This is a brief guide to researching records of births, marriages and deaths at sea (on British registered ships) or abroad. These records were maintained by the General Register Office from the mid-19th century onwards, although their records and indexes are incomplete. Other records of British nationals overseas are held in many different places, so your search may be challenging. Please note, the birth, marriage and death registers of former colonies were retained by the colony.
1. What do I need to know before I start?
Try to find out:
- the person’s name (and name of their parents, spouse or next of kin, where applicable)
- the approximate date of the birth, marriage or death
- the area or ship where the event is likely to have taken place
2. What records can I see online?
Indexes of General Register Office overseas records (1761-2005)
Search the indexes of General Register Office overseas records on findmypast (£). The related certificates can be obtained from the General Register Office.
Births, marriages and deaths at sea on British registered ships (1854-1891)
Search digitised images from registers of births, marriages and deaths at sea on British registered ships (BT 158, BT 159 and BT 160) on BMD registers (£).
Births, marriages and deaths on Royal Navy and merchant ships (1794-1972)
Search the registers of maritime births (1854-1960), marriages (1854-1972) and deaths (1781-1968) on findmypast (£), drawn from ten different record series (ADM 80/4-12, ADM 183/114-120, ADM 184/43-54, ADM 242/1-15, BT 153/1-22, BT 156/1-4, BT 157/1-9, BT 334/1-117, CO 386/170-172 and CUST 67/74). For some years within the ranges detailed above there are no records at all – use our catalogue to view descriptions of the ADM, BT, CO and CUST references listed for the precise breakdown of dates.
Foreign registers and returns (1627-1960)
Search foreign birth, marriage and death registers (RG 32-RG 36) and download records on BMDregisters (£). Note the ‘advanced search’ option and ‘RG books’ tab which might be helpful.
The same registers are available on Ancestry (£) and can be browsed by The National Archives series (or class) and piece number or description.
3. What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?
Records of overseas births, marriages and deaths from the Foreign Office and Colonial Office (c1820-c1950)
Consult records of overseas births, marriages and deaths in various FO and CO series.
These records are not searchable by name on our catalogue and are held in various record series. Read Tracing your Ancestors in The National Archives by Amanda Bevan (The National Archives, 2006) to obtain a record reference from a comprehensive list arranged by country.
Please be aware very few registers exist within Colonial Office records held at The National Archives. Most were retained within the former colony.
Records of inquiries into deaths at sea (1939-1995)
Consult records of inquiries into deaths at sea in BT 341 which include passengers of all nationalities on merchant ships.
Births, marriages and deaths in the armed forces
See our separate guide on finding records of births, marriages and deaths in the armed forces.
4. What records can I find in other archives and organisations?
British Library birth, marriage and death records for Indian subcontinent
Consult the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collection at the British Library for births or baptisms, marriages, and deaths or burials across the Indian subcontinent, including Burma and Aden.
Bishop of London’s registry records and the International Memoranda
Consult the Bishop of London’s registry records and the International Memoranda at London Metropolitan Archives for baptisms and burials registered abroad in an Anglican church. Read the London Metropolitian Archives leaflet on births, marriages and deaths overseas for more information.
5. What other resources will help me find information?
Search The National Archives’ bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, look in The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
The British overseas: A guide to records of their births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials available in the United Kingdom (Guildhall Library Publications, 1995)
Amanda Bevan, Tracing your ancestors in The National Archives (The National Archives, 2006)
6. Did you know?
There was no obligation to keep records of births, marriages or deaths at sea before the mid-19th century.
Any record made of a birth or death at sea from 1837 onwards was sent directly to the General Register Office and recorded in the Marine Register.
Statutory registration of marriages of English and Welsh people in other countries began in 1849. Marriages were registered in the relevant country before notification was sent to the General Register Office, so local records of marriages may exist in some countries.
No merchant ship has ever been approved for marriages, although from 1854 any which took place had to be reported in the ship’s log. Any marriage which took place on board a merchant vessel was not legally valid.
Details of births, marriages and deaths of Scottish and Irish people in another country will be in the relevant Irish or Scottish General Register Office.