Civil Registration started on 1st July 1837, and details of the kinds of information recorded are given under births, marriages and deaths.
The national indexes are now online but used to be held as huge volumes on the open shelves at the Family Records Centre (and before that St Catherine's House). The earliest were hand written on parchment - and organised in alphabetical order within the quarter of registration. A search for a given name over a ten year period meant taking 40 heavy volumes from the shelves to the reading desks and returning them - so the work was physically quite tiring. Births and Deaths may well be in the quarter after the event occurred, and as many people were illiterate you may need to look at alternative spellings - which doubles the effort if, for example, the name starts with an "h" which might be dropped.
The information given in the index is minimal and for earlier records is no more than the year and quarter on the volume's cover, name of the person, the registration district and the page reference in the registers and there is no real option but to buy a copy to see what it says. The normal service delivery was (and still is) a few days later by post - which can be very frustrating as the certificate may well contain information to help you find other entries in the indexes. To chase back several generations might well take half a dozen visits spaces over a couple of months. The place given in the index is the place where the event was registered - and registration districts were based on the Workhouse Unions - so someone born in a small village will be recorded in the index under a nearby town - although the certificate itself will give the correct information. You should also realise that with many names there may be multiple entries and you don't want to rush for the first person with the name you are looking for - particularly if it is an inappropriate registration district.
The indexes have been filmed and can be accessed through many genealogical libraries, etc., and for people who cannot visit the Family Records Centre it is possible to order copies - with an extra charge for searching the index. If you know the town within Hertfordshire you can also contact the local Registrar - for address see the Hertfordshire County Council site. In addition there are private agents who will carry out more extensive searches for a fee and many family history societies have and arrangement (particularly relevant for overseas researchers who do not have direct access to Sterling) where you book your request with the society (and pay them) and a batch of requests is then sent off to an agent in London.
A Rootsweb project is FreeBMD, which stands for Free Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The FreeBMD Project's objective is to provide free Internet access to the Civil Registration index information for England and Wales. The Civil Registration system for recording births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales has been in place since 1837 and is one of the most significant single resources for genealogical research back to Victorian times. It is well worth a speculative search as by the end of February 2003 it contained about 51,000,000 unique records - so is always worth checking! By 2012 Births were virtually complete up to 1939, marriages to 1951, and deaths to 1952, but in each case some later years are "in progress" or actually complete.
But see A Comedy of Errors and weep
For a fee the GRO indexes can now be accessed online, and certificates ordered. Other sites such as Ancestry also provide access to the indexes.
Civil registration was not retrospective - so children born before July 1st 1837 are not covered. However some ministers are known to have used the onset of civil registration to chase up some extra baptisms. For instance there were a large number of "extra" baptisms at St Mary's, Aylesbury, Bucks, in the fortnight before the change, often with several children from the same family being baptised.
The only Hertfordshire example I have come across so far was at the Box Lane Baptist Chapel (see WOOD, Hemel Hempstead, Early 19th Century) but there could be more justification for this as the non-conformist registers were meant to be handed in immediately after civil registration was introduced.
Page updated March 2008