Birth, Marriage, Death

16 Reasons Why You Can’t Find A Birth Certificate

A more common problem than you may think.

  1. Remember that there was no civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales before on 1 July 1837. It’s suprisingly easy to forget this.
  2. The birth may  not have been registered at all: although registration was introduced in 1837, it did not become compulsory until 1875. In addition, in the early days of registration, it was the responsibility of the Superintendant Registrar to seek out the births in his area, and it is most unlikely that he would have been aware of every one.
  3. There was a monetary penalty for late registration, and some parents may have decided not to pay.
  4. Registration should take place within 42 days of the birth: sometimes this will ‘push’ registration into another quarter.
  5. The birth may have been registered in another registration district: many new mothers returned to their own mother for the birth of their first child.  Boundaries of registration districts are also subject to change:  the website FreeBMD lists all changes – just click on the registration district for a particular entry to check for any changes.
  6. If you have identified the place of birth from the information on a census return, always bear in mind that this is only secondary evidence. People lied.  They still do. And some apparently conflicting information may be quite true:  my three-times great grandfather gave his place of birth on successive census returns as  Commonside, Pensnett and Kingswinford.  All of these are correct.
  7. The birth was not in England or Wales. Our ancestors were often willing to move to the most surprising places.  Ireland and Scotland should be your next places to check (unless you have any reason to suspect more exotic climes):  but be prepared to look elsewhere.  I have an instance in my own tree where a married couple were in Darlaston, Staffordshire in 1851 and 1861: the 1861 census reveals a five year old son, who was born in Ohio, and further research has proved this to be true.  Quite what they were doing there, and why they returned is still unknown.
  8. The birth was incorrectly indexed. If you can’t find the birth in the GRO index, check the local Superintendant Registrar’s index. A surname – or first name – may not be spelled in the way which you might expect.
  9. The index transcription may be incorrect. ALWAYS check the original index – some names are hard to read unless you know exactly what you are looking for: others are downright indecipherable.
  10.  Some parents appear to have thought that provided a child was baptised, there was no need to register the birth.  It is unlikely that this would affect, for example, the middle child of a family where all other children have been registered, but seems to have been the only explanation for some missing registrations in my own tree.
  11. The child was adopted. Before 1927 there was no formal adoption procedure, and therefore there is no means of tracing these adoptions, unless there is a family story or information is revealed by a will, census return, or other document.
  12. There was a change of name.  Look for the juxtaposition of two names: eg ‘George William’ instead of ‘William George’.  Be aware that many names were nicknames, so that ‘Jack’ may be registered as ‘John’:  or a name may be added after registration (parents were required by law to inform the Registrar of additional names, but as there was a charge for amending the entry in the register, many didn’t bother. My grandfather was registered as ‘Arthur’ but appears on all later certificates and documents as ‘Arthur Bernard’ – the register entry for his birth was never amended.)
  13. Was the child named after registration? If so, the entry will appear at the end of the relevant quarter as [Surname] ‘Male’ or [Surname] ‘Female’. If the surname is Smith, you have my heartfelt sympathies. See point 12 above –  although parents were required by law to inform the Registrar of the name (as this would be an amendment to the original certificate) many didn’t bother.
  14. Have you estimated the age from a census return? Always check a year or two either side of the estimated date, just to be on the safe side; and bear in mind that some ages given on the census returns are just plain wrong.  Beware of ages given in the 1841 census: ages of all people over the age of 15 were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five: quite often they are rounded up, or not rounded at all.
  15. Have you taken the age from a marriage certificate?  If so, remember that ’21’ may mean ‘over 21’; ‘over 21’ may be any age over 21 at all; ‘full age’ means the same as ‘over 21’ (until the reforms of 1969, when the age of majority became 18). Where one party to a marriage is considerably older than another, the ages may have been ‘adjusted’ to disguise this.
  16. Have you taken the age from a death certificate?  The earlier the date of the death certificate (and the older the person), the more likely this is to be incorrect – often the informant guessed at an age, so that ’75’ may just mean ‘I don’t know, but I’d say about 75’.

