Registry records

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    The Registry holds over 20 million birth, death and marriage records. Prior to the establishment of the Registry in 1856, births, deaths and marriages were recorded through churches and civil registrations. Methods in recording and certifying life events during these periods vary in format and detail in comparison to how we record today.  

    Certificate formats 

    From quill and ink and leather bound registers, to today's computerised electronic data, certificate formats have changed significantly over time. Many older registrations have inaccurate or missing information as not all particulars were initially provided. In the 19th century high rates of illiteracy led to spelling variations and other errors.

    From 1788 to 1855 there are only early church records. These are lists of baptisms, burials and marriages with limited information, and usually only the names of parties, date and the place of event. Today, these transcriptions are in computer format as we don't hold original handwritten versions of church records. 

    From 1856 to 1951 records are mostly digital reproductions of handwritten entries in registers. Where ink is faded or the record is deteriorated, records are converted to computer format. Many marriage registers, particularly between 1856 through to the 1890s don't show all the details which the church may still record. Some entries were updated based on information from church societies. 

    From 1952 to present day the records are either computer generated or printed copies of the original (typed or handwritten) registration held on microfilm.

    All Registry certificates are a complete version of information that has been recorded on the original registration. If a certificate is not suitable for reproduction in a computerised format and needs to be retyped, we will include all the amendments, corrections and annotations from the original register which the law allows. By law, the words 'illegitimate' or 'spinster' cannot appear on any birth certificate issued, even if the original registration included them.

    In general more recent certificates include the following information in the table below:


    Information available from 1856


    Full name, sex, date and place of birth. Mother's details — full name and maiden name, age, occupation, place of birth.

    Father's details — full name, age, occupation, place of birth. Date and place of parents' marriage. Previous children of the relationship.


    Full name, sex, age, date & place of death, place of residence, occupation and marital status.

    Place of marriage, age when married, full name of spouse. Children's name and ages. Parents' names and mother's maiden name.

    Cause of death and duration of last illness. Burial or cremation date and place.


    Bridegroom's full name, occupation, place of residence, conjugal status, place and date of birth, age, father's name and mother's maiden name.

    Bride's full name, occupation, place of residence, conjugal status, place and date of birth, age, father's name and mother's maiden name. Celebrant's name and witnesses.

    Early church records    

    From 1788 to 1856 the only birth, death or marriage records kept in the Colony of NSW were registers maintained by the Churches when they performed a baptism, marriage or burial. This required people to attend a Church in person, and not all life events in this period are recorded.

    • First baptism  William Tilley on board the Lady Penrhyn on 20 April 1787
    • First burial  James Bradley on board the Alexander on 3 February 1787
    • First marriage  William Parr and Mary MacCormick corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets, Sydney 10 February 1788. Recorded by Reverend Richard Johnson, Chaplain to the First Fleet  his successors continued to perform and record baptisms, burials and marriages.

    Between 1825 and 1855, eight Acts of Parliament were passed in an attempt to regulate and improve the system of Church registration. Conditions in the Colony were vastly different from those in Great Britain and distances from towns, distrust of authority and lack of participation in formal church services meant that the Church registration system was unable to adequately record the details of all events which occurred in NSW.

    Early church

    Information available before 1856


    Full name, sex, date of birth and date of baptism. Some only show the date, or an age at baptism instead of a date of birth.

    Parents are listed but not all information, such as their age at the time of the baptism, their place of birth and date of marriage.

    Maiden name of mother is not always given and the baptism may only be listed under the surname of the father.

    Birth place of child is not listed but some baptisms will state where the parents were living at the time.

    Name of minister not always given, although denomination is shown.


    Name of deceased, their age, date of death or date of burial. Place of burial.

    A burial may include other details, such as occupation, name of the ship they arrived on, or a cause of death.

    The name of the minister is not always given, although the denomination is shown.

    The names of both parents are not given. Rarely included are the name of the spouse or any children.

