Tuesday 3 July 2012

Happy birthday, Civil Registration in England and Wales

Somerset House in 1834
The 175th anniversary of Civil Registration in England and Wales was actually Sunday 1 July, so this a bit late. On Sunday I managed to achieve the remarkable feat of staying in a Melbourne hotel with no wi-fi! Well, the way I see it, you had six weeks to register a birth, so a couple of days' delay in marking this birth shouldn't incur a fine either.

I thought this would be as good a time as any to say something about the early days, and throw in a few lesser-known facts. for one thing, the familiar certificate layout and information could have been very different; for example, the cause of death on death certificates was only added at a very late stage of the passage of the registration bill though parliament. It is also interesting to note that the statistical side of the GRO, which became so dominant, was not part of the original plan at all. Thomas Lister, the first Registrar General, planned three divisions for his new department, records, accounts and correspondence. It was not until 1838 that he asked for someone to abstract the causes of death. Another proposed amendment in 1836 was that the details collected on birth registrations should not include the child's name! We can count ourselves lucky that this one was defeated, I think.

I have collected a lot of information about the staff of the GRO, including all kinds of personal anecdotes, as well as the official record of their service. One of the earliest employees engaged was James Rose, the office keeper. He resigned abruptly in 1843 when the new Registrar General, George Graham, discovered that he had been claiming large sums of money for postage expenses, but only a fraction of the amount was actually being used for postage purposes. He was not prosecuted, to Graham's annoyance, as the ever cautious Treasury Solicitor was not confident that there was enough solid evidence. Mr Rose is believed to have fled to Australia. An odd little footnote to this tale is that one of the witnesses to the will of the first Registrar General, Thomas Lister, who died in 1842, was James Rose. The same man?

If, like me, you are interested in the background to registration (there may be one of you out there, for all I know) there are some essays on the subject on the wonderful HISTPOP site, along with all kinds of other wonderful resources. Happy reading



  1. I hope you're enjoying the trip.
    Any update on when we can expect to see your book on civil registration?

  2. Thanks for the fascinating snippets about the early GRO. Presumably James Rose's signature is on the original of Lister's will in PROB10, and there might be examples of the office keeper's signature in the early GRO records for comparison to see if it is the same man?