Have you a birth, marriage or death certificate filed away somewhere? Yours, your parents or grandparents, these vital records as they are called can start you on your journey to find your ancestors. Without the information supplied in these documents you can never be sure that your family tree depicts your actual bloodline.
We owe the recording of these civil records to the Victorians who started the legal process of registering births marriages and deaths (BMD’s for short) in 1837 for England and Wales. Before this these records were recorded in the parish registers which was often an inconsistent system. The indexes for these vital records can be searched in various places:
• FreeBMD as it suggests it’s free to use!
• UK BMD coverage by county also free to use
• Ancestry details from 1837 to 2007 births, to 2005 for marriages, to 2007 for deaths; free to view at Central Library
• Findmypast 1837 to 2006 births, to 2005 for marriages, to 2007 for deaths, also free to view in the library
The information from the index will help you to apply for a copy certificate. It gives you the year and the quarter recorded, where it was registered and a volume and page number. You can apply for a copy online at https://www.gro.gov.uk, you will need to register but it’s free.
A copy certificate sent by post will cost you £9:50 but at the moment you can apply for a PDF copy of births from 1837 to 1917 and deaths from 1837 to 1957 for £6 which they send by email.
If you search on UKBMD the reference number there cannot be used at the GRO but this a better reference if you are applying to a local registry office.
Birth Certificates
These are important documents for tracing your female ancestors; a birth certificate will give the following information:
• when and where she was born
• name of father and his occupation
• name of mother and her maiden name
Name and address of informant (usually the father or mother)
So searching for a record of my grandmother’s birth this is the information I found:

Mary Moxon birth index

This was all I needed to send for her birth certificate.

Mary Moxon birth

I must admit I was worried when I saw her mother’s maiden name was Smith as this is such a popular name and can be challenging!
Marriage Certificates
Once you have this information you can start looking for the marriage of the parents. It would be helpful at this time if you can find the family on a census returns to determine if she was the eldest child. This will give you a clue of how far back to search for the certificate. Search backwards from the birth of the eldest child until you find their marriage. I found Mary with some difficulty as she was always known as Polly. On the 1891 census Mary’s parents, Joseph and Jane had 4 children. The oldest child Jane was born in 1880 so I started searching backwards from that year for Jane and Joseph’s marriage. They were married in the December quarter 1878 in Wolverhampton.

This is the record from FreeBMD

Jane Smith marriage index

if you click on the page number 838 it gives you the name of Joseph Moxon along with other people who were married at that time who appear on the page.

Jane Smith spouse page

The marriage certificate is very important for moving further back with your family history as it contains this information:
• Place where marriage took place
• Date of the marriage

• Name and surname of the two people marrying

• Their ages (unfortunately sometimes they will not put their actual age but ‘full’ )

• Condition bachelor, spinster, widower widow

• Their rank or profession

• Residence at time of marriage

• Their fathers’ names and rank or profession

• Two witnesses
This is all useful information. If age is given you can then calculate when they were born and be able to find a birth or baptism record.
The name of the father and his occupation can help you to find the family on a census which will give you the Christian name of his wife. You will then have to find her maiden name.
Here is Jane and Joseph’s marriage certificate:

marriage Jane Smith Joseph Moxon

Fortunately we have both their ages so birth years can be calculated, also Joseph was a widower so I was able to find his earlier marriage.
Remember to look at the witnesses. At first glance neither of the names looks as if they have any connection to the family but I later found out that Richard Careless married Jane’s younger sister Eliza.
Jane would have been born in 1854 so I looked on the 1861 census to see if I could find her living with her father Edward. I knew from the 1891 census that she was born in Lapley. I found her with her father Edward, mother Phoebe and 4 siblings in 1861. Searching the GRO index for her birth I found a Jane Smith registered in December Quarter of 1954 registered in  Penkridge which isn’t far from Lapley. Here is her birth certificate:

Jane Smith birth

From this I can see her mother’s maiden name was Boulton so I was able to look for the marriage of Edward Smith and Phoebe Boulton.

The GRO have now put the mother’s maiden name on all the birth records from 1837 until 1917, this can help you to identify a mother’s maiden name and also help you to find a correct birth record if you already know her maiden name.

Lancashire BMD have also transcribed some of the mothers maiden names.
Death Certificates
Finding death certificates for your Ancestors gives you the final piece of their lives. Information on a death certificate is as follows:
• Where and when they died
• Age put on from 1869
• Occupation
• Cause of death
• Name and address of informant (sometimes their relationship to the deceased)
Jane’s death was easy to find as her married name was Moxon and her family were the only Moxon family living in Wolverhampton at that time.

death indes

Jane Smith Moxon death

Don’t be put off if the age isn’t exactly correct it does depend on how well the informant knew the deceased. In this case it’s correct. It’s her youngest daughter’s husband who has registered the death and the address is the same so Jane was living with them at the time.
The GRO is also supplying copies of death certificates in PDF form for £6. The years covered are 1837 to 1957.
Finding a death for your Ancestor can also lead to finding a probate record. Sometimes it can be the other way round, finding a probate record can give you the date of their death and from this you can search the indexes for a death record. If you find a probate record you can send for a copy of the will which could have valuable family information.
It’s worth noting that the GRO has some useful general advice in getting started with certificates on their website.
Scotland and Ireland
Civil registration only began in 1855 you can search for BMD’s at
You do have to pay to view the records but once you have found the correct record you can view a digital copy online. You also get much more information. For instance from 1861 on birth records include the place and date of the parents marriage.
You can search for Irish BMD’s on Irish Genealogy click on the Civil records on the main bar.
Again civil registration didn’t start in Ireland until 1864 but there are records for Church of Ireland marriages from 1845. You can view digital images of some of these records free of charge (It tells you on the website which are available). If no image is available you can apply online for a copy to be emailed to you at a cost of 4 euros.
These records are for the whole of Ireland, Northern Ireland is included until 1920. After 1920 for Northern Ireland you need to apply to the General Registry Office of Northern Ireland or GRONI for short.
Here you can find an explanation of how to carry out a search of their records.

So get started it’s never been easier to trace your female ancestors.

Blog written by Carol Wells, Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society.