    (pre 1856) 

    Names of the parties, date of marriage and the area where the event occurred.

    Names of the parents to the parties are not given. On some records, where a consent is provided the register will only state the consent was given by the parents, but may not state their names.

    On some records there is more detail, such as their ages and if they were born in the colony, or the name of the ship the parties migrated to the colony on.

    Download the Early church reference codes - PDF

    Civil Registrations

    On 1 March 1856 the Act for Registering Birth, Deaths and Marriages came into effect. The Act established a number of District Registrars responsible for the compulsory registration of all births, deaths and marriages occurring in NSW. It was now the responsibility of a parent, in the case of a birth, a Minister, in the case of a marriage, or the owner of a house in which a death occurred to notify the District Registrar of the details so that the event could be registered.

    In the early years of civil registration most events were registered following verbal advice from the informant. The widespread use of notification forms did not begin until after World War 1 (1918). District Registrars would then enter the details into bound registers and allocate the registration a unique number. In some Registration Districts these numbers would run sequentially for the whole years, while in other districts a new number series was begun each quarter.

    A copy of the registration was made on a loose registration sheet and forwarded to the Sydney Registry at the end of March, June, September and December each year. The Sydney Registry consolidated these returns. They were bound with Sydney registrations first, followed by metropolitan districts and then the country districts in alphabetical order. The consolidated registers were then renumbered starting at 1 and running through the whole year.

    Marine Births and Deaths

    The 1856 Act made provision for the registration of births and deaths which occurred at sea while en route to NSW. The registration of marine events included information such as the name of the ship, originating port and the longitude and latitude defining where the events took place.

    Marine births and deaths were originally bound into separate registers and each given a number beginning with an "M". This practice was amended later in the century as the number of births and deaths at sea declined.

    Marine births from 1888, and marine deaths from 1894 were still registered on the separate registration sheets, but these were now bound with the ordinary returns at the end of each year and were allocated a registration number in sequence with other births or deaths.

    Acquiring the Early Church Records

    The Registry began acquiring copies of Early Church Records since 1856. Efforts to acquire or copy these registers were undertaken in 1856, 1879 and 1912. In recent years further church registers have been found and copies of their contents forwarded to the Registry for inclusion in the State's records.

    The Registry's first acquisition was made in 1856 when the Registrar General took possession of the records held by the Supreme Court. These records were copies of the 1834 to 1835 baptism, marriage and burial registers from ministers of denominations other than Church of England.

    In 1879 the Clergy Returns Transfer Act was passed. It required that the copies of the 1825 to 1855 baptism, marriage and burial registers lodged with the Church of England Bishop in Sydney be handed over to the Registry. These records had been in the possession of a Mr Kerrison James who had issued certificates from them. 

    Mr James was paid 4,000 pounds compensation for the loss of the records. When the crates of bound returns were opened they were found to contain not only the 1825 to 1855 records but also the earlier registers going back to 1787.

    In 1912 the Registrar General wrote to all the Church authorities requesting that they allow him access to their pre-1856 registers so that a complete reconciliation could be made between Registry and Church Records. The Registry's Early Church Records were consolidated into Volumes and each entry was allocated a unique number. When the reconciliation was complete there were 158 Volumes of Early Church Records with approximately 50,000 entries.

    The Registry took this opportunity to request access to the 1856 to 1895 church marriages registers. Some Registry marriage records from these years recorded only the details pertaining to the parties to the marriage. Details of the parents had been left blank although they appeared in the Church registers. These registrations were amended and a notation made in the margin to record the circumstances of the amendment.

    The task of reconciling the Early Church Records and amending the marriage registrations was never finalised. The Registry's records from these years are not complete and it can be worthwhile for genealogists to contact the relevant church to find details missing from a marriage certificate or in the case of a birth, a baptism record where there is no corresponding civil registration.

