Getting Started - GRO BMD Indexes - Getting Started with the GRO BMD Indexes
by © David Tippey 2006

This article was written by author and genealogist David Tippey as a helpful guide on how to get started in family history on the website. The article covers the General Register Office GRO Indexes for England & Wales as these were the first records to be added to the site, the later databases (Parishes, Overseas, Military and Census records) and website features are not reviewed in this article.

An introduction to

Before 1837, the only records of the major events in peoples lives were recorded in the registers of the many churches and chapels. These refer to Baptism, Marriage and Burial and were locally based and unable to provide information about the country as a whole.

The 19th century was a time of huge population growth and it was important for the government to know what was happening to the structure of the population, so on 1 July 1837 Civil Registration was introduced in England and Wales to provide a centralised system of recording. This provided the government with useful statistics about the composition of the population, adding to the statistics already provided by the decennial census, which had been introduced at the beginning of the 19th century. These statistics are important for government in the making of a wide variety of social and economic decisions and policies.

The GRO indexes

Originally a separate department, today the General Register Office (GRO) is part of the 'IPS' (Identity and Passport Service) although previously it was the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who also administer the census. To implement the introduction of Civil Registration, the GRO was set up in London and the country divided up into Registration Districts based on the Poor Law boundaries, each under the supervision of a Superintendent Registrar. The districts sent copies of all registrations in their jurisdiction to London, where each quarter an index for each event- Birth, Marriage and Death, was compiled.

The original registers hold the full information seen on a registration certificate, but these cannot be inspected by the public. However you are able to use the GRO indexes to locate and purchase copies of the entries in certificate form. These indexes are available on microfilm at the Family Records Centre and various libraries and record offices around the country.

The indexes online

The GRO indexes, sometimes referred to as BMDs or St Catherine's indexes, have become an invaluable genealogical tool, but until recently they were difficult and time wasting to access and search. This was because they were only available on microfilm, making them slow to use, and only to be found at various scattered centres around the country, which often had limited access times and which usually entailed considerable travelling for most researchers. have now made these indexes easily available online via the internet, bringing the resource into any home with a computer.

The FamilyRelatives online service was launched in early 2005 bringing some original features to an existing online genealogy marketplace. One feature unique to the FamilyRelatives data is that, unlike rival online BMD index services, a large part of the data is fully machine searchable, making it very fast and accurate to use. This transcribed information is also economical to use, as you can view up to 20 entries for the same cost as a single entry, so the family historian on a budget can maximise their research whilst minimising their outlay.

Getting Started

Site Tour

To help you quickly find your way around FamilyRelatives and get the best from the service, the Site Tour is a good place to begin and it complements this introductory text. Browsing through it, you can discover the website's many features before you commit to spending any money.


You need to register to use FamilyRelatives, but this is a free and relatively simple process. Just complete the form with your name and contact details, including your current email address; select a memorable password; read and accept the terms and conditions and submit the form.

Download the image viewer

You require a special image viewer to view the index page images. Your computer may already have all the software essential for using the site but if not, as both up-to-date web browser software and the image viewer plug-in are free, there is no additional expenditure involved. The site is accessible using Windows (98-XP) and Macintosh (OS9 and OSX) based computers using Internet Explorer, Netscape, Safari or a Mozilla based browser such as Firefox. To ensure the best compatibility with all modern websites, you should always install and use the most recent browser that your machine will support. The plug-in required to view the images on the site is LizardTech's DJVU browser, again make sure you have the latest installed, particularly if you are using Safari on a Mac. It is free and available from our plug-in download page.

Log in

Using your registered email address and password you will now be able to log in to your personal Welcome or home page. Here you can select which indexes you wish to search and gain access to all the other areas of the site. There are also buttons to take you to your My Account page where you can view your full details and your account history, and another for subscribing or purchasing viewing credits, which is done via a secure banking service.

My Account

Click this tab if you want to check or alter your account details, update email address or change password.


Purchasing credits or a subscription is simple, just select a subscription or how many credits you wish to purchase, then you will be transferred to the Barclays Bank secure services website, where your payment can be made by credit or debit card. If you have received a promotional offer code or a Voucher this is also redeemed on the Purchase Units page.


The minimum outlay is just £6 which provides 60 viewing units with a life of 90 days. Costing just 10 pence each, one of these units will let you view a single greyscale image of an original GRO index page, whilst 2 will provide up to 20 full entries from the transcribed indexes. A subscription will cost £30.00 and last for 12 months giving you access to all the databases.

