To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:55:13

Early civil registration

Everyone researching 19th century English or Welsh ancestors is familiar with birth, marriage and death certificates, but how much thought do we give to the origins of the General Register Office which was created to look after these records? Not everyone was in favour, and the legislation passed in 1836 (Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836) was not the first attempt at setting up a system of civil registration. Its first few years were surprisingly turbulent, and files in The National Archives tell of the difficulties faced by the early registrars. Most people happily complied with the new law, but in some places these men encountered non-compliance, ignorance and, in one instance, riots!

Audrey Collins is a family history specialist at The National Archives. She is a regular speaker at family history conferences and events in the UK and overseas, and is the author of numerous books and articles. Her most recent publication is Birth, Marriage and Death Records: a guide for family historians (Pen & Sword 2012), which she co-wrote with Dave Annal.


Early civil registration: I’ve specifically given it the dates 1837 to 1875, 1837 being the date when civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in England and Wales, and 1875 was when the 1874 Act – which tidied up a lot of the things that were wrong with the original legislation – that made quite a number of changes. So I’ll focus just on the early years under the original sets of rules, some of which were a little conflicting and a little confusing.

Now you might wonder why The National Archives has got a talk about civil registration because these aren’t our records; these are General Register Office records. Well, yes and no. The birth, marriage and death records, the certificates, yes, they’re still held by the General Register Office, and that’s the only place where you can get them. But the General Register Office, [is] like any other government department, it keeps the records it needs to do its day-to-day job which, in the case of the GRO, is registering births, marriages and deaths [and] issuing certificates.

But it also deposits the records that it no longer needs. So we have a lot more about the history of the General Register Office than the General Register Office does – again, just like any other government department. And this is something that has fascinated me for a long time. When you start doing family history, in England and Wales at least, you start off using birth, marriage and death certificates.

And by the time you’ve done a bit of that and you look at the census and you go back into other records, parish records and earlier things, and you get completely sucked in. And it’s very easy to race through the civil registration bit, just getting the information that you need, without stopping to look at why those records are the way they are and how they got to be there. And I decided that this was actually quite interesting, and I couldn’t find very much in print about the real nuts and bolts of how civil registration came about and how it worked or didn’t work.

In fact there was a book published relating to a slightly later date, but it was called A Comedy of Errors by a man called Mike Foster. And he was examining in a lot of detail the marriage indexes and demonstrated how they were deficient. And he was comparing the indexes with the actual registers which are held by the GRO in Southport. And he came to some interesting conclusions, but he raised a lot of questions and he made some quite good educated guesses, most of which were wrong. But that wasn’t his fault. It was because the information that he needed wasn’t at the GRO up in Southport where they issue certificates from. It was here in The National Archives.

Having the advantage over him that I don’t live in New Zealand – I live within reach of The National Archives; that was before I came to work here, but even then I still lived within reach – so I was in a position to do a lot of research, looking in a lot of records deposited by the Registrar General’s Office and also by the Home Office which had oversight of the General Register Office to start with.

So what I want to cover in this session is a bit about civil registration and the background and what might have been, how it got to be there in the first place, a few common misconceptions and, I hope, some interesting facts because you can’t go rummaging in records with people’s correspondence and memos for decades and decades and decades without coming across a few interesting bits and pieces.

In 1832 there was a bill. And it was just a bill. It didn’t become an act. It didn’t get through parliament. And then in 1834 there was another one. And then in 1836 there was another one, and this is the one that got through. Now that’s a lot of text. It looks complicated, and it is. That’s rather the point. The 1832 bill, just for the registration of births, was amended by committee. Same thing happened to the 1834 to establish a general register of births, deaths and marriages. That was amended by committee and then amended on recommitment. And then the 1836 one, again that was generally mucked about with and changed on at least three occasions.

And it’s reasonably well known that this 1836 legislation was rather imperfect. But it got through because the alternative was losing it altogether. Now the background to this is that for several decades there had been moves to establish a secular, neutral, non-church system of registration of births, marriages and deaths. This had already been done in some other countries. One of the things Napoleon was good for was he did set up a fantastically good system of civil registration in France. So what you really hope is that your English ancestors managed to find their way across the Channel to die because you’ll get a much better death certificate there than you would if they’d stayed in England.

Civil registration was not a completely new idea, but it had some resistance. The people who were in favour of it were, on the whole, the Liberal or Whig tendency non-conformists because prior to that the Church of England, as the established church, pretty much had a monopoly. Church of England registers had – and still have – a special legal status that others don’t obviously have.

Even if you are a Methodist or Baptist and you keep fantastically good, detailed, meticulous registers, they still didn’t have the legal status of the worst, sloppiest, most blotted, messy, full of mistakes Church of England register. Because it belonged to the established church, it automatically had a legal status. And that is why before civil registration you will quite often find people whom you know or suspect to be of a non-conformist persuasion – possibly Roman Catholic and even, in some cases, Jewish – registering the births of their children in the Church of England, having them baptised, probably standing there with their fingers crossed behind their backs because that was the only way to get legal status.

