How accurate is the information ?

With any system that is supposed to include everybody, there are bound to be both deliberate and accidental errors and omissions.  In the early years of civil registration, it was difficult for people to see the benefit of having to complete all these new formalities for the state.  Nowadays, having the 'right documentation' gives UK citizens access to state benefits such as healthcare, but in the 19th century people were used to being self reliant or having to resort to the meagre provision of welfare afforded by the parish or poor law union.

Family historians looking for births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials, whether in parish registers or civil registration, need to remember that spelling wasn't standardised until relatively recently , that mistakes were made both by the people providing the information and those recording it and, sometimes, people lie deliberately.   Unfortunately, all of these  can cause problems for genealogical research.

The 1836 Act required the local registrar to find out about any birth happening within his district within 42 days.  Once he was made aware of the birth, the parents had to provide him with details.  If the parents didn't do it, then other people living within the house were supposed to.  However, because the 1836 Act didn't include any penalty on the parents themselves, there are no doubt missing births.  Even when the law was amended in 1874, parents were not always honest about the date of birth,  as they were liable to a fine if the registration was more than 6 weeks after the birth.    So you may find a baptism for an ancestor some weeks before their 'official' date of birth on the certificate.

In any case, many people thought that baptism was a legitimate alternative to civil registration of a birth , so it is well worth looking at parish registers too, if you know where your ancestors were living.  This is much easier when your ancestors lived in a village than if they were in one of the big cities, although family history societies and other organisations are making indexed and searchable parish registers available, which makes it much easier for genealogists, although it can remove some of the excitement of discovering a record after searching through hundreds of old documents.

When looking for names, you will almost certainly find variations in how they were spelt. For example, in my family, there are examples of Gillham, Gilham, Gillam, Gillan and even Gilum often within the same generation of a family.   Sometimes, the names people were known by are not the same as on the certificates and you may have to rely on other information to confirm that it is the same person.

When recording ages, people often didn't know exactly when they were born, so when researching family history don't be surprised if there is some variation in the ages from what you expect.  It was quite common for brides to knock a few years off their age if they were marrying a younger man.  Equally, you may come across instances where people claimed to be over 21 so that they didn't need their parents consent to marry.

Also, since divorce used to be very hard to obtain and costly, genealogists shouldn't rely on peoples claims to be single or widowed as bigamy was by no means unheard of and you may find someone remarrying while they still have a spouse and family living in a different district.

Marriages are less well reported generally in the GRO indexes, mainly due to errors and omissions made by the people who did the copying and compiling of the registers.  Marriages, unlike births and deaths, still generally took place in a church or other place of worship and family historians have to rely on the correct details being entered in the first place; then someone copying those into the duplicate registers (and possibly having to guess if the original entry was made by someone with poor handwriting); and finally sending all the entries to the superintendent registrar.

The downside of all this entering, transcribing and copying, which was all done by hand originally, was that mistakes were bound to creep in and to make the genealogist's life more difficult!

Comments on this article

John Gray 17 July, 2011

I have a death in 1902 which was informed upon by a ghost. my 2xgreat grandfather's informant of death was his wife who had died 13 years earlier. I think someone was being economical with the truth or....

Pat Wright 12 September, 2011

On the 1911 Census my husband's grandfather named a daughter that was born and died at eleven months.I can't find any birth or death record of that child.No one in the family remembered her/I think she may have been born before his grandparents married.the address of her birth was given as well.It is a puzzle.Can anyone suggest how I can discover when the child was born and died.

Add your comment

This helps to discourage spam