Information and Help

The site is fairly straightforward to use, but just in case you have any problems there is a useful help and Information page which should cover all eventualities.

Using the indexes

Different index types

There are four different indexes each covering a different part of the period 1837 - 2005. These are in different formats and searched in various ways, some entries being fully machine searchable, whilst other entries are viewed as page images which are indexed by their name range. Once you have identified the page image, the individual entries on that page are browsed to find the required ones. Some fully transcribed and indexed entries also offer the choice of viewing the original page images, so that you can check the transcribed entry against the original entry.

1837-1865 Searchable on Surname range and Browseable

From 1837 - 1865 the records are in the form of images of the original GRO index book pages. These have been indexed by the first and last name to appear on each page. This means that a search can only indicate on which pages a name might appear. So when checking a full year for an event, the search results would generally show 4 page images, one for each quarter.

Alternatively "Browse" the records by selecting the year from the pull down menu then select the quarter, next select the letter of the Surname you wish to view. A list of will open with the Surname range of the letter selected. The first and last names on each page will guide you to the correct page for the name you're looking for and view the image

1866 -1920 Fully Searchable on any criteria

The indexes for the period from 1866 - 1920 have been transcribed and so are fully searchable to enable you to find individual entries. This makes finding your ancestors entries very fast and accurate and is an unique feature of FamilyRelatives. Once you have identified an entry you can also view the original page image to confirm the transcription if you wish.

1921-1983 Searchable on Surname range and Browseable

The 1921 - 1983  index is similar to the 1837-1865 period, using  indexed images which have to be checked individually to find the entry you want.

Search 1984-2005 indexes

The final period from 1984 onwards was fully computerised by the GRO themselves and these indexes are again fully machine searchable, but of course there are no page images available as they have always been stored on computer.

Search features

The search form is fairly straightforward to use:

First select which of the databases to search, depending on the date of the event you wish to find. i.e. Marriage 1866 - 1920.


Enter the Surname and First name of the person, although the latter can be omitted for very unusual surnames.


The choice of Where to search will depend on how much you know about the event and how common the surname is. The default is to search All Districts, but with a fairly common surname and popular first name this may return far too many hits unless you can restrict the search to a very short period of time. If you know the name of the Registration District the event was recorded in, you can choose Select Districts and then choose one Registration Districts to search from the pull down menu. If you want a broader geographical search or aren't sure which district an event would be registered in, you can select multiple districts.


You can search the full period spanned by the particular database you are using; select a range of years and quarters; or even specify and search a single quarter year.


In addition you can narrow down some searches even further by adding more information to the query:

The Mothers Maiden Name to Birth searches after 1912

The Spouse's Surname to Marriages after 1912

The Age at Death to records after 1866

You should note that the age at death is often incorrect as the person reporting the death may not have access to accurate information, so you can enter an age range to accommodate this.

Search Results

The GRO indexes provide you with all the necessary information to order a copy of the registration certificate from the General Register Office either in person at the Family Records Centre in London (this is no longer possible), by post or the from the GRO website. The Order a certificate link on the Information page tells you how to order certificates online and has a link to the GRO website. You will need to have to hand the event; the full name of the individual; the year and quarter of the registration; the Registration District; and the volume and page number and of course your credit card. You order your copy certificates directly from the GRO, FamilyRelatives do not have any part in the transaction or charge any additional fee.

If you are absolutely certain you have located the correct person and they are not a key figure in your research, perhaps just another sibling in a large family, you may be happy to record just the year and quarter of the event on your tree and not buy a certificate. However the certificates can add quite a lot more information to your research and are definitely worth purchasing for all the important people and events in your research.

Finally you can decide how your search results are sorted.

Search extras

When you are looking for marriage entries, the search results only show the spouse's surname after 1911, but FamilyRelatives has made use of their fully indexed data from to provide addition search facilities to help find a name for the spouse.

Marriage matchTM is a very useful feature which enables you to find the possible spouse in any marriage taking place between 1865-1920 without having to buy a certificate. After 1912 the entries do show the surname of the spouse, but not their first name. Marriage MatchTM performs a reverse search to find everyone married in the same District, on the same quarter and year and with the same page reference. This reduces the possible number of potential partners to 2 or 3 at the most.

