Birth, marriage and death (BMD) records, along with census returns, are the most important 19th and 20th century data sets for family historians. If you have English or Welsh ancestry, you’ll probably have to use the GRO (General Register Office) to access vital records, or at least use its indexes. This article shows you how to use the free BMD index and order a record from the GRO. It also looks at the information on these records.

This article focuses on English and Welsh records; see my posts on Irish and Scottish vital records.

Free BMD Index and British GRO Guide. Bespoke Genealogy

History of Civil Registration in England and Wales

Before the introduction of civil registration in 1837, it was the established Church that was responsible for recording baptisms, marriages and burials. Since 1538, it had been a legal requirement for churches to keep Parish Registers to record these events.

Parish registers had to be kept locked safely in chests and most of them still survive, now usually kept at county archives. To find out how to access online and physical parish registers by county, see my guides for England and Wales.

The problem with parish registers is that the information recorded was not consistent. Some ministers would go into great detail about an event, sometimes even describing the weather conditions. But often, only a bare minimum would be written down.

The agricultural and industrial revolutions meant that many people moved to the cities to work in factories. The established Church was no longer able to track this growing urban population with many no longer attending their services. This was also a time when more people joined non-conformist congregations.

As a result, many events went unrecorded, often resulting in legal problems as lines of descent couldn’t be proved.

The Government felt that something had to be done and in 1836 passed the Births and Deaths Registration Act and an associated Marriage Act. So, on 1st July 1837 civil registration in England and Wales was introduced. From this date all births, marriages and deaths had to be registered with the local registration office. This office would then send a copy to the General Register Office (GRO) in London.

It was the responsibility of the local registrar to make sure that events were recorded. This created a bit of a problem as it was not compulsory for individuals to register. So, some events in the early years were never registered. At the start of the new system, at least 5% of births were probably never recorded.

Things changed in 1874 when it did become compulsory to register births, marriages and deaths. There was a hefty fine liable for parties who did not register within 6 weeks of an event.

How to find and use the Free BMD Index

As mentioned above, from 1837, births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded in the local register office. The Registrar would create indexes for these events. Every quarter, the indexes for the previous 3 months would be copied. This copy would be sent to the GRO in London.

These GRO indexes are available on the subscription sites like FindMyPast, The Genealogist and Ancestry.

However, you can also find a free BMD index on FreeBMD. This site has been using volunteers to transcribe all the GRO indexes for births, marriages and deaths from 1837 to 1992. This is an ongoing project and most of the work has now been done. However, there are a few gaps. You can check the progress on this page.

These indexes will give you the following information:


  • Surname
  • First name/s
  • Registration district
  • Volume number
  • Page Number
  • Mother’s maiden name from the 3rd quarter of 1911


  • Surname
  • First name/s
  • District
  • Volume number
  • Page number
  • Name of spouse from the 1st quarter of 1912.

Note: the name of the spouse was entered onto the index separately. The subscription sites cross reference the district, volume and page numbers. Their transcriptions will show possible spouses of the pre-1912 marriages.


  • Surname
  • First name/s
  • Registration district
  • Volume number
  • Page number
  • Age from the first quarter of 1866

There is also a partial index on GRO’s own website. This cover’s the following events:

  • Births 1837-1917
  • Deaths 1837-1957

If you don’t already have an account with the GRO, you’ll have to set one up (see below). Once this is done, it’s free to access the index.

A project to digitize all vital records held by the GRO was started in 2005, but was cancelled in 2008, by which time only these records had been scanned. From these digital records this new index was created.

This new digital index yields the same information as the traditional one, but with a couple of useful additions:

  • Mother’s maiden name on all births
  • Age on all deaths

This extra information is really useful for determining whether you have found the correct entries on early records.

How to Buy BMD Records from the GRO

The information on the indexes can be very useful in itself. This is especially true of the mother’s maiden name on the birth index. However, it is necessary to buy a copy of the record to get further information about the individuals listed. See below for the information recorded on the actual records.

You will need the information from the indexes in order to purchase full BMD records.

You’ll have to set up an account with the GRO to view the digital index and to buy records. Go to the Register/Login page and select “Register as an individual” This will take you to the Registration page:

GRO Registration Page. Bespoke Genealogy

GRO Registration Page

There are two types of records that can be ordered; digitized and non-digitized records. I’ll look at each of these in turn here:

Digitized Records

As already mentioned, these digitized records cover the following:

  • Births 1837-1917
  • Deaths 1837-1957

Once you’ve logged in, from the main menu, select “Search the GRO Indexes”. Choose “birth” or “Death”. Enter the year (you have the option of +/- 2 years). Complete as much of the form as you can (the starred fields are mandatory). Below is an example birth form filled out:

Finding a digital record on the GRO. Bespoke Genealogy

Finding a digital record on the GRO

Here, I’m looking for a Charles Lodge who was born in 1870 in the county of Essex. I’ve just entered the year and name and after selecting “Search”, I have been given 6 options. The results give me the Register offices and Mother’s maiden names. I can see that Dunmow is the only register office on this list in Essex. For a full list of registration districts, see the UKBMD site here.

I also know that Charles Lodge’s mother’s maiden name was Reeve, so I know the second entry on the list is the one I want.

Once you select an entry, you are given the option of ordering a certificate or PDF. The PDF is the one you want. This is a scanned copy of the register entry which is emailed to you within a few days. The cost of this service is currently GBP7.00.

The certificate option is the same entry, but mounted on a certificate and called a certified copy. This is mailed to you and will take much longer to receive (1-2 months). It is also more expensive at GBP11.00.