For information on different types of birth certificate – long and short forms – see the Blog post

9 Reasons Why You Can’t Find A Marriage Certificate

After 1 July 1837, all marriages were required to be registered.  The law required the attendance of the Superintendant Registrar at all marriages other than those in the Established Church:  for C of E marriages, the officiating minister was the official representative of the Superintendant Registrar.

It is therefore most unlikely (nay, nigh impossible) that a marriage took place but was not registered. If you have problems in finding a marriage certificate, the following tips may help:

  1.    Did  the marriage take place in another registration district? Remember that traditionally brides were married from their parents’ homes.
  2. Did the marriage take place somewhere other than England or Wales?
  3.  Was there a marriage at all?  In an era when divorce was unaffordable except by the very rich, many couples chose to live together as husband and wife.
  4. The marriage may be long after the date which you think.  My great-great grandfather’s parents were not married until 13 years after he was born.  The 1911 census is useful in that it asks how long the current marriage has lasted (thereby giving you an approximate year):  but remember that people may lie about this.
  5. The marriage was incorrectly indexed. If you can’t find the birth in the GRO index, check the local Superintendant Registrar’s index. A surname – or first name – may not be spelled in the way which you might expect.
  6. The index transcription may be incorrect. ALWAYS check the original index – some names are hard to read unless you know exactly what you are looking for: others are downright indecipherable.
  7. Consider whether the marriage in question may have been a second marriage, or whether there is some other reason why a surname may have been changed.  ALWAYS check both bride and groom’s name for every GRO reference you identify as a possibility.
  8. The name may have been entered into the register incorrectly, or may be spelled in a different way to that which you are expecting.  I had great difficulty in finding the marriage certificate for my ancestors Joseph Fellows Hartland and Ann Burgess:   in fact the certificate was in the name of ‘Joseph Fellows’.  A tricksie little certificate this, as it also stated that Ann’s father was John Burgess, a farm bailiff.  After some investigation I discovered that Ann was in fact illegitimate:  her surname was Burgess, but her step-father was John Warrender, a farm bailiff.
  9. Until 1929 the minimum age for marriage was 12 for a girl or 14 for a boy.  Terrifying, but true.  So another reason that you may not be able to find a marriage is that one – or both – of the parties were very young indeed.

9 Reasons Why You Can’t Find A Death Certificate

Again, remember that the earliest possible  date for registration of a death in England and Wales is 1st July 1837.

The following tips may help you track down that elusive certificate.

1. Registration in another district.

Remember that death might have occured away from home – at work, visiting relatives, in hospital – many elderly people died in the workhouse, which for the Victorian period was often the only affordable medical care available for the less well-off – or indeed whilst on holiday. I spent some considerable time trying to find the death certificate of Theophilus Wedge, who spent his entire life, as far as I knew, in the Black Country:  in fact he died in Bournemouth whilst on holiday.  In this case, the name helped, but you may not be so lucky.

Remember as well that the boundaries of registration districts change over time: if you find a likely match, then check the details of the registration district on – half an hour then spent with a map of the area and a copy of the Phillimore Atlas may help resolve your problem.

2.  Death not in England or Wales.

See above on birth and marriage certificates

3. Death incorrectly indexed.

Check as many alternative spellings of the name as you can think of. If you can’t think of any alternative spellings of a surname, try playing ‘Chinese Whispers’ – this really can help!

4. Index transcription incorrect.

Always, always, look at the original index, especially for earlier registrations where the index is hand-written.

5. The information is only as good as the informant’s knowledge.

By which I mean beware:  it was not unknown for the information to be incorrect, although given in all good faith.

My cousin only found out when he came to register his mother’s death that her Christian name was not ‘Patricia’, but was in fact ‘Violet Emily’: she had been known as ‘Pat’ all her life.

