The index of civil registrations of births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales can be found on the FreeBMD Web site. This is not yet complete but fuller versions can also be found on the commercial Web sites.

References to these entries usually involve a year, a yearly quarter, a volume, and a page, e.g. 1956/Q2/3c/358, although some of the newer entries have a different type of reference. This list is compiled from the local registrations around the associated registration districts. However, if you request a copy of a certificate from the GRO (General Register Office) then you'll need this reference.

The Web site UKBMD involves transcriptions of the records from the local register offices. Although the data currently has patchy coverage, the transcriptions are incredibly useful as they often give details such as mother's maiden name, spouses name, age at death, etc., for the very old registrations.

I have heard that there are incredible differences between the local registrations and the centrally compiled index, including lost registrations, naming errors, and indexing errors. Hence, after finding a local registration, this should be preferred as a citation. Requesting a copy of a certificate from that site involves a different type of reference whose structure I'm not 100% certain of, and that is then dispatched to the local register office. For instance: HUL/5/305.

My main question here is whether those local references are permanent enough to use in citations? Also, though, do they have a set pattern and does that pattern relate to the central references at all?

  • I think the issue of differences between GRO and local registers and indexes deserve a question (or more) of thier own.
    – Sue Adams
    Nov 29, 2012 at 17:33
  • Yes, I did think of doing this, just for the record, but I couldn't think how to contrive the question so that it met the requirements of this site. Starting with the answer and devising a question can be difficult ;-)
    – ACProctor
    Nov 29, 2012 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


My understanding is that the reference HUL/5/305 breaks down into

  • HUL = Sub-district for births, deaths and (maybe) civil marriages or code for church in case of religious marriages conducted by the church's minister (e.g. CE4);
  • 5 = Register within sub-district;
  • 305 = page or entry number in register - apparently some registers are indexed by page, some by entry and there doesn't seem to be any reason why one is used;

Re religious marriages in church - not all churches have their own register - while ministers of the Church of England are, even now, ex-officio, qualified as registrars for the purposes of marriages, other denominations have to be explicitly qualified. I guess all of them go through "Civil Registration 101".

As Sue indicates in her answer, the Shire-BMD software records what are (in the instances I know) existing registrars' indexes, potentially supplemented by extra items such as mother's maiden name on birth (thereby hangs a tale or two).

I have been using CheshireBMD long enough to answer the question of permanence - no, they're not.

This is one of my early index entries - it's a straight copy from CheshireBMD at the time (modified by editting the surnames out so I don't get these back to me in Google one day):

XXX Sarah YYY Eli Nantwich, Civil Marriage CC N23/84

N23/84 is the reference you refer to.

Now, here is the current example:

YYY Eli XXX Sarah Nantwich, Civil Marriage Cheshire Central NA/23/84

(The fact that the names are reversed is not significant - it's just indicative of who I searched on).

So N23/84 has become NA/23/84.

I suspect the inserted "/" is just an artefact of the software. More to the point, sub-district N has become sub-district NA. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that's because Cheshire Central has, since the first code was copied, taken on the registers for sub-district Northwich, hence Nantwich was recoded to avoid ambiguity.

And that, I suspect, is the issue. The sub-district codes are only meaningful within the Superintendent Registrar's area (or perhaps the office containing the registers - Cheshire East is one SR but 2 offices). When the registers are moved (as they are, frequently, due to reorganisations) then those sub-district codes will change to avoid clashes.

I would, however, suggest that if one records, in clear, the office containing the registers and the sub-district names, as well as the reference, then one would have enough to enable your successors to re-find the "same" certificate. Thus, to take NA/23/84 again, I would record that the certified copy came from Cheshire Central, that it was sub-district "Nantwich, Civil Marriages" and reference NA/23/84.

The basic assumption here is that registers are never retitled (i.e. they refer to the same sub-district) or renumbered. And I did find out recently that if a sub-district was reorganised, the Registrar General's instructions are that the old registers are closed and not reused - hence they remain associated with one and only one sub-district. But... (c'mon, you knew there had to be a 'but') it took me ages to get my head round this system because it didn't seem to apply for my home town where the CheshireBMD said Crewe sub-district and the certificate said Wybunbury - i.e. registers seemed to be associated with 2 sub-districts??? But, in fact, Wybunbury and Crewe were actually de facto the same sub-district - it simply got renamed (not reorganised), hence the registers would have the renamed sub-district painted on the outside while the individual certificates inside had the contemporary name. So I record them, now I understand the system, as "Crewe (originally Wybunbury) sub-district".

A listing of districts and sub-districts, with places within the sub-districts can be found on GENUKI at REGISTRATION DISTRICTS IN ENGLAND AND WALES. Thanks to the estimable Brett Langston for those pages.

  • This sounds like a total disaster. I am interested in Cheshire too, and Lancashire. I have found a couple of local records that do not exist on the GRO index. That leaves me with a problem in devising a reliable (i.e. having some permanence) citation for them.
    – ACProctor
    Nov 29, 2012 at 20:07
  • I think in practice the situation is not that dire if you include those sub-district names as they remain fixed - ironically it's the level above that is totally fluid. ("Fixed" aside from Crewe/Wybunbury type renames). Of course, you will not have a reference that can be used straight off by your reader - but if they apply a little intelligence, then they can find the right entry, with the new reference, on CheshireBMD etc.
    – AdrianB38
    Nov 29, 2012 at 20:33
  • 1
    OK. It's actually a good case for over-specifying details in a citation. Trying to be economical can result in a loss of usability.
    – ACProctor
    Nov 29, 2012 at 20:50

This is really a question about how the UK civil registration system works, because it is the system that leads to the end products (e.g. indexes, birth certificates). The system has developed to meet the legal requirements specified in various statutes like the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. I think the basic requirements have not changed substantially since the commencement of civil registration in 1837.

Each registration district had one or more sub-districts, each with a Registrar, who reported to the Superintendent Registrar for the district. So, several registers may have been in use at any one time in a district. Each quarter the Superintendent Registrar collated the registrations for his district, and sent copies to the Registrar General. The Superintendent Registrar was required to make an index for his district so that requests for Certified Copies of register entries (generally referred to as Certificates) could be serviced. The law did not specify the form of index, so each district developed thier own system.

The law also required the Registrar General to create an index of the centrally held registrations. This is the system now used by the General Register Office (GRO) and its predecessors. As it is based on the quarterly returns, it does not relate to the original, locally held records.

The UKBMD website is a portal to indexes of a small (currently)number of co-operating local registrars and far from complete. According to Users Guide to Birth Indexes for the West Midlands part of the website, the references given are the ones used by the registrars that relate to the original registers. However, this may not be the case in every registration district.

The question asked how local registrations should be cited. Using the form:

Creator. Title. Jurisdiction (sub-district, district). Year. Reference. (name - optional)

For a certificate from the local register office I suggest:

Sandwell Register Office. Birth Certificate. Tipton, [Dudley]. 1837. citing TIP/1/157. Adams, Edward J.

Compared to the citation for a certficate from the GRO for the same event:

General Register Office. Birth Certificate. [Tipton], Dudley. 1837 Dec Q. citing vol 18, p. 249. Adams, Edward J.

  • I wasn't actually asking for a citation format Sue. I wasn't sure whether the local references were a modern index reference or an original one (which you answered). I want to include a reference in my citation but if the code is not permanent and reliable then the citation is effectively broken. In your GRO example, you'll also need the yearly quarter.
    – ACProctor
    Nov 29, 2012 at 17:41

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