A Birth Certificate in England and Wales

A birth certificate is an official record of a birth, but did not exist until 1st July 1837, when civil registration began. After 1875, parents were, and still are to this day, required to register a birth within six weeks, or face being fined for non-submission of this information.

To obtain a birth certificate, you must first find the correct entry in the GRO Index, which is the national record of births, marriages and deaths.

I have looked in the Index: I still cannot find my ancestor

If you cannot find your ancestor in the index, try looking in subsequent quarters - you may find someone born on 28th August 1859 was not registered until the following quarter which would be the December quarter rather than the September quarter.

Up to 1875, registering a birth was the responsibility of the registrar, resulting in up to 15 percent of births not being recorded.  In earlier years, a woman may not have registered the birth of an illegitimate child because of the shame connected with the event at the time, and some parents did not register a birth because they believed that if a child was baptised, their birth did not need to be registered, so you may not find your ancestor in the records.

Another reason you may be unable to find your ancestor's entry in the index could be because a birth was incorrectly indexed as the clerk may have misheard the name, or wrote down their date of birth inaccurately.  You should try looking for alternative spellings of your ancestor's name.

Importance of birth certificate to research

Obtaining a certificate is very important because it can help you to associate a child with their correct parent(s). If you have an ancestor who has a very common name such as Smith it can take on even more significance. There are numerous John Smith's in the GRO Index in any given year, and it is essential to make sure you have found the correct entry.

Short and Long versions of the Certificate

The short version of a certificate of birth only gives the name of the child, their sex, birthplace and date of birth. It is advisable to get a long birth certificate as it provides more information, such as the parents' name(s) and the mother’s maiden name so you can look for any possible marriage registration in the GRO Index.  Sometimes, however, you may find that although the parents of the child state that they were married when the child was born, that was not always the case.  

My ancestors William Baker and Elizabeth Hill stated that they were married and had several children together, but I have never been able to find a marriage for them.  Elizabeth went on to marry William's brother Charles in 1928, declaring herself to be a spinster.

Registration District

The heading of the birth certificate lists the registration district, sub-district if applicable, and the name of the county.  If a child was born in a rural area, their birth may have been registered in a registration district some miles from the village.  A large registration district has many smaller sub-districts; in the example birth certificate below, Northampton is the registration district whereas All Saints is the sub-district.

Number given

The number written in the first column on a certificate is the entry number and General Register Office reference.

When and Where Born

The next column on a birth certificate lists the date of birth of the individual and their place of birth.  If this was in a town, the street address was usually recorded, but if the birth took place in a village, only the village name was entered.

Although you might not think so, one of the most important pieces of information on a certificate that is often overlooked is the address.  This is crucial because it may mean you are able to find your ancestor on a census return, especially if you have not found them in a census index, which could lead to you discovering other information about them and their family.


This column detailed the full name of the child, but in some cases the parents had not yet named them, so this was occasionally entered as Male or Female.


This column was where the gender of the child was recorded - until 1969, the certificate stated boy or girl, but after that date, male or female was entered.

Name and Surname of Father

The father's details were were required to be entered on the certificate when the parents were married to each other, with only one parent signing the register, but if the parents were unmarried, then the father's name and occupation were left blank.  

If the parents were both in attendance at the register office, then the father's name could be recorded on the certificate regardless of whether the couple were married or not.  Both parents were able to sign the register.

Name and Surname of Mother

If the mother was unmarried, only her sole name was entered on the certificate, but if she was married, her married and maiden names were both recorded, and if she had been previously married, her previous married name may be entered, such as Mary Dunkley late Clarke formerly Reynolds, as shown in the example below, however there are pitfalls to take into consideration when studying this information.

Father's Occupation

The father's occupation is also entered, which can prove useful to the family historian as you may find your ancestor was mentioned in records of a company he may have worked for.

If the column for father's name is blank, this means the child could be illegitimate and it may prove more difficult to track down the possible father, although the father's name is sometimes mentioned in some way in the child's name.  It could also lead to there being confusion over what the child's last name actually was.

My ancestor William Baker Carrington, born in 1852, was the illegitimate child of Elizabeth Carrington and William Baker. He later changed his name to William Carrington Baker.

Signature of Informant

The informant of the birth is asked to confirm whether the information recorded on the certificate is accurate before signing the entry.

One problem with this, however, was that many people were not able to read and write, signing their name by 'making their mark' with an X.  If a person could not read, they would not be able to tell if the information was recorded accurately or not.

The informant of the birth was usually the mother or father, but if a child was born in the workhouse, the master of the institution usually acted as the informant.

Date of Registration

The date entered here is the date the birth was registered, not the child's birth date.

Signature of the Registrar

The signature of the registrar was entered in this column, but if there are two signatures, this may indicate that the birth was registered late or had been re-registered.

Could a child be a twin?

If a time is listed this means the parents may have had more than one child born at the same time, or could just be because the registrar wanted to record as much information as possible.

Rita Mabel Dunkley Birth Certificate

Problems encountered: wrong surname?

Although a certificate contains a wealth of information, it can sometimes lead you to progress in the wrong direction.  My ancestor, Elizabeth Dammant, married William Barker on 4 October 1815 in Greenstead, Essex, England.  

After William's death in 1833, she went on to marry Samuel Cole on 9 December 1836.  She had a daughter, Harriett, with Samuel on 25 September 1840, but her name was stated as being Elizabeth Cole formerly Barker on Harriett's birth certificate.  Had I not already found Elizabeth's marriage to William Barker, this would have been very confusing, and could have led me to believe I was tracing the wrong family. 

Birth Certificate Details at a glance

  • When and where born
  • Child's Name
  • Child's Sex
  • Father's Name and Surname
  • Mother's Name and Maiden Name
  • Father's Occupation
  • Signature, description and residence of the informant - this is often the mother or father. If the informant was illiterate, they just left their 'mark', which was usually an X signifying they could not read or write. Their name was written out for them so you could find the surname was written incorrectly.
  • Signature of the registrar
  • Date of registration

How to get a birth certificate:

It is possible to order a certificate from the ONS in Southport after you have found the birth registration in the GRO Index.  The current cost is £9.25 per certificate.

You can also obtain a birth certificate from the appropriate register office, which is the Office where births, marriages and death are officially recorded.  Registers held by the Office date back to 1837, being in the custody of the Superintendent Registrar of the district.  Each registration district may have one or more registrars, each of them assuming responsibility for a sub-district.

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