Patients with groin herniae do not always seek medical advice and, when listed for surgery, often wait many months for elective repair. We audited our emergency admissions for complicated groin herniae to establish whether a change in policy for elective surgery could lower their incidence. We performed a retrospective review of all admissions for complicated groin herniae from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2001. Besides outcome, we recorded patients' awareness of their diagnosis before admission and whether they had been listed for elective surgery. We identified 19 patients (16 men and three women) with an inguinal and 19 (four men and 15 women) with a femoral hernia. Sixteen (42%) knew of their hernia before admission (11 inguinal and five femoral), but only three had been awaiting surgical repair for 1, 7 and 26 weeks, respectively. The median (interquartile range) age was 70 (54–84) years in inguinal and 79 (64–88) years in femoral herniae. Surgery was performed in all but an 84-year-old man who died pre-operatively. Two patients with inguinal and 11 with femoral herniae required a laparotomy (p = 0.006). Bowel resection was necessary in one patient with an inguinal and 12 with femoral herniae (p = 0.001). Complications occurred in 12 cases (31%). Four patients, all with femoral herniae, died post-operatively, for an overall mortality of 13% (5/38). Morbidity and mortality for complicated groin hernia, particularly femoral, remain high. As most patients were elderly and unaware of their diagnosis, reducing waiting times for elective repair is unlikely to influence the incidence of complicated herniae.