    Miscellaneous Births and Deaths

    While reconciling the Early Church Records the Registry registered and indexed thousands of miscellaneous births and deaths dating back to 1856. These registrations related to events which were brought to the attention of the appropriate District Registrar but could not be registered because of incomplete information, missing signatures or the time lapse since the birth. See Late registrations.

    Although incomplete, the forms held by the Registry were the only record of these events and so they were entered into four Volumes and allocated volume reference numbers (Volumes 151154).    

    Our index

    From 1856 annual birth, death and marriage indexes were created to enable Registry staff to locate registrations. Marriages were indexed under both the bride's and groom's name. Re-registrations, legitimations, adoptions and late registrations were usually indexed twice, once in the year the event occurred and once again in the year the event was registered. There has never been any linking of birth records to subsequent marriages or deaths, nor between children and families.

    In 1912 a consolidated Index to the Volumes containing the 1787 to 1855 baptism, marriage and burial records was created to replace the numerous separate indexes in existence. The miscellaneous births and deaths were included in this index.

    The index lists key identifying information and the registration or volume number. It has never included mother's maiden name (births), place of event or spouse's name (deaths).

    Late registrations

    The original 1856 Act establishing the process of civil registration required that a child's birth be registered within sixty days and it prohibited the District Registrar from registering the birth after six months. Given that many people lived long distances from a town and may have only visited irregularly, there were many children who did not have their births registered. Some of these children were baptised and these records were collected by the Registry in the 1912 reconciliation. Others were recorded by way of a Declaration (see information after Legitimations).

    It was not until 1935 that the Act was changed to permit the Registrar General to register the birth of a child at any time. A large number of births which had occurred prior to 1918 were now registered. A cross reference was entered into the index in the year of birth to assist Registry staff locate the entry.


    In 1902 the Legitimation Act was passed. This Act allowed a District Registrar to re-register the birth of an illegitimate child, whose parents had subsequently married, to include details of the father and the parent's marriage. The Act did have the qualification that this could only be done providing there was no legal impediment to the marriage at the time the child was born.

    Many parents now had their children's birth registered, or, when the child's birth had not originally been registered at the time of birth, registered under the new Act (between 1902 and 1935 it was possible for legitimations to be registered late but not other births).

    These new registrations were entered into the registers of the year the legitimation took place and the "old" pre-legitimation registration was cancelled. The new number was indexed in both the year of birth and the year of legitimation.

    Despite the advantages of the new arrangement, the problem remained for the married parents of an illegitimate child who had been unable to marry at the time of the child's birth because of some legal impediment. In 1913 arrangements were made to allow these parents to record their marriage details by way of a Declaration.


    In 1913 administrative arrangements were made to assist people unable to register the true details of their child's birth and parentage because of inadequacies in the legislation. Three areas of concern were:

    • Parents who had not registered their child's birth within six months. Legislation was amended to accommodate this in 1935.
    • Parents who were unable to legitimate their child, despite their subsequent marriage, because there had been a legal impediment to their marriage at the time of the child's birth. This anomaly was not remedied until the introduction of the Commonwealth Marriage Act in 1961.
    • Foster parents who had "adopted" a child and were unable to have their own details recorded in any form on the child's birth registration. Legal adoptions were not introduced until 1924.

    The system of Declaration allowed the necessary details to be formally declared and recorded by the Registrar General. No formal registration was created, however certified copies of these declared details were issued. Declarations were indexed along with normal registrations in the year the birth occurred, although there are some instances when the index entry appears in the year the declaration was made without any cross reference to the year of birth. Over 4,000 Declarations are held by the Registry. Unfortunately, some contain little information about events.


    Papers are files containing the details of births, deaths and marriages provided to the Registry, which were insufficient to allow a registration to be effected. Following notification that an event had occurred, the Registry created an index entry and opened a file while attempts were made to obtain further information. In some cases the Papers include letters without supporting documents, incomplete forms or notes of verbal advice received by the Registry. Many Papers contain no information other than the index entry.