The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 2 – Birth Records

By Guest, 28 November 2016 - 1:52am

In part two of our 12-Week Family History Challenge, WDYTYA? TV series genealogist Laura Berry shows you how to get your hands on an official birth record and find new avenues of research to explore...

  • Missed last week's guide? Click here to go back to Week 1: Start Your Journey
  • Download a free family tree chart to print and keep by clicking here

Birth certificates are one of the basic building blocks of a family tree, showing who the child’s parents were, the mother’s maiden name, where the family lived and the father’s occupation. 

When a birth was registered with the mother’s maiden surname and the father’s details are left blank, we know that the mother was unmarried.

Civil registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837, however it wasn’t compulsory for parents to register a birth until 1875, which explains why some are missing. Just like today, parents went to their local register office, which still holds historical indexes for the births registered.

Duplicate copies were also sent to the General Register Office (GRO), which compiled a national index frequently used by family historians.

The General Register Office recently launched a new version of its nationwide births index

Searching the GRO index

Up until very recently, it was only possible to search copies of the GRO index online using the free website FreeBMD (1837-1983, with some gaps) and the subscription services Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist (1837-2006).

However, on 4 November 2016, the GRO launched a new version of the index via its own website. Like other copies of the index, it provides the child’s name, registration district and the quarter and year in which the birth was registered (which may differ from the date of birth because parents had six weeks to notify the authorities).

But the main perk of the new service is that it lets you search the full range of birth records by mother’s maiden name – a useful way of identifying correct entries. On other websites this is only possible from July 1911 onwards.

To begin searching, click here and follow the instructions to create a free account on the GRO website. Once you have successfully logged in, navigate to the section marked ‘Search the GRO Online Index’ and click on ‘births’. You can then start filling in the search fields – only surname at birth, year of birth and gender are mandatory.

If you don't know when your ancestor was born, try searching FreeBMD first, which doesn't force you to restrict searches to a specific timeframe.

The birth of future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was registered on 23 December 1874

Ordering a birth certificate

Once you have found a relevant entry in the index, you should be able to click through and order a copy of the birth certificate directly from the GRO. Certificates cost £9.25, taking ten days to arrive by post.

Occasionally records were missed when the national GRO index was compiled from local indexes. However, if you have an idea of where a birth was registered, you can request a search of the local registrar’s indexes and order the birth certificate directly from them. Some regional indexes can be found online at UKBMD.

Start your search by ordering your birth certificates for members of your family

Births outside England and Wales

While researching pop star Cheryl’s family tree, we unexpectedly discovered that some of her relations from north England had spent short periods living in Scotland, where civil registration was introduced on 1 January 1855.

Scottish birth certificates have been scanned up to 1915, and are available for a fee on ScotlandsPeople. Scottish marriage certificates are even more detailed, showing where and when the parents tied the knot.

Births were registered with the General Register Office of Ireland from 1 January 1864, and records up to 1914 are online for free at and indexes up to 1958 are on FamilySearch. These also cover Northern Ireland up to 1922. You can order Northern Irish certificates from

Week 2 tasks


Next week...

In next week’s guide (Monday 5 December), we’ll be looking at the best genealogy subscription websites and ways to get the most from searching online

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