An explanation of birth, marriage and death certificates Julie Stevenson

Updated: Feb 27


These documents can be so informative, but they can also be misleading. It depends upon how honest the informants were - did they have something to hide?

The legal requirement to register these events was not brought in until 1837, anything prior to this will mean checking the local parish registers. Some parish registers are available online, but their availability can vary greatly depending upon the county your research covers.

Certificate copies can be ordered from: click here


A birth certificate usually gives:

  • birthdate and birthplace

  • child’s name and sex

  • father's name and occupation

  • mother's full name, including her maiden name

  • informant’s name, relationship to the baby, and residence

  • when registered and the name of the registrar

The father, mother, neighbour, or other person present at the birth must register a birth within 42 days. The 1874 act imposed a fee for late registration (43 days to 6 months). This penalty may have persuaded some parents to "adjust" their child's birthdate to avoid paying the fee. After 6 months, the birth could not be registered.

You may come across a few anomalies:

  • Name column blank – either no name decided yet, or child died before baptism.

  • Father’s name column blank – birth was illegitimate.


A marriage certificate gives:

  • marriage date and place

  • names of the bride and groom, their ages, their marital "condition" (single or widowed), their professions, and their residences at the time of the marriage

  • names and occupations of their fathers (and sometimes whether they were deceased)

  • signatures or marks of the bride, groom, and witnesses

  • whether the bride and groom were married in a church (with the denomination given) and, if so, whether they were married by banns or by licence.


- in the early 19th century it was often given as “of full age” i.e. 21 or over.

- under 21s needed parents’ permission to marry, so very often ages are unreliable.

- age gaps of more than a few years between bride and groom were also often frowned upon, so again ages were ‘modified’.

Father’s name:

- to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy, a father’s name may have been made up. Usually, this ‘fake’ father was conveniently deceased.


- divorce was rare, so occasionally men and women ‘forgot’ about estranged spouses and claimed to be bachelors, spinsters or widowed.


- can also be misleading, as getting hitched on the cheap meant jumping through a few hoops. The cheapest Church of England marriages involved the reading of banns. They had to be read over three successive Sundays in a parish church, and the parties had to be living in the parish for at least a week before the banns were read. Often the address on a marriage certificate is no more than an address of convenience.


A death certificate usually gives:

  • death date and place

  • full name of the decedent, their sex and age, their occupation (or for a child, usually the name of a parent)

  • cause of death

  • name, residence and relationship of the informant to the decedent

  • date registered and the name of the registrar.

Registration District:

- typically, people died at home. Bear in mind though that some died at work or in a workhouse or hospital outside their home area. Therefore, their death may have been registered in a different district from the one in which they lived.


- in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman’s occupation was often recorded in terms of her relationship to a man. “Daughter of” or “wife of” were common female occupations.

Cause of death:

- often very vague, before the 1874 Registration Act it was sometimes given as old age or even “visitation from God”. From 1875 doctors began to certify death registrations, after this the cause of death was often highly technical.

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