Once you have found the marriage details of one person, clicking the icon next to their search result will find the potential partners listed on the same register page. There are usually only four names and one of those will be the wrong sex, leaving two possible partners. Providing either an extra piece of information to follow up or confirmation that you have located the correct couple.

Hard to find records

You know it should be there, you may even have an approximate date, but you can't find it, why?

It is possible that the copies of the local records may have gone missing before they ever made it into the main GRO index, but one of the main reasons for a lot of the errors is that these indexes were all compiled manually. It should be no surprise to learn that the clerks made many omissions and mistakes in performing this monumental task year after year.

If the error was in transcribing the entry, you may well find it by searching for name variants. Handwriting offers many possibilities for mistakes in recognising letters, particularly in the middle of a name, so try all the variants you can think of.

Unfortunately that doesn't work if they omitted the entry altogether, so if you are fairly sure of the town or Registration District the event took place, try asking the local registrar to look it up. As they were the originators of the record and have their own indexes, they can often find records that are missing from the GRO index.

In urban areas the local registrars can't easily look up marriages, as these are indexed separately under each church, so try and find them inthe GRO indexes first.

Another problem is that spelling was inconsistent in the 19th century, as many people wouldn't be literate and relied on the officials who wrote down what they heard or thought they heard.

The name they were registered under may not be the one they used throughout their lives either, for example Henry John may always have been known as simply, John or Harry but may be registered under Henry or Henry J.

Although civil registration officially came into force in July 1837, it wasn't until 1875 that it became mandatory to register an event unless the registrar demanded it. This doesn't affect the recording of marriages so much, as you had to marry in an approved place. Births however are often missing in the early years.

There are many possible reasons for this: parents may not have known how to go about registering an event; didn't want to pay the fee; or perhaps thought that a baptism entry in the parish register was the same thing. If you can't find a birth in the early years, the parish registers are your next step. It's also possible that a child died before the birth was registered and may appear only in the deaths.


Searching the transcribed records 1866-1920

1.             The My Account page shows the basic details of your account and your subscription details.

2.             The Search page links to the databases, each covering the Births, Marriages and Deaths recorded in the various periods. Select the Birth 1866-1920 database which contains fully transcribed records. Enter the Surname, enter - Tippey, and for all but the most unusual surnames, a Forename. A drop down menu allows you to select Where to search.

3.             You can choose to look in All Districts or narrow your search down by selecting a particular Registration District or multiple districts. All districts is the easiest way, as you don't need to know the actual Registration District names, which don't usually correspond with town names.

4.             Alternatively, if you know the Registration Districts names you wish to search, select from the alphabetic listing the specific Registration Districts you wish to search.

5.             You can select the period you wish to search, either a single Quarter Year or a Range specifying the starting and finishing years and quarters. Select - 1866-1885. You can add an Age at Death, or range of ages, for any search in this database, and for searches after 1912 you can also enter the Mother's Maiden Name for Births, or the Surname of the Spouse for Marriages.

6.             Running the search brings up the Search Results screen, telling you how many matches have been found. Your search results are displayed on one or more pages and each entry provides the complete transcribed GRO index entry consisting of the full Name, District, Year, Quarter and Page number. This is all the information you need to order a copy certificate online from the General Register Office. If you wish to check the transcription, click the view image link.

7.             The original page image will open in a flash viewer. This allows you to zoom in to find and read the entry and to save or print a copy of the image. There is an additional cost of 1 credit to check the original image.

Searching the indexed images

8.             The periods from 1837-1865 and 1921-1983 use page images of the GRO indexes which have been indexed by the first and last name entered on the page. Select the 1837-1865 database, the Event - Birth, add the last name - Tippey and run the search.

9.             The results show that 125 records match the search. This doesn't mean that there are 125 records of Tippey births, but that there are 125 pages whose name range may contain the name Tippey. This is too many to search, so refine the search.

10.          The best way to reduce the number of pages to search is reduce the time span by selecting the Years and Quarters from the drop down menus to a year or so either side of your estimated date for the event. Choose 1860-1861, All Quarters and rerun the search.

11.          The results page this time provides you with a minimum of 4 pages per year, one for each quarter. The entries each show the first and last name listed on that page. Click the View Image link alongside the 1st Quarter 1860 page entry.

12.          The page image will open in a viewer window, where you can zoom in to read the entries and print or save the image if you find the page you are looking for. This page has an entry for Mary Jane Tippey.

How to Search the BMD Indexes with examples