The National Archives’ Audrey Collins takes civil registration as her topic and reveals some of the little-known facts and stories behind the records.
Civil registration and beyond – British Sign Language Video
Okay, the talk today is about “Civil registration and Beyond” and it’s basically what I feel like talking about, really. It’s not the basics of the births, marriage and deaths and how to do your family history – there are lots of other places where you can find out about that. There are websites, there are books, there is loads and loads of stuff in print. What I am going to cover today is a lot of things that you probably didn’t know, some of it about the background and some of it just about some lesser known facts, things that interest me really. I am self confessed civil registration nerd and I have been picking away at this subject, mainly in the records that are held here in this building in Kew. I am just finding out really what went on behind the scenes at Somerset House for want of any better subtitle.
This is the man, Thomas Henry Lister, who is the first Registrar General and he really got the thing going; didn’t go a bad job actually and had pretty good idea of what was required and It wasn’t his fault that the treasury never ever gave him enough money, or his successors, to do the job to what they considered to be its full potential. In fact, from as early as 1838 when they were starting to compile the very first actual indexes, they were already writing to the treasury saying ‘please can we have more money.’ Because, rather like when you put a completely new set of records online, in modern parlance, nobody quite knows what is going to happen until you actually open the flood-gates and see what develops. And starting civil registration was a bit like that, nobody quite knew what sorts of numbers were going to be involved and it was all a bit “finger in the wind”. Very early on they had far more than they could cope with and they never ever really caught up. So that’s a plea for the poor old beleaguered staff at the General Register Office.
I am going to give you little bit of the background about why and how civil registration came about in the first place. And a couple of glimpses into what might have been – and a couple of things that might have been done differently – and also some common misconceptions, one in particular, and just some interesting facts. Things I think are interesting, and I hope you will find them interesting too. Even though this won’t tell you how to do research and how to use civil registration records, I think if you know a bit about what went into creating them in the first place, I think understanding them might help you in actually using them if you want practical application for this, but I hope you just find it interesting.
This is some of the background, and this is a long chronology here. There were attempts throughout the 1830s (and trust me, the politics behind this is utterly fascinating – yes it is). You had the Whigs and the Tories. The Church of England is often described as the “Tory party at prayer”, and in the 1830s that was a fairly apt description. And if you want to put it fairly crudely, the conservatives – the establishment – were very happy with the way things were, thank you. They liked the Church of England having an effective monopoly on the legal registration of birth, marriages and deaths. Because although it wasn’t compulsory – you will see in some books written by people who should know better that registration in the Church of England was compulsory – it wasn’t, but it did have a legal status that no other religious denomination had.
Even people like the Quakers, who were exempt from having to marry in the Church of England; even people like those, who kept fantastically good records, it didn’t matter how good they were, they didn’t have the legal status that any messy, horrible, badly-kept Church of England register had, just because it was the established church. Set against this were, roughly speaking, the Whigs, the non conformists, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Unitarians, all the rest of them, who were very keen on having some sort of civil registration because it would be an alternative to having to use the Church of England to make your documents legal. So they wanted to be able to go and marry without having to go and stand in front of a Church of England vicar, with your fingers crossed behind your back making oaths in the Church of England that you weren’t really comfortable with, but you needed to do that for your children to be legitimate.
And these are a couple of the attempts: there was an attempt in 1832, and that got amended by committee. Now this is a great parliamentary game, which goes on still today, that one house – in this case the House of Commons, which had a Whig majority – would formulate a nice bill for civil registration and that would go to the committees, and incidentally would also go the House of Lords, and then it would be picked to bits by the people who didn’t like it. You couldn’t keep on doing this indefinitely; otherwise there would never be an end to anything. So, once you got something that had been back and forth a couple of times, you had to either go with it – pass it into law, if you had a commons majority – or drop it and start again. And this is what happened in 1832. There was a bill and it was mangled out of all recognition so the government dropped it. In 1834 there was another attempt and then that was mucked about with as before. And then in 1836, there was another one and this is one that eventually got through. And it was, by common consent really, a bit of a pig’s breakfast – but it was the best they were going to get. It had got to the stage where it either had to be passed into a law or it would be lost yet again.
So the Whig government decided that although it had been mucked about with – there was one wonderful little booby trap that was put in by the House of Lords, which was that marriages in church were most commonly after banns, which were read out three successive Sundays in the church where you were going to get married and also in the other, if the bride and groom came from two different parishes, it would be read in both parish churches. Well, setting up civil marriage was a secular equivalent of this and somebody pointed out that there was therefore no … because it wasn’t a church marriage there was no suitable gathering where the banns could be called out, or the secular equivalent of banns could be called out.
