The vital details
Our family historian Sue Bennett concentrates on death certificates – and how they can help trace your ancestors.
The golden rule when researching our ancestors is to find original evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that we have identified the correct person’s vital events of birth, marriage and death.
Prior to the introduction of Civil Registration in England and Wales on 1st July 1837, individual parishes were responsible for maintaining their own register of burials, which often recorded little information beyond the name of the individual and the date of burial. With the advent of Civil Registration, death certificates were issued for the first time, which required far more information than the parish records. However, as I have mentioned before in this column, it is important to remember that registration of a death was only made compulsory by law in 1875. Many people have spent fruitless hours searching for the death certificate of an ancestor born between 1837 and 1875, never to find it because the event simply wasn’t registered. All deaths that occurred after 1875 should have been registered and a death certificate issued, although there are always a few exceptions, for example where someone is believed to have drowned but a body has never been recovered.
Presuming that your ancestor does have a death certificate, how do you go about locating it? The General Register Office (GRO) keeps all the certificates, which can be ordered direct from the GRO or from the register office for the district in which the death occurred. The GRO also has records of the deaths of some British citizens overseas. Each certificate that you order costs upwards of £9.25 so you need to ensure, as much as you can, that you have the right one.
Start by identifying an approximate time frame within which the death occurred. You might find that someone who was on a Census Return in 1881, for instance, is missing ten years later and their spouse recorded as widowed or remarried. Begin your search in the district in which your ancestor usually lived gradually expanding the search if you can’t find them locally, and ensure that you know their real name and other names that they used. Then you need to search the GRO indexes to find the entry of a record of death. You can check these for free online (see Sources) or at various pay-to-view websites. Full copies of the index are also available at several large libraries throughout the UK – the nearest to our region are The British Library in London or Birmingham Central Library. Local record offices and some libraries offer online access to the indexes.
When you find a likely-looking entry in the indexes, make a note of the GRO index reference number (volume and page numbers), which will make ordering the certificate much easier.
Once you have a death certificate, and confirmed it is correct, there are often many clues contained with it that you can use to broaden your research. Beginning with the first column, ‘When and Where Died’ always look up the given address and see if you can find any contemporary photos or maps to put the location in context.
It was normal practice for institutions such as workhouses or hospitals to be recorded simply by their address rather than by name. For example, the death certificate for my great grandmother, Margaret Sanders, reprinted here, records her place of death as 1a Raddlebarn Road, which was actually Selly Oak Hospital.
The next column to consider is that which gives details about the informant. This is because much of the veracity of the information on the rest of the document will be dependent on the identity of this person. If the informant was a doctor or other official then it is far more likely that at least some of the details will be incorrect. This is especially true for age and name. Often deaths were registered under a different name because the informant only knew the commonly-used name of the deceased rather then their given name. Similarly, ages were frequently guessed at when there was no definitive evidence. However, if the informant is a Coroner, then it is feasible that an Inquest was held and you might be able to find the Inquest records, although these have not been generally well looked after. It is more likely that you will find a report of the Inquest in a contemporary local paper – look online or at the nearest record office or library.
On the other hand, if the informant was a family member then the details they gave can help to unlock mysteries. In the example of Margaret Sanders’ certificate, I was able to confirm it was correct because Margaret’s only surviving child, my grandmother Annie, was the informant. As well as giving us a definite place and date of death for Margaret, the certificate provides an address for Annie and her family in 1935, information I didn’t have before.
Meanwhile, the Occupation column tells me that Margaret, who had lived in Monmouth for many years, was living with Annie at the time of her death. By cross-checking with the register of electors for Birmingham I worked out that Margaret resided with her daughter for at least a year before she died. The extra details provided by Annie in this column, in which she described her mother as the widow of Thomas Sanders, confirmed without doubt that I had the right certificate.
It is quite common to discover hitherto unknown family members who have acted as informants. Most frequently this will be ‘in-laws’ although I have discovered previously unidentified children too. I have also found the married names of daughters when they have registered a parent’s death.
There are many other potential leads hidden in the average death certificate – perhaps you could look again at some that you have for your ancestors and see what you can find out?
General Register Office website: www.gro.gov.uk
Free online access to the GRO index: freebmd.org.uk
If you are researching your family history, and would like some help, then Sue can investigate.
Write to: Let’s Talk Family History, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 1RE. Alternatively, please send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, marking your query ‘Family History’. Please include copies of relevant documents (not the originals). We are sorry, but we cannot return any documents or answer all queries.
You should conduct your own research to confirm suggested sources and information. If you would like to contact anyone mentioned in these articles, please contact us at Let’s Talk, at the address above. Sue is currently working on a number of reader queries, which will appear in subsequent editions.
You can contact Sue for separate private research via her website www.bennettsfamilybooks.co.uk email: email@example.com or tel: 07515 909 556. Sue is also available to give talks on family history to groups and organisations.