How to find adoption records in the UK
Whether you’re trying to access your own adoption records or tracing an adoption in your family history, Gill Rossini explains the next steps
When was legal adoption introduced in the UK?
Adoptions in England and Wales were legally recognised and recorded after the introduction of the 1926 Adoption of Children Act. In Northern Ireland it was 1929 and in Scotland the Adoption of Children (Scotland) Act was introduced in 1930. Before then adoptions were largely informal, rarely generating any meaningful records and not enforceable in law. Adoption in family history can be shrouded in secrecy, and whether someone in your family was adopted or you are an adopted child yourself, finding an adoption record is an important step in tracing your roots.
How to find adoption records in England and Wales
Adoption records in England and Wales, like birth, marriage and death records, are kept by the General Register Office (GRO). There is no searchable index of adoption records online, but you can request a copy of an adoption record via the GRO’s website. To do so, you must register for a free account on the website, select 'Place an Order' from the options given, and fill in the form. You will need to know the adopted child’s current age or their age at death if they are deceased; the year in which the adoption was registered; their adoptive surname and forename; and their date of birth.
Copies of adoption records are delivered by post and cost £14 each. The adoption record does not include the names of the child’s birth parents, but it will tell you the date of the adoption, the court which made the adoption order and the names, addresses and occupations of the adoptive parents.
The GRO also operates an Adoption Contact Register, which shows whether or not an individual wishes to make contact with birth family or a child adopted out of a family. Both parties must consent, or contact cannot go ahead. You must be 18 or over to apply, and have your birth or adoption recorded with the GRO. A small fee is charged.
If you are trying to find an adoption record, it is also helpful to have the child’s birth certificate, which can be searched for and ordered from the GRO. If you don’t know your birth name or which adoption agency was involved, you must apply to the GRO to request access to your birth records. If you were adopted before 12 November 1975 in England and Wales, you will be asked to meet with an adoption social worker who will have the information you need to access your birth records.
How to find adoption records in Scotland
All adoptions in Scotland since 1930 are recorded on the Adopted Children's Register, which is not publicly available. Adoption records that are less than 100 years old are generally only accessible to the adopted person once they are over 16 or a person they have authored in writing. Adoptions are generally conducted through the local sheriff court, which then holds the records for up to 25 years before they are transferred to the National Records of Scotland (NRS). If the adoption took place less than 25 years ago, you should contact the local sheriff court; after that, you should contact NRS directly. You can find out more here.
All civil birth records in Scotland are indexed on ScotlandsPeople, the NRS website. On 9 August 2023, a BBC news report revealed that birth records of children who were subsequently adopted were marked with 'AR' (for 'Adoption Register') and 'NRH' (for 'New Register House'). This could potentially make them identifiable. The NRS has now removed these details from the website.
How to find adoption records in Northern Ireland
If you were adopted in Northern Ireland, you can apply for your original birth certificate once you are 18, and place yourself on a register that allows birth relatives to contact you. More information is available here.
Can I use a DNA test to research adoptions?
DNA tests are increasingly used by birth relatives and adopted people to locate each other. An autosomal DNA test can be taken by either gender and may provide matches on both the birth father and mother’s sides of the family. Ancestry has the largest database of profiles, potentially offering the best chance of a match. Alternative companies include 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA.
Should I use an intermediary to contact my birth family?
If you are searching beyond the remit of government agencies, then no. However, when using social media, DNA-testing match lists, or any other informal search process, tread very carefully. Contacting new relatives is potentially fraught with emotional challenges, and the last thing you want to do is upset or alienate the very people who you want to connect with.
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It is advisable to leave the initial contact to an impartial third party, or use the GRO’s Adoption Contact Register (the Adoption Contact Register for Scotland is held by Birthlink and for Northern Ireland it is held by GRONI). This particularly applies to pre-1976 adoptees, for whom the birth family is more likely to be an unknown quantity, and where birth parents are likely to be elderly and vulnerable.
How to trace pre-1927 adoptions
If a child was adopted into your family before 1927 (or before 1929 for Northern Ireland and 1930 for Scotland), there will not be a legal adoption record. If the child's birth place in the census records differs from that of their siblings, or if their surname or relationship to the head of the household varies between the censuses, that could indicate that they are adopted. Family stories may have been passed down of a child’s ‘mother’ actually being the grandmother, while their sister is in fact the biological mother, and so on.
Most adopted or fostered children were illegitimate, which widens the range of useful records to bastardy papers such as affiliation orders, as well as poor-relief records such as workhouse or poorhouse admission and birth registers – where the mother resorted to the workhouse infirmary as a place to give birth. In England and Wales, from c1900, the Board of Guardians could assume parental rights over a child and organise their foster care. Pauper foster children could be illegitimate or from abjectly poor or neglectful families. Poor-relief and bastardy records are housed at county and local archives, and may be available online.
Finally, search for records of institutions. Hospital records may reveal information about mother and baby, as could the records of mother and baby homes, orphanages and children’s homes, and adoption societies from c1900 onwards. Early examples are the National Adoption Society, the National Children Adoption Association and the British-American Adoption Society. The likes of Dr Barnardo’s and the Waifs and Strays Society (which later became The Children's Society) recorded the fostering of hundreds of children in their care in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, although note that some institutional records are sealed for 100 years for privacy reasons.
Gill Rossini is the author of A History of Adoption in England and Wales, 1850-1961