General Register Office Indexes

Roger C. Mallinson

December 2002/05.  Revised January 2008



Civil Registration began on July 1st, 1837. Genealogists can be grateful we live in a bureaucratic country, with a wealth of family history data carefully recorded and preserved.


The records were kept at Somerset House from 1836 until 1973, when they were moved to St. Catherine’s House at 2 Kingsway near the junction with the Aldwych.  This is why older genealogical researchers can often be heard in public libraries asking to see the ‘St. Catherine’s Indexes’.  The building was previously the home of Rediffusion, the Independent Television Company. It now belongs to Exxon Mobil, the oil company.


In 1997 the records were transferred to three separate locations. The volumes with the Birth, Marriage and Death records went to Smedley Hydro, Southport.  The indexes went to a new building in Myddelton Street, Islington which was already occupied by the Office for National Statistics (O.N.S.) that had been formed from a combination of the Office for Population, Census and Surveys, and the Central Statistical Office.  The remaining documents went to 7 Drummond Gate, Pimlico.


The GRO indexes were opened on April 1st, 1997.  They occupied most of the ground floor at Myddelton Street.  The books were in three colour codes (Red for Births, Green for Marriages, and Black for Deaths).  They were very large and very heavy.  Early volumes were the original 19th century hand-written books, the pages chemically treated to make them more durable.  They were alphabetical by surname, and often ran to ten volumes to cover each quarter.  January, February and March births would be found in the March volume, and so on.  Since parents could take up to six weeks to register a birth it was often necessary to check the March index for a birth occurring in the period from October of the previous year.


The index volume gave the information needed to fill in an application form, which went off to Southport and the Certificate was ready in four working days.  This means that a Certificate ordered on a Wednesday, for example, would be ready for collection on the following Tuesday.  They could also be sent by post.  The information included the surname, forename, registration district, volume number and page number.


Despite intense lobbying by Family History Society members, the Ground Floor at Myddelton Street was closed at the end of October 2007 and the paper volumes were transferred to Christchurch, Dorset for storage.  They are no longer available for study.  Certificates can now only be ordered on-line from the General Register Office Certificate Services Branch at  (Telephone; 0845 603 7788).  They are still theoretically posted within four working days (providing one can supply the GRO index reference numbers) but in practice often take up to six working days.


From 1837 to 1851, England and Wales were divided into twenty-five Registration Districts (RDs) from London (I to V) up to Northumberland (XXV), using Roman numerals.


Part of Yorkshire was given the code XXII and included Saddleworth, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Wakefield, Pontefract, Hemsworth, Barnsley, Doncaster, Wortley, Ecclesall Bierlow, Ecclesfield, Rotherham and Sheffield.


These registration districts actually date from as early as 1831 and were used for census enumeration.


In 1851 the district boundaries were redrawn and new code numbers allocated, using Arabic numerals.


District 9a included Sedbergh, Ripon, Pateley Bridge, Settle, Great Ouseburn, Knaresborough, Wharfedale, Skipton, Wetherby, Keighley, Todmorden, Halifax, Huddersfield and Saddleworth. District 9b was based around the Bradford/Leeds area, and 9c covered south Yorkshire from Wakefield and Barnsley down south to Sheffield.


A third and massive reorganization in 1946 saw the map redrawn with the geographical axis changed so that Cumberland became 1a.  It then followed a clockwise course around England and Wales, ending at 10 in Lancashire.  Our district was numbered 2b and included Great Ouseburn, Bradford, Halifax, Calder, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Hemsworth, Don Valley, Barnsley and Doncaster.


This lasted until June 1974 when we became district 4.  The fifth and final change came in 1994 when the quarterly system was dropped and volumes covered entire years.  Our district became 089.


Some years ago the ONS started transcribing the old hand-written volumes into type-face, which considerably reduced the storage space required.  All the indexes were micro-filmed.  The entire set of fiches fitted into two small filing-cabinets, kept in the Scottish Link Area.  These were available for disabled users or regular users when the volume they needed was being repaired.  This usually led to the question: ‘If the information from index volumes covering an acre of traditional shelving can be fitted into such a comparatively small space, why don’t we all use the micro-fiches for searching?’  Depending on which member of staff you bothered, you would get one of at least five answers:


1. This would involve buying and finding space for over five hundred fiche readers.

2. The fiches are not always as readable as the originals which would still have to be made available.

3. The ONS has a statutory obligation to provide access to the originals.

4. Humping enormous volumes on and off the shelves is morally and physically good for you.

5. We are in an interim period of doubt and schism during which decision-making is paralysed.


The last explanation was probably the most honest.  Anyone who tried on January 2nd 2002 to access the 1901 census on the Internet will know of the chaotic mess for which QinetiQ admitted responsibility.  There were over 16 million hits recorded on the first day and the system crashed.  Many of these were caused by researchers making several attempts to access the site.  Despite extensive planning, QinetiQ had under-estimated the number of likely users.


