Prior to 1837 the Church was the main collector of information regarding the population of England and Wales. The Church records of baptisms, marriages burials were held at local parishes and as such were of little use to the Government of the day in respect to education and social welfare. What the authorities needed were comprehensive statistics that would assist local and regional planning for the building of new schools and hospitals. The Civil Registration Act was introduced to provide for this need.
On 1 July 1837 it became compulsory to register all births, marriages and deaths occurring in England and Wales. All events are recorded by District Registrars and copies of the registers were sent to the Government Records Office every three months. These records, which were formally kept at Somerset House, are now available from the General Register Office, for which indexes to births from 1837 to 1917 and deaths from 1837 to 1957 are available on-line. A more comprehensive index to births, marriages and deaths is available on-line here: Free BMD.
Birth certificates and marriage certificates contain more information than death certificates. Birth certificates include the father's occupation and mothers maiden name, usually enough information to enable the marriage of the parents to be located. Marriage certificates include the name and occupation of the fathers of both bride and groom. Death certificates, however, do provide some useful information, including age and abode at death and occupation (in the case of a woman, her husband's occupation).
A Census has been held in England and Wales every ten years, starting at 1801. At the time of the census, the public were told that the details collected would remain confidential for 100 years, but in fact the census for 1851 was opened to the public in 1912. The census records for the years 1801 - 1831 were in the main destroyed, although a few did survive (in particular, the returns for Poplar). However, the information available is of limited value in terms of family history.
The census records from 1851 onwards are invaluable in terms of family history. As well as details of family members, probably the most valuable information are the age and place of birth, which leads back to the parish registers pre-1837.
Church records survive from 1583, when Henry VIII ordered that the clergy should keep a record of baptisms, marriages and burials. During the Commonwealth (1653 - 1660) registers had a different format for political reasons, and many registers for this period have not survived.
Records for baptisms show the names, address and occupation of the parents, and occasionally the date of birth. Early marriages were recorded in registers of plain paper and showed only the couples names, status (bachelor, widower, etc) and parish. Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1754 introduced a printed register, but the information given was not much more than previously recorded, i.e. names and the parish of the bride and groom, the couples marital status. The amount of information recorded on the marriage certificate increased significantly with the introduction of Civil Registration. One advantage of the marriage certificates obtained from parish registers is that they show the original signatures of the bride and groom: those obtained from Civil Registration have been copied from the original. Burial entries had to include the age, and place of residence of the deceased. Not much information, but useful in determining date of birth.
Prior to Civil Registration Wills provide the most convincing evidence of family relationships, and are crucial tracing family history, due to gaps in early parish register. Most wills name numerous relatives and their place of residence and also give status and evidence of financial circumstances, business dealings, falling-out etc. Prior to 1858 wills were proved by the Church, since when they have been proved in a Court of Law.
Local newspapers survive from the middle of nineteen century, and contain valuable information in regard to coroner's inquests, court proceedings etc. Births, marriages and deaths are also reported.
Recruitment records for the armed services give details of spouse and offspring and also record postings during whilst serving. First World War records are fairly comprehensive, but half of them were destroyed by fire in 1943.
During the 1850's church cemeteries in London became full and burials were transferred to large municipal cemeteries, such as the East London Cemetery, at Plaistow. Monumental inscriptions give valuable information relating to age and date of death, and often offspring.
During the nineteenth century, many trade and business directories were published which give details of businesses, tradesmen, publicans etc. operating within a particular location.
Admission registers giving date of entry and leaving, addresses and names of parents or guardians have survived from the late nineteenth century for some schools in London.
Although hospital records are confidential, the admissions and discharge registers are open for those that survive. Prior to the formation of the NHS, the hospitals were run by local authorities. In many cases, these hospitals were previously infirmaries or workhouses.