To begin at the very beginning (a very good place to start)

A birth certificate has 10 numbered columns for information, the unnumbered column on the left is a filing number. 

A birth certificate is often the first document to launch you onto that journey into your family’s history.

The document provides a birth date (column 1) and sometimes even a time. The timing on a Scottish certificate is normal but if it is on a certificate issued outside Scotland can indicate a possible multiple birth (twins, triplets etc).

The place of birth is also given, in small communities this might only give the name of the village but normally it will be a home address or a hospital or nursing home.

Next (column 2) will be the given name or names of the child, although this might at times be left blank, especially in the 19th and early 20th century. This often happened if the father was away at the time the birth was registered, possibly a sailor on a long voyage or a soldier posted abroad. In the mid to late 19th century this could have been because of the Crimean War or the Boer War and, of course, in the first half of the 20th century foreign posting during the two world wars.

A birth had to be registered within a statutory period and in many cases the mother would wait for her husband to come home so that they could choose an appropriate name between them.

The sex of the child is also given (column 3). This is not as silly as it might sound because a name might not always be a clue as to sex, The real name of the 20th century wrestler Big Daddy was Shirley Crabtree which might remind you of the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” but in the 19th century Shirley was exclusively a boy’s name. In the 17th and 18th centuries Valentine could be a girl’s name or a boy’s name.

Unless there is a doubt about the paternity the names of both parents will be given (columns 4 and 5) and the surname of the mother before marriage. The previous name might be given as nee Xxxxxx, which normally indicates a first marriage, whereas formerly Xxxxxx, indicates a previous marriage while also known as Xxxxxx, indicates doubts as to whether or not the parents were married.

In the 19th century a woman could give the name of the man she claimed to be the father but by the 20th century this section would be left blank unless the father admitted paternity. When the father is named his occupation (column 6) will also be given which is helpful when the name you are looking for is quite common. The occupation could make all the difference.

The name of the person registering a birth (column 7) is quite often the mother as the father would probably be at work and taking time out to register a birth in the 19th and early 20th centuries would be highly unlikely. The date of registration (column 8) is also given.

The final two columns (9 and 10) are for the name and position of the person taking the registration followed by a blank in case a name is given after registration.

The certificate shown above is a typewritten copy of the original and the copyist has actually filled in the error on the certificate and included what would have been a handwritten note.

Actually tracking down births is not as easy as you might think. You cannot just wade through thousands and thousands of birth indexes which means you have to have an approximate year of birth at least.

This could come from baptismal records, a note in a Bible or even a marriage date – just remember that although the parents are probably married the birth of the first child might not be nine months or more later. Mum could easily have been using her bouquet to cover a bump.

Unlike marriages and deaths you will not necessarily find births in newspaper columns.

In the 19th century often only the well-to-do could afford to put an announcement of a family event in the newspaper, and even then information on births was very sparse, offering little more thana date and the name of the proud father (it appears the mother was not worth the cost of the extra words).

The real boom in newspaper birth announcements did not really come until the middle of the last century. Most birth dates from then on are normally known within the family.

Newspapers can be helpful at times, even now, especially if someone had moved away from the area and vanished from other records.

A classic example of such a case appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, on 7 July, 1927:

RIX: July 4, at Englefield, Williamstown, South Australia, to Mr and Mrs Rix (nee Chrystabel Newton) a son.

Someone, somewhere could have been missing Miss Newton and at least this puts them on the right track.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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