But because civil registration has been based on the boundaries and the administrative framework of Poor Law Unions which had just been setup a couple of years before, someone in the House of Lords, when it was amended, came up with a brilliant idea that these notices to marry could be read out at the meetings of boards of guardians of the Poor Law Union. So that was really getting the marriage off to an auspicious and elegant start and was probably just one more reason why people were reluctant to use register office marriages. That particular bit of the law was repealed in 1840 but if you look up the guardian’s minutes for that intervening period you do see occasional notices of marriage being read out.
In practice, civil marriages were very rare; there were far more marriages that took place in non-conformist places of worship, but with a registrar present. People marrying in the actual register office itself were still fairly rare to begin with. In fact, it wasn’t always clear if always register office was, because registrars to start with – in fact for very nearly a century – were not salaried, they were part time. They might be full time if they earned enough from their registration activities but essentially they were paid on piecework. So they would set up business at their normal business premises, very often these people who were the registrars of births, deaths, marriages or superintendent registrars were actually Poor Law Union officials, or they were local tradesmen. So in England you could literally get married by the blacksmith, I suppose, because there were people of all trades who were registrars.
Anyway that’s the reason why the infamous 1836 Birth, Marriage and Death Acts are not very satisfactory. And they said, more or less, ‘well, we’ll get it into law at least, that’s a start, and then we can sort it out later.’ Well apart from couple of very small tinkerings, including this thing in 1840 where they took the notices of marriage out of the Poor Law meetings, it didn’t really get changed substantially for about another 40 years, but then that’s the speed that sometimes government departments work at.
Now this is what might have been: this is from 1831, well the 1832, it started 1831. This is a proposal for what a birth certificate might look like. And you’d got there, very familiar to anybody who has seen a modern birth certificate; you have got the date of birth, you have got the father’s name and occupation and address, and you have got details of the mother including her maiden name; you have got the date and place of the parents’ marriage, which is wonderful – of course you get that on a Scottish certificate as a matter of course, but I will not dwell on that for those of you have the misfortune to not be Scottish – and then the name of the child. Something which might be familiar to people who have ancestors in Yorkshire or Durham, these are what we call the Dade registers, where you don’t just get the name of the child but where they come in the family, and the exact place of birth as well, and then details of the informants. So it looks quite a bit like the certificates that eventually came into being. But wouldn’t it have been nice if we had the date and the place of marriage thing and order in the family? Ah, well that didn’t happen.
Neither did this. This is from the second attempt and this is what a birth might have looked like under that. Now this is cut down a bit. Again. it looks very, very like a modern certificate. In fact, it pretty much is, except that it gives you the name of the father and name and the maiden name of mother. Which in most cases is absolutely fine, but if the parents weren’t married you wouldn’t be alerted by that certificate, whereas, if you are sharp eyed, on a regular English certificate you will see whether the parents were married or not.
And then there is a death one, which again is very similar to the ones that did come in 1837. You have got the name of the person who died and date of death, the sex, the age, where born (now wouldn’t that be nice!). Well we do get that, but you had to wait till 1969 to get that on an English death certificate, so that was ahead of its time in a sense. What you might notice though, what doesn’t appear on that proposed death certificate, was the cause of death. That did come in; that was added in at very late stage in the discussions.
It’s very easy to forget that civil registration was actually set up almost for genealogical purposes really. The functions of the General Register Office very quickly got taken over by the statisticians and it later became part of the Office of Population, Censuses and Statistics, which later became the Office for National Statistics. And the statistical branch was very, very important and influential in the workings of the General Registrar Office but it wasn’t actually there right at the very beginning and that was not the idea when it started.
The point of civil registration, the justification for it in fact, was to provide proof of relationships, proof of descent; it actually was for genealogical purposes, believe it or not. The trouble is it was aimed at people who knew what they were looking for and they were just trying to prove it. It actually turned out not to be terribly suitable for people who were trying to find stuff out from a standing start. And the great bone of contention is that ‘why can’t we look at the certificate without buying the blessed things for seven pounds a throw or more?’ And it is entirely down to a bit of wording in that 1836 act that said ‘information will only we give in form of a certified copy of an entry in the register.’ And it’s the ‘C’ word that does it: “certified” copy.
Nearly 20 years later, when the civil registration was setup in Scotland – and then another decade after that when it started in Ireland – the acts relating to that refer to extracts, not certified copies. So that is why, if you are looking in Scottish records, not only are they more detailed but they are not handicapped by this certification clause. Now, I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that yet I haven’t found any correspondence or reference as to why that was left out of the Scottish act, but thank goodness, from my own entirely personal selfish point of view, thank goodness it was.
