The registration of births, marriages and death in the England and Wales, became (under an act of parliament) compulsory in 1837. Scotland and Ireland followed suit. The records in Scotland began in 1855 and Ireland being the last in 1864.

Getting a certificate is a great feeling for a genealogist. Here in your hand is physical evidence that one of your ancestors lived, married or died. You eagerly look for every snippet of information that you can get from each certificate. However you have to be careful in doing this. The certificates do not always reflect the set in concrete truth.

Firstly, let’s look at the birth certificates. The parents had 42 days in which to register the birth. In some cases the parents may have moved in that time and so the address won’t reflect where they were living at the time of the birth. Due to naming conventions of the time, often the child was named after the father or the grandfather. This was seen as a compliment and often expected. It may not have been the naming choice of the parents and so a middle name was added. The child would then be known by the middle name from then on and more than likely would appear on the census records under the middle name. A very useful nugget of information from the birth certificate is the maiden name of the mother. In the earlier certificates you will often see under the signature of informant panel “the mark of…..” It pays to remember that children were only educated on a free basis until the age of 12years old, right at the end of the 19th century. Before that, education was paid for and that pretty well wiped out the ability of the working classes to get a good education, bright as they may have been. Those that could write and had been educated gives an insight into their early lives. It tells you a little about the affluence of the parents. It wasn’t until 1880 that it was compulsory for children from 5-10 to attend school. Only children from the poorest families were educated free as the state gave grants to church schools. Even then, the children from poor families were expected to work to bring in the extra income that the families needed to survive.

Marriage certificates are less reliable. Our ancestors lied through their teeth and bent the truth as far as it could go.
They lied about their ages, often they lied about their marital status and the name of the father could be made up if either was illegitimate. Some brides claimed to be a spinster when in fact they were either widowed or divorced.
A great thing about the marriage certificate is the fact that it will name the fathers of both bride and groom and provide their occupations. Often this can be a confirmation that you have the right person. It also can provide you with an elusive name and help in your search of census records. The facts which are concrete though, are the name and location of the church where married and the date.

Death Certificates are also unreliable. It is interesting to know the cause of death which can also paint a picture of the times. However, the details on the certificate were generally provided by the informant. If the informant wasn’t a relative, then the age at death would be a best guess. The cause of death is more reliable if it carries the word “certified” which meant that a doctor was in attendance. Otherwise if the person had dropped dead at home the informant could presume that it was a heart attack when in fact the true cause may have been a stroke or some completely different cause. I have a death certificate of one of my ancestors which says that he died of exhaustion.

You also have to realise that even if the informant was a close relative, that person could possibly have been in a state of shock and grief and got muddled up when reporting the details. They are no more reliable today than then. The official who is being informed often makes mistakes too. A death certificate dated only this past year shows that one of the children is ten years older than he really is, along with about three other errors. Even when a mistake is noted on a certificate, it costs money to rectify the details and a lot of people just won’t bother. A good nugget of information to be gleaned from the old death certificates is that it states the name of the informant and the relationship to the deceased. Often it will provide the missing married name of a daughter which will give you another avenue for your research.

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