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• Early birth certificates that list a time of birth as well as a date of birth usually suggest multiple births. However, if one of the twins was stillborn, there will be no official record of this event (i.e. no birth certificate for stillborn children since stillborn deaths were not officially recorded until 1927).

• Be wary of the age listed on death certificates for people born before 1837. Before the era of birth certificates, people often only had a vague idea of when they were born (and thus their age).

• Bigamous marriages were common during this period. Men who travelled as part of their job (salesmen, soldiers, sailors, etc.) sometimes kept separate families in different villages. Woman whose husband was in jail or emigrated overseas often remarried without ending their first marriage.

• Women often lied on marriage certificates about their age to make themselves appear younger than the groom. When confronted by a discrepancy in age between a birth certificate and a marriage certificate, the birth certificate is more likely to be correct.

• In the early days of registering births, marriages and deaths, many people were illiterate and did not know how to spell their own surname, which they rarely wrote down. As well, not all registrars were well versed in regional dialects. As a result, misspelling of surnames is common. Often, the correct certificate can be found by trying common spelling variations of the surname. Sometimes, however, this is not enough.

• The 1830s were the start of large migrations of Scottish and Irish people looking for jobs in England’s new industrial revolution. Recording these ‘foreign’ surnames on birth, marriage and death certificates was particularly challenging for many registrars, who were generally not familiar with Scottish and Irish surnames and who could become further confused by strong regional dialects (much stronger than today) that would increase the chance of misunderstanding what somebody was saying.

• Many registrars would often take a wild guess at the spelling of unfamiliar surnames. It can take imagination and a bit of ingenuity to guess some of these phonetic spellings. One useful trick is to write down the surname assuming that the person saying it had a bad cold. Regardless, expect to encounter difficulty finding early birth, marriage or death certificates in England for someone with an Irish, Scottish or continental surname.

• The General Register Office (GRO) has been responsible for the civil registration system since it began in 1837. Initially, England and Wales was divided up into the same registration districts that were covered by the Poor Law Union of parishes (with a very slight revision in 1851). You can use this information to your advantage. If you happen to know the registration district of an ancestor in the early days of the civil registration, you will by definition automatically know the pre-1837 parish district as well. This is a neat trick to remember.

• Remember when ordering historic BMDs that everything is recorded by the date of registration. For a birth, this can be up to six weeks after the event.

Where to Find Records Online:

• Genuki maintains an excellent alphabetical list of all registration districts in England and Wales between the years 1837 and 1974, which is a very useful resource to consult. [Historic English Registration Districts]

• The biggest collection of free online birth, marriage, death records can be found at Free BMD. [Free England Birth, Marriage, Death Records]

• Historic birth, marriage and death certificates (collectively called BMD certificates) can be ordered from either the national General Register Office (GRO) or from the relevant local register office. This applies to both England and Wales. The problem is that you may not know how to find the relevant local register office. Therefore, we suggest you go directly to the GRO. You can order historic BMD certificates online from the GRO going back as far as 1837. [Ordering Historic UK Birth, Marriage, Death Certificates]

• When ordering a birth record, you should ideally know the full name at birth, date of birth and place of birth.

• When ordering a marriage record, you should know the full name of at least one of the parties, date of marriage and place of marriage. Alternatively, you might be able to trace down the marriage record if you know the name of both parties and an approximate date of marriage.

• When ordering a death certificate you should know the full name, age at death and place of death.

• A common mistake is to assume that it will be easy to track down birth, marriage and death certificates because a given family name is uncommon. There are two problems with this approach. First, names that are uncommon today may have been much more common even two hundred years ago. Second, rare family names tend to cluster. Even though a family name may not be common in the general population, it is not unusual to come across a village or town where it appears that half the residents share the same rare family name.

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Related Resources

A Date Guide to English Genealogy - Part I

A Date Guide to English Genealogy - Part III

How to Read Old Handwriting

The Key to Understanding Family Relationships

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