Now for most people this wasn’t terrifically important. You didn’t have to produce evidence of your identity and your age in the way that we do today practically on a daily basis. But in some cases it was very important. If you were trying to established legitimacy or an inheritance, it was really important that you had legal documentation. And as more and more people belonged to religious groups which were not the Church of England and had some ideological opposition to the Church of England, the church was sort of losing its grip rather.

So the records had been used, up to a point, for statistical purposes as well. If you wanted to know roughly what the population was before there was a proper census you could get some idea from returns from baptisms, marriages and burials, but this was known to be imperfect, particularly in areas where the Church of England was not particularly strong – so the west country, parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire and the west Midlands and Wales of course.

So it made a lot of sense to have a civil, neutral system that everybody used regardless of their religious denomination. But as you would expect, there was a lot of opposition to this, principally from the Church of England. The Church of England is not stupid. It knew the thin end of a wedge when they saw it coming. And they were absolutely right, of course, because when it had the monopoly of legal registration, there were fees to be had from this. Quite apart from the fact that many Church of England clergy genuinely believed that to do anything other than have your children baptised and to get married or have people buried by Church of England rights, anything other than that was a dreadful, heathen, immoral thing to do. But an awful lot of them also had an eye to the income.

And they were quite right because if you look in about 1800, you will see that the Church of England runs a lot of things. It’s in charge of probate. It’s in charge of looking after the poor. It’s in charge of registration. And a hundred years later all of these things and a few others as well, they were all in the hands of secular authorities. So they did have a point.

So there was a lot of opposition from the Church of England, and the Church of England of course was very well represented in parliament, particularly in the House of Lords, which had a number of bishops in it, but also there was a sort of in-built conservative Tory majority in the House of Lords. The Church of England was often called the Tory party at prayer. And the reverse was true in some senses. The House of Lords was the Church of England in parliament.

The House of Commons, on the other hand, that flipped back and forth between Whigs and Tories. And if you care to read Hansard – which I personally find fascinating, but I’ll understand if you don’t – you can look at all the discussions and the debates that went on throughout the 1830s, and to a certain extent earlier than that, in an attempt to get a bill through.

Now the other thing that you need to know is that nowadays legislation has to be passed by the House of Commons. The House of Commons has real primacy – and there is some fascinating stuff about that, but I’ll spare you that. But in the early 19th century a bill could be originated in either house, but it had to pass in both. Now this didn’t mean that it could go indefinitely back and forth and back and forth. It was a sort of three strikes and you’re out.

So if you originated a bill in the Commons, and then it went to the Lords, and the Lords mangled it out of all recognition – which is pretty much what happened with the earlier attempts – and then it came back to the Commons, well, you could try and fix all the stuff that they had messed up, and then you’d send it back and they’d mess it up again. Well, you couldn’t keep on doing this indefinitely, so in 1836 the bill that came back from the Lords, it had been mucked about with. But after all these attempts, the Whig government at the time decided OK, well, it’s better than nothing. If we don’t pass it, we’ll lose it all together and we’ll have to start again. We can sort it out later.

As it happens, later was 1874. And even that didn’t fix all of it. But that was the major piece of legislation that tidied up a lot of the problems for the 1836 legislation. But that is the reason why it’s a very imperfect piece of legislation. And in places it’s quite ambiguous.

One of the sneaky little things that the lords put in was originally all marriage was to be by certificate in that you would go to a registrar, get a certificate of your intention to marry, and then you would have your marriage performed either in the register office or, more likely, in the church of your choosing, whether it was the Church of England or a non-conformist church which is – well, you couldn’t have been married in a non-conformist church before 1837. Jews and Quakers were exempt, but everybody else, no matter what their religious persuasion, had to marry in the Church of England for it to be legal between 1753 and 1837.

So the idea was to make this completely secular, that you could have a religious marriage but your notice – it was like a sort of secular banns, if you like – was to be from the registrar. Well, the lords didn’t like this one bit. So not only did they put back in banns, which was fair enough, so if you wanted to get married in a church you could have the banns called on three successive Sundays. That’s what people had been doing for generations. Perfectly good idea.

But they went one step further and said, well, if you’re getting married in a civil ceremony or in a non Church of England ceremony, you should still have your secular banns read somewhere instead of just pinned on the notice board in the registrar office. So they put in a clause so that these notices of marriage should be read out in a public place.

Now when registration was set up it rather sensibly didn’t set up a completely new framework. It used an existing one, and that existing framework was that of poor law unions which had been set up in 1834. And they were groups of parishes which were actually about the right size and it made perfect sense to have them as registration districts. Therefore if you gave notice of marriage in the very early years of registration, and you were getting married in a non-conformist church or in the register office, instead of having your banns read out in the church – because you weren’t getting married in the church – they would be read out at meetings of the boards of guardians of the poor law.

