Genealogy George Explains

What is source material or source documents?

These are the documents, certificates, records or any bit of information that can confirm information about your ancestor.


What is the difference between a primary source document and a secondary source document?
In family history research we use two types of source material. They are considered either primary or secondary sources of information. A primary source document or record would be one that was created around the time of the event. This is always the best and most accurate record to find. For example:

  • birth certificate
  • marriage certificate
  • death certificate
  • census enumeration
  • military record(s)
  • will
  • gravestone
  • ships passenger list

A primary source document would have been created by someone with direct knowledge of the event and recorded at the time it happened. These records are considered very accurate and are the best source to find in order to make sure that your information is correct.

Secondary source records are those that were not created at the time of the event. These could be something like:

  • books
  • old letters
  • indexes
  • any second hand account of an event

Because things like books and letters tend to be the recollection of an event the information may not be entirely correct. Primary and secondary sources of material can be found in many types of places such as online, in libraries, archives or family history societies. The information might be free to view or you may have to pay a fee.

What is an Index?
An index is a list of information that is usually in alphabetical order and it will give you basic details only but will help you find an original document quickly.

The original document will have been viewed by someone who has “transcribed” or copied the information into an index database. The index will usually have information like a name, place and a reference number. Many indexes that family historians use are free to view but for the original document you may have to pay to see it (pay-per-view) or pay to get a copy of the certificate or document(s) sent to you.

In family history there are lots of organisations that put together indexes about lots of different types of information. For example, there are indexes available for births, marriages, deaths or military documents to name just a few! However, if think you have found your ancestor in an index it is important to try and view the original document so that you can check the information to make sure that it really relates to your ancestor. Remember there were many, many people with the same or similar names. Also, indexes may not be 100% accurate so keep in mind:

  • typing errors can occur when a person is typing (transcribing) the information into an index.
  • the typist (or transcriber) will type the information as they read it from the original document but the information may have been spelt differently many years ago. The transcriber will type what they see as they are not allowed to change any spellings.
  • your ancestor may have been known by a different first name or last name so always double check search information.
  • always try and view the original documents as they may have far more information to give you other than what is provided in an index.

An index is a secondary source document

What is a Census?
A census is a survey put together by the government. It contains a particular set of questions in order to find out and record information about members of that country. It is unique because it covers everyone at the same time and asks the same questions to everyone.

When did it start:

Since 1801 and every ten years since (except during the war years) the government has set aside one day for holding a ‘census’. Unfortunately, most of the early census returns for 1801-1831 were destroyed and only statistical summaries were left. The census material that is available today and that family historians find most useful in the UK are the census returns from 1841-1911. The last census in the UK was held in March 2011.

What information will the census show me?

The census will give you valuable genealogical information about your ancestors and can show

  • where they were living
  • who else was living in the household
  • occupation (job)

and from 1851 also

  • the family connections the householders had to each other
  • whether they were married or single
  • place of birth

All of these can assist you when trying to put together your family tree.

Note: Because of UK privacy laws we are unable to view census material earlier than the last 100 years. The latest census that we are currently able to view is 1911.

You can look at some census returns of famous people here:

How will this help me?

Census records can help you piece together your family tree but birth, marriage or death certificates will provide you with more detailed information such as a full date of birth, place of marriage and cause of death.

A census is a primary source document.

What are “BMD’s”?
You may have seen the term 'BMD' when you have been learning about tracing your ancestors. BMD stands for births, marriages and deaths. These are legal records and are kept by the General Register Office (GRO) of England & Wales. These records have been kept by law since 1837, detailing every birth, marriage and death recorded in England & Wales since that date. These records are used to issue copies of birth, marriage and death certificates.

You can look at a free index of all births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales which cover the dates July 1837-1984. here

What is a Birth certificate?
A national system for registering births in England and Wales was started in July 1837. This system demanded that all births were recorded and particular information was required when registering your baby. A baby’s birth must be registered no later than 42 days after it was born. From approx 1874 penalties were applied if you did not register a birth.

