New information in GRO Indexes - direct from GRO.gov.uk

Many readers will know by now that the good folk at the General Register Office (the home of the national collection of birth, marriage and death certificates and their associated indexes) have brought in new services.

Until now, the indexes for birth and death available to search in a myriad of places on the web - including FreeBMD and all the big genealogy subscription sites - have used information from the contemporary index volumes now deposited at Southport. For practical reasons, the amount of information that appears on the index for these events increases over the years. For example, early deaths (to 1866) included no age at death, and early births (to 1911) included no mother’s maiden name. This was due to the amount of space on the slips used in the early days to compile the alphabetised index, by hand, for the original volumes.

Now, the GRO have added these two pieces of information, which makes the database available superior to that found elsewhere. You will need to log in as if ordering a certificate (www.gro.gov.uk) and click ‘Search the GRO Indexes’.

When looking for a birth, you can search on as little as a surname (mandatory) and year (up to +/- 2 only). You will also need to specify a gender.  Additional search options include first and second forenames (not everyone will have a second registered), district, volume, page number and quarter.

The addition of mother’s maiden name revolutionises the search process for the earlier records and will have very positive implications when searching for a specific birth, especially if you are one of those searching for an elusive John Smith or William Jones. Provided you can find what you want, you can then click ‘Certificate’ or ‘PDF’ to order.

Additionally, the death index can be searched with similar parameters. The extra information that makes most difference is the addition of age of death (in years) of each person registered. This means you can now take an educated guess at which individual is ‘yours’ with less risk of confusing them with a child who died young, or others of a similar name in the district, for example. It will also make it simpler to identify possible siblings/children lost between censuses or to add to a One Name Study family.

While I’m yet to do lots of searches or comparisons with existing versions of the indexes, the information looks pretty good and is clearly presented. 

If that weren’t enough, the GRO are piloting pdf copies of records to be emailed to applicants as a further option to the usual postage service. The first phase of the pilot (running until 30 November, or until 45,000 have been ordered) includes:

Births: 1837 – 1934 and 2007 on
Deaths: 1837 – 1957 and 2007 on
Marriages: 2011 on
Civil Partnerships: 2005 on

Later, phases two and three will arrive; a three-hour pdf service and undigitised (so far) records respectively. Keep an eye on their website for further information as confirmed. I am yet to use the pdf service (£6 compared to the usual £9.25) although I’m sure I will very shortly, at which point I can comment further. 

A note on the records: always keep in mind that the GRO records are copies of those made locally. In some cases, transcription errors creep in between the earlier copies available from register offices / transferred to record offices or other repositories. Of course, there is still no guarantee that the error doesn’t appear on both versions, or even in original marriage registers or birth and death returns (where surviving) - I’ve had an interesting example of this recently! Prices vary, but in some cases it may be worth finding an earlier source or comparing the two.

It is also worth noting that, since the introduction of civil registration on 1 July 1837, it has always been compulsory to register births, marriages and deaths. It is estimated that up to 7% of events may be missing up until the 1870s – many fewer than a large number of genealogists believe. Remember to search different spellings, and consider that first name entries might be different to those you expect, or even given as ‘male’ or ‘female’. For more on the early history and details of civil registration, I’d recommend podcasts on the National Archives website (particularly those by Audrey Collins) as well as her book with David Annal, Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians.

All in all, this is a fantastic development for researchers - with more to come in the future.