Everyone born in England and Wales on or since 1 July, 1837 should have had their birth registered by the state, which keeps a record of the event in the form of a registration entry. This shows information which an informant - normally the mother or her legal husband - provides to the registrar within six weeks of the birth. The registrar sends to the Registrar-General a copy of each entry at the end of each quarter year.
Thus, there should be in existence two birth entries for each person back to 1 July, 1837 - 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 sex of the child, the place of birth, the father's name and occupation, the mother's name and maiden name, the informant's name and address and the date of birth. The surname of the child (which can be any name the parents choose) has been entered only since 1 April, 1969. Before that date it has to be inferred from the father's surname.
In the case of an illegitimate child, only the mother's name is normally given; before 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 him or her 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. It is cheaper to buy than a 'full' certificate, but is of no genealogical value, and has restricted use these days.
Failure to find a birth entry
This happens surprisingly often and there are several reasons why:
Registration 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 (the nearest hospital may be several miles from the family home, for example). Also, some early registrars were paid on commission, encouraging registration in the wrong district.
Birth not registered - in some parts of the country as many as 15 per cent of all births were not registered during the first decade after 1837. There was no penalty on parents' failing to register until 1875, many believing that registration was not necessary if the child was baptised. In 1844, the Registrar-General complained that thousands were escaping the net. 100% compliance was not achieved until about 1870.
Birth incorrectly indexed - until modern times certificates were handwritten and subsequently indexed by a different registrar, so simple transcription errors were possible. Also, as illiteracy was widespread during the 19th century, registrars had no way of checking the correct spelling of surnames which were often written as they were pronounced: 'Hibbert', for example, might easily be indexed under 'Ibbert'.
Since 1 July, 1837, the Registrar-General has had a duty to record all valid marriages in England and Wales, no matter what the form of ceremony involved. Since that date the state, represented by a Superintendent registrar of Marriages, has been able to conduct marriages itself. In the case of civil ceremonies, the recording process is similar to that for births. There are again two entries - one kept locally by the Superintendent Registrar, the other by the Registrar-General.
If the wedding takes place in church, the same will often apply because a registrar is present and both church and civil certificates are completed immediately after the ceremony. The latter is kept by the registrar and a copy sent to the General Register Office. However, registrars have not been present at Church of England, Jewish or Quaker marriages since 1837. In this case an 'Authorised Person' (usually the priest or a member of the congregation) is the sole recorder and sends copies of each marriage to the Superintendent Registrar and the General Register Office.
The marriage certificate will tell you: the date and place of marriage, and for both parties their age, condition, rank or profession, residence, father's name and occupation, and the names and signatures of the bride, groom and witnesses.
Giving one's correct age was not compulsory and, up to the mid-twentieth century, is often given as 'full' (ie over 21). 'Minor' or 'under age' meant between twelve and twenty for a girl, between fourteen and twenty for a boy, until 1929 when the lower age limit was raised to sixteen for both parties.
Since 1 July, 1837, the recording of deaths in England and Wales is similar to that for births, the main difference being that a death must normally be registered within five days of the event, as opposed to six weeks allowed for births.
The death certificate will tell you: the date and place of death, the name, sex and occupation of the deceased, the cause of death and the informant's name and address. Since 1 April, 1969, the date and place of birth of the deceased, the usual address and the maiden name in the case of a married woman, are also given. Until 1874, entering the cause of death was not a legal requirement and registrars were encouraged to use popular, rather than medical terminology.