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Evaluating Evidence: A Fresh Look at Civil Registration

Please enjoy this excerpt from our 2023 Q2 issue of British Connections. Our theme was “evidence.” Join ISBGFH to access the entire issue and peruse 40+ years of British Connections.

All English researchers with modern connections, i.e., after 1837, use birth, marriage, and death certificates to document their research. But do we really look at what we have? I am going to use two certificates as examples to suggest we need to look more closely.

Birth Certificate for Rose Donnelly
When we obtain a birth certificate, we typically examine it for the details we use to fill in our database. We look for date and place of birth and the names of the parents. In this example, Rose Donnelly, the daughter of Francis Donnelly, a lodging housekeeper and his wife Ellen Donnelly (formerly Roy), was born on the 4th March 1909 at 15 Mirk Lane in Gateshead, their normal residence. The birth is recorded in the Gateshead Registration District. 

It’s an official document. Granted, this birth certificate may look different if what you are used to are the paper certificates. This is what you currently get if you order a PDF of a birth certificate from the General Register Office at It is a combined scan of the top of the page with the column headings and the entry line on the page that holds the requested birth registration.

Now, what I would like you to do is take another look at the certificate and find what is wrong, or at least what is questionable and should be setting off alarm bells. Stop reading and LOOK:

Fig. 1. Modern digital copy of 1909 birth certificate of Rose Donnelly, daughter of Francis and Ellen (Roy) Donnelly

Did you spot it? Do you hear warning bells ringing?

Look at the dates. Rose was born on March 4 and the birth was registered on April 17. It is easy to find calendar pages on the internet  for March and April 1909. These dates are 44 days apart. 

So what? This is where you need to know the regulations for the registering of births and deaths.  The 1836 Act—An Act for registering Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England [17August 1836] 6&7 Will. IV. c.86 online at—came into effect in 1837. This states that parents may within forty-two days give notice of the birth to the Registrar of the District (clause XIX) and shall give information to the Registrar if asked (clause XX). It goes on to say that a birth cannot be registered between forty-two days and six months without the payment of a fine. After six months the birth should not be registered (clause XXII).

The 1874 Act—An Act to amend the Law relating to the Registration of Births and Deaths in England, and to consolidate the Law respecting the Registration of Births and Deaths at Sea [7 August 1874] 37&38 Vict. C.88, online at—amended the 1836 Act. It clearly stated that it was the duty of the parents to register the birth of the child within forty-two days (clause 1), and the duty of the registrar to get the details correct within three months, with no charge (clause 4). After three months and up to one year, the birth could be registered before a registrar and superintendent registrar, but the registrant was liable for a fine. After twelve months, the act required the written authority of the Registrar General (clause 5). The government was trying to make the registration process easy.

These acts, and their amendments, were consolidated in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, available at The acts kept the provisions that parents were responsible for reporting the birth within forty-two days. 

What this all means is that when I see a date of registration that is close to forty-two days, either less than, or greater than, I always get suspicious and prefer to try to get corroborating evidence on the date of birth. I prefer to not rely on just one piece of evidence, even a government document. 

For this example, the question now is, what is Rose’s birthday? Is it as stated on her birth certificate or is it some other day? If so, what?

The answer may come from family sources, as the first clue did in this scenario. Rose’s father, Francis Donnelly (1873-1948), recorded in a date book all the birth, marriage, and death dates he wanted to remember. That prized date book is now in the possession of his great-grandson, Geoff Donnelly, in Texas, which is a long way away from Newcastle upon Tyne, in England.

The date book has two entries regarding Rose’s birth. The entry for March 4 says, “My Daughter Rose Donnelly was born Valentine Day 1909 and not March 4 as per her birth certificate which is a mistake.” Looking at February 14 we read “Rosey Donnelly 1909, daughter, not Mar. 4th as in birth certificate” (see fig. 2). This is information about Rose provided by a family member, her father.

Fig. 2. Feb. 14 and Mar. 4 entries regarding Rose Donnelly, in the datebook of her father, Francis Donnelly.

Now that we have a potential birthday from family sources, we need to try to confirm that from official sources. How that is done will depend on the time frame in which the person is living. 

In 1936 Rose married Robert Septimus Elsender in Newcastle upon Tyne. That gives us an age but not a birthdate. 

For Rose we have two potential sources to examine for birthdates. First, take a look at the 1939 Register created on 29 September 1939. This Register was used to produce identity cards and so includes everyone, with some specific exceptions. 

We find Rose Elsender, born 14 Feb 1909, and her daughter Aileen Elsender, born 9 Mar 1938, having been evacuated from Newcastle upon Tyne, living at 6 Oddfellows Street, Ennerdale, Cumberland. This is information that Rose would have provided to the official creating the Register (see fig. 3). As an added bonus from the 1939 Register, we get for Aileen her married surname Fromson. The 1939 Register was used later as a working document by the National Health Service, with the most common change being the addition of surnames as women married.

