A Historical Account of the Development of
Local Registration Offices in England and Wales
Civil Registration began in England and Wales on July 1st 1837. Obtaining a certificate of a "life event" (birth, marriage or death) may be the first step a family historian takes towards finding tangible proof of an ancestor's identity. Consequently, most researchers will already be familiar with the process of obtaining a certified copy of the record of the event held by the General Register Office (GRO).
What may be less well known is the part the local registration system plays in this process, and how this system has evolved over the years. This background can be extremely useful, for instance when making a decision whether to obtain a copy of a birth, death or marriage certificate from the GRO, or from a local Registrar's Office in the District at which the event was first registered. This page attempts to provide some of this background.
The Act of 1836, for registering Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England, which made provision for "a complete Register of the Births, Deaths, and Marriages of His Majesty's Subjects in England" to be kept, was passed at a time of writing with quill pens and working by candlelight. Today, all registrations take place using a computerised system, and with direct links to the GRO via the dedicated Registration On Line System (RON). The original procedures, and structure, set up all those years ago, however remain fundamentally the same.
The original Act made provision for appointment, and financing of a hierarchy of Registration Officers (or Registrars), to be responsible for recording all births, marriages and deaths which occurred. For this purpose, the country was divided into districts, and initially the boundaries of the Poor Law Unions (600) were used, each under the control of a Superintendent Registrar. Each district was then divided into sub-districts, to be administered by a district Registrar, who was responsible for compiling the records for his area. The whole was administered by the Registrar General, in an office which was then in Somerset House.
Each district Registrar was issued with a set of registers containing special forms for recording details of each event (birth, marriage or death) in a standard format. At the end of each quarter (3 months), a copy of the quarter's events was made and sent to the Superintendent Registrar for the area, who would then send them, together with all the others from his district, to the Registrar General's Office. He received "the Sum of Two-pence" for each entry submitted. Note that the records now held by the GRO are copies, and therefore subject to the vagaries of any transcription system. The original volumes, completed by the Registrar's hand, would be retained by the district Registrar until full, when they would be transferred into the care of the appropriate Superintendent Registrar. These records are still retained in local Registries.
In addition, when marriages took place in church or chapel, the officiating minister was required to record the event for civil purposes, completing details of the marriage on a civil registration form, as well as retaining the ecclesiastical record for the parish. In effect, he was required to act as a proxy registrar, so like his district counterpart he would also be required to make quarterly returns of marriages, and in due course, the completed registers would be sent to the appropriate Superintendent Registrar's Office in the same way as if they had been compiled by a district Registrar.
This means that the original registers of births, marriages and deaths were held locally by Superintendent Registrars, and the records held at the GRO were copies, forwarded each quarter to the Registrar General.
Section XXXV of the 1836 Act which established the formalities of Civil Registration also required the Superintendent Registrar to index the register books in his office, and "every person shall be entitled at all reasonable hours to search the said indexes". The GRO compiled its own index to the returns, using a separate reference system. This is why a GRO index reference is meaningless at the local district level.
This system was perceived as so important that every Registration Officer had to appoint a deputy to act for him in case of sickness, and justices of the peace were given powers to ensure registers were handed over by a Registrar leaving, or being removed from office, on penalty of imprisonment until the registers could be found.
The original districts, as mentioned earlier, were based on boundaries of Poor Law Unions. Officials who were appointed would often be those who had previous experience of administration in the field - for instance Overseers of the Poor, and Churchwardens. However over the years, industrialisation, shifts in population, and local government structure have resulted in changes both to the boundaries of the original districts, and to the appointment of Registration Officers New districts have been created, and others have been absorbed into larger districts, and today, the post of Registrar now entails a much wider set of responsibilities, such as organisation of citizenship ceremonies.
When subsequent regrouping took place, the registers from the defunct offices were handed on to the new area of control. For example in Derbyshire, Alfreton used to have its own Register Office, but it is now closed, and those who would have attended it have to go to Ripley, which has control of the Amber Valley District Council area. Likewise, the small village of Tideswell once had its own local office, but all its registers will now be held at the Register Office in Bakewell.
In other counties, there has been even greater centralisation of records. For instance, whilst district offices remain open in Herefordshire, all completed registers from these offices have been moved for archival storage to Herefordshire Register Office, in Hereford Town Hall, and applications for certificates should be made there. Other districts are allowing their records to be transcribed by volunteers, from - typically - the local Family History Society, to provide a searchable index on computer.
It is important therefore when deciding to order a copy of a birth, death or marriage certificate from a local office, to be aware of where to apply, and what the easiest means of doing this is. Expect the moon, and you may be agreeably surprised!
Certificates ordered from a Superintendent Registrar's Office will always be compiled from the original registers, and for this reason buying a certificate from the county Registrar is likely to be a safer bet than from the GRO, who produce certificates from copies of the originals. It is also worthwhile, if the GRO indexes show no record of the required event, to enquire locally, because of the possibility of entries being omitted, or mis-indexed at the GRO.
