Locate Ancestors With UK Vital Records

by Diane L. Richard | Oct 30, 2009

Diane L. Richard

Are you ready to dive in and research your UK ancestry? You might be more ready than you think and odds are that you will find some of it easier than any research you have already done in US records! As with research on this side of the "pond," when researching your UK ancestors, you want to check out vital records and census records - this article talks about the former and a companion piece talks about the latter.

Before we get started with those, it's important to first identify whether you are researching the records of England and Wales, Scotland or Ireland (Northern or Republic of). Though all of these countries fall under the umbrella of the United Kingdom, they are not all the same in terms of when they started keeping what records and who holds them. Because of this, you will find that for each topic, there are sub-topics labeled England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Vital Records

If you are used to researching in US records where little is centralized, you are in for a treat when researching 19th century UK ancestors! Like the US, the UK has so-called vital records, birth, marriage and death records. Like in the US, they document information about each of these events - invaluable knowledge when researching a family's ancestry.

One important difference is that for the UK, vital records are centralized for the whole country (not at the state level as in the US)!!! Another important difference is that since 1837 all births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales have had to be registered at the register office in the district where the event took place, while for Scotland the start date is 1855 and for Ireland it was 1864 for births & deaths and 1845 for marriages (though many Irish records were destroyed in 1922).

Can you imagine, finding birth, marriage and death records back to 1837? When you consider that in general, in the US, vital records weren't kept until the early 1900s, with some states not requiring birth and death registration until as late as 1930, this is excellent news.

And, that is not all of the good news - beyond the obvious of individual name(s), date and place of event, UK vital records include the following information:

  • Birth - parents's names, birth places and occupations
  • Marriage - ages, marital conditions, professions and father's name and occupation
  • Death - maiden name (if a woman), occupation, usual address, informant and cause of death

Scottish certificates include more information such as the name the parents of the deceased on death certificates and on a marriage certificate, the names of mothers is included.

How many times have you finally found a US 19th century marriage record to learn that it tells you nothing about the parents?

How To Do Research..

England and Wales

The first place to start is with the FreeBMD project, whose goal is to transcribe the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, and to provide free internet access to these transcriptions. Important things to know are:

  1. These records are organized by registration district - registration district boundaries do NOT always overlap with municipal boundaries.
  2. You can search on a particular registration district or at the county or country level
  3. The indexes and hence the results you see are grouped on a quarterly basis - March, June, September and December - and are arranged alphabetically by surname. From 1984 to the present, the Civil Registration Indexes are ordered by surname for the whole year.
  4. For births and deaths, the index is organized by the date when the event was registered, not the date that the birth or death actually occurred while marriages are shown in the quarter in which they actually took place.

FamilySearch Labs now has index information for England baptisms (1700-1900) and marriages (1700-1900) with more records coming.

If you find an entry and are not sure where a registration district is or what communities are included in it, check out this overview of the Registration Districts in England and Wales (1837-1974).


The most comprehensive resource for vital record index and document information is ScotlandsPeople. Searches are free and then you pay a fee to acquire a document. This service is a partnership between the General Register Office for Scotland, the National Archives of Scotland, et al and is the official online source of parish register, civil registration, and other records for Scotland.


The Online Record Search System, is part of the Irish Genealogical Online Record Search System (ORS) organized by the Irish Family History Foundation - the coordinating body for a network of government approved genealogical research centers in the Republic of Ireland (Eire) and in Northern Ireland. Almost 40 million Irish Ancestral records, primarily Church births (baptisms), marriages and deaths have been computerized.

FamilySearch Labs now has Ireland Civil Registrations Indexes, 1845-1958.

*If you are reading this article, you are already someplace where you can search for UK birth records! Membership in this web-site gives you access to the England and Wales Birth Index, covering years 1837 to 2005.

How To Order Records

For some of the resources mentioned, you can both search in indexes and then order a paper copy or view a digital image of a certificate. If you are not able to do that, here are some additional options for obtaining the needed document(s).

England and Wales

Once you have found a relevant entry, you can use the very affordable General Register Office (GRO) certificate ordering service, or directly contact the appropriate local registers office and learn the requirements for making a request.


ScotlandsPeople as mentioned above, directly through the GRO for Scotland, or you can also work through the Local Registrars.


Republic of Ireland records (and all pre-1921 Irish records) are held at the Office of the Registrar General, while Northern Irish records (from 1921) are held at the General Register Office Northern Ireland.

What about birth, marriage, and death records if they were born pre-1837 in England, pre-1855 in Scotland and 1854/1864 in Ireland)?

