Finding Birth Records

› Birth records

Birth records are useful, as they can pinpoint when your ancestor was born. They also often give the mother's maiden name. This can help you trace the parents' marriage. The main sources for birth records include the following:

1) Birth certificates; 2) Church records; 3) Newspapers

Each is discussed in more detail below.

Birth records

The elder children of the Rev Charles King Watkins of Nettleham, Lincolnshire, England, around 1907. Families tended to be much larger in the old days!

1) Birth Certificates

The system differs for ancestors born in England and Wales, and those born in Scotland. You may also want to consider those born overseas. See below for more details.

a) Birth certificates in England or Wales...

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1836 that led to the setting up the General Register Office to record births (and also marriages and deaths) in England and Wales. Recording began on 1 July 1837. Birth certificates provide vital information for you to find out more about your family history.

Did your ancestor have a birth certificate?

i) My ancestor was born before 1 July 1837

Then they won't have a birth certificate, so you must look for other sources. The best sources are church records.

Tip:They may not have a birth certificate, but do they have any younger siblings born after 1837? If so, it's worth searching for their birth certificates. My great grandfather, Frederick, was born in 1836, so did not have a birth certificate. However, I searched for his younger brother, Laurence, and found his certificate.

ii) My ancestor was born after 1 July 1837

Then they may have a birth certificate. When the new system of registering births was set up, many people did not bother to register. (For example, some people who had already had children did not realise the system had changed, and others were confused.) It was only after 1874 that people were fined for not registering a birth, so before that date, there's no guarantee you'll find a certificate. Even after then, not everyone complied with the law.

You can't see the original registers, so first you must search the free birth record indexes to find your ancestor, and then send off for the certificate. Getting a free birth record reference from an index for a birth certificate is similar to finding marriage and death certificates, and is described in the separate BMD certificate section.

Birth records certificate

Example of a birth certificate

b) Birth certificates in Scotland...

i) My ancestor was born before 1 January 1855
Then they won't have a birth certificate, so you must look for other sources, such as the parish register - see separate section.

ii) My ancestor was born after 1 January 1855
Civil registration was compulsory from 1855, for all religious denominations. In 1855, the birth records were very detailed. As well as the information found on English and Welsh certificates, they also included extra information (on siblings, the ages and birth places of both parents, their usual residence and the date and place of marriage). This was simplified in 1856, and this extra information was no longer recorded. However, since 1861, the date and place of the parents' marriage was reinstated.

The best place to go to find birth certificates for people born in Scotland is

c) Ancestors born overseas...

This is a topic in its own right, so I've created a separate section. Click for overseas birth records.

2) Church records

If you are looking to find the birth records for an ancestor prior to 1837, your best option is the parish registers. Don't forget, you can also use the parish registers after 1837.

Tip: Looking for a post-1837 birth? Birth certificates cost £9.25 (2012). By comparison, church registers usually contain the same information, but provide a virtually free birth record. Search the registers at a local record office, or LDS centre.

Finding a church record for a birth is similar to finding marriage and burial entries. The information contained in a parish register varies, but may include the mother's maiden name.

3) Newspapers

Today, many people post the birth of their child in the local paper. In the past, it was only your wealthier ancestors who did this. It's worth starting with The Times for your rich great uncle, and working down to the local papers. This even applies where people were stationed abroad.

Example: I scoured the Bombay Courier at the newspaper archive at the British Library, to find this notice on Saturday 20 December 1800, announcing the birth of my great great grandfather in India: "Lately in the Province of Canara, the Lady of Charles Watkins Esq of a Son". Note how the mother's name isn't mentioned.

Personally, I've had more luck with marriages and deaths, but it's worth a try. More about searching newspapers for birth records.