The registers retained by Superintendent Registrars were a continuous record, so unlike the quarterly returns, were not closed at a fixed time. Consequently in a small area, a single register might cover several years, or in a larger area, a year may consist of several volumes. A record of all amendments was also kept separately to the register, and a mark made against the original entry, with a reference to the error. There were more of these than one might imagine, covering almost every variation, from the extreme of the informant returning to register a birth as an un-named boy to say it was a girl, to the child's surname and forename being recorded in reverse to that required on the form.
In the early days of Civil Registration, the onus was on the Registration Officer to become aware of events which took place in his district, whereas the responsibility of the individual was merely to "give Information, upon being requested so to do, to the said Registrar". The Officer would be paid according to how many recordings he made, so it was in his own interest to be vigilant, and in country areas, he might go round the district on horseback every so often to gather recordings, visiting churchwardens for knowledge of recent baptisms and burials, or perhaps setting up an informal meeting place to make it easier for people to provide information about recent events.
At this time, couples who wanted to marry without a religious service would do so "by certificate", and it would be signed by the Registration Officer who conducted the ceremony. This may have taken place in (for instance) a non-conformist chapel, or other premises, with the Registrar himself travelling to the venue.
This all changed with the Act of 1874, when penalties for non-registration were introduced, and responsibilty was transferred to individuals to notify the Registration Officer of an event. In the case of births, "it shall be the duty of the father and mother of the child, and in default of the father and mother, of the occupier of the house in which to his knowledge the child is born"; and in the case of deaths, "it shall be the duty of the nearest relatives of the deceased present at the death, or in attendance during the last illness of the deceased".
Thus from 1875 onwards we see the birth of the Register Offices we see today. The Local Authority took their administration, and provision of the premises, and was also responsible for providing suitable accomodation where Marriages could take place.
Further changes took place during the 20th century. Perhaps the most notable of these is the computerisation of records at the local Registrar's level, which began around 1990. Gloucestershire was one of the first to become involved, beginning in 1991. All used a system called RSS (Registration Service Software), which meant that in 2007, it became a relatively simple procedure to local register offices to the GRO directly, with a computerised system named Registrations Online (RON), and now all registrations are transferred directly to the GRO.
Meanwhile, the GRO Office has also moved. The GRO remained in its original home in Somerset House for nearly 150 years, but in 1970, its offices were moved to St Catherine's House in Aldwych (off The Strand). By the late 1980s, increased public awareness and the growing interest in family history research led to its public search rooms being under considerable pressure, so in 1997, the bound volumes of indexes were transferred to the newly appointed Family Records Centre at Myddleton Street in North London. The registers themselves, and Certificate production were transferred to the Smedley Hydro building in Birkdale, Southport, Lancashire. The building was originally a Hydropathic establishment, built by John Smedley, the pioneer of "The Cold Water Cure", in Matlock, Derbyshire.
In April 2008, the GRO became part of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). The Family Records Centre closed, and the original bound volumes of indexes have been removed from public scrutiny, so anyone wishing to search them now has to consult microform, or electronic media. Electronic copies are available online, either as a computerised index (FreeBMD) or as digital images, via FreeBMD, FindmyPast, &c. and more tangible copies are available on microfilm and fiche. A complete set of fiche is very expensive to purchase, but some county libraries may have copies, and microfilms may also be ordered through LDS Family History Centres.
We've come a long way since the days when I first started my research in the late 1980s. At that time, St Catherine's House was the only place the indexes could be searched, but a day there was an education all of its own. The public search rooms had always been used for official searches by the legal profession, in matters relating to inheritance, but the burgeoning interest in family history research led to situations remiscent of the terraces at a rugby match (though without the beer!). Even so, providing one could go inside when the office first opened at 09:30, 30 minutes of relaxed research would be possible, and again, from 16:00 until the office closed at 16:30 there would be a little "island" of quiet. The rest of the day was like sales time at Harrod's, ladies weren't fighting for bargains, but for a position at a desk. The rooms were arranged with the index volumes on metal shelving, with raised wooden desks between, to hold the volumes whilst searching, so a place as near as possible to the appropriate shelf was necessary, as the volumes were heavy and cumbersome. Strong arms, at very least were essential, as measuring about 18 inches by 12 inches (about A3 size), and up to 3 inches thick, they were heavy! A bulky presence, and an authoritative manner in knowing exactly the next volume to go for were also an advantage.
But it was warm, it was light and airy, noone I knew of was ever injured; and to be honest, I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world!
Transcripts of Various Acts of Parliament of Interest to the Genealogist, provided by Guy Etchells.
Digitisation of Civil Registration Records (PDF download).
Compiled by Rosemary Lockie, March 2011,
with the assistance of John Williams and Janet Kirk.