Saturday, 2 February 2013

No paperwork required

It can be hard to imagine yourself back into the past, to get any real sense of what your ancestors'  lives were like. However much research you do into their clothes, their food or their occupations, it can be harder still to get onto their heads. Without realising it, we probably make a lot of assumptions that just did't apply a century or two back. Some people have great difficulty grasping the idea that it was once perfectly possible to get through life with few, if any, official pieces of paper. If your ancestors were unskilled workers, and illiterate to boot, like most of mine, they could quite easily not have known exactly how old they were. Or even cared very much, in many cases. This is often the reason that their ages in census returns and other documents are inconsistent; it just wasn't all that important. Near enough was often good enough.

Certificate of Registry of Birth - introduced in 1875 (England and Wales)
Nowadays we are in the habit of carrying all kinds of documents or cards around with us that prove our identity, and possibly date of birth too, because we need them. Some of these wretched things even include photographs - my purse contains two photo-ID cards, and I can think of another three or four at home in a drawer. I have to produce one or more of my numerous pieces of plastic or paper on a regular basis, and I expect you do too - and that's before we even start on the log-ins and passwords!

But wind back a century or more, and many of the actions that are part of our everyday lives didn't apply. Most people didn't have a bank accounts, or passports, and no-one had a driving licence, three things that can only be obtained today on production of a number of documents. There were occasions when you might be asked for your age, such as when you joined the army or the navy, but proving it was another matter - if certificates of birth or baptism were produced at all, they could not have been examined very closely or else there would not be so many demonstrably wrong ages on service records. In practice, it would not have been difficult to produce a plausible-looking baptism or marriage certificate from a parish register entry, as there was no standard official format, and although many were on printed forms, some were simply copies out on plain paper and signed by the incumbent. A forgery would have been easy enough to spot, if anyone took the trouble to go to the actual church and compare the handwriting, or simply ask the vicar. but in practice, this was unlikely to happen. Many families have stories about ancestors who were believed to have lied about their age when they joined the army or the navy, and some of them are true. I have certainly found records from both services where I know (and can prove) that the person was born on a different date from that shown in the official record.

There were some occasions when a document might be required, perhaps to be produced as evidence in a court case; poor sailors or their widows had to provide evidence of their child's age for the child to be admitted to Greenwich Hospital School, and also proof of their own marriage. Many of these certificates of baptism or marriage are still held in the application files, in record series ADM 73 in The National Archives (in the process of being name indexed). The files also include amny requests from widows for the return of their 'marriage lines' because they needed to present them to some other body, often Poor Law authorities, or charities. They were not so concerned about baptism certificates.

Legal evidence of a woman's marriage was extremely important in establishing her place of settlement, ie the parish or union that was bound to look after her if she was unable to fend for herself. The introduction odf compulsory schooling in the 1870s meant that for the first time a large proportion of the population now required some official proof of age on entering school, and, even more important, on leaving it once they were old enough. After some discussion, the Registrar General decided to include in the 1874 registration act a clause introducing the Certificate of Registry of Birth (often mistaken for a short birth certificate). This did not have the legal status of a proper birth certificate, but could be obtained cheaply when a birth was registered, and was acceptable to schools as proof of age. When old age pensions were introduced in 1908 for people over 70, this produced for the first time a mass demand for documentary proof of age from the other end of the age spectrum. most of these people, of course, were too old to have birth certificates so they needed baptism or marriage certificates, or even searches in the still-closed early census returns.

And so it went on, with more and more official bodies asking for more and more pieces of paper, but many of our 19th century ancestors could have led virtually document-free lives. What is most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that, despite the importance of the marriage certificate itself, little or no paperwork was required to acquire one in the first place. Instructions to registrars of marriage, and 'suggestions for the guidance of clergy' in the 19th and early 20th centuries contained long and detailed sections on the correct procedures regarding banns, notices of marriage and marriage licences; but as to establishing the correct names, ages and marital status of the parties to be married, this was to be done by 'earnest enquiry'. They were encouraged to ask more probing questions if they suspected the couple were not being truthful, but that was it. Basically, if you presented yourself to be married, the celebrant would believe what they were told. The penalties for making a false declaration were severe, as the offence was equivalent to perjury. I have my grandparents' original marriage certificate, which spells out the possible consequences of such actions. These even included the threat of transportation; they married in 1917, and transportation had ended half a century earlier, but a prudent Glasgow registrar presumably saw no need to waste good stationery just because it was a teeny bit out of date. The threat of dire penalties may have deterred some people from lying to the registrar or the vicar, but plenty were happy to take the risk. This is how some under-age couples managed to marry without their parents' consent, and some men were able to marry their deceased wife's sister, which was illegal until 1906. Nobody was going to demand any proof, or check anything. Well, most of the time, anyway.



  1. I've had more than one instance in my family tree (and that of my husband) with fellows marrying their deceased wife's sister (usually got around by performing the second marriage in London, or at least another parish), but it was my understanding that it was legal for a widower to marry his late wife's sister in England up until 1835. Am I wrong?

  2. When my great grandfather joined the prison service back in 1888 he completed a Civil Service Evidence of Age declaration which stated he was born on 9 April 1860, in fact he was born one year later. In 1880 when he joined the army he gave his correct age. I am unsure whether this declaration was an honest mistake or whether there would have been an advantage to saying he was a year older than he was.
    It does bring in to question the purpose and usefulness of this 'Evidence of Age'. In fact there doesn't appear to have been any evidence produced, he was just declaring "to the best of my knowledge and belief I was born on ...". Is this 'Evidence of Age' just a misnomer?