Well, that made the civil marriage a really attractive prospect. In fact register office marriages now are very commonplace. And incidentally it is ‘register’ office in England. It’s a ‘registry’ office in Scotland. If it’s a registry office, it is not in England. And I’ve even seen a sign in a town which I shall not name where the official sign to the register office says ‘Registry Office’. And it’s only a matter of time before I go there with a little pot of white paint and change it. So ‘register’ office.

In fact, register office marriages were very, very rare. The main purpose of the civil registrars of marriage was that they would be present at marriages conducted in Catholic churches, Baptist churches, you name it. There were very, very few which were pure civil marriages. There are statistics that were kept, and the number is absolutely minute. So it’s really quite rare. If someone was married in the register office in the 19th century, it’s extremely unusual. 20th century, it becomes common as anything. But in the 19th century it’s pretty rare.

The General Register Office became, after many years, part of the Office of Population, Census and Surveys and then the Office for National Statistics. And very early on it acquired very much a statistical role. But in the very, very earliest years the statistics were not the prime concern. There was no statistical branch. When they General Register Office was set up there was the records branch which actually dealt with gathering the information and recording it. There was an accounts branch which dealt with the money – because everybody needs one of those – and a correspondence branch which dealt with all the correspondence. That’s kind of obvious.

Statistical branch came on quite soon, but it wasn’t there in the original set-up. After only a couple of decades the statistical tail was very much wagging the registration dog. But it wasn’t part of the original idea. And although as a family historian we often say that the records that we use, they were created for some purpose or other. And that purpose was probably not the education and edification of the modern family historian but for some other purpose – often something to do with money.

Civil registration is almost an exception to that. And if you look at some of the discussions in parliament and the proposals, one of the reasons it was set up was to prove relationships and genealogy. Now the big difference is, well, that’s exactly what we use it for. Why doesn’t it work quite as well as we want it to? The difference is that when we use General Register Office records, we’re using them for research. We’re trying to find things out.

One of the original ideas of setting up a system of registration was not so that you could find things out but so that you could prove what you already knew, so that you could prove you were the legitimate offspring of A and B, that you were entitled to this or that inheritance, that you were legally married. So it did have genealogy and family relationships in mind but just not in the way that we actually use them nowadays. And they could never have dreamed of that.

And that, I think, is why the notorious 1836 legislation has the dreaded c-word in it – Certification – which means that the only way to get at the information in the registers is to buy a certified copy of the entry. Scotland and Ireland, which came later, you can get uncertified copies or an extract from the register. But the English legislation insisted on certified. And that’s why they cost so much – because producing a photocopy is comparatively cheap. Producing a certified copy on special secure paper and every single certificate blank has to be accounted for, that’s what makes it terribly expensive.

And if, as occasionally happens, a registrar’s book is stolen or goes missing, all hell breaks loose because these are potentially very valuable documents because they’ve all got serial numbers and they’ve got an official stamp. So the certification was there so that you could get official certification of your birth, marriage or someone’s death in the way that you may not have been able to before if you weren’t a member of the Church of England.

Good intentions. Unforeseen consequences.

Now I mentioned that there was some opposition to it and largely from the Church of England. It wasn’t exclusively from them. There were other people. Now some of the opposition was very high level. It was in the House of Lords and some of the bishops were extremely vociferous in their opposition and carried on with their opposition after civil registration was done and dusted and it was in force. And there was a rear guard action by certain members of the clergy – by no means all, a very small minority – who did their best to put a spoke in the wheel of civil registration.

There were a couple of places in particular. If you have ancestors that were born in Wolverhampton in the very early years – I mean sort of 1837 to the very early 1840s – and you can’t find their births, you may choose to blame the Reverend Boyle. The Reverend Boyle was a thorough nuisance as far as registration was concerned.

We have boxfuls and boxfuls of Home Office correspondence, which is a wonderful read – you know, pick a box at random and you’ll find something interesting in it almost – and there is a letter. The very first one I’ve come across was from 30 October 1837 – so registration had barely been going for five minutes – and the registrar of Wolverhampton is already writing to say, complain about people in one particular parish where the Reverend Boyle officiates where people are refusing to register the births of their children. They’re not just not being sure how this thing works. They’re actually refusing, and very often at his instigation.

And his name crops up several times. Sometime later, a year or so on, when the Reverend Boyle has filled up his first book of marriages in the new marriage register books, the local registrar has a dickens of a job trying to get the thing out of him. He was very, very obstructive.