See the FAQ page on the GRO website for a full, current, price list.

Non-Digitized Records

These records are the 50% that weren’t digitized in 2005-8 (see above). They consist of:

  • All marriages from 1837
  • Births from 1918
  • Deaths from 1957

There is no index for these records on the GRO website. You will therefore need to find the entry first on the index using FreeBMD or the subscription sites (see above). You need the following information from the index in order to be able to order a record:

  • Year of event
  • Quarter
  • Surname (for marriages, if you know the names of both parties, enter them)
  • Forename
  • Registration district name
  • Volume number
  • Page number

As an example, I want to order the marriage record of Abraham Lodge in 1872. I have found the entry on the index:

GRO Index extract. Bespoke Genealogy

GRO Index extract

This snippet is from the 4th quarter index of 1872. I can see the registration district is Dunmow, it’s in volume 4a, page 745. With this information, I can order a copy of the marriage certificate:

Ordering a non-digital record from the GRO. Bespoke Genealogy

Ordering a non-digital record from the GRO

The standard cost for ordering is GBP11.00 at the time of writing. It will take a few weeks for it to be processed and sent out to you by airmail (if you are outside of the UK).

Information on the records

Here’s a look at the fields on all three types of record:


Civil birth record. Bespoke Genealogy

Civil birth record

Information listed on birth records:

  1. When and where born; date and place of birth (usually the parents address). Sometimes a time of birth is given, this may indicate that the child is a twin or triplet (etc)
  2. Name, if any; first names of child. Does not include surname
  3. Sex
  4. Name and surname of father; if this field is blank the child will probably have been born out of wedlock and therefore deemed to have been “illegitimate”
  5. Name, surname and maiden surname of mother
  6. Occupation of father
  7. Signature, description and residence of informant; usually the mother or father
  8. When registered
  9. Signature of registrar
  10. Name entered after registration; if the name of the child changed at baptism, a correction could be made here.


You should note that if a couple married in an Anglican church, the parish register entry should be exactly the same as the GRO record as this example shows:

Civil record of Abraham Lodge's marriage. Bespoke Genealogy

Civil record of Abraham Lodge’s marriage

Church record of Abraham Lodge's marriage. Bespoke Genealogy

Church record of Abraham Lodge’s marriage

This means that if you have a subscription with one of the database sites like Findmypast or Ancestry, they may hold copies of the parish registers for the county your ancestors married in. If they do, this will save you the cost of purchasing a certificate from the GRO.

Information listed on marriage records:

  1. When married; date the marriage took place
  2. Name and surname; names of the bride and groom
  3. Age; ages of the bride and groom. Often this was unhelpfully given as “full age” which means that they were 21 or older
  4. Condition; bachelor, spinster, widowed or divorced
  5. Rank or profession; often only the occupation of the groom is given
  6. Residence at the time of marriage; addresses of both parties
  7. Father’s name and surname; names of the fathers of both parties. If they are deceased, this is usually recorded
  8. Rank or profession of father; occupations of the fathers of both parties

There are also some additional fields:

  • Place of marriage; eg name and address of church
  • Type of ceremony; eg “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England”
  • Witnesses; this field can be very useful as it can identify a close family member that may not be known to you.


Civil death record. Bespoke Genealogy

Civil death record

Information listed on death records:

  1. When and where died; date and place of death
  2. Name and surname; name of deceased
  3. Sex
  4. Age
  5. Occupation
  6. Cause of death; often this is fairly detailed
  7. Signature, description and residence of informant; usually a family member. “Description” refers to how the informant is related to the deceased
  8. When registered
  9. Signature of the registrar

Why can’t I find my ancestor?

Here are some reasons that might explain why you can’t find a person in the indexes:

  • The event was not registered. Most birth, marriages and deaths were However, in the early years, some events may not have been recorded. To begin with, some church ministers thought that the new system was a threat to their livelihood and may have encouraged their parishioners not to register. This diminished over time and from 1874, registration was mandatory and almost all events were recorded. So, in this case, try and find the church records.
  • There was a transcription error. A mistake may have been made, at some point, either when the event was first recorded, or when the indexes were transcribed. If you can’t find an entry in the GRO index, check the local index. For more information on this, see
  • The name spelling is wrong. Until the early 20th century, most people couldn’t read or write, or even spell their own name. Officials would often write down what they heard. So, if someone was speaking with a thick local accent, the name may have been misunderstood. Check name spelling variants. Also, try saying a name in the regional accent and spell that phonetically.
  • You’re looking in the wrong year. Many people didn’t know exactly when they were born and as they got older, their ages on documents tended to be less accurate. This is especially true when a widowed woman remarried a younger man. So, use a wide date range when looking for someone.
  • You’re looking in the wrong place. Many people didn’t know exactly where they were born. It’s very possible that someone grew up in a different area to where they were born. Also, marriages tended to be in the bride’s parish. Again, this could be in a different registration district to where the groom was living.
  • The child wasn’t yet named at registration. Occasionally, a child may have been registered before they were named. They may not have been named until they were baptised, which could have been a few weeks after registration. You’ll find these entries at the end of the indexes and will just have been recorded as “male” or “female”.

Good luck with your research!

For further reading, you may find these books useful:

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Free BMD Index and British GRO Guide. Bespoke Genealogy
How to find and buy English Vital Records. Bespoke Genealogy
English and Welsh Vital Records Guide. Bespoke Genealogy
The complete guide to English civil vital records. Bespoke Genealogy