Be aware of nicknames: ‘Jack’ is a nickname for ‘John’, ‘Kester’ was sometimes used for ‘Christopher’.

Also consider that the death may have been registered under a middle name: for example, John Arthur Smith might be indexed as Arthur Smith.

Where age at death is given in the index, don’t discard a likely possibility just because the age is wrong, particulary with older people:  if the informant didn’t actually know the age, ’75’ might actually mean ‘no idea, but looked about 75 to me.’   Also remember that the deceased might have lied about their age, particularly a woman who had an illegitimate child in her youth and wanted to hide this fact.  Some people lied about their age in order to increase it (presumably for admiration – ‘I’m 95, you know’…). And some people had no idea how old they were.

To address the more grisley aspects: where a body is found and cannot be identified, the certificate will appear at the end of the relevant index as ‘unknown’: and I’m afraid that you will have virtually no chance of identifying your particular relative.

6.  Change of Name.

Is there a possibility that a widow has remarried (or indeed a spinster married)?  Or could a male relative have changed his name for some reason?  Recheck marriage indices; or prepare yourself for a long search through census returns checking first names, approximate ages and places of birth.

7. Stillbirths.

Stillbirths – where a child was born dead – do not appear in the register of deaths. There is a separate register of stillbirths, which is only open to immediate relatives, which I believe to be restricted to the parents.

Where a child was born alive but died shortly after birth, the law required registration of the death. However, in my personal experience this was not always the case: I have found records of such deaths in local cemetery registers, but no corresponding birth or death certificate.

8. Coroner’s inquests.

Where a coroner’s inquest was required, the death certificate is not issued until after the inquest, even though the body may be released for burial.  Inquests usually take place shortly after death, but a friend of mine discovered one certificate issued 5 years after the date of death.

Survival of the papers of coroner’s inquests are patchy, but well worth searching out.  Local newpapers also often reported the coroner’s findings, but without a date of death, registration or inquest, you are in for a long search.

9.  No body, no certificate.

If a body cannot be found, no death certificate can be issued – for example if someone is lost at sea and the body never recovered, or if they were involved in some sort of disaster, such as a colliery disaster, where the body might remain underground.

A large number of people killed during the London Blitz have no death certificate: for example, many of the people who were almost certainly in the Cafe De Paris in Central London, which took a direct hit.

Sometimes you have just have to presume that no body was ever found – this is almost certainly the case with my ancestor Caleb Hartland, who is last recorded in the 1871 census: thereafter his wife is described as a widow.

TIP: Consider looking at other sources to narrow down the field of possibilities: electoral registers, cemetery records or the annual Calendar of Wills (this can be particularly useful as the Calendar gives name, address, date of death and the names of the executors, who are often relatives).

If you have difficulty tracing a certificate, let me know: I may be able to help



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  4. Alan Scott says:

    Thanks for some great tips.
    As an illustration of the problem with names and dates; my family have been trying to establish details of my 3*great grandmother for the last 40 years.
    We had my 2*great grandfather’s birth certificate from 1856 – but then hit a dead end, confused also by a long-standing family myth as to her origins.
    On this certificate she is named as Susan.
    A cousin has then identified a possible local candidate with a similar address and age.
    This person appears on the birth records in April 1840, on the 1841 census at age 1 and on the 1851 census at age 12 (she would actually have been two weeks short of 11 on the census date.
    By searching with loose criteria he has found a subsequent marriage in 1858 – but the forename is recorded as “Susannah”. There is an entry in the 1861 census which confirms her, her husband and her son. There are possible entries in the 1871 and 1881 censuses – not yet verified.
    She has not yet been found in the 1891 or 1901 censuses, but a possile Susan appears in 1911.
    We have very recently found the grave of her daughter in law – and found that she is buried in the same plot (as Susan) but with no explanation of the relationship on the headstone.

    • kate says:

      That’s a very good illustration of the sort of problem that arises.

      Susan/Susannah are often used for the same person – but it’s easy to overlook this if you’re not expecting it.

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