England and Wales

If they were conformist (i.e., Church of England, Church of Scotland, etc), the Parish records are what you need to consult. There are several places where you might find Parish records abstracted. I suggest that you start with these:

  1. The International Genealogical Index (so-called IGI), created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as part of its FamilySearch service. They have transcribed millions of English parish records.
  2. "Online Parish Clerk" projects are individually run projects which aim to extract and preserve the records from the various parishes (along with other data) and to provide online access to that data, FREE of charge. The Lancashire project includes a nice list of all the current projects; go to the page and click on "links" on the left side.
  3. FreeREG is a companion web-site to the FreeBMD site already mentioned - sharing the same purpose of making transcribed baptism, marriage and burial (from both parish and non-conformist registers) available to be freely searched on the internet. It includes records for England, Wales and Scotland.

If you are not successful with any of these collections and you know exactly which Parish your ancestors came from, do check out the GENUKI page. This is a huge directory of UK genealogy-related material. You can browse at the county level for a pretty comprehensive overview of what materials might help your search in that particular county.


The two most comprehensive resources for "Old Parochial Register" index and document information are ScotlandsPeople and the IGI. Though do also check out the FreeREG project.


I suggest that you start with the information published by the Irish Times -- do click on the link labeled "Roman Catholic" on the left. There is also a great series of clickable maps that will eventually tell you what Roman Catholic Parish records survive and where they are held, for each parish.

What If They Were Non-Conformist Pre-Civil Registration?

What if they were non-conformist (e.g., Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, Independents, Protestant Dissenters, Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers, Dissenters, Catholics, Russian Orthodox, etc.)? Non-conformist parish registers have traditionally been much harder to find and research in. My great-great grandfather George Nelson, the lone Scottish branch of my family tree, was born to a non-conformist family in the Newton-Stewart/Minigaff area of Scotland. The register which would have contained his baptism does not survive though I was eventually able to acquire the entries for some of his three oldest siblings in the Records for the United Presbyterian Church (a secession Church) held by the National Archives of Scotland.

Do recognize that the situation was a little more complex than that individuals either "conformed" or were deemed "non-conformist or as a dissenter". The Wolverhampton archive provides a nice overview of some of the issues (read the complete piece).

  • Some 'dissenters' still considered themselves part of the Church of England and, in many cases they continued to use their parish church for the rites of baptism, marriage, and burial.
  • In 1754, after Hardwicke's Marriage Act, only clergyman of the Church of England could perform marriages. However, Quakers and Jews were exempted. 
  • Some Anglican vicars refused to bury an unbaptised person, which can result in the establishment of a separate burial ground or burial on unconsecrated ground.
  • Nonconformists were influential in the establishment of Civil Registration in 1837 as this allowed Superintendent Registrars to register births and deaths and also to perform marriages in register offices. 
  • Along with other denominations, Nonconformist churches could also now be licensed for marriages.

This means do not assume that because your ancestor was not a member of the Church of England or Scotland, etc, that they will not be found in parish records - this is definitely not true from 1754-1837 with regards to marriage records!!

England and Wales

Some of these registers are just coming online at the www.BMDRegisters.co.uk site (in association with the UK National Archives). You can do some basic searching for free, review the entries which include names, year and place and then purchase credits to suit your needs. Given the challenges of obtaining non-conformist baptism, marriage and burial information, this can be money well worth spent.


The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) holds records for the Free Church, and various other dissenting ('seceding') congregations. Most records of the Roman Catholic Church are held by the Scottish Catholic Archive and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow Archive. If NAS dos not hold the records that interest you, check out the denominational and local archives.

NOTE: The day that I "finished" this article - it was announced that ScotlandsPeople now has available Catholic Parish Registers 1703-1955. This also suggests that more may follow.


As for the Roman Catholic Records already discussed, start with the information published by the Irish Times -- do click on the links for various denominations on the left. You will find that Irish non-conformist church records are more scattered than those for England, Wales and Scotland.


By no means is this article exhaustive about these records, their history, what is available and how to acquire them! Part of this is that there is so much material and the other part is that more and more digitized material is becoming available every day, especially for ongoing projects such as FreeBMD and FreeReg.

I do hope that now you feel more comfortable about the doing research in UK records and realize that there is an abundance of relatively easy-to-obtain, very informative vital records that will help you learn more about your ancestors. And, hopefully you now have enough information to get started whether it's dipping your toes in the water or jumping in feet first!

Want to learn more about birth, death and marriage records? Check out these online resources.

Civil Registration -- England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland  
Pre-Civil Registration Births, Marriages and Deaths -- England and Scotland
Non-Conformist pre-1837 Records - England (though this talks of London, the information is relevant country-wide)

An example of a 1937 England Birth Record - it includes information on date, place, parents names, address, father's occupation and informant.

1937 England Birth Record.png

An example of an 1855 Wales Marriage Record - it includes information on date, place of marriage, ages, condition, profession, residence, father's name and occupation.

1955 Welsh Marriage Record.png

An example of an 1887 Scotland Death Record - it includes information on occupation, spouse, where died, age, parents, cause of death and informant.

1887 Scotland Death Record .png

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