And there were a few others. The correspondence in those early two or three years is dotted with letters from registrars saying, roughly, most people are fine. Now they’ve got the hand of this thing, most people perfectly willingly come along and they register their children and they bury their dead with a proper death certificate. But there are a few places… And they often identify one particular parish in their districts. Everybody else is fine but this one particular clergyman is causing all sorts of a fuss. And Reverend Boyle, I think, was the worst. He’s the most prominent in the correspondence. But he was by no means the only one.

There were also, rather more surprisingly, some doctors who refused. Some doctors were also coroners. And although in the case of an inquest into a death, officially the informant of a death is the coroner. But some of the coroners took great exception to this because they said some of the information which goes on to a death certificate which is relationship and age is not necessarily things which it is the coroner’s job to provide.

So there were a few – again, very, very few. It’s in single figures, the ones that I’m aware of anyway. So there were a few who just objected. There are always some people who just object on principle to anything that’s new no matter what their line of business. And most of the people objecting were Church of England clergy, although I have to say that the great majority were absolutely fine. But there were a few troublesome ones.

And occasionally you get just other people. Sometimes you will just get one person who is influential in a town or a village, and he might be a pub landlord or somebody who is just the local bigwig, and if he just takes agin civil registration, then he could cause an awful lot of trouble. And the correspondence is absolutely littered with examples of this.

Now it is just dotted around the country, and the big misconception that people often have – and you will probably have read this in books, often written by people who really should know better – which is that if a birth was before 1875, it might not be registered because registration wasn’t compulsory. This is not true.

Registration was compulsory. The difference that was made by the 1874 Act was that by that Act the onus was put on the parents or the person registering the birth. Prior to that the onus was on the registrar to get the information. However, if you refused to give information or, as in some cases, people gave the information but refused to sign the register because they had some principled objection, they could be prosecuted.

And people were prosecuted. There was one prosecution at Sheffield, and it was in all the newspapers. And actually handbills were made detailing this to distribute to waverers throughout the country. So registration was compulsory. It’s just that the phrasing of it was slightly different. And in fact the General Register Office’s own statistics bear out the fact that in that first period, 1837 up to 1874, the overall proportion of births not registered was about seven per cent. And that’s seven per cent over the whole period.

So it will be concentrated in certain areas and it will be heavily weighted towards the beginning of that period. But overall it is about seven per cent. Now my friend and former colleague and co-author Dave Annal and I, we’ve had this crusade. It’s Dave and Audrey’s crusade to persuade people that this 1874 thing is all nonsense. And as researchers who had spent many, many years going through the birth, marriage and death indexes, we just did not have a failure rate that was high enough to chime with these doom and gloom things that people say: ‘Oh no, a lot of births weren’t registered.’ Well, we found most of the ones that we were looking for, and that’s what we used to do all day, every day sometimes.

And again when we actually researched it and we looked into the Registrar General’s reports and the correspondence, the actual evidence is that if a birth can’t be found before 1875, it is possible that it is not registered. But it is much more likely that there is some other reason that you can’t find it. So there. And at every available opportunity we try to get that into anything that we write or talk if it’s even faintly relevant. So there you are. Here endeth that particular lesson.

Now the registrars. I’m very interested in registrars. They were an interesting bunch of people. They were – as I said, the country was divided into poor law unions, and this framework was used for registration because it actually fitted it very well. Each registration district was in the charge of a superintendent registrar. And the superintendent registrar’s job was offered to the Clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Poor law union. And almost all of them took it.

There were a few who didn’t. I think these were sometimes men who were close to retirement, didn’t want to take on any extra jobs. But the great majority were superintendent registrar was also the Clerk to the Board of Guardians and was also a solicitor in most cases because that was a job that required some legal expertise.

And the superintendent registrars, they were just in charge. They didn’t do any actual registering. They countersigned things and they managed things and they collected things and they sent them on and they were the line of communication between the General Register Office and the Registration Service, as it became. The people who actually did the work on the ground were the registrars of births and deaths. And each one of those would operate within a sub-district within the registration district as a whole.

Registrars of marriage, there would be at least one and sometimes only one and sometimes several within a district. And the registrar of marriages could register marriages anywhere at all within that whole district. And as I said, mostly they were going out to non Church of England places of worship to conduct the legal part of the ceremony.

And all of these people could have deputies. They didn’t all. In the very early years, if you look, there’s a thing called the official list which is an annual directory of registration officers and all sorts of other interesting information. And in the very early years quite a number of them had no deputies. As the years go on, if you look in the later 19th century and then in to the 20th, you will find that pretty much everybody has got a deputy. Again this was one of the odd little bits of the legislation that needed to be tidied up which was that originally a deputy could take over in the case of the death of a registrar but not if the registrar resigned. So that was an odd little thing. [So] that got tidied up, but it was the sort of thing nobody thought of when it was started off.

