England Orphan Trail: GRO (General Records Office) User Guide

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What is the GRO?

The General Register Office, or GRO website is where you can obtain vital records such as births and deaths.

Since September 1837, England and Wales have been keeping a record of these events in peoples' lives.

How can this work for you, the researcher?

While the website offers you the ability to purchase vital records, it also functions as a search tool and can help provide evidence of a birth, a mother's maiden name, a death, the age of a person upon death and of course the region in which the vital event was recorded. This is wonderful for English and Welsh researchers.

You do have to register, but it is free to register and 'look'. It only costs to purchase a record, which is never an expectation from you, the Wikitree researcher. The following will give you some guidance on how to utilise the GRO, if you're not familiar with it and also how to provide a citation when utilising it as a source in a profile. It is highly recommended you use it for births in both England and Wales as it not only gives the vital information, but it also includes information on where that record can be located in the event someone else wishes to obtain an official copy of said record.

Step One: The GRO Website

Type or copy and paste the following URL into your browser's address bar: https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/ You should end up on a page that looks like this:

Step Two: Registering for the first time

If you've never used the GRO website before, you will need to register. It's free to register. If you have and know the email address and password you used before, put that in the appropriate boxes as shown on the screenshot below.

Once you're logged in, if you are given the option, get the website to save your login details, unless you are using a public computer/tablet. It will save you time in the future.

Step Three: Log in

Step Four: What would you like to do?

See the screenshot below to see where you need to be

Step Five: Basic search for a Birth

For the purpose of this example, we're going to try and find someone's birth. The bare minimum you need to perform a search is a person's last name at birth, a gender and a birth year. Follow the instruction on the screenshot below.

Immediately after you check the radio button, the page will change to a page with fields that need to be filled out. The first option that will come up is to enter a year. Often the best search to start with is a basic one, unless you are searching for a John Smith.

For the purpose of this exercise, we will be looking for a John Smith. Particularly this John Smith-14906 (right click to open in new tab or window). The profile had no sources and was an orphan when this tutorial was written. John has parents he is linked to, but how do we know that is his mother, unless we confirm it?

This profile says he was born in 1855. Given that John Smith is a common name, I expect more than one result. Let's see what happens when I put 1855 as the birth year and his last name as Smith and first name as John.

The first thing you will need to enter is the BIRTH YEAR. After you've entered a year, all the other field options (as seen in the screenshot below) will show up.

The following screenshot shows you where to enter the details.

The next screenshot will give you some of the results of the search.

I was given five pages to go through. There were 250 John Smith births registered in England and Wales in 1855. That's too many. Sometimes you get the right person on the first try. I chose a John Smith, so it wasn't quite that easy.

When you have too many search results

One of the options we can do for trying to narrow down a search is by putting in Mother's maiden surname or last name at birth (LNAB), if known. Note, that in the search results above, there are some that don't include a mother's maiden surname or last name at birth (LNAB) and a name is replaced by a dash - . This usually signifies the child's last name IS the mother's maiden name.

So let's try this again. Same details, but one minor addition. We enter John's mother's maiden surname, since the profile is giving it to us: Mackelden.

Click the search button again.

Now, see the results:

What a difference a single detail makes to a search result. This can also be true, for being too rigid in your search to begin with. Modify the search criteria. There are more ways to search the GRO.

Advanced Options when Searching the GRO

  • Imagine you have a first or last name, but are not sure of the spelling, or you are sure of the spelling, but aren't sure if the records reflect the name correctly.
  • Or perhaps you're looking for a child, know their mother's maiden surname, but aren't sure of the child's first name.
  • Or maybe you found a record on a census, but the birth years given are estimates.

You may need to perform a broader search to find what you're looking for. The GRO website can allow for a variation, but its default search is an exact search, with exact spellings and exact years. You may need to adjust the options.

Some of the following options you can see in the final screenshot, above.

Naming options available for Last Name and Mother's Maiden Surname

In the white box to the right of each field - a drop-down menu appears if you click on the arrow to the right of the "include" field and will display the option of :

  • Exact match
  • Phonetically similar variations (sounds the same) Smith, Smyth
  • Similar sounding variations (Smitt, Smythe)

Naming options available for the First Name

In the white box to the right of the First name field - a drop-down menu appears if you click on the arrow to the right of the "include" field and will display the option of :

  • Exact match
  • Phonetically similar variations
  • Similar sounding variations
  • Derivative name variations (example: Bill for William; Betsy for Elizabeth)

If exact searches aren't working for you, try sampling one of the other options.

Options for the Birth Year

Sometimes a profile gives you an estimated birth. When searching the GRO for the record you can search for an exact birth year or +/- 1 or 2 years outside of that year. There's a drop down for that too.

If you happen to know the Volume and Page number or District of birth the event was recorded in, you can enter those, but it will make the search more restrictive, so these are not recommended unless you know for a fact what they are.

Searching for a Death

Much of what has been covered also applies to searching for Deaths in the GRO. However, Mother's Maiden Surname is not an option. Instead, you have an option to determine how old they were when they died.

If you are searching for a death, you will want to have a rough idea of when the person died and what name they died with. While men change their names less often, it was typical and expected for women to change their last name. So, if there was a second marriage and the person you are looking for is a female, the first way to look should be with her known current last name (which should normally be her current married name).