Now once civil registration got underway, first of all nobody quite knew how it was going to work. This is what always happens when you have a brand new system. The first thing that happens is pretty much confusion. You prepare as best you can, and Mr Lister actually did a fair old job of working out the framework. But the first thing that happens is confusion, accompanied by disobedience and dislike of change and there was quite a lot of that. Now some of it was just people who were: ‘we don’t like change. What’s wrong with the old method?’ and after a while were quite happy to fall in with it. But there were some people who had an absolute principled objection who were not having this and were going to comply under protest, kicking and screaming, and from the comfort of a jail cell if necessary.
There were a number of groups of people. Church of England clergy, by no means all of them – most Church of England were decent law abiding people – while they might have not liked the new law, they would go along with it. Maybe not enthusiastically but they would comply. But there were a few, a hard core, who really set out to make as much trouble as they possibly could. One of them comes up quite a lot in the correspondence: the Reverend Boyle of Wolverhampton. So if anyone has any ancestors whose records they are having trouble finding in Wolverhampton in the late 1830s, early 1840s, you probably have Reverend Boyle to blame for that. His name crops up quite often and in fact he crops up once and the description – his name isn’t given – but the description makes it so clear that that’s who they are talking about. He really, by that time, needed no introduction. And there are lots of reports from poor, beleaguered registrars who are desperately doing their best to try to get all these births registered and are having trouble because the clergymen is going around and saying, ‘No, no, you don’t need to register. In fact, you shouldn’t register. You will go to hell if you register’, and all sorts of things like that.
Most of them just confine themselves to making trouble, but there were one or two who actually printed outright lies and there is a little pamphlet in the British Library, which was published by a very troublesome clergyman…I’m not sure if it was actually libellous because it wasn’t again a particular person, I am not sure if you can liable an organisation, but either way, it was extremely troublesome and you get lots of reports of people refusing to give information; giving the information and refusing to sign the register book and some of them were obviously organised by local clergymen.
A clergyman called Cooper, in 1838, was averse to registering and was trying to dissuade other parents; ‘scarcely an educated person throughout the parish would give me the information’, but that same registrar had very few problems than any other parishes. So the non compliance was quite high, but it was very, very localised. So you would find it would be literally be one parish or maybe couple of parishes within in a district. It wasn’t evenly spread all over the country.
One common misconception, in fact, is that the rate of registration or non-registration was very high up to 1874 (of which more later). The actual rate of non-registration was worked out by the government statistician, no less, Dr. Farr. Overall, in that first 40 years or so of civil registration, it was about seven per cent; this was the total rate of non registration. This is comparing with parishes returns of baptisms, with figures gained from the census and tried and tested statistical techniques, whatever they are. And he worked out it was about seven per cent overall, but this is skewed towards the very early period – the 1830s and 1840s – and in particular, some areas – and these were rather what you would expect – places like Cornwall and Wales, where the landscape is not very conducive to popping round to the registrars.
In those early days the registrars would go and visit people. In fact, they had an interest in doing it, they were paid on piecework. So the more births they got registered, the more they earned. So they had every incentive to make sure that everyone was rounded up and registered. But because they were part-time and they had other jobs in most cases, there was no guarantee that the registrar would be where you hoped he would be. So imagine if you were a farm worker, in mid-Wales, in winter, are you really going to trudge however many miles it is to the nearest town, just on the off-chance that the registrar would be there – and not off on his round somewhere because he was a local doctor or the relieving officer for the Poor Law Union? You probably had better things to do. So you might not be averse to the notion of registering but it wasn’t something you were going to go to lot of trouble to do.
So you get that in remote areas where the geography is against you and also in very, very crowded inner city slum areas. It would be a very brave registrar that would venture into a slum full of people when there was scarlet fever epidemic going on, for example. Okay, he would register an awful lot of deaths but he was taking a hell of a chance. And that is precisely where of course you get newly arrived immigrants – in the east end of London from Europe, or in Liverpool, in Manchester, recently arrived people from Ireland who had no idea about this registration carry on.
So, if people say, ‘Oh, before 1875, registration wasn’t compulsory so you might not find a birth registration’, that is just not the case. The other thing about that was that people seize on the phrase that says ‘people may register’ and say, ‘ah, it wasn’t compulsory, it was optional’. But if you read on to the next line in the act it then points out what will happen to you, you can get be prosecuted if you don’t register. Basically the onus was on the parents to do the registration, but the registrar had a great financial incentive to make sure that he found out and got the information from them. When the 1874 act came in the onus was on the registrar.
Now I’ve mentioned the Church of England clergy. Doctors, who are a very independent minded bunch, again, a lot of them were perfectly fine, but there were a few who very antagonistic towards the notion of civil registration and were influential people. So, if you get somebody who is a doctor, he is somebody the community will look up to, you hope, and if he is disseminating a particular opinion than you might be inclined to go along with it.