The registrars themselves, I mentioned that the Clerk to the Board of Guardians were usually superintendent registrars. They were not salaried. They weren’t salaried until the 1920s. They were paid on piecework. So it depended on the number of events that they registered and certificates that they issued and sometimes other duties. They might be asked to gather extra statistics, particularly in times of epidemic and so on.

So this was all basically on a piecework. Most of them had some other job. Very many of them were Poor law union officials. Again it worked out very well. Many registrars of births and deaths were also relieving officers. Because they were the people on the ground, it fitted in very well with their day-to-day job.

In the early years in particular a number of them were also medical men, but lots and lots of other occupations were represented. I’ve got a table that was compiled in 1881, and you get all sorts of things. You get the people that you’d expect. You get the Poor law union officials. You get people that are in other medical and legal related jobs. But you get farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths – all sorts. Even very, very occasionally I’ve seen a labourer. So pretty much anybody could be a registrar.

Ultimately the government is paying, and it’s all done through the Poor law union. And there was some discussion about this as well again about unforeseen consequences. Because this was based on the poor law union set up, there are a few places which did not fall into this set up. These were non-parochial places, places like the Tower of London and various sort of peculiars that didn’t fit nicely into this system. And there was some debate and discussion about who actually paid because it was all, again, unintended consequences. It’s what happens when you have a system which essentially is bottom up rather than top down because even the Poor law unions, they’d grown out of the old parish system which had been adapted over centuries to various local circumstances. So you get all the lovely little oddities and anomalies going on.

Competition for the job of registrar could be very, very fierce. In really busy, heavily populated built-up areas – city centres like Liverpool and London and Manchester – you would have lots of people wanting the jobs. And because this was all done through the Poor law system – again, this is another odd little anomaly – the registrars were appointed by the Poor law unions, but if they proved unsatisfactory or downright dishonest or criminal, only the Registrar General could sack them. So that just made for a really smooth running bureaucracy, as you could imagine.

But the great thing about them being done through the Poor law unions is that in our wonderful, wonderful collection of Poor law union correspondence you will often find lots and lots of applications for jobs and testimonials. And even as it is today, sometimes the best, juiciest jobs never get advertised on the open market. As soon as somebody gets a sniff that there’s going to be a vacancy, they’re in, writing: oh, I’ve heard there’s going to be a vacancy. Can I please put myself forward?

And people have testimonials and references. And sometimes you can get an absolute goldmine of information about people applying for jobs as registrars and also Poor law union jobs. Sometimes you get absolutely nothing at all. But I have seen some wonderful sets of correspondence in there. And then you often have several candidates, all with their wonderful qualities being described in detail. And then after the job has been given to one of them, you get all the rest of them bitching and complaining about why it was unfair and they should have got the job.

So there’s lots and lots of wonderful stuff in there. It’s very, very human, very personal. But it really gives you a flavour of just how popular they could be. Well, that’s in the big city areas where you were going to make a really good income. But in some places, little places out in the country, it was actually very, very difficult to recruit registrars at all – sometimes even superintendent registrars – because the amount of income they could conceivably get would be so small that it just wasn’t worth their while.

So in the very, very early days of civil registration, in 1837 itself, you will find that there are one or two registration districts which disappear. And I think the very first ones – the first note I’ve got is at August 1837. So it’s barely been up and running a month, and the Poor law union of Avington, which had been a registration district, was then amalgamated in with Winchester. The Poor law union of Welling was amalgamated with Hatfield, and so on and so on.

There were quite a number of these in the first two or three years where it just proved impossible to recruit people to be superintendent registrars and sometimes actual registrars on the ground. And because, of course, they were paid on piecework, there were statistics gathered, and there are some tables showing how little some of these people earned and how much some of them earned. It was very, very variable.

So registration districts and their names, even those aren’t set. They change remarkably frequently. Incidentally you will find sometimes that registration district boundaries change, and you don’t get a nice thoroughgoing overhaul very often, but you get lots and lots of odd little piecemeal changes. And this is because if a boundary was redrawn, somebody would probably have to be compensated for the income he was going to be losing. So they tended to do this when a registrar died or retired and they could re-jig boundaries without causing lots of complicated compensation.

Now this is George Graham. George Graham is my hero. People often say if you could go back in time and meet a historical figure, who would you meet? I would want to go meet George Graham. I like him a lot. He was the second registrar general. The first registrar general was the rather beautiful young man on the very first slide, Thomas Henry Lister, who was also a romantic novelist. Looked like one too. And as befits a romantic novelist, he died rather picturesquely of tuberculosis in 1842, when he was 42, and registration hadn’t been going very long.

So Lister was the one who set it up, and he had a pretty good vision of roughly what was required, although of course nobody, him included, had any idea of the numbers and the volume of work. And that was rather the point. Because nobody had accurate figures of births, marriages, and deaths, you needed to set up a new system.

