Registry records

Learn about the history of Registry records and how record keeping has changed over time.

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Established in 1856, the Registry holds more than 20 million birth, death and marriage records going back to 1788. Prior to the establishment of the Registry, records were held by churches and civil registrants.

Life events were recorded on paper and in less detail than we do today.

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Maintaining historic records

From quill and ink and leather bound registers, to today's computerised data, certificate formats have changed significantly over time.

The older records held by the Registry are incomplete if details were not provided at the time. Low levels of literacy in the community also led to spelling variations and other errors.

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 digital format and we need to retype it, we include all the amendments, corrections and annotations from the original register which the law allows.

1788 to 1855: early church records

Little information was included in the lists of baptisms, burials and marriages. Only the names, date and the place of event was usually recorded. 

As part of the efforts to regulate and improve the system of church registration, 8 Acts of Parliament were passed between 1825 and 1855 but little improvement was made.

We do not have original handwritten versions of church records and instead have transferred the information online.

The online index includes a code for the churches. See the list of early church codes.

1856 to 1951:digital copies of handwritten records

We convert original records that are in poor condition to a digital format.

Many marriage registers, particularly between 1856 through to the 1890s, do not show all the details which the church may still record. Some entries were updated based on information from church societies. 

From 1952 to today 

Records are either entered on a computer or printed copies of the typed or handwritten original registration are held on microfilm.

Information on certificates

Certificates issued before 1856

Certificates issued before 1856 include the following information.

  • 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 recorded 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.
  • Names, 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.
  • Some records have more detail such as ages and whether they were born in the colony or the name of the ship on which the parties arrived in the colony.
  • Name of deceased, their age, date of death or date of burial and 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.

Certificates issued after 1856

In general certificates issued after 1856 include the following information. 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Name of celebrant and witnesses.
  • Full name, sex, age, date and 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.

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 which means that not all life events in this period are recorded.

3 February 1787

First burial
James Bradley on board the Alexander.

20 April 1787

First birth
William Tilley on board the Lady Penrhyn

10 February 1788

First marriage
William Parr and Mary MacCormick corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets, Sydney. Recorded by Reverend Richard Johnson, chaplain to the first fleet.

Civil registrations

On 1 March 1856theAct for registering Birth, Deaths and Marriages came into effect. It established the compulsory requirement for district registrars to register all births, deaths and marriages in NSW.

So that events could be registered, the responsibility for providing details of an event to the district Registrar was given to:

  • a parent, for reporting a birth
  • a Minister, for a marriage and
  • the owner of a house in which a death occurred.

Initially the events were given in person and it was not until after World War 1 (1918) that written forms came into common use. The Registrar would copy the details from the forms into register books and allocate a unique registration number to the event.

In some districts the numbers would run sequentially for the whole year. In others, a new number series would start 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 bound the documents together.
  • The Sydney registrations were 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.

Our index

From 1856 annual birth, death and marriage indexes were created.

  • Marriages were indexed under both the bride's and groom's name.
  • Re-registrations, legitimations, adoptions and late registrations were usually indexed both in the year the event occurred and again when it 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).

Reconciling records

Incomplete birth and death records

While reconciling the early church records we 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.

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 151–154).

Late registrations

The original 1856 Act establishing the process of civil registration required that:

  • a child's birth be registered within 60 days and
  • the district Registrar could not register a birth after six months.

If the parents did not meet the deadline, the births were not registered. However if the child was baptised, these records were reconciled by the Registry in 1912. Others were recorded by way of a declaration.

In 1935 the Act was changed to allow births to be registered at any time. As a result, many births that had occurred before 1918 were registered and cross-referenced in the index with the year of birth.


In 1902 the Legitimation Act was passed to allow the re-registration of the birth of an illegitimate child – whose parents had subsequently married – to be updated to include details of the father and the marriage of the parents. This could only be done if there was no legal reason why the parents could not have married when the child was born.

  • These new records were entered in the year of the re-registration, and the original registration was cancelled.
  • The new number was recorded in both the year of birth and the year of re-registration.

In 1913, a change was made so that parents of an illegitimate child could record their marriage details by way of a declaration. This arrangement was for parents who had been unable to marry at the time of the birth for a legal reason, but had married later.


In 1913 arrangements were made so that the true details of a child's birth and parentage could be registered. This included:

  • parents who had not registered their child's birth within six months (legislation was amended for this in 1935)
  • parents who had not been able to marry due to a legal reason when their child was born (addressed by the Commonwealth Marriage Act in 1961)
  • foster parents who had informally adopted a child and were unable to record their details on the child's birth registration (legal adoptions were introduced in 1924).

A declaration allowed for details to be recorded by the Registry and although no formal registration was created, certified copies of the details were issued.

Declarations were indexed along with normal registrations in the year of the birth, although in some instances the index entry appears in the year the declaration was made without cross-reference to the year of birth.

More than 4000 declarations are held by the Registry however some contain little information about events.


When we receive insufficient details of births, deaths and marriages to register an event we describe the files provided to us as 'papers'.

On receiving information about an event, we would create an index entry, open a file, and attempt to obtain further details.

Many papers contain no information other than the index entry. In some cases the papers include:

  • letters without supporting documents
  • incomplete forms or
  • notes of verbal advice received by the registry.

Marine births and deaths

The registration of births and deaths at sea when travelling to NSW were included in the 1856 Act. The information recorded included the name of the ship, originating port and the location was given as the longitude and latitude of the ship at the time.

Marine births and deaths were originally bound into separate registers with a registration number beginning with an "M". Later in the century there were fewer births and deaths at sea and changes were made so that:

  • marine births from 1888, and marine deaths from 1894, continued to be registered on separate registration sheets and
  • the marine records were bound with all other records at the end of each year and allocated a registration number in sequence with other births or deaths.
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