A guide to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in County Durham from 1837 onwards.
Civil registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837. Scotland and Ireland followed in 1855 and 1864. All births, marriages and deaths had to be registered with the local registrar (although penalties for non-registration were not introduced until 1875).
The only comparable records before 1837 are the records of baptisms, marriages and burials performed by the Church of England and other churches.
For the purposes of civil registration the country was divided into registration districts, each covering the same area as one or more poor law unions. The unions themselves, created in 1834, were each made up of a number of parishes, chapelries or townships, grouped together for the relief of the poor.
Every registration district therefore contained a number of parishes. The boundaries of registration districts later changed a number of times, principally in 1937 and 1974.
In 1837 County Durham was divided into registration districts corresponding to its poor law unions: Auckland, Chester le Street, Darlington, Durham, Easington, Gateshead, Houghton le Spring, Lanchester, Sedgefield, South Shields, Stockton, Sunderland, Teesdale, Weardale and, later, Hartlepool. Auckland Registration District, for instance, contained the 33 townships of nine different parishes or chapelries (the large parishes in County Durham were already subdivided, for taxation purposes, into townships, which became civil parishes in 1866.) Over time the registration districts were regularly altered so that the civil parishes are each found in a number of different districts at different times.
A guide to the areas included in each registration district is available in the Record Office publication Durham Family History Gazetteer (1996). Order a copy of the Durham Family History Gazetteer from our online shop.
From 1837 only a registrar could register births and deaths, and only a superintendent registrar or Church of England clergyman could register marriages. From 1898 it has also been possible for nonconformist ministers to be authorised to register marriages.
Copies of entries
Local registrars were required to send copies of the entries in their registers, each quarter, to their superintendent registrar, who then sent these on to the Registrar General’s office. Originally this was in Somerset House, London, then St. Catherine’s House, and now at the General Register Office in Southport.
So there are two copies of each birth, marriage and death registration. One is kept by the superintendent registrar in their registration district and one by the Registrar General.
Copies of the register entries of marriages performed by church clergy are collected each quarter, and the details sent to the Registrar General. The duplicate register, used whenever a church marriage was performed (up to 2021 when the marriage registration process changed) is sent to the superintendent registrar when it is complete, and the main register is deposited with the local Record Office.
The General Register Office also holds other registers for still-births; births and deaths at sea; births and deaths in aircraft; armed services births, marriage and deaths; consular registers of births, marriages and deaths; registers of service deaths in World Wars I and II, and; adopted children. Find details at Gov.uk: Births, deaths, marriages and care.
The original registers retained by the superintendent registrar for each registration district (and the copies collected from clergymen) are indexed by year and quarter. The registers themselves are not available for inspection.
You can order certificates of entries in the registers for a particular area, on payment of a fee, from the superintendent registrar for that area (see below).
For the whole of England and Wales and for the other registers referred to above, such as births and deaths at sea, you can order copy certificates from the General Register Office (OPCS, Box 2, Southport, Merseyside, PR8 2JD). General Register Office for England and Wales online ordering service.
Details of the fees for copy certificates and searches are available from any superintendent registrar or the General Register Office.
Current registration districts
County Durham is now covered by a single registration district, the County of Durham registration district. For a list of civil registration districts in the county since 1837 see Registration Districts in Durham.
Copy certificates from County of Durham Registration Service should be ordered from:
Address: Cockton House, 35 Cockton Hill Road, Bishop Auckland, DL14 6HS
Phone: 03000 266 000 and choose option 2
Guidance notes on ordering certificates.
County of Durham Registration Service is currently indexing the birth, marriage (completed) and death registers within the county. Search online indexes to registrars certificates.
Contact details for the other registration districts which include parts of the historic County Durham are currently as follows:
General Register Office (GRO) indexes
The Registrar General compiles alphabetical indexes (popularly known as the ‘St. Catherine’s House Indexes’) from the information sent to them by superintendent registrars. These indexes cover the whole of England and Wales. There are separate indexes for births, marriages and deaths and the indexes can be searched online at FreeBMD (free of charge), Ancestry (subscription only) and Findmypast (pay as you view).
The indexes give the name of the individual, the quarter in which his or her birth, marriage or death occurred, and the registration district in which it occurred. A series of reference numbers follow, which are of relevance only to the General Register Office.
