I have a female great grand-mother in England for whom I have her marriage certificate and her death certificate, plus census records from marriage until death. From these I know her unmarried name, an approximate year of birth (1865), a supposed place of birth (Dudley, England) and (from her marriage certificate) a putative father's name.

Searches in the GRO birth indices for 5 years either side of her supposed birth year have not located anyone of the right name born anywhere with the right father that I have not been able to trace and therefore eliminate in later censuses (nor any illegitimate girl children that otherwise meet the criteria).

How can I find records of her birth?

Edited to provide more details:

Mary Ann Harper (spinster, aged 18) was married after Banns on 15th April 1883 to John Stanley Wright at St. Lukes Church, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. She named her father as James Harper (deceased) with no occupation given. Both parties gave their address as Hill Street. The witnesses were a J. Marshall and a D. Marshall. [Source: Copy of the relevant entry of marriage from the General Register Office]

Stanley Wright was a painter and decorator born in Plumstead, Kent in 1861. In 1881, he was living in Kings Norton, Worcestershire.

The couple's first child Stanley Charles was born on 5 August 1883 at 42 Broadway Street, Burton Extra, Burton on Trent, Derbyshire. [Source: Copy of the relevant entry of birth from the GRO]. She went on to have a total of 10 children, born variously in Birmingham, Kings Norton and Sutton Coldfield (all Warwickshire/Worcestershire) as well Stapenhill and Burton Extra (both near Burton on Trent in Derbyshire.

From the censuses after her marriage:

  • 1891 resident Stapenhill, Burton on Trent, Derbyshire aged 26 born Dudley Staffordshire
  • 1901 resident Kings Norton, Kings Heath, Worcestershire aged 37 born Dudley Staffordshire
  • 1911 resident Kings Norton, Worcestershire aged 40 born Dudley (the informant in this case was her landlord, not a member of the family)

She died in 1932 aged 66 [Source: Copy of entry of death from GRO]

I have not been able to locate her conclusively in the censuses before her marriage.

  • Thanks for adding the extra information in the title. The ukbmd site, mentioned below, finds 3 Mary A births registered in Dudley in 1865-66, and 2 unnamed Harper girls between 1864-66.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 10:00
  • You probably know already but it's worth adding a note that the registration district of Dudley is also associatd with Worcestershire, and more recently 'West-Midlands' (ukbmd.org.uk/genuki/reg/districts/dudley.html)
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 10:22
  • @ACProctor, I had all the Dudley births of a Mary Harper between 1859 and 1870 reference checked (back when the GRO still did that). None of them that are plain Mary or Mary Ann have a father James or unnamed. I should follow up on the unnamed ones.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:19
  • @ACproctor I can't find two unnamed Harper girls between 1864-1866, only one for whom there is a corresponding death in the same quarter (Mar 1864).
    – user104
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:26
  • I'm deliberately not using the GRO index here (e.g. via FreeBMD) because of missing entries and mis-indexing. That's why I pointed to the ukbmd site. Which source are you using here?
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:46

9 Answers 9


Although civil registration in England and Wales began in 1837 it wasn't actually compulsory until 1875 or at least there was no penalty for failing to register a birth and the law put the onus on the registrar to find and record births rather than on the parents to report it.

That said, in my experience the vast majority of events do seem to have been registered, but it's certainly possible that you are unlucky in this case and that it wasn't registered.

If you've exhausted all attempts at looking for name/place/date variations in the civil registration indexes then parish registers would be the next step.

One thing that I would do if you haven't already is to look for pre-marriage census entries, both for her and for her apparent father as recorded on the marriage certificate to see if that offers any clues - if you find the father for example then you might find her recorded with an alternate name.

  • +1 for Parish Registers - although there may well be several parishes to rummage around, in Dudley.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 17:07

Years of birth in censuses and (especially) marriage records can often be quite inaccurate. Sometimes, if the bride or groom doesn't tell their future spouse their correct age they have to keep up the pretense in future censuses. So widen the search years for the birth, especially earlier.

It's more likely the name was misspelt, either recorded or transcribed incorrectly. Consider more name variations and using wildcards in your searches.