The next record to search for is Rose’s death certificate. I can search “England & Wales Deaths 1837-2007” on FindMyPast, or “England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007” on Ancestry. Both sites will show the death being recorded in the June Quarter of 2004 and indicating a birthdate of 14 Feb 1909. The paper death certificate has been ordered from and dispatched, but I am still waiting for its arrival, possibly delayed by the British postal strikes. I need this certificate to confirm that I do have the correct person, but I think I do.

To recap, we started with alarm bells on an official government birth certificate, then found family documents that showed a different birthday. Then we found a government record where Rose would have provided her date of birth, and then an official death certificate where someone else would have provided her date of birth. I think we can conclude that with three different records, not deriving from each other, that Rose Donnelly’s birthday is actually 14 February 1909.

Death Certificate for William Finnigan
Here I want to use a death certificate as another example of how and why we need to evaluate critically the government documents that we work with all the time. 

In the early days of starting my family history research, I asked my mother to ask her father—when his father William died. The answer came back—in the summer of 1935.

On one of my trips to England, I went to the Registrar’s Office in Newcastle and dutifully looked for and found the death certificate for William Finnigan, my great grandfather. It shows that he died 21 July 1935 at the main hospital, the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. He was 68 years old, a retired coal miner, and the informant was his eldest son, William. 

The information matched pretty closely what I already knew about him, so I dutifully recorded that information on my paper family group sheets. This was June 1984 after all. What was unexpected was his address in Wallsend on Tyne. My mental hypothesis was that after his wife Mary Isabella had died in 1932, William had moved to live near his eldest son. Problem solved.

See how I dealt with the information I did not know. I came up with a logical solution, a hypothesis. I did not, however, take the logical step of proving it. Remember how slow research was in the early 1980s; almost nothing was online. What time and energy I had was focused on proving my direct line and taking it back in time. 

Now come forward in time. It is now 2000, and more records are online. I am doing better research, filling in the gaps and learning more about William’s children, including my grandfather, who is now dead. I learn that three of the sons died in World War One, including the eldest son, Walter William

Lance Corporal W. Finnigan of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) 8th Battalion, died on 26 July 1918. He is buried in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen in France. Fortunately, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, under additional information, W. Finnigan is described as the Son-in-law of Jane Feren, 43 Buckingham St., Newcastle on Tyne. 

Walter William was born 21 October 1888 at 38 Buckingham Street in Newcastle upon Tyne. Walter William Finnigan of 40 Buckingham Street on the 20 August 1911, married Ann Ferren of 43 Buckingham St. at the Register Office. Ann’s parents were Matthew and Jane Feren, with the father’s name from the marriage record and Jane’s coming from the census. 

The military record together with the civilian records show that Lance Corporal W. Finnigan and Walter William Finnigan are one and the same person.

So, if William the eldest son died in 1918, then how could he have been the informant on his father’s 1935 death certificate? Something is not right.

Back to the drawing board. I need to find another death certificate for a different William Finnigan. Searching the death indexes is now a lot easier, as they are online. I find one and order it.

On this certificate, William Finnigan dies 28 May 1936 at 7 Back Hammond Street in Newcastle, age 70, a retired coal miner, and the informant is his son R. Finnigan of 93 Aldwick Road. Here William is living exactly where I would have expected him to be, with the right occupation, and the informant is my own grandfather, Richard Finnigan, at his correct address on Aldwick Road. So, in 1984, my grandfather had given me the wrong year and sent me off running to get the wrong certificate. 

I obtained the correct death certificate in February 2000. This meant that I had the wrong death certificate for my great-grandfather in my files for 16 years.   

I learned the hard way that you have to fill in all the gaps, trace, and document all the family members to make sure everything is accurate, and only then do you have the full picture. William Finnigan says on the census returns repeatedly that he was born in South Shields. I am still trying to prove that. If this William Finnigan rings a bell for you, please be in touch, as I am still trying to find his birth record. I have the birth certificates of all eleven siblings and half-siblings, but not his. I have even bought some incorrect certificates in an attempt to find him. 

The bottom line from this death certificate situation is that if you get a certificate with unexpected facts, and you have to come up with a different hypothesis to explain it, then seek additional facts to confirm or disprove your hypothesis. I obviously didn’t at the time.  

“Do as I say, not as I do.”  In this case, learn from my mistakes and don’t repeat them. 

If you would like to see additional examples of ways in which information on government-issued certificates can be wrong—clerical error, guesses, and lies—then have a look at