As with the death year, you can keep it exact, or broaden it by +/-1, 2, 5, or even 10 years outside of the supposed death year. The GRO won't give you the full death date, but it will give you the Quarter of the year it was registered in, if it was registered with the GRO. Note that for some births and deaths in December, they may not be recorded until the following Quarter - the March quarter.

A Reference for Registration Quarters

M = March Quarter (Jan-Feb-Mar)
J= June Quarter (Apr-May-Jun)
S=September Quarter (Jul-Aug-Sep)
D=December Quarter (Oct-Nov-Dec)

If you see Mar 1855 in the birth date field on a profile, chances are the birth was registered in the March quarter of that year. Not always, but quite likely, especially if a day is not accompanying the month and year. And so, it doesn't necessarily mean that person was born in March.

Registration Districts

If you do not recognise the registration district, you can either use the GRO Registration District list available on the GRO search page (see screenshot above for where it is located on the GRO) - but the link is also listed here for your convenience: https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/images/GRO%20Registration%20District%20Book.pdf (use buttons CTRL and F buttons and type in a place name), or you can visit UK BMD and search for the Registration District that was named. It may help you to determine if the district matches the location for the person you are researching.

Mother's Maiden Surname or Mother's Last Name at Birth

  • While mentioned previously within the content of this tutorial, this deserves a separate mention. If there is no name in the results below "Mother's Maiden Surname" and instead only contains a dash - then it is highly likely the child was given the Mother's Maiden Surname upon birth (the biological parents may not have been married when the child was born).
  • If the same name is listed as the child's last name, such as "Smith", then quite likely the last name for the mother was also Smith. Yes, it can make for quite the conundrum, but it happens a lot and it doesn't mean the parents were necessarily related by blood, so you can breathe. It just may make it a bit trickier when looking at the mother's parents.
  • Mother's maiden surname is not available on birth searches from 1922 unless you already know it.

Citing the GRO

As a Wikitreer you are expected to cite sources if available.

There are a few different ways people cite GRO sources.

Example Birth Citation

Here is one you can use for a birth registration:

England & Wales General Register Office, GRO Online Index - Birth (https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/ : accessed 01 October 2021), database entry for Smith, John (Mother's maiden surname: Mackleden), GRO Reference: 1855 M Quarter in Hollingbourn, Volume 02A Page 427.

Example Death Citation

Here is an example for a death registration:

England & Wales General Register Office, GRO Online Index - Death (https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/ : accessed 01 October 2021), database entry for Vincent, Anna Muddle. Age at death: 75. GRO Reference: 1866 M Quarter in Islington, Volume 01B Page 157.

The portion in blue is the index record found using the search screen. The portion in black indicates where and when the record was found, as well as indicating that it is only an index record. The colors are only used as a demonstration.

The above citation examples were crafted using Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained, 3rd Edition Kindle, pg 479-480, 9.52 "Note" and 9.53-1 "Online database."

The key to citing sources is ensuring the evidence can be located and verified.

Compare the above source citations to this (please try to avoid doing the following):

GRO Reference 1855 M Quarter, Registration District Hollingbourn Volume 02A Page 427

Sure, it may look neater and be less wordy, but it doesn't mean anything to anyone unless they're in the field of Genealogy or work in the General Register Office.

It doesn't tell outsiders where they might find said record, or what the record even was. General Register Offices exist in England, Wales and Ireland (and likely some other places too!) and a single line as demonstrated in italics doesn't even tell us whether it was a birth, death, or possibly a marriage. Having the website and a note on what vital event it pertained to really is important, especially if you prefer not to use inline referencing.

Revised Date Ranges when Searching for Births or Deaths

There have been some revisions to the GRO since Wikitree started, and since this tutorial was written.

For births the period for searching is from September 1837 - 1934
Mother's maiden surname is not available in results after 1921
There is a large gap and then you can search for births from 1984 - 2019

For deaths the period for searching is September 1837 - 1957
Another large gap and then deaths can be searched from 1984 - 2019.

Just keep scrolling through the drop-down option on the year list until you see the later years. The information for citations will look a bit different but it functions the same way and can be incorporated into the citation examples offered with relative ease. If you get stuck, please do not hesitate to ask.

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Comments: 5

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Use the GRO website in conjuction with FreeBMD: each has its own strengths.
posted by Paul Shannon
If you include mothers name in your search, it shows up. But if you leave it blank the results will not show it.
posted on How to use the GRO (merged) by Mike Young
That's important to know. Thanks again!
posted on How to use the GRO (merged) by Raewyn Vincent
The date ranges are now:

For births the period for searching is from September 1837 - 1934 There is a large gap and then you can search for births from 1984 - 2019

For deaths the period for searching is September 1837 - 1957 Another large gap and then deaths can be searched from 1984 - 2019.

posted on How to use the GRO (merged) by Mike Young
Thank you Mike! For the update! I looked and saw that mother's maiden surname only appears to be available until 1921 and then after that it doesn't appear from 1922 on the birth results (most likely for privacy reasons). I've put a note in two areas on this page to note that, since I use that result extensively for proving a mother, confirming a mother's maiden surname before marriage (or even sometimes locating a marriage between parents).
posted on How to use the GRO (merged) by Raewyn Vincent
edited by Raewyn Vincent