Registers of births, marriages and deaths

This page outlines how you can use the registers of births, marriages and deaths to assist you in performing a search for a birth relative

Who holds the records?

What does a GRO index reference number look like?

Some things to consider when searching all the above registers

A quick methodology for searching

Where can I order certificates and access registers and reference numbers?

Are there any barriers to ordering certificates because I’m an adopted person?

Your parents’ birth certificates

Marriage certificates

Returning to birth certificates



Who holds the records?

The General Register Office has all the records for birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death registered in England and Wales since July 1837 and these can be very useful in gathering more information and locating birth relatives.

Every birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership or death registered in England or Wales has a General Register Office index reference number which usually consists of the year, volume number, page number and district in which the event was registered.

You can use this register to find your birth parents’ record, such as their birth and marriage, and doing so also gives you the GRO index reference number, which allows you to order certificates when it is known.

Often you can still order the certificates without the reference number if you have enough information but being able to quote this register number greatly reduces the cost and time it takes to find the record. You should expect a surcharge and an increased waiting time if you do not have the reference number.  

What does a GRO index reference number look like?

The GRO Index Reference Number Typically consists of a “quarter”, a “year” a “District Volume” and a “Page” – for example ‘March 1954 2a 222’

After 1984 reference numbers do not contain a quarter.

Some things to consider when searching all the above registers

Remember that a change of name has been possible by Statutory Declaration since 1835 or by Deed Poll, but this would not alter the entry in the Birth Register. There is no central register of deed poll name changes.

If the person you are seeking has had a gender change then a new birth certificate will have been issued. Although there is a Gender Recognition Register, this is a confidential link between the original and new birth certificates and is maintained by the GRO and is not open to the public.

A quick methodology for searching

Searching the registers is not an “A to B” process, and it may be that information you gain at one stage allows you to go back and consult another register with more information.

For this reason although we give a rough order for searching we would recommend taking things slowly and keeping notes of every stage of the process, so that you can explore all the avenues open to you and return to previous registers if necessary,

Where can I order certificates and access registers and reference numbers?

To find out more about ordering certificates, as well as the locations of where you can find the relevant reference numbers online visit 

There is a charge for ordering certificates, but since this can change we recommend researching this further on the site.  

Please note that the physical microfiche records are the only full sets of reference numbers, and the free online resources listed on the GRO’s website may not be comprehensive up to the present day.  

The full GRO microfiche records are available in seven libraries across the country, which are:

  • Plymouth Central Library
  • Local and Family History Centre Bridgend Library 
  • Library of Birmingham 
  • Archives and Central Library Manchester 
  • City of Westminster Archives Centre 
  • The British Library 
  • Library Information Office Newcastle City. 

The City of Westminster Archives also holds the Adoption Children’s Register.  

There are also a number of sites that may offer reference numbers online as a chargeable service, such as Find my Past, FreeBMD, Ancestry and ancestry research websites, and we have collected a few of these in our directory pages.

Are there any barriers to ordering certificates because I’m an adopted person?

Sadly because of measures to prevent identity theft the GRO has implemented measures such as needing the full date of birth, and the parents’ names before supplying the birth certificate if the certificate is less than 50 years old.  This can be problematic for adopted people who often want the certificate for exactly this information.

Therefore if you lack the full details it is not possible to order certificates online from the GRO but they can be ordered by telephoning the GRO on 0300 123 1837.

If you encounter any problems, you can tell the person you’re speaking to that the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 gives a statutory right to any birth certificate on payment of the appropriate fee.  

NB: Please note that to order the certificate in this way you must have the GRO reference number found in the GRO Index. (See above)

Your parents’ birth certificates

Your first aim should be to find your parents’ registration of birth so you can order a copy of the certificates. This will help you:

  • Confirm the correct spellings of their names
  • Confirm their dates of birth
  • Give you the names of their parents and the address of the family home at the time of the birth

This information given is the same as on your birth certificate and will be useful when looking for a marriage registration and will also come in useful when tracing other members of the family, such as their brothers and sisters. You should also try to gather as much information about your grandparents (including their full names and year of birth or age at the time of your adoption) as this will be useful if you decide to search the death indexes.

Births are entered in the index when they were registered… not when the birth took place. Although people are supposed to register a birth within 42 days this doesn’t always happen, so you should take care to check for the next quarter if you believe you know when the birth should have taken place when obtaining reference numbers.

The birth entry will give the child’s full name, the mother’s maiden name, the district where the birth was registered and the volume and page.

Examples of how these look can be found using this GRO guide.

Marriage certificates

Often adopted people will know their birth mother’s name but not their father’s unless this has been recorded in the adoption records. If your birth mother wasn’t married when you were born you should start looking to see if she was married later.

Until recently, it was usual for almost all married women to take their husband’s surname, so searching for marriage records can help you find out more about them, particularly their new surname.   

There is no quick fix for searching for marriage records and this takes a lot of work. Start with the year and quarter you were born and keep a record of every entry of people with the same surname as your birth mother. This can be a huge and sometimes impossible task if your birth mother has a common name such as ‘Smith’.

Obviously depending on where your birth mother lived and her name, you may find quite a list of possible marriages, and no way of knowing which, if any, is that of your birth mother. You may get a clue from the area of the marriage, or the middle names or initials.

When you find a possible match the record will give you the following:

Names of persons married, District, Volume, Page

This will give you the information you need to apply for a copy of the birth certificate. Note that if it is the correct one then this means you have your birth mother’s married surname and the surname of her husband.

If you look up his surname for the same year and quarter you will find that it shares the same volume and page, but will also give you his first name and middle initial.

If you know your birth father’s name, the same searching process can be applied for searching for a possible marriage for him.

Returning to birth certificates

After finding a marriage, you should try and look to see if you can find any children born of that marriage. Again, the same searching process will apply – try to obtain a copy of their birth certificate and then check to see if they married. If they did, then a copy of the marriage certificate will give more up to date information about where your birth mother and her husband lived at that time. This information may help you to locate their current whereabouts.


When deaths are recorded a “qualified person” is required to register the death. This person’s full name, address and relationship to the deceased is given on the certificate and can be very useful. For instance, if you had obtained your birth grandparent’s details using your parent’s birth certificates or marriage certificates and they had died the qualified person may well be one of your parents, or an aunt or uncle. This will give you their address at the time the death was registered. Please note, however, that if no relative was available this “qualified person” may be a hospital administrator or care home staff member.

It may be that the combination of initials given is the same as your parents but not the surname. This may indicate a marriage and can open up another avenue for you to pursue.


Once a death is found in the GRO indexes you can check the Principal Probate Registry online to see if the person died intestate. This means they died without having made a valid will. Although you will only find out the estate’s value and the people granted letters of administration you can order the copy of the probate records for a small fee. This document can include a lot of information – including the names and addresses of beneficiaries and possibly the name and address of a family solicitor. For further information about Probate and Wills, go to:

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