And in practice it’s always been running to keep up. As early as 1838 when they were just compiling the indexes from the first couple of quarters, the correspondence with the Treasury – and it’s the Treasury obviously holds the purse strings – you need the Treasury’s permission to do practically anything. So all human life is in Treasury correspondence. It really is. And from those very early days the General Register Office was asking for more money from the Treasury. Please can I have more money to employ more staff. Or can I have more money to pay overtime to the staff I’ve already got because the work is piling up faster than we can process it.

And the system that was set up – the actual nuts and bolts of getting information from an entry in a parish register or a registrar’s book to the centre to be indexed and then put in books and certificates issued – the system that was devised was actually pretty good, given the limitations of Victorian technology. The problem was that they never had quite enough staff and enough money to run it efficiently.

Now Lister was quite a good ideas man, but he rather lacked attention to detail, I think. And when Graham came in, he had previously been a major in the Indian Army. And he knew a thing or two about man management, and he was suitably cynical. And the first thing that he did was he had a look at, well, this is this system that’s been set up and it looks OK. OK, where are the weak spots? If I were going to defraud it, what would I go for?

I’m sure that’s what he was thinking because one of the things he homed in on very quickly was the office keeper who was called Mr Rose. He rather suspected that Mr Rose was claiming a bit too much in expenses. And this was because there had been no audit trail set up. He seemed to be claiming a phenomenal amount of money for postage which seemed rather more than was reasonable.

So what Graham did was he sent inquiries to all the post offices within walking distance of Somerset House and asked how much they had taken in payment for postage from Mr Rose and the General Register Office. And the amount that came back was significantly lower than the amount that Mr Rose had been claiming.

Now much to Graham’s annoyance the Treasury Solicitor, which was possibly one of the most cautious organisations on the face of the earth, decided that there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute. So he had to content himself with accepting Mr Rose’s resignation and, anyway, Mr Rose was then believed to have taken himself off to Australia which was probably quite a wise move. But that was pretty much the first thing that he did. He looked to see where the weaknesses were in the system and got them sorted.

Now he was in post for very nearly 40 years. It was actually about 37, 38, and that is much the longest of any registrar general. The next after that was something like 15 to 20 years is about the next longest period. And nowadays they’re rotated at a much faster rate. So he really got stuck in. So although Lister set up the system, it was Graham who did his best to make it work. And he worked in partnership with William Farr who was eventually the Superintendent of Statistics and finally Deputy Registrar General. And Farr was a statistician and he was a member of what was then the London Statistical Society.

And all the statistics that were gathered, somebody has to decide what information to gather and how to present it once you have gathered it. And that was William Farr. And they had a terrific partnership. Farr just wanted to get lots and lots of detail. He would have been a hopeless Registrar General. When Graham finally retired he was sort of expected to be the successor but he would have been clueless at it. He was a rotten manager, but he was a fantastic statistician. The two men worked very, very nicely in partnership.

But what Graham had to do was he had to manage this whole business, and this involved man management. And in his day they were all men. There were no women employed in the General Register Office until around about 1900, give or take. I mean, obviously there were cleaners but the clerks, they were another interesting body of men…Now I am such a sad act that I have in my possession a spreadsheet which I have compiled – a lot of it from one particular document – which has the names and in many cases the dates of birth of everybody who worked for the General Register Office from 1836 when it was set up until the early 1880s.

Some of the very first ones were what you would call agency temps. They were not established civil servants, although many of them became permanent. There was a firm of law stationers called Grosvenor and Chater. And as well as supplying legal stationery they also hired out temporary office workers. And quite a number of the people who compiled the indexes in the very, very early years were actually temporary office workers from Grosvenor and Chater.

Now the picture there, that is not a GRO clerk – I haven’t got a picture of a GRO clerk from that period though I have got one from much later. But it’s about right for the period. It’s from the 1830s, so that’s close enough. It’s actually a lawyer’s clerk which was pretty much similar. He’s eating at his desk, and I know that the GRO clerks did that because at some point in the ledgers that I found there was a note saying that gentlemen were asked to refrain from eating in the office except between the hours of 10.00 and 12.00. There was also another one circulating around asking them to refrain from reading newspapers in the office!

Now the working conditions in Somerset House were not ideal. As a building it’s magnificent to look at, but in those days often it was too cold in winter, too hot in summer. The bit of it that was really close to the Thames – which was actually not occupied by the General Register Office – that got a bit whiffy. I think it was in the early 1840s was the year of the Great Stink when the Thames was pretty much just an open sewer. And there was at least one infestation of rats in Somerset House that I’m aware of.

So it wasn’t an ideal working environment. And the staff were not always ideal. It wasn’t until 1871 with the civil service commission that you had any idea of recruiting people on the basis of merit. And a lot of it was done rather by patronage. I mean, Lister, the first Registrar General, was, I think, the brother in-law of the Home Secretary who appointed him. And George Graham was the brother of the Home Secretary who appointed him. Now he was a brilliant choice, but the fact that his brother was Home Secretary was very helpful. It was just lucky that the Home Secretary had a competent brother to appoint.

