Family History

Civil Registration


The ancient system of recording births/baptisms, marriages and burials in church or chapel register was not compulsory.


On 1st July 1837, the recording of births, marriages and deaths began. The country was divided into Registration Districts, each under the control of a Superintendent Registrar.

When civil registration was introduced, it was the responsibility of these Registrars to see that births and deaths were registered in their own sub-districts. Each Registrar gathered these records from the sub-districts and sent copies to the Registrar General in London, four times a year.


Note that parents were not bound to give birth information unless requested by the Registrar. Some were not truthful about the date of birth, as they had to pay if the registration was more than 6 weeks after the birth. Some parents thought baptism was a legal alternative.


From 1837, marriages could take place in a local register office, instead of a church.

A new type of marriage register was introduced for all marriage ceremonies.

The Church of England, Jews and Quakers could conduct and register their own marriage ceremonies.

Other denominations (Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians etc) had to apply for their chapels to be licensed to conduct marriages and could only conduct a ceremony there if a Registrar was also present, in addition to the minister, to record the events in a Register Office marriage register.

This did not change till 1898.

From 1874

The Births and Deaths Registration Act made registration compulsory, imposing fines for late registration. The onus for registration of a birth was passed to the PARENTS, or the occupier of the house where a birth took place.

The responsibility for recording a death was placed on a relation of the deceased. The registration had to be supported by a certificate signed by a doctor, and the death had to be registered within 5 days.

From 1929

The Marriage Act raised the age of marriage with consent of parents to 16 years.

Finding Registers and Indexes

All births and deaths registered since 1837 were registered and indexed in both the local Register Office where the event was originally recorded, and in the General Register Office which is now located at Southport, Merseyside. Each place had their own set of independent records and indexes.

Information about Registration Offices in Devon

Plymouth City Council and Torbay Council are unitary authorities and no longer part of Devon County Council. Each has responsibility for the Registration Service and historic registers in its own area.

Historic and current registers of birth, marriage and death for Torbay are still held at Torbay Register Office.

Historic and current registers of birth, marriage and death for Plymouth are still held at Plymouth Register Office.

The public has a right of access to the General Register Office indexes of births, marriages and deaths only. To obtain information from the registers themselves, you have to buy a copy certificate.

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General Register Office Indexes (England and Wales)

Where to find the indexes

Information supplied in the indexes

Indexes to Births

The child's surname and first Christian name is given. Sometimes the full middle names are also given. From September 1911, the mother's maiden name is also included in the index.

Where a child was not named by the time of registration, it will be indexed under "male" or "female" followed by the surname.

Indexes to Marriages

Husband's and wife's names are not cross-referenced in the earlier indexes. It is necessary to look up both husband's and wife's names separately in the indexes and check that the reference number is the same, to be sure that you have found the correct marriage. From March 1912, the surname of the spouse is included i.e. when you look up the husband's name, you will also find the wife's maiden name.

Indexes to Deaths

Early death indexes - those from July 1837 to March 1866 - record the name of the deceased only. Indexes from March 1866 to March 1969 also give the deceased's age at death, and indexes from March 1969 also give the date of birth, if it was known by the informant who registered the death.

Birth Registrations  - Special Notes

Children born before their parents were married should be searched for under both their mother’s maiden name, and their father’s name - in case the parents were living together under the pretence of having already married.

Many illegitimate children were registered with their father’s name as a middle name.

Up to 10% of marriages took place after the first or second child was born in the 19th century.

From 1837-1874, a mother registering an illegitimate child could name anyone as the father, without him being present. This changed in 1874.

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Obtaining Marriage Certificates from District Register Offices

Special Notes

Because a registrar had to be present at their chapels during a marriage, the pre-1898 marriages of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians etc., will appear in one of the local District Register Office marriage registers.

However details of marriages which took place in a parish Church of England will only be available if a copy of the marriage register of that parish church has already been filled up, and deposited in the local District Register Office.

Most District Register Offices, including Devon Register Office, keep marriage records according to the place where the wedding was solemnized, and do not hold overall indexes to marriages. They cannot supply a copy certificate from the reference number found in the General Register Office indexes. Unless you can supply the name of the church, chapel or register office, they need to search a number of registers to find any entry.

It is thus usually necessary in these cases, to obtain a marriage certificate through the General Register Office at Southport.

Marriage Notice Books

After the introduction of civil registration in July 1837, couples could marry in church if they so wished, but they also had the option of marrying in a licensed non-conformist chapel, with the registrar present, or in the register office.  

In the case of a marriage in a chapel or the register office, a notice of the couple’s intention to marry had to be displayed in the register office for three weeks prior to the wedding and the couple had to marry within three months of the notice being put up. A notice could also be displayed in the register office if the bride and groom were marrying in the parish church but one or both of them lived in a different registration district. One of the parties to the marriage had to reside for at least a week in the registration district before the notice was issued. If the bride and groom lived in different registration districts, the notice had to be displayed in both. The three week period was similar to reading the banns in church in that it gave time for anyone objecting to the marriage to come forward.

The notices were copied up into a register or marriage notice book, to make a permanent record, and objections had to be written in the register next to the relevant notice.   The names of bride and groom were recorded, whether they were single or widowed, their occupation, their age and address, the length of time they had lived at that address, the place where the ceremony was to be performed and the registration district and county in which both parties lived.

Marriage notice books from Axminster and Tiverton Registration Districts in Devon have been deposited in Devon Record Office, and those from Bideford and South Molton Registration Districts have been deposited in North Devon Record Office.