained that thousands of births were not being recorded, 100% compliance was not achieved until about 1870.

  • Birth incorrectly indexed

Until relevantly recently certificates were handwritten and subsequently indexed by a different registrar, so simple transcription errors were possible. During the 19th C illiteracy was widespread; registrars had no way of checking the correct spelling of surnames which were often written as they were pronounced.