So the staff weren’t necessarily the people that you would have ideally chosen. And being a clerk in early Victorian England was not always a great thing to be because you had a certain standard of appearance and dress to keep up but not really the income to do it with. Your artisan, craftsman, engineer neighbours might be socially ‘oh, people who get their hands dirty’, socially below you, but they might be earning twice as much.

So a lot of clerks had terrible problems with debt. There’s lots and lots of instances of clerks, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s, who were getting into awful trouble with debt. And as a result they’re going absent without leave from the office – in one case because he was in debtor’s prison. So that’s why he couldn’t turn up for work.

In another case he wasn’t in debtor’s prison but the broker’s men who were after him, they didn’t know where he lived because you could move your lodgings, but they knew where he worked. So he knew that if he came to Somerset House, they’d be lurking maybe behind one of the pillars at the entrance. So this was somebody else’s unexplained absence.

So you had all sorts of things going on there. And this is why I think Graham was a pretty good boss considering what he had to deal with. He was actually very compassionate. He let people have a second chance. You didn’t get a third chance, but he did…from his correspondence you’ll see that he did his level best if somebody was a bit out of line. He wouldn’t sack them straight away. He’d give them a chance to mend their ways. But sometimes they just had to go. And his correspondence reflects that.

He was also very good at petitioning the Treasury on many occasions when somebody who was maybe getting a bit too old to carry on working but had no pension. He was often petitioning the Treasury to get gratuities for them, and he really seemed to care quite a lot about his staff, although I’m sure he was obviously a very stern disciplinarian when needed.

So he had quite a lot to deal with, and I think he did it rather well. There was one particular man who actually outlasted him. He was much younger, and I think he was still in post into the 1890s, but he was one of the messengers. And George Graham’s correspondence is peppered with irritated comments about this man. But on the other hand he did give him a really good reference when he applied for a job somewhere else. That might well have been because he wanted to get rid of him.

Now the indexes: this is a page from one of the early indexes. From 1837 up to 1865 the indexes were handwritten on parchment, which is very, very durable stuff. Now these volumes were still in daily use until 2007 when they were finally withdrawn from the shelves at the Family Records Centre. They had mostly been rebound many, many times, but the original pages were still in use in most cases.

And before they were all taken away, I photographed a few. And this particular one, it’s not just ‘oh, look, there’s one of the lovely old indexes’ – because it is – it illustrates something quite interesting. When the indexing was done, the information was taken from the copies that were sent in by the register offices and they were copied on to slips, the bit that was going to go in the index, and then the slips were all sorted. So you had the people who copied, the transcribers who copied the information on to large pages which were then cut up into strips. And then you had the sorters who sorted the slips. And then you had the indexers who actually wrote up these pages.

Now this is written on parchment, as I’ve said, which was durable. It’s also very expensive. So when they were given a batch of indexing to write up, they were given their allotted…actually it was eight pages. And if they messed it up, not only did they not get paid for the work that they had done – again, you can’t pay sorters on piecework but people who are writing names on pieces of paper, that’s measurable. You can do that on piecework – or ‘task work’ as it was then called. So this was a big thing in the GRO. They loved paying people on piecework.

But if you went too fast and you were careless and you made mistakes, not only did you have to do it again before you got paid, you could be fined for the value of the parchment that you’d ruined. Now I don’t think that happened very often because they were under such time constraints that it wasn’t really practical. And what you may just about be able to see there – I can because I know it’s there – is that at the top of sometimes every eighth page you will sometimes see in pencil the initials or the name of the clerk who actually wrote that page.

And then it’s just above the second column you can see again in pencil the word ‘checked’ and the initials of the senior clerk who did that. Now given time I could probably tell you who these people were. But the point is, contrary to what some people think, the work was checked. But it wasn’t always done as quickly or as thoroughly as would have been ideal because it was piling up.

Now the reason that I don’t think many people were ever fined – unless they made a total hash of it – was that you will often see corrections. In this case this would not be the indexer’s fault. It would be the sorter’s fault that he’s written a load of names and then the next slip should have actually been a few slips back. So you get things where you’ve got arrows and inserts, and sometimes you’ll find there’s a whole block of names actually out of place. And you’ll get extra names which are written in, things crossed out, and various alterations.

And I think if it were possible, the alterations were done on the parchment. And even occasionally I have seen ones where a name has plainly been wrong. It’s been scratched out – and I mean literally scratched out because you scratch off the top of the surface of the parchment which has got the ink on it – and then written in again, but the writing is all fuzzy because it’s written on the poorest bit because the top has been taken off. That’s pretty rare, but I have actually seen a few of those. As I said, I used to do this all day, every day, so I know.