There were one or two coroners as well who were very averse to the act, and who could see nothing in the act that required them to register. One of them – a coroner – was Mr. Marshall in Kettering and he said in 1838 he absolute refused to sign any death registers because he could see nothing in the act that required him as a coroner to sign. And he was quite right, because the list of informants for births and deaths was quite a decent list that they came up with, but of course you never think of everything the first time around. So although most coroners were quiet happy to comply, if you got an independent or awkward-minded person then that’s what would happen. So there were some coroners and one or two lawyers and various others.
Some people just had a really, really principled objection to it. [Shows image] One of them, and I love this very much, this is a letter absolutely heart felt letter from a Mr. Edward Crooks, who was a tailor in Ashton-under-Lyme. And in 1838 he refused to register the birth of his child, and he refused to do so until the law compelled him. He wrote to the registrar or ‘register-er’ as he puts it, Mr. Thomas Hilton. I rather get breathless reading this because he used no punctuation
‘Having received your communication to me respecting the registration of my child I state to you in the following terms. Full stop – that’s the one punctuation mark he uses. I am very sorry that you’ve had the trouble and seen out the expense of paper and ink for this case which would have done very well without when you were at my house last Friday I told you that the child had been registered in one place and should not be registered in more I think that was enough without you sending me any letter for either me or my wife to come down to you to register the child I tell you candidly that neither me nor my wife will come down and nor shall you register the child at all so you can write to the Register General in London as soon as you please I would rather be hanged in gibbets than you should register the child I am not that sort of person that wishes to bring children chargeable to a parish before they can eat a bit of bread neither will I do while I can do for them myself besides my friend all the children we shall have I intend to take them to the parish church and have them baptised and registered properly so that when I want any of the registers for any purpose I have only to apply to the parish clerk and he would find them me for payment which I am always willing besides I have been informed as I told you at my house that you indented to put me in Kirkdale prison for 2 years if I didn’t give you the every information respecting the birth of my child without any just cause or provocation whatsoever which has put me about so much that I will now give you the chance to put me either in Kirkdale or any other prison in the world during my natural life for you shall never register any of my children so long as you live as I do remain sir yours respectfully Mr. Edward Crooks very respectfully.’
I kind of respect that; I mean it was very, very heartfelt. Nobody put him up to that letter, that was all him. But the poor old registrars had terrible difficulty in those early days. It did calm down a bit, but very soon moved on to other thing that happens when you have a new system, which is people figure out how it works, what the angles are, and then you get all the frauds kicking in, but that’s a different talk altogether, so maybe some other time.
Now I mentioned 1874, and this was the big tidy-up act, and it was a very significant act. First thing which I’ve now mentioned: register offices had fixed hours of business. If you were a registrar – whether you were superintendent registrar who is in charge of the whole district and who could register births, marriages and deaths, or one of the local registrars who could do births and deaths – you had to have a fixed place of business. Now it didn’t have to be the registry office, which incidentally was very often the office of the clerk to the board of guardians who was usually also the superintendent registrar. It might be your place of business if you were a tailor, an upholsterer – people of all occupations were registrars.
There was a nice table that was produced relating to 1881 for all the different occupations that were followed by the registrars and it’s quite fascinating. Most of them were Poor Law Union officials, quite a lot of them were doctors, quite a lot of them were lawyers, but then you get a whole lot of others. You get all sorts of trades-people, and you even get some labourers and pretty much every occupation you can think off – even some clergy. Mostly non conformist but you do get the occasional Church of England clergymen, so they weren’t all hostile.
So, that was one significant thing, that there was a registrar office where you could go to and you could rely on , you hoped, the registrar being present – it might only be an afternoon a week or something like that – but at least it was fixed advertised time. You could still have registrar come to your house to register a birth in person but you had to pay a shilling for that, so I am sure posh people did that just because they could afford it. But generally speaking, that smartened that up a bit, and did make it a bit easier for people.
There were some changes to the registration of births. Again the wording was such that the… it was tightened up so that it was now quite unambiguous. It was compulsory. But people had been prosecuted before and in fact hand bills were made up with reports of the various prosecutions where people had refused to sign the register book or had refused to give information at all. So there were some before 1874, they were quite well publicised to encourage the others. But the law was tightened up, the wording was tightened up, there was a slightly wider range of people ware now entitled to be informants. So that made it a little bit easier.
Then there were various other small details. There were changes to registration of deaths, and this, I think, was probably even more significant, because one of the great things about civil registration is meant to be that it’s much more thorough than parish baptisms, marriages and burials, because baptisms, marriages and burials are not to the same as births, marriages and deaths. Okay, a marriage is a marriage, is a marriage, you have to turn up and somebody says a few words. But a baptism could be long time after birth, or it might never occur at all. And a death and a burial are not the same. Okay, for practical purposes the burial usually takes place pretty fast after the death, but it is not the same thing.