Indexes up to 1983 were compiled for quarters of the year (e.g. March quarter – January, February and March; June quarter – April, May and June) by the date of registration. A birth or death may be registered in a quarter later than that in which the event occurred. From 1984 the indexes are compiled for the full year and give the month and year of the event.
Birth indexes from September 1911 onwards contain the maiden name of the mother.
Marriage indexes from January 1912 onwards give the name of both parties to the marriage under both entries.
Death indexes from January 1866 to March 1969 give the age of the deceased; from April 1969 the deceased’s date of birth is given.
More complete indexes for births and deaths, including the mother’s maiden name on all births and the age on all deaths, can be searched by logging into the GRO ordering service.
Microfilm copies of the St Catherine’s House Indexes are available in some local libraries, record offices and branches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church), including:
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Linkway, Billingham, Cleveland TS23 3HG (Phone: 01642 563 162)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Family History Centre, Alexandra Road, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear SR2 9BT (Phone: 0191 528 5787)
Darlington Library, Local Studies Section, Crown Street, Darlington DL1 1ND (Phone: 01325 349 630)
Durham Clayport Library, Millennium Place, Durham, DH1 1WA (Phone: 0191 386 4003)
Middlesbrough Central Library, Victoria Square, Middlesbrough TS1 2AY (Phone: 01642 263 358)
Newcastle City Library, Humanities and Arts Department, Princess Square, Newcastle upon Tyne NE99 1DX (Phone: 0191 261 0691)
North Yorkshire County Library, Thirsk Road, Northallerton, North Yorkshire DL6 1DF (Phone: 01609 776 202)
Northumberland Record Office, Morpeth Library, Gas House Lane, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 1TA (Phone: 01670 504 084)
South Tyneside Borough Library, Prince Georg Square, South Shields, Tyne & Wear NE33 2PE (Phone: 0191 427 1818)
Sunderland City Library, Central Library and Arts Centre (Local Studies Section), Fawcett Street, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear SR1 1RE (Phone: 0191 514 1235)
Teesside Archives, Exchange House, 6 Marton Road, Middlesbrough TS1 1DB (Phone: 01642 248 321)
York City Library, Museum Street, York YO1 2DS (Phone: 01904 655 631)
Parish registers commence in 1538 (although many early registers have been lost), and they record the ecclesiastical ceremonies of baptism, marriage and burial (rather than the births, marriages and deaths recorded by the civil registration authorities from 1837).
Durham Record Office holds a large number of registers for parishes in the diocese of Durham (the area between the Rivers Tyne and Tees) and that part of the diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales which is in the county of Durham. Full details of the registers held by Durham Record Office can be found online: Search church registers.
Some registers are retained in parishes and, where this is the case, you need to contact the appropriate member of the clergy. Names and contact details can be found on A Church Near You – The Church of England.
There are some limitations to remember when searching church registers:
- Parish registers are the records of the established church and do not necessarily contain information on all the inhabitants of a parish. Before 1837 all marriages (except for Quakers and Jews), and almost all burials, were registered at the local parish church, but births often were not. By the end of the nineteenth century the nonconformist churches had their own systems of recording events; we hold some registers for Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches and for the Society of Friends. Into the 20th century there is a decrease in the proportion of children baptised and an increase in register office weddings and in burials in municipal ceremonies rather than church burial grounds.
- It is essential to know the parish where the baptism, marriage or burial took place, and this may not be the parish in which the people concerned were living. The boundaries of parishes have changed, especially in the nineteenth century when many new parishes were created, and a village or part of a town may be in different parishes at various dates. Remember that a large town could contain a substantial number of parishes by the end of the 19th century (Sunderland, for instance, had 28 parishes). Civil registration districts, which are given on birth, marriage and death certificates, have different boundaries from parishes.
- Only a comparatively small number of registers are indexed, all unofficially, and the coverage and standard of indexing is variable.
- Difficulties over the handwriting can occur in the earlier registers and entries were sometimes made in Latin.
1837 Non-Parochial Registers Commission
The National Archives holds copies of birth, marriage and death registers made retrospectively by some nonconformist church ministers from 1837. Many of these which are relevant to County Durham are available on microfilm at the Record Office.
Return to the list of information guides.