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There are two crucial sets of records that you use right from the moment you start tracing your family history, and keep referring to throughout your research. The first of these is census records. The second is our England & Wales Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes.
You’re probably familiar with birth, marriage and death certificates – the official documents that record the major milestones of our lives. These certificates are like goldust to family historians, as they’re packed with information about the person involved, and previous generations.
The official Indexes on our site form a national database of all these certificates. They provide a summary of the information, and crucially give you everything you need to buy copies of your ancestors’ certificates, direct from our site.
The Indexes date from 1837, when the Government started recording these events nationally, right up to 2005. They’re a great place to start tracing your family tree, as they include the vast majority of people who lived in England or Wales over more than 150 years.
Our Indexes are extremely easy to use. We’ve split them into six collections, so you can either focus on the type of event and time period you’re interested in, or search them all at once:
Each of these collections is fully searchable – just enter as many details as you can about an ancestor and click Search. You’ll find more advice on using each collection in our other Help & Advice articles: Birth records; Marriage records; Death records.
Once you’ve found a forebear in the indexes you can buy the relevant birth, marriage or death certificate – look for an ‘Order certificate’ option on the left of the record page. You’ll be taken to an order form, where you’ll find that many of the details are automatically filled in for you from the Index. You can then choose from a number of delivery and cost options – prices start at £22.99.
Your certificate will take up to 16 working days to arrive in the post. When you receive it, you’ll find that it contains some fascinating details about the person involved – from their address to their occupation, depending on the type of record.
Perhaps even more importantly, it also provides information on previous generations – for example, a birth certificate tells you both parents’ names and places of birth. You can then use this information to track down the parents in the Indexes, and order their certificates. In this way, you can add successive generations to your family tree, and move quickly back through the generations.
You may have noticed that three of our Birth, Marriage and Death Index collections are labelled ‘FreeBMD’. This is because the transcriptions that we use to make them fully-searchable were created by a volunteer-driven organisation called FreeBMD. We therefore make them available to everyone for free.
Until the late 1990s, the only way to search the Indexes was to go to a record office or library and trawl manually through miles of microfilm. In 1998, FreeBMD started transcribing the Indexes, and making their searchable records available to everyone online.
We started sponsoring FreeBMD in 2001, and their records were available both at their own website and at Ancestry.co.uk. The volunteers were concentrating on the 1800s and early 1900s, and we quickly had a complete collection up to 1916.
At that point, we decided to help them out by creating our own transcriptions of the Indexes from 1916 right up to 2005. When this mammoth project was complete, we combined our collections, to form the complete, fully-searchable Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes.
As you use the Indexes to build your family tree, you can combine them with our other record collections to create a more detailed picture of your ancestors’ lives. The most obvious next step is to search for the people you’ve found in the certificates in our census records. This will reveal further family members, and tell you about their homes and occupations.
If you're looking for births, marriages and deaths, you need to turn to parish records - church registers going right back to the 1500s. Find out more