So civil registration was more thorough; it absolutely applied to everybody, even if they wouldn’t touch the Church of England with a pair of tongs. But there was one flaw and that is: to have a baptism you need a baby, or at least a person. To have a burial you need a body, and the regulations regarding the registration of deaths in the early days were quite good. You weren’t suppose to bury somebody unless you actually had a death certificate and because it was not necessary practical to leave an unburied corpse while somebody ran off to find the registrar, churchmen were allowed to conduct the burial of somebody without a death certificate, provided they then informed the registrar. Again, that was complied with more or less. It was a bit iffy in the early years, but it was much better than the births, so no great problems.
The problem was in another direction altogether. Because…you need a body to have a burial, but you don’t actually need a body to get a death certificate. At least you didn’t until 1875 when this act came into force. You could go along to the registrar and say, ‘aunty is dead’, and he’d say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, give me the details’, and away you go with a perfectly legal certificate with a seal on it, and the possibilities for fraud were quite considerable. Once the 1874 act was passed, that was tightened up; you actually needed medical certification of death. So a doctor had to see the body or there then had to be a coroner’s inquest, so that tightened it up an awful lot. So, it cut down the fraud pretty much, although, it did encourage a little bit of murder because you couldn’t sign up your imaginary relatives in burial clubs and then cash in and get the money.
You actually had – because you needed a body to get the death certificate – you actually had to sign up a real person, and then bump them off. But there was a lot less of that went on than there were the imaginary ones, but there were certainly some cases. There was one particularly grizzly pair of women known as the Black Widows of Liverpool and there is a book about them. I think it was the 1880s that they bumped off quite a lot of people and there were very strong suggestions that they were the ones who got caught and these were the only particular charges they could hang on them. So, again, that’s a whole other subject, but very delightful.
Now, some figures. And this is just going back to what I said about 1874. Even quite reputable books, books written by people who are quite well known, and, as I said, should know better, will say that birth registration wasn’t compulsory until 1875. And one person (whom I will not name) actually said that the rate of registration went up sharply then. Well, this is a chart that will show you the number of registrations from 1870 through to 1880 and these are – I haven’t got the exact numbers on here – but the diagram is pretty much, reasonably accurate.
So that’s 1870, then 1871 – a few more. Going up a little bit – 1872; a fairly even sort of a curve, then 1874; and then the next one coming up, 1875; this is the year the act comes into operation, when the law is tightened up, and what would you expect to happen here? I don’t want to sound like a game show host; I don’t actually want the audience going “higher, higher”. [Laughter] But this is what actually happened – the number of birth registrations actually fell slightly. It’s only a very small decrease and it’s not really statistically significant, I would say. But the point is it did not shoot up, so it’s quite significant.
In 1876 seems to have recovered a bit from it’s hiccup and it’s gone up slightly more. And then ’77, back down a little bit; ’78, up again; ’79 and ’80, again down slightly. But you see there is a gradual increase in the population from 1870 to 1880. Again, if you want to compare the census statistics, they are not absolutely spot on because you get people leaving the country and people arriving. So you’re not exactly comparing like with like, but basically the 1874 act did not make any significant difference to the rate of birth registrations. Please write this out 100 times before doing any more family history research. [Laughter] This is part of a concerted campaign to spread the word about the myth of 1874, so please tell all your friends.
This is just a little bit of fun: an empty marriage. This is an example of a certificate that somebody showed to me. It’s a marriage certificate and it looks pretty much like a lot of other marriage certificates that and I’m sure many of you will have ordered. Except that it’s full of holes really; it doesn’t say what church it was, what town or county it was in. The only clue is at the bottom is it was in the Huddersfield registration district but that’s only because the GRO typed on, as they do, when they issued the certificate. Even better there was no, there are no names of the bride or groom; there is no date of marriage. So I think the clergyman have been well into his second bottle of port when he made that particular copy. You might wonder how anyone would be able to find that and be able to order it. But, for some reason, he did actually manage to fill in where the signatures of the bride and the groom should be, and the witnesses, so it got into the GRO indexes.
It actually shouldn’t have been issued though because when the GRO issue birth, marriage and death certificates, most of the time you will get something that looks like this: it’s a photocopy onto the official certificate blank, with the seal and so forth. And occasionally you will get the one that is typed or handwritten. Now, usually you get a typed or handwritten one when the original is of very poor quality, and this tends to happen for the earlier years of registration. It’s very hard to read so they blow it up on a big screen, look at it very carefully and they do the best they can and they will give you a handwritten copy.