Genealogy is the second most popular research activity on the Internet.  The enormous growth of interest in the subject, served by several excellent Family History magazines, fuelled immense interest.  The truth was that the technicians at Qinetiq were in a paradoxical position due to the success of the pre-release advertising.  To provide enough main-frame capacity to deal with the initial demand would eventually result in over-capacity as the less serious researchers were satisfied and no longer required access.  The same thing happened in the census search area of Myddelton Street.  A hundred or so computers with their attendant TFT monitors, keyboards and servers were installed in a large area previously used by fiche and film readers.  Then they lay idle for several months until the system was restored in August 2002.  The situation is now reversed.  The computers are fully in use, but there are vast numbers of fiche machines lying idle.  Since the first floor at Myddelton Street is due to close in April 2008, this arrangement will probably continue until then.


Currently, the pre-Internet project to transfer the Indexes to type-face has been abandoned and the volumes have all been micro-filmed. The intention is to make all the information from birth, marriage and death registrations available for use by government departments such as the Benefits Agency, UK Passport Service, DVLA and education and health authorities. 


The ultimate aim is to make printed certificates unnecessary, though they will still be available as ‘commemorative documents’.


It is worth mentioning here that authenticated certificates are not always 100% reliable.  Faith Mallinson on Tree 11 is shown on her birth certificate as born 27 April 1554 at Flat House, the daughter of Thomas Mallinson and Elizabeth Mallinson, late Garside, formerly Denton.  In fact, her mother was born Elizabeth Garside and married Joseph Blackburn Denton 16 May 1841 at St. John’s, Kirkheaton, then went on to marry Thomas Mallinson 12 August 1849 at St. Martin’s, Brighouse.  Stansfield Mallinson on Tree 3 is shown as born 25 May 1856 at Rashcliffe, the son of William Mallinson and Sarah Ann Mallinson, formerly Stansfield.  Her maiden name was actually Hamer.  Forenames were so often formed from the mother’s maiden name that it was easy to ignore the clerical error. 


Charles Mallinson on Tree 10b married Ellen Sheard 3 November 1851 at All Hallows, Almondbury.

His marriage certificate shows him as from Lockwood, the son of Thomas Mallinson, as does the Almondbury parish register.  In fact, he was from Lindley and his father was James Mallinson.  As a result, I have placed him on a separate tree when common sense dictates he is naturally a part of Tree 10, pending further documentary confirmation.  But, if the marriage certificate and parish register can not be relied on, what better documentary evidence can be expected?  The only real possibility would be a Lindley-born Mallinson with a family bible containing a pedigree reading this and presenting the real facts.


The GRO Birth, Marriage and Death lists on our Mallinson web-site have been (and are still being) compiled from a variety of sources, primarily parish registers.  The Local History archive in Huddersfield Library contains micro-fiche and micro-film copies of parish registers for 100 churches in Huddersfield and District, plus a further 140 nonconformist registers.  There are also registers for areas further afield in the West Riding.  Notable exceptions are Linthwaite Wesleyan Chapel (where the registers are still in the safe and have never been sent for filming), Milnsbridge Baptist Chapel and Brockholes Methodist Chapel.


Other sources include direct information from living Mallinsons and searches of the notices columns in the Huddersfield Examiner, micro-film copies of which are available in Huddersfield Library.


The Probate Office in High Holborn is a useful source of information on deaths.  The indexes provide the date of death, the place of death, the last known address and the next of kin, all without the expense of ordering a copy of the will or administration.


There was a useful addition to the information in the birth indexes in September 1911 when the mother’s maiden name was included.  In the marriage index, the spouse’s surname was included from March 1912.  Cross-referencing the entries in the bride and groom’s surname volumes makes it possible to reconstruct fuller marriage details from that point onwards without spending £7.00 on a certificate.


Two significant improvements to the death indexes were the inclusion of the age at death from March 1866 and inclusion of the date of birth from June 1969, making it possible to give full birth-dates for partners marrying into our family who came from outlying districts and so were not included in the birth registers for Huddersfield and District.


The compiling of these ‘annotated’ index lists is an on-going process and any help with completing them would be most welcome.