by Geoff Swinfield


I have recently completed a research project in which I was commissioned to obtain copies of over 200 death certificates of people who died in 2011 and 2012. This proved to be a very taxing task!

Online access to the indexes of registration for England and Wales extends only to the end of 2006 through and After that, currently to the end of the June 2012, they are only available for research on microfiche at seven large libraries. Those are the British Library and Westminster Archives in London and the main city libraries in Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Plymouth and Bridgend. Using the two access points in London, references were found for all the registrations. Now came the task of ordering copies of the documents.

The certificate ordering service of the General Register Office only allows copies of certificates which were registered more than six months ago to be requested at £9.25 each. Even then, a few could not be produced because, although the full reference appears in the national indexes, having been entered locally, copies of the documents have not yet found their way to the Registrar General’s collection in Southport. This enabled me to obtain 153 of the required copies.How was I to obtain the missing documents and the more recent registrations which amounted to 52? They would have to come from the local registrars.

Armed with the name of the relevant registration district, the number of the individual subdistrict and the 9-digit national reference number for each event, all of which appear in the national indexes, I naively believed that, by contacting each register office, this would be a straightforward process.

I was amazed to learn that the unique national number, attributed to each recently-registered event since the beginning of 2011, means virtually nothing locally. Most did not know what it meant or stated that “no-one has ever given us that information before when applying for a copy”. One registrar was surprised that I could quote the number and could use it to identify the correct document. Most required to know in which of their districts the event had been registered. Of course, I did not know that as the national indexes only provide a (sub)district number. Foolishly, I thought that by telling Surrey that the event was recorded in their area “7591L” that would inform them whether the document was at Guildford, Weybridge or any of their other offices. No such joy.

Incidentally, the 9-digit reference appears on every very recent (2011/12) certified copy, whether it comes from the GRO or a local registrar. This is presumably generated by the Registration Online (RON) project which was to enable rapid capture centrally of new registrations. Why can’t this be used to identify and produce any certified copy, wherever it is ordered or issued?

Often, the telephone was answered by a call centre which also dealt with the council tax and non-collection of waste. Application could only be made “on completion of a form” and I was asked to provide information about where the person had lived and died and in the case of women their maiden surname! None of which I knew! That is what I wanted to discover by obtaining a certified copy for my client.

How much was I charged for my pains? A number of the offices wanted me to tell them if the copy I needed was in a “current” or an “archived” volume as that determined its price. This was regularly quoted at £7 for a very recent record but £10 if the relevant volume was now full. As I did not have access to their records, I was at loss to know how I could have that answer! They would have to go to check.

What I eventually paid ranged from £15 as the standard charge for each copy from Monmouthshire down to as little as £4 for a certificate from South Gloucestershire. They are certainly a law unto themselves.

What struck me about the whole project was that, despite the objective of the DoVE (Digitisation of Vital Events) system, introduced in 2005 and suspended in 2010, which would link local registrars together, streamline the registration process and provide centralised access to records, this has not been achieved in any shape or form.

Useful Links:

Order BMD Certificates

Civil Registration (GENUKI page)

Holders of GRO Indexes

Register Offices in England and Wales




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