But the other time when they are supposed to do that, is if there are bits missing. Now, in this case the significant thing is the name of the church. Now the indexes at the General Registrar Office are made up from the copies of the certificates that were sent to them every quarter – they’re called the quarterly returns – from every registrar and from every clergyman who has performed any marriages. And the returns that they sent, they were on blanks that looked exactly like your register pages, except they were loose sheets and not from bound books. And a clergyman, particularly if he had a large parish, or was very lazy, would write the name of the church, maybe in the very first one, but he wouldn’t repeat it on all of the others. Which makes sense, because if you’re paying for your own ink, and you’ve got arthritis, you don’t want to write anymore than you absolutely need to.
So it is not that unusual to find that the church is left blank, in which case the GRO are supposed to give you a printed or a handwritten copy because they can’t take this and then add bits into it, because they would be breaking the law, because that would be interfering with the certified copy. But, just occasionally, one will slip through the net. When they do it’s a nice little curiosity. So my friend gave this to me and I photocopied it and I have kept it for posterity and to shame at GRO. But they do very occasionally slip out like this , and I think he went back and got them to do a proper copy but still, it would interesting to see what they actually came up with. But it shows in sort of thing that can happen.
Now that’s Somerset House, and I did go in to Somerset house and look at the birth, marriage and death books just once in 1972. It was a long time ago and I wasn’t really doing family history then, but I m glad that I can say, ‘oh yes, I have been there’. I went in there, I went on the mezzanine and I looked at the books. In fact there were four of us doing one search there was plenty of room for us to do it. It was really, really quiet. And this is a bit of the inside of the Somerset house. This picture is actually captioned in the picture library that provided it, and it’s appeared in magazines – it’s appeared in ‘History Today’ – as: “General Register Office clerks indexing the 1861 census.”
Well, that’s wrong on a number of levels. I think if they had indexed the 1861 census, then I think we probably would have noticed. Apart from anything else, the census work wasn’t carried on in Somerset House. That was, in this period, a building called Craig’s Court, which was a row of terraced Georgian houses near Trafalgar Square; and that is not a small Georgian house, that’s the inside of the Somerset House. What these men are actually doing, if you look over the shoulders of the ones in the foreground, is, you can see, they are actually writing up pages of the GRO indexes….
It makes Somerset House look awfully nice though. It looks a jolly civilized place to work – nicely individual Victoria angle-poised lamps, and nice men sitting there in their nice business suits. The reality of Somerset house wasn’t quite that rosy. As Jill said at the beginning, we are trying to recreate the conditions here. It’s a very nice building to look at, it’s very imposing, but it was not ideal to work in. Considering it was purpose-built as offices and various government departments and other organisations had their offices there, but it was too hot in summer, it was too cold in winter. There was at least one infestation of rats and of course it was awfully close to the river, which is not a great place to be in high summers in the 1840s. And apart from one or two bits which were rather grand, like this big mezzanine gallery, it was a series of awkward little interconnected rooms which was not conducive to a smooth work flow. So it wasn’t a great place to work
It wasn’t a great place to work for a variety of other reasons as well. You can’t always get the staff, basically. Now in the very early days, as I said, poor Mr. Thomas Lister had no real idea for what the demand was going to be – what the take up would be for civil registration, and how many staff he would need. And if you’re not sure how many staff, you need and you might need to get rid of them quickly, what do you do? You employ temps. And the men who did the original indexes in the first couple of years, who worked on the collecting and copying and indexing, they were agency temps. They came from a firm of law stationers called Grosvenor & Chater who had a nice sideline in hiring out staff to do temporary office work. I had no idea that sort of thing went that far back. It may go even further for all I know, I haven’t found out yet, but since the General Register Office only came into being in 1836, technically I’ve got no interest in anything that happens any earlier than that.
And they did carry on using temporary workers for a number of purposes; most famously, the clerks who worked on the censuses. Every census year the census office had to be setup from scratch – it needed a Census Act. Once the act was passed and they got the go ahead, they would employ a whole army of temps. Some of them came back census after census, but they were temporary workers. They also employed temporary workers in other bits of General Register Office and once they got going a bit then they did employ regular staff. And from the mid-1840s onwards essentially you have got a sort of fairly stable work force – if not a solvent one.
Now one of the problems with being the General Registrar Office is that you’re a bit of a jumped-up Johnny-come-lately department – you’re not going to get crème de la crème. If you’re an ambitious young man and you want to go into the civil service, you want to go into the Admiralty, or the Home Office or the Treasury – one of the big sexy departments like that, where a man can make a name for himself. Not this sort of little pre-fab thing, that’s just been stuck on the outside. So they didn’t necessarily get the best staff. And another complication was that they didn’t get to recruit their own staff either. The staff were actually recruited and supplied by the Treasury, and the General Register Office just had to take what it was given. And sometimes what it was given really wasn’t very good at all. So there was certain amount of discontentment about that.