But that was the process. The work was done. They were always under pressure. And the work was checked but not always as thoroughly as it might be. And they were aware that there were mistakes, but they just did not have time to go back and check them.

Now that’s just a real overview. That’s just scratching the surface of some of the stuff I have found. But what I want to finish with is just where did I find all this. Well, I’ve mentioned that I found a lot of it in The National Archives. The Home Office was the parent department. And Home Office correspondence – HO 45 in particular – there’s a lot in, but there’s quite a lot in various Home Office series.

MH 12, which is Poor law unions correspondence, this is where you have all this wonderful thing, the to-ing and fro-ing and the debates about whether somebody should be appointed, whether somebody should be sacked. And occasionally they were. And finally in the RG series. I once had a job interview, it was actually for a promotion, which I got, and I was asked what’s your favourite document. And I had an instant answer. And, since you ask, it was RG 2098 which was a sort of digest of information compiled from those first roughly 50 years of registration which plainly somebody put all this information together as a sort of a useful handy reference volume in the GRO, and that’s where I found a lot of this wonderful stuff.

But newspapers are also very good, and the main highlights here, British Newspaper Archive really now is the place to go. And that’s a subscription site, but a lot of that – it’s also not quite such a sophisticated search engine, but you can also search most of it on FindMyPast if you’ve got the sort of top end subscription to FindMyPast. They have included the newspapers in there as well.

The Google News Archive, Google sort of abandoned this a number of years ago as an ongoing project, but the stuff that they’ve done is still there, and that’s well worth having a look at. So you do get quite a surprising lot in there about registration. At the bottom I mention the Times Digital Archive and the British Library 19th Century Newspapers.

Now these are ones – I don’t have URLs for those because those are things that you’ll get through, they’re institutional subscriptions. So we have access to those here and a lot of libraries and archives do. You may be able to get access to those through your own public library. I know I do with my local library. My card gives me access even from home to those two. British Library 19th Century Newspapers is much, much smaller than the British Newspaper Archive. Pretty much everything that’s in that 19th Century collection is also in the Newspaper Archive. But when I started doing the research there wasn’t a British Newspaper Archive. So that was where I was looking.

But possibly the best place is this – one of my very favourite websites – Histpop, Online historical population reports website. And this is really anything you want to know about registration and the census. It’s got all the General Register Office annual reports, if you like that sort of thing. I do. There’s a lot of census material in there, but also quite a lot of documentation and quite a lot of our National Archives’ documents have been scanned and are online there [and] things to do with the background to registration and an awful lot about the census which was also run by the General Register Office on the same boundaries.

But as well as the actual documents, there is a lot of sort of editorial material, background chapters written by the people who set the website up. Basically it was the University of Essex, but it’s a really, really useful website. The thing to do is to go into it. You can search by keyword, which is all very well. I prefer to go into browse and then you can see what’s there. If you go into browse you’ll see that there’s lots of menus you can open up all about registration and census. And you can read all the reports. And I can lose myself in that, and I sometimes do.

Transcribed by Mary Pearson as part of a volunteer project, December 2014


  1. Becky says:

    Very interesting article, I came across this researching my great great grandfather, he was the 8th of 11 children, the eldest was born before civil registration was introduced, I can find birth records for all the children apart from my Great Great grandfather, the article states some registrars books went missing or stolen would this be the reason I cannot find my ancestor in the index? I don’t know if it’s related but the 7th child was registered with no first name so appears as ‘“female” , my ancestor was the 8th child & there was a 2year gap if this helps. Thanks

  2. G Posner says:

    I have been researching since 1981 and at nearly 90 have seen it all – including the parchment indexes! I found your article absolutely riveting and thank you for it.

  3. David Lloyd says:

    Really fascinating essay. Researching family history I am interested in birth registrations from the old mid Wales counties which now form Powys. Have even found a birth in Bucknell(Shropshire), but actual registration was in Wales(Knighton) circa 1856.
    My ancestral past is littered with single parent births, no legal documentation of adoption or change of surname, young children just being absorbed into a family and assuming their surname.
    In fact although a Lloyd, technically I should have the surname Powell. I do not know if my father ever knew the circumstances of his ancestors, I believe much was hidden and disguised, simply not discussed, certainly not with my generation, even though I am now in my 70’s.
    As an experienced researcher of family history I am still, after many years, discovering people, relationships, occupations, etc. that fascinate me.All my findings have been documented and stored meticulously, hopefully for future generations.
    I only wish (with hindsight) I had been far more inquisitive in my earlier years and asked relatives literally what they knew. The backgrounds of each of my grandparents,3 of whom I knew personally, have been extensively followed and include examples of every possible human emotion it is possible to experience.
    This article,which I have read previously,is becoming easier to understand and appreciate with every new detail I unearth.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on this platform.
See our moderation policy for more details.