Photograph of a baby, 1911 (Catalogue reference: COPY 1/561)

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.

  • 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
  • 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.

  • What other resources will help me find information?

    • Books

      Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

      Read The British overseas: A guide to records of their births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials available in the United Kingdom (Guildhall Library Publications, 1995).

      Read Tracing your ancestors in The National Archives by Amanda Bevan (The National Archives, 2006).

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.