And the Registrar General who followed Thomas Lister was George Graham who was a great hero of mine, I think he did a wonderful job, considering. He was also quite quotable, and he is talking about employing temporary staff, and he says:
‘In some offices where there is occasionally a sudden temporary influx of work requiring speedy attention, I know the system of writers supplied by law stationers who, as middle men, abstract a large share of the poor writers’ hard earnings in payment for the law stationer’s patronage, I am also acquainted with the system of employing boys from 13 to 16 years of age at very low wages and then discharging them. But I do not approve of either system in established government offices. I have a great experience of temporary clerks and boys in a temporary office, having had under my control 105 temporary clerks, 37 of whom were not 20 years old. If temporary clerks and writers and boys are on day-pay they may be placed at desks, but no amount of supervision can obtain from all of them a good day’s work. They know that the more work they execute in a day, the sooner their temporary employment will cease and they will be again turned adrift. Therefore it is in their interest to do as little work as possible.’
Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on temporary workers, I’ve been one myself, but someone, who until fairly recently actually worked for the General Register Office, was reasonably senior, that had started as a temp, said that in his early days they employed a lot of temps – I think in the 1970s – and then they didn’t quite have enough work for them to do, but they didn’t want to let them go, for whatever reason, so they hit on a sort of a job creation scheme. And they said; ‘well, you know those grubby old parchment books – some of them have got pencil scribble marks on them? Here are some rubbers; can you just rub them out?’ And that’s what they did.
Now, I found this out because I discovered, from my nerdy anorak-y research, that when the clerks had compiled the indexes, who literally wrote out the parchment indexes in their more or less nice copperplate writing, they were issued eight pages at once and they had to sign for them. Then, when they had done them, they had to put their initials on the top, in pencil, so when the work was checked – which believe it or not it was checked, not as much as it should have been but it was – when it was checked, they knew whose it was.
When you used to look at the old books, sometimes you would see at the top of the page, you would the initials of the clerk who’d actually had written that page and sometimes you would see the initials of the senior clerk who had done the checking; and sometimes you could see the number of mistakes they found circled, but you would only find that sometimes. I mentioned this to the search room supervisor and he said, ‘Ah, yes, well, when I was a temp in the ’70s…’ [Laughter] So that’s how I know what those pencil marks were and why you don’t always see them. You don’t see them at all anymore, except a few that I managed to take photographs of before the place was closed. But that was a little bit of history that civil servants were being paid to literally, erase. So that’s the temporary workers.
Anyway, the permanent workers though, sometimes they didn’t fair an awful lot better with those. Now in 1850s, in particular, they seemed to have terrible problems with clerks getting into debts. One of the problems with being a clerk was that you didn’t get paid very much, especially if you were in a lower grade department like the General Register Office you were not very well paid, but, as a middle class person, you had a certain standard to keep up…You had to be respectable; you had to have your nicely polished brass door knocker; you certainly wouldn’t want your wife to be going out to work. So they had a lot of financial pressure on them and actually not an awful lot of earning power. And also you get some of the younger clerks who weren’t married, would do as young men and older ones have always done – and will continue to do -sometimes would just spend more money than they have got. That’s not ever going to change in a hurry, I don’t think.
So, there were all sorts of problems. And this caused great problems in the office because you had terrible rate of absenteeism. Because, if you owed money to some big muscle-y men with tattoos, you could move house so that they wouldn’t know – they couldn’t find you at your lodgings – but if they knew where you worked, they could lay in wait and basically accost you on the way in or the way out. So you do get some unexplained absences, and it turns out that somebody has done a bunk because he owes a lot of money. Or, in one case, was actually imprisoned for debt. Or another was imprisoned, but that wasn’t for debt, that was for beating his wife.
So you had all of that, but the other thing that you got were clerks who were getting into debt and then their minds were not really on their work. And worse than that, they would sometimes draw other people into it with them. There was one, in 1855 – just picking more or less at random – a Mr. V- had debts of 953 pounds, 17 shillings and sixpence. That’s an awful lot of money in 1855 for a government clerk. Of this 953, 845 pounds, three and sixpence were bill transactions. Now I didn’t know what bill transactions were and I asked a couple of people and they didn’t know neither and someone suggested that maybe I should look in the law dictionary and I thought, ‘no I’d rather read something that is in English’, and I found what this actually was by sheer chance.
I was, as is my habit, I was just looking through a second-hand book-fair and I found one of the lovely Victorian “improving” stories called Commercial Tales. It’s full of very moral tales about how you shouldn’t stray from the narrow path of righteousness and if you’re tempted by drink and gambling, that way lies ruin. But it’s alright because if you are a good God-fearing Christian man and you see the light, you can claw your way back into the good grace. There is a wonderful little illustration in it, and also a description of what bill transactions were, and it’s basically a form of borrowing money at stupid rates of interest.