The indexes are arranged in year order and then into quarters of a year. Like this:

  • March quarter – events registered in January, February and March
  • June quarter – April, May and June
  • September quarter – July, August and September
  • December quarter – October, November and December

The earliest Civil Registration index date is for the September quarter 1837. After 1984 the indexes are organised by year only.

The entries are then listed alphabetically by surname and then by first name. Every birth will then have a General Register Office index reference number.

So the index will show you for each person:

  1. the year of birth
  2. quarter of the year the birth was registered in
  3. surname
  4. first name(s)
  5. a district
  6. a volume number
  7. a page number in which the birth was registered.

You will need this number if you would like to get a copy of the original birth certificate from the General Register office.

So the birth entry for Genealogy George might look like this:

Births June 1940 Surname: Genealogy First name(s): George
District: Salford Vol: 8d Page: 928

The Local Register Office has a similar system, however the index reference numbers are not the same as the GRO reference number.

If you would like to get a copy of an original certificate from either the General Registration office or your Local Register office you will need to apply to them either in person, by post or online. They are costly and currently priced at £10 per certificate. You need to be fairly certain with your research in order to avoid expensive mistakes!

Why not try looking up the birth registration of a parent or grandparent?

What information will a birth certificate show me?

  • date of birth
  • place of birth
  • name and residence of the mother (and sometimes the mother’s maiden name)
  • name and occupation of the father
  • date the birth was registered
Here is an example of a birth certificate:

A birth certificate is a primary source document.

What is a marriage certificate?
A marriage certificate is the official record that two people have committed themselves to each other in a marriage ceremony. As with a birth or death certificate, registration of marriages began in England and Wales in 1837. This document was legal proof that a marriage had taken place. Before 1837 any marriage was only recorded in a church parish register. You can search the index for marriages in the same way as births (see explanation above). To search for a marriage in the indexes, you can use either the surname of the man or maiden surname of the married woman.

What information will a marriage certificate show me?

  • date of marriage
  • place of marriage
  • full names of the bride and groom
  • ages of bride and groom
  • marital condition ( a bachelor, spinster, widow, widower)
  • occupation of the bride and groom
  • residence of the bride and groom at time of their marriage
  • name & occupation of the father (but not the mother) of the groom
  • name & occupation of the father (but not the mother) of the bride
  • church or registration district where the marriage took place

Here is an example of a marriage certificate:

How will this help me

  • A marriage certificate will usually give me the names of both the father of the groom and the father of the bride. I can then use this information to search the next generation in my family tree .
  • Note: If one of the fathers is dead, the marriage certificate will usually say this. For example: Geoffrey Genealogy (deceased)
  • I can also find out the names of the witnesses at the wedding from the marriage certificate. The witnesses may be family members.
  • I can find out if the couple were married before.
  • I can find out where the couple were living at the time of the marriage. This may help me to locate the house on a map or family in a census.

A marriage certificate is a primary source document.

What is a death certificate?
A death certificate is a legal document and is the certified copy of a death entry in the Register of Deaths. In England and Wales compulsory national registration of deaths also began in 1837. You normally need to register a death within five days of the death. You can search the index for deaths in the same way as births (see explanation above).

Here is an example of a death certificate:

What information will a death certificate show me?

  • district in which the death was registered
  • where and when they died
  • first name(s) and surname
  • sex
  • age at death
  • occupation
  • cause of death
  • name, relationship and address of person who informed the authorities about the death
  • date death registered

Note: Death registration will list the parent(s) if the deceased was a child.

Further details have since been added to the death certificate and now include the deceased's date and place of birth, maiden name and other former surnames of women who have been divorced.

How will this help me?

  • I can verify exactly when and where my ancestor died
  • Find the name of the informant on the death certificate which may be another family member
  • I can learn the cause of death for my ancestor

A death certificate is a primary source document.