Civil registration records were vital records kept by the government. They can include birth, marriage, and death records similar to parish records – and sometimes with more information and in a more reliable format than parish records. In fact, in some countries in certain time periods, civil registration records are considered the most important sources available – surpassing even parish records.
There are several reasons for giving civil registration records a place of so much importance. For one thing, in many instances these records basically cover the entire population. In fact, they may include people not in parish records (since they weren’t limited by religious membership). They might also have more complete indexes to them than parish records. Many places have indexes for each year or even covering a ten-year period.
Civil registration records can also serve as an important second source to verify information or clear up questions raised by parish records. In my family, a birth record for one child born in England gives the parents as the father of the other children and some other mother – who happened to have the same name as a servant living in the home. At first glance, it appeared that the father had an affair with this teenage servant girl, although the record didn’t indicate in any way that the child was illegitimate. Ordering the civil registration record (and checking it against other sources also) showed that the pastor had simply recorded the name incorrectly and the mother was in fact this man’s legitimate wife – not the servant. Without the civil registration record, it would’ve been impossible to untangle the confusion caused by the pastor’s mistake.
Information contained in civil registration records varies from country to country and over time. However, you are likely to find certain things. Birth records generally contain the names of the parents (often with the mother’s maiden name), the occupation of the father, the name, gender, date and place of birth for the child, and the witnesses. Many also include the marital status of the parents, and perhaps their ages and birth dates or birthplaces, as well as additional information about the witnesses. Marriage records usually contain the names of the bride and groom, their previous marital status, and date and place of marriage. Religious denomination of the parties, ages, names of parents (or at least their fathers), occupations of the fathers, and names of witnesses can sometimes be found too. Death records will likely tell you the names of the deceased, their ages, causes of death, occupations (if applicable), residences, and places of death. They may also provide information about the surviving spouses or names of parents.
The main limitation of civil registration records is that they usually don’t start until much later than parish records. While many places have church records stretching back until the 1600s and sometimes before, civil registration records sometimes weren’t kept until the second half of the nineteenth century. However, some began much earlier.
The French Revolution brought civil registration to many places that fell under France’s control. In France itself, civil registration began in 1792. Here, these records are considered to be the most important source of genealogy information. Similarly, civil registration records in the Netherlands, which began in 1811, are also believed to be the most important genealogical record in that country.
In areas of Germany controlled by France, civil registration also began in 1792 (although some places discontinued its use when they regained their independence). Nationwide civil registration didn’t start in Germany until 1876. Some ten-year indexes are available for the early records. After 1876, you can use yearly indexes.
Civil registration began in 1809 in most places in Italy (although it didn’t become law until 1866). Here, it was Napoleon’s influence that got this practice started. Civil registration records in Italy include birth, marriage, and death records and sometimes stato di famiglia, or state of the family certificates. Stato di famiglia records list the entire household together, noting changes that occurred to family members. Some annual indexes are available for Italian civil registration records. Ten year indexes can be even more helpful, but are usually kept only at the town level.
England began its civil registration all at once with a law passed in 1837. On July 1 of that year, England and Wales began recording births, marriages, and deaths. The records are indexed by quarter. These indexes are available through the Family History Library and in other places. However, if your ancestors had a common name and you are not very sure about the date of the event, the indexes may still leave you with dozens of possibilities. The civil registration records themselves are not open to public investigation, but you can obtain a copy of a particular record if you provide sufficient information. Several online sources are taking great strides in making English civil registration records more accessible. Try http://freebmd.rootsweb.com which contains the efforts of many volunteers working to transcribe the civil registration indexes for births, marriages, and deaths. Although the project isn’t complete, they do have an impressive 150,000,000 records online. At http://home.clara.net/dixons/Certificates/indexbd.htm, Barbara Dixon provides a thorough explanation of civil registration records in England and how to obtain copies of them.
Civil registration records were less important in the Scandinavian countries. Swedish civil registration records were little more than church record extracts made by the parish priest and sent to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Danish civil registration records, which don’t begin until 1874, aren’t easily available. Similarly, civil registration began in 1876 in Norway.