The first name given on her marriage certificate and in the censuses may not be her first name, could be a middle name. Somebody registered as "Violet Rose Smith" might use the name "Rose" in all future events. Although Freebdm.org.uk allows a search with a wildcard for the first name ("* rose") most registrations only had an initial for the middle name, so you'd be better off searching for "* r" with the correct surname (assuming the name you're after is Rose).

You say you have the possible name of her father. Again the first name given may be a middle name or nickname, but if his name is at all rare you could look for him in the censuses (the occupation, or addresses, may help confirm it's the right one). His household in an earlier census may contain the daugther who is the future bride, giving possibly her real first name(s) and more accurate birthplace and age. Trace that family forward in the censuses after the marriage, just to be sure that daughter then disappears.

One more thought: if you're lucky, one of the witnesses at the marriage may be a sibling who could be easier to trace, which would again help to identify the family in censuses before the marriage.


When this has happened to me, it mostly seems to boil down to two scenarios:

1) The birth name was not as expected, e.g. being born before a marriage, or the mother was previously married.

2) A registration missing from the GRO civil registration index. In this case, I'd recommend visiting www.ukbmd.org.uk who transcribe the local registrations. Their coverage is patchy but I believe it covers Dudley in the West Midlands.

If you want to provide more details in the question then I'm sure some of us will lend a hand with the search.


Further to TomH's answer, if you have the (civil) marriage certificate, then the relevant parish register for that marriage might give you additional information — even if only "of the Parish of xxx"

Also, there will have been Reading of the Banns there.


Several people have suggested parish registers are your best source and I agree. There is a big but there though in that some are still in use today in the parish. There was a case quoted only yesterday on another forum of an 1830's parish register still being used in 2013. It has never been microfilmed it has never been submitted to the GRO so will not appear on an index until the book is full and only then if it is sent to the local Archives / RO.


If you go to findmypast.com, try entering the following into the search:

enter image description here

Then use the filters at the left of the page to filter your search to just "Births and Baptisms",

and you'll find 11 possibly promising results.

It also wouldn't hurt to change "mary ann" and try "mary anne" or "maryann".

  • 1
    Thanks. All those hits are entries from the GRO birth indices that I've been discussing with ACproctor in the comments to the OP.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 10:14

I don't see any mention that you've looked through church/parish records.

You might want to try parish records from Dudley, England.

Check the FreeREG website for Staffordshire (the county containing Dudley). The "D" page]2 for Dudley indicates that the Baptisms for Dudley in the 1860's for certain churches have been completed.

So now go to the FreeREG Basic Search. Enter as the Record Type: "Baptisms", as the Surname: "Harper", as the Forename: "Mary Ann", as the year: "1865" +/- 5 years, select "Staffordshire" as the County, and see if any of these records match what you need. Check also for other known relatives.

There are also a number of other references via Google to "Dudley Parish Registers".

And maybe, if you get lucky, adding "Harper" to the previous Google search might yield some rewards.

  • Nothing on Freereg matches at present, although I'll check back in future. Parish registers round Dudley are a nightmare -- I've made several trips to the relevant record office and haven't really made a dent in them yet.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:15

How about this at: http://familytrees.genopro.com/HarryCaper/FamilyTree/default.htm?page=Harper-MaryAnn-ind00173.htm

This Mary Ann's father's name was James.

enter image description here

  • Looks as if it might be worth following up, although she's a little old.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 10:14
  • Unfortunately (as per chat) this Mary Ann Harper probably married in Yorkshire in 1872.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:21

If the date of the Baptism for Mary Ann Harper is correct at c. 1866. This appears to be the nearest entry by date. For the person required by you. Mary Ann Harper baptised 7 Jan 1866 St Lawrence, Darlaston, near Wednsebury, Staffs, England. Father James Harper Mother Betsey

However, if the family were in fact, already in Dudley at the time of the baptism and the date is earlier there is also the following entry which may therefore be of interest to you, if you have not already seen it. Mary Ann Harper, baptised 25 April 1856, St Thomas, Dudley, Worcestershire. Father James Harper Mother Elizabeth.

  • Unfortunately Mary Ann the daughter of James and Betsy was still living (unmarried) with her parents in 1891, so can be eliminated. And 1856 is too early for the rest of her life events to stack up, but thank you for looking,
    – user6485
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 15:08

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