The idea is that you will borrow a certain sum of money, say 100 pounds. What you will actually get for your 100 pounds loan is you’ll actually get say 90 or 95 pounds, and in a month’s time, or two months or whatever, you then have to pay back the full 100 pounds. Now, of course, there is nobody quite as optimistic as the desperate borrower. People were often totally confident: ‘Oh, it’s alright, I’ll have the money in a month or have it in three months’, and of course they wouldn’t.
So, they would either take out another loan to cover this one and get themselves into ever worse trouble, or the alternative – and this is kind of way the drug dealers work, I think – if you go to your friendly neighbourhood loan shark, and say, ‘well, I can’t pay you back.’ Then your friendly neighbourhood loan shark will say; ‘well I can either break both your legs. Or, supposing you haul in some more suckers?’ and effectively you would pay off your own debts by dropping some other people in it, and this is what happened. This Mr. V- was not only bankrupt, but he’d also managed to implicate various other people. In fact, two brothers, and the father of these two brothers, were actually complaining to the Registrar General because – although it hadn’t gone on in the premises – one of his sons worked there and that’s how he came into contact with the detestable Mr. V- and his usurious dealings as a money lender and bill discounter. And one of these unfortunate sons actually was bankrupt, and there were various others.
There’s another, there’s Mr. R- . This is a bit earlier – 1847 – an order was made for deductions from his salary. He had been absent for no good reason. Well, it turned out there was a good reason for it – he was avoiding the big muscular men with the tattoos that were coming to get the money and so on and so on, and there are quite a lot of these.
But it wasn’t just the debts, sometimes there were various other unfortunate circumstances. Now, in that time there were virtually no pensions. Later on, there were some people who were eligible for pensions, but not very many. So, bottom line really, you carried on your working for as long as you can drag your poor old carcass into the office, because if you had no savings and no other income the alternative was pretty much the workhouse. So there are a few unfortunate cases where there were some men who kept turning up to work and they really shouldn’t have done.
There was a Mr. M-, again one of two brothers, he had joined the office in 1845, although he was not a young man then – he was aged about 53 in 1845. And this report on him in 1850 says: ‘He is not altogether free from paralytic affliction and is now in a deplorable state and it is not convenient that he should have an entire room devoted to his sole use.’ The Registrar General recommended his removal, but also a gratuity to basically pay him off and give him something to live on. The medical report that was commissioned said that he has ‘part paralysis of the left leg, almost total loss of vision in the left eye’ – well that’s just what you want with a clerk who’s writing indexes, never mind – ”irritability of the bladder, some incontinence. He says he has no mental affliction.” So he was not fun to be around. There was another one later on and I think who was actually even worse, who did have some sort of mental affliction as well and was even more unpleasant to be around. So, it’s difficult to do a good day’s work with all this going around you.
There was also…if anybody looked at the little bit of blurb, one of the things I picked up on is that, as well as registering deaths in Somerset House, there were also – to my knowledge so far – three actual deaths that took place there. One of them was terribly low key. Like any government building at that time there was a living onsite office-keeper, whose apartments were in Somerset House, and the poor man died in his own bed – its fairly unremarkable, it’s just he had an interesting address.
The next one, some years later, was a man who was fortunately reasonably senior and had an office to himself, but he was taken with a seizure of some kind, which may have been a stroke. King’s College Hospital was conveniently next door at the time and they got doctors in and looked at him. They decided he was terribly gravely ill – much too ill to be moved – not even to the hospital next door. So he lay there in his office for about two or three days before the poor man finally expired. Presumably the work of the office going on around him and up and down the corridors, while this poor man breathing his last.
The other one, much later – this is just into the twentieth century – it was a poor young man, and unusually for a death in England we know exactly the time of his death. He was a young clerk in Somerset House and he did have some sort of congenital heart problem. I don’t know if any one of you have ever been to a school or some place of employment where you have to sign in and at a certain hour a red line is drawn in the book – after which you are late. Well, he knew he was just pushing it a bit and he was running up the stairs about three at a time…just as the red line was being drawn. And that last sprint was sadly too much for him and he keeled over and collapsed and died. So whatever time it was that the red line was in the habit of being drawn that is precisely his time of death.
And I think that’s probably quite a good place to end it [laughter], except just to maybe point in the direction of few sources. Most of what I found out – that I’ve told you today – is from National Archive documents, mainly in Registrar General and Home Office series. The illustration there is a page from my very favourite document: RG 2098, which is a sort of compendium of useful information for the use in General Register Office. The House of Commons parliamentary papers have got all sorts of interesting things in, and I have gleaned quite a lot from newspapers – The Times Online is great because you can put all sorts of search terms in; and all sorts of other things. But I hope now if you look at birth, marriages and death indexes that you’ll maybe think a little about what went on behind them. They are documents, but they were compiled by people and some of them were quite interesting.
Thank you very much for listening.