Article dated : Mon, 18th February 2002
History of Civil Registration - 1538 to 1836
There has always been a need for governments and those who owned property and wealth to record the population and thereby legally show the relationship of individuals and families and prove the rights of inheritance.
The first formal system can be traced back to the reign of Henry VIII. In 1538 a local system of registration based on christenings, marriages and burials was introduced by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. The Clergy of each parish were ordered to keep a book in which they were to record all baptisms, marriages and burials at which they officiated.
In 1597, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 special registers were bought by each parish and for the first time annual transcripts were to be sent to a diocesan registrar. This was essentially an ecclesiastical system and depended entirely on individual priests for accuracy - registers were far from complete and many were lost or damaged.
During the Commonwealth (1653 - 1660) a law was introduced in 1653 to provide for civil marriage and an elected registrar for each parish was appointed to take notices of civil marriage, issue an authority for the marriage to take place and subsequently register the marriage. A system very much like our current arrangements. Unfortunately on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 this law became void and marriage registration passed back to the local clergy.
An Act of 1666 complicated the job of registering burials in that all corpses had to be buried "in a woollen shroud" - this for the sake of the duty on wool! After each burial an oath was made which confirmed this.
The system of local ecclesiastical registration was however far from satisfactory - it depended for its accuracy on individual clergy, but in addition the growth in non-conformist religions meant that many baptisms, marriages and burials were never "officially" recorded. Whilst non-conformist churches introduced their own registers these were not considered in law with the same validity as Church of England registers! There was also little preliminary enquiry by clergy before performing and registering marriages, and areas such as the City of London claimed exemption from ecclesiastical law which permitted "clandestine" marriages to take place.
The first attempt by the Government to rectify these matters was a Marriage Act, known as Lord Hardwicke's Act, which came into force in 1754. This made it illegal for marriages to take place unless banns had been read or a licence issued in the parish where the bride or groom lived. Legal marriages could only be conducted in the parish church by a clergyman of the Church of England before at least two witnesses. It also required for the first time the consent of parents or guardian for the marriage of a minor, set hours within which marriages were to take place, required that marriages were registered in a prescribed parish marriage register and that only certificates issued from this register were accepted as evidence of marriage. Whilst exceptions were made for Jews and Quakers, it meant that Roman Catholics and non-conformist religions could not conduct and register legal marriages!
This meant that runaway marriages in England became almost impossible, but, it did lead to the rise in fame of Gretna Green - being just over the border in Scotland!
An attempt was also made in 1753 to reorganise the registration of baptisms and burials by introducing the compulsory registration of births and deaths by the local minister of the parish which would include everyone whether they were members of the Church of England or not. The Bill when presented to Parliament also included provisions for a national census - these proposals were fiercely opposed and the Bill was sadly defeated in the House of Lords.
Whilst the Hardwicke Act had remedied the problems and excesses of the early years of the eighteenth century in relation to marriage, these changes were considered by many to be very rigid requiring as they did that only marriages conducted and registered by the Church of England were considered legal. In addition, although the proposed reform in 1753 of the registration of births and deaths had failed, there was a growing interest in whether the Country's population was increasing or decreasing, and that there should be system that applied to everyone.
Falling church attendance's and the increasing number of alternative religions made it seem to many more sensible that any universal system of registration should not be based upon religion.
Following the constitutional reforms of 1832, the House of Commons set up a Select Committee to review the whole question of parochial registration. The Committee recommended that the local parochial system should be replaced by a national system of registration of births, deaths and marriages administered by civil rather than church officers through a General Register Office. These proposals subsequently became the Registration Act 1836 and the Marriage Act 1836.
These proposals were not universally accepted and in particular those applying to marriage were substantially changed by the House of Lords. The Church of England did not like them because they eroded its traditional place as the register of these events. Others saw them as a plot to list people for taxation, as an infringement of their civil liberties, or something to do with the new "poor law".
The original Bill proposed that there should be a system of civil preliminaries applying to all marriages even those of the Church of England - the system of banns introduced in 1754 would therefore be abolished. Legal status would be accorded to any religious marriage and a system of civil marriage would be introduced for those who regarded marriage as purely a civil contract. Appointed registrars would register births, deaths and the new civil marriages whilst the registration of religious marriages would be in the hands of parish clergy. The House of Lords restored the provision of banns for Church of England marriages whilst leaving the newly appointed Registrars with a responsibility for the civil preliminaries not only for civil marriages but also those of the non-conformist churches for whom they would also have to register the marriages.
It also decided that the registration of births should not be compulsory. This lead in the early years to perhaps a third of the population not registering the birth of their children.
"I think that, in a general and national point of view, it is most desirable that a system of civil registration should be carried into effect. This is a most important subject; it is important for the security and succession of the property, important to ascertain the state and condition of individuals in various cases, important to enable government to acquire a general knowledge of the state of the population of the country, that there should be a general registration of births, marriages and death."
(Lord John Russell, Home Secretary, Feb 1836 to Parliament on the introduction of the proposed legislation).
On 1 July 1837, the two Acts came into force and the General Register Office was established to oversee the new service. The first Registrar General was Thomas Henry Lister (brother-in-law to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell).