A bit of background
From July 1837 all births and deaths and marriages in England and Wales had to be registered with the local Superintendent Registrar. Local Registrars kept (and still keep) records of all the registrations for their own areas, and also sent copies to the Registrar General in London. Here an enormous national set of registration records was created, and index volumes were compiled so that individual entries could be found easily. These indexes, arranged in quarters for each year, are now known as the Registrar General's Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages (sometimes called the GRO Indexes).
How to get certificates
Family historians can obtain copies of certificates in two ways: if you know where an ancestor was born, married or died, and know fairly precisely when the event took place, you can apply directly to the local Superintendent Registrar for the area. Usually, however, you won't know 'where and when'. In these cases, you will need to start by searching the Registrar General's Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages. When you've found an entry, take a note of the information (date, place and reference number) and send off to the Registrar General for a copy of the certificate.
Where can I find the Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages?
The indexes are available online, on several different websites. Some of these websites are free to use, but some are subscription or pay-per-view sites. One of the subscription sites is Ancestry, but you can access it free of charge at almost all archives and libraries in Wales, thanks to funding by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Alternatively, if you don't want to use the indexes online, you can look at microfiche copies of the original index volumes. These are available at the National Library of Wales and at some local authority archives.
Remember - record repositories don't have the actual certificates. Once you have found an entry on the Indexes, you need to apply to the Registrar General for a copy of the certificate. You can apply online, by phone or by post, and a small fee is charged for the certificate. You can find out more on the Registrar General's website.
Censuses have been taken every ten years from 1801, with the exception of 1941. Before 1841, no names were recorded - the censuses were just a head-count. From 1841 names were recorded, and the census returns list every person present in every dwelling on census night, giving their age, occupation and other information - a fantastic source for family historians. The latest census which is fully available is the one for 1901; the 1911 census is being made available in stages during 2009.
Where can I look at the census returns?
There are two ways to look at the census returns - online or on microfiche copies of the original returns.
Using the census online is easiest, as you can search directly for a specific individual, and you should be able to find them wherever they were on census night. There are several different websites which provide access to the census returns. All are subscription or pay-per-view sites. One of the websites, Ancestry, is available free of charge in almost all local authority archives and libraries and in the National Library of Wales. It provides access to the censuses 1841-1901, but not 1911.
If you use the microfiche copies of the original returns, you will need to start with a good idea of where the person you are looking for was living. The returns are arranged by area (usually by parish and then by street), not by name, and you may need to search through a number of pages to find the entry you are looking for.
The National Library of Wales holds on microfiche the census returns for all of Wales, 1841-1901. Many local authority archives hold the census returns, on microfiche, for the area they cover, for 1841-1901.
The 1911 census returns are not yet available on microfiche - at present they can only be used online.
Parish registers only record events which took place in the parish church - that is, the churches that belonged to the Church of England (from 1927 the Church in Wales). In Wales, a lot of people chose not to attend the parish church, but became members of nonconformist denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, or Congregationalists. Baptisms and burials which took place in the nonconformist chapels would be recorded in the chapel registers (Baptists, who did not practise infant baptism, often kept registers of births). Marriages however were different: between 1754 and 1837, all marriages (except those of Jews and Quakers) had to take place in the parish church, and the marriages of nonconformists will therefore be found in parish registers during this period.
Where can I find nonconformist registers?
The survival of nonconformist registers is very patchy. Some chapels kept very careful records, and ensured that they were properly cared for; but others did not see the need for keeping records, or registers were kept but later lost. Some nonconformist registers have been deposited in local authority or university archives, and some in the National Library of Wales. Some are still with the chapels, or are in private hands. For registers before 1837, however, there is another very useful source. In 1837, the Registrar General asked all nonconformist chapels to send in their registers to him. These registers were never returned to the chapels, and are now held by the National Archives. They have been microfilmed, and many local authority record offices have bought copies of the microfilms containing registers for the area they cover. The National Library of Wales has copies for all of Wales. These registers are also now available online.
Move beyond the well-known sources of census, certificates and parish registers, and explore the wealth of material held in archives. It may help you resolve problems, take your research much further back, or enable you to fill in details about the lives of your ancestors. Here are just some of the sources you could use:
If you are used to tracing your family history in England, you will find that carrying out family history in Wales differs very little. In the mid sixteenth century, Wales was united with England, and since then the laws and most legal and administrative systems have been the same in both countries. With very few exceptions, official records were written solely in English until the mid twentieth century.
Most records are the same in Wales as in England. For example:
There are some differences, however: