Books on Hertfordshire

A Comedy of Errors


The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899

by Michael Whitfield Foster

1998 [ISBN 0 473 05581-3]

The following paragraph comes from the introduction:

If you have used the index of marriages, have you ever noticed that there are far more references to pages with odd numbers than to pages with even numbers ? Have you puzzled over a faint or illegible reference and wished there was something to help you decide what it ought to be ? Have you pored through the marriage index looking for a bride to match the reference details for the bridegroom yon have found ?. Have you perhaps had the disappointment of finding that the supposed partners were wrong after all and that you have done additional research to no avail ? Have you been unlucky enough to order a marriage certificate only to find that the reference was "wrong", yet you could read it clearly enough ? Have you simply been unable to find an index entry for someone you know was married ? This book will throw light on all these questions and tell you far more besides. The story of the marriage records is a fascinating detective story.

 The book is an excellent in-depth study of the way the General Register Office (GRO) marriage indexes were generated and the very many opportunities there have been for errors to creep into the indexes. The book is full of examples of actual errors that have cropped up in the research.

One of the lessons is that errors occurred as a result of copying. The "master" copy will be the one in the church register and for Hertfordshire marriages the copy used by HALS is likely to be closer to the original than will be the GRO copy which you get if you order through the Family Records Centre - assuming errors have occurred.

It should be realised that many of the errors described in the book will occur in other indexes - including the birth and death indexes. I have come across a case in a printed GRO birth index - prepared some years ago because the old one had become damaged - where it is clear that a page of entries has been lost. Other errors undoubtedly occur in other indexes - such as the 1881 census CD or the IGI index at familysearch.

This book should be compulsory reading for all who take their genealogy seriously.


Books on Hertfordshire

The Registration Records of England and Wales 1837-1899

A Comedy of Errors - Act 2

by Michael Whitfield Foster

Archive CD Books - 2002

This book extends the research in Michael Foster's earlier book, and if you have been unsuccessful in finding a birth, marriage or death certificate for one of your ancestors, this book may give some ideas about what may have happened to the records. For those who have not read the former book the first two chapters recap on the essential background and the remaining chapters are stand alone - each describing the evidence for different types of errors, etc.

  1. Backwards and forwards - recapitulation and introduction
  2. The system in a nutshell - precis of the structures and operations of the 1837/99 system
  3. Holes in the net - frames missing from the GRO's published index fiche
  4. Repeat marriages - marriages repeated and recorded twice in the system
  5. A series of samples - names that have been omitted from the indexes
  6. Those "a" entries and what they tell us - some explanations and some pointers
  7. Broken Sequences - some gaps in the Quarterly Returns
  8. Bad indexing at a high social level - a marriage lost for fifty years
  9. Diggin for Duggin - errors by the vicar? or by the GRO? or by both? - a series of irregularities from a Fulham Parish
  10. Variant entries - clues for finding names that are in some way corrupted
  11. Odd Omissions - the missing recto pages
  12. Shrewsbury? Where's that then? (and some other discontinuous places)
  13. Changes in 25 years - some changes in patterns from 1856 to 1881
  14. Legalese - some new interpretations of the statutes
  15. Improved by over-inking? - clear proof of ignorant GRO clerks
  16. A miscellany of items
  17. Peripheral vision - what you don't see in a certificate
  18. The district of Mitford
  19. A London Synagogue - the marriage and the synagogue may lie far apart
  20. Late insertions in the 1864/Q3 deaths index - a window into clerical incompetence?
  21. The LDS film/fiche of the GRO indexes
  22. The Index registers at Southport
  23. Late Southampton marriages in 1841/Q1? A large and erratic bunch of late entries
  24. Illegible fiche material - unreadable at both fiche and original levels
  25. The typewritten indexes
  26. Something else strange in the coal cellar - a disastrous typed index
  27. Something missing in the coal cellar - some gaps in the Smedley registers
  28. Best foot forward - The only way forward to an effective historical record
  29. The ONS White Paper
  30. A tell-tale tally - counting up the "a" and the variants


  1. Page range tables for marriages, 1881/Q1
  2. Marriages from the New Synagogue, 1844 to 1848
  3. Some names rescued from the registers
  4. Odd/even page references
  5. Marriage patterns in Mitford 1879-1822
  6. Late marriages from Southampton 1841
  7. Five complete pages from the marriage films
  8. Sample from 1864/Q3 deaths index


See also Mike Foster's Web Site

There is a web page for Civil Registration

Locating Books
Available from Mike Foster's Web Site


Page updated April 2005