If you treat the indexes as you would a telephone directory, searching them should become intuitive in no time at all. They are arranged alphabetically from A-Z. However, some comment is needed in respect of certain types of surname.
In the case of births and deaths, surnames beginning with Z may well be followed by a short sequence of registrations where the surname was unknown.
Mc and Mac
The methodology used by the GRO when indexing Mac and Mc surnames changed over time. Before June quarter 1969 these are indexed separately. However, from June quarter 1969 these surnames are interfiled, so that when searching June 1969 to December 1983 you must remember that they are all indexed as MAC. For example, MacDonald & McDonald are both indexed under MAC.
If the name you are researching is O’Reilly or O’Shea, you should be able to find entries quite simply in the O sequence as if the apostrophe in the surname were not there – so that, for example, O’Shea comes between Osgood and Osler.
These should be indexed after the entries for the first component of the hyphenated name. For example, you should look for Harvey-Smith after the Harvey entries. It would be after, say, Harvey-Jones but before Harvey-Wood. However, if a registrar or indexer did not interpret Harvey-Smith as a surname, but Harvey as a middle name and Smith as the surname, then the entry could be under Smith. It is not at all unusual to find that an indexer has erred on the side of caution and where in doubt entered the registration under both names in the index.
De or Le or St or Van / Van Der or Von names
If your name is, say, De Burgh or Le Jeune or St John or Van Horne or Van der Zyden or Von Essen, you should be listed under the first component of your name as if there were no space between the two components. For instance, De Burgh should therefore be in the index between surnames such as Debney and Debus.
The deaths of nuns are often entered not under their true given name but using the formula Sister Mary, Mother Maria and so on. These are then indexed under S for Sisters, M for Mothers etc. Sometimes, they appear to be entered under the forename, so that a Sister Cecilia might be indexed under Cecilia or under Sister.
Jewish and Eastern European names
Immigrants in, for example, the 1890s were unlikely to be literate in English and, of course, registrars in England & Wales were unlikely to be fluent in the native language of the immigrant, such as Yiddish, Polish or Russian. Russian, of course, uses a different alphabet and can be transliterated in different ways from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet used in English. Accordingly, you should be very cautious when looking for events under immigrant surnames and try to think of possible variants.
If you are researching a German name containing an umlaut, such as Müller, remember that you may need to check under Muller and Mueller.
Births of persons bearing hereditary titles should appear under the true given names but their deaths may well appear under their titles, while their marriages could be under either the true surname or the title, depending upon whether or not they have already assumed their title from the previous holder.
Births of royalty will usually be registered under their surnames – such as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Battenberg or Mountbatten, Windsor. For example, the 1926 birth of HM Queen was entered in the index as the name Elizabeth A M Windsor.