Wednesday 21 December 2011

What's going on at the GRO?

GRO clerk 1899
The General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) has featured in a number of blog posts recently, and in Peter Calver's excellent Lost Cousins Newsletter. Peter gives a detailed and comprehensive account of his correspondence with the GRO, including his recent Freedom of Information request regarding the number of certificates produced before and after the price increase of April 2010. I won't try to summarise everything he says, instead I'd encourage you to read it for yourself. The main point, however, is that the demand for certificates has dropped, which is what you'd expect following a price rise amounting to of 32% for most users. The drop is serious enough for the GRO to announce the shedding of 27 posts in the Certificate Production operation at Smedley Hydro in Southport. Chris Paton provides a link to the story in the local newspaper the Southport Visiter in his blog British GENES.

This follows several years of steadily increasing demand for certificates, during which staff were recruited first for evening and then overnight shifts on certificate production. Prices have increased before without a great drop in applications, although admittedly it is some time since the last one, and the increase is bigger. But on its own, this latest price increase may not be the only reason for the drop in applications.

I don't know if the reply that Peter received from the GRO included a breakdown of certificate applications by type, but I strongly suspect that it is the applications for marriage certificates that have dropped the most. Unlike births and deaths, which are only available in the form of certified copies, there has always been an alternative source for marriages, the marriage registers of the  Church of England which are mostly deposited in county record offices. The great majority of marriages in England and Wales took place in the Church of England until well into the 20th century, so these registers have always been a very useful source, provided you knew which register to look at.

But now many of the post-1837 marriage registers in record offices have been digitised and published online, and, crucially, they are indexed. When the registers from the London Metropolitan Archives were released on I wondered what the effect would be on applications to the GRO for marriage certificates. And that was just the beginning; they have now released registers for Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Dorset and Warwickshire. now has digitised and indexed images of post-1837 marriages from Cheshire and Devon. These are not the only online sources of images and transcripts, but they are the most accessible.
So it may or may not be coincidental that within the last few months a number of record offices have received letters from the GRO, enquiring about their arrangements for access to church registers:

"We are not clear as to the variety and detail of access arrangements in place across the country for those who seek access to register information via record offices. As a result we intend to carry out a short fact-finding exercise over the next two weeks whereby we aim to speak to record / archive offices to seek information on the access arrangements they offer for these records.

Once we have more information we will review the position and decide what further action, if any, may be appropriate."
Some offices were contacted by telephone, and asked a number of questions regarding the number of (post-1837) marriage registers held, access and copying arrangements, and whether any copies or transcripts were published anywhere. I have no inside knowledge regarding the current actions of the GRO (although I know an awful lot about what went on there in the 19th and early 20th centuries!), but as an outsider it looks to me like one way of trying to find out where some of their expected certificate applications have gone. Just a thought.



  1. That's an interesting analysis Audrey. Have read a lot in the past about the effects of digitisation on archives, but not on potential effects on the GRO, so it certainly would be interesting to know if that is a factor. As someone from Northern Ireland, where cert prices are £14 plus p&p per record, I know I rarely purchase certs from Belfast, so I'm guessing the price rise is also a factor to some degree, coupled with straitened times. I wonder if local authorities are equally seeing a drop in demand for certs, as claimed by the GRO nationally?


  2. What idiots they are. Drop the price to £1 for a non-certified print out and they'd be inundated by orders from family historians. At present I only buy certificates for my ancestors. If the cost was reasonable, I'd buy them for all their siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Has the GRO never heard of "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap"?

  3. I ordered a whole load of certificates before they went up in price.
    I have not ordered one since. They were death certificates and I was interested to know whether there was any similarities in the causes of death.
    Cheaper certificates would mean family historians would be more likely to order.
    I totally agree with the other comments.

  4. Let's go the whole hog with this.

    We in Britain have acquiesced for too long with a system under which the state arrogated to itself the power of copyright on data whose owner (to use the terms of the Data Protection Act) is the common people.

    Across the water in France, the State recognised long ago that the data ownership vests in the people. Consequently, there is a constitutional right to access that data - and it costs nothing to acquire a certificate of birth, marriage or death.

    It is time the same was true in Britain.