Wednesday 18 April 2012

Workaday Wednesday - the men behind the indexes

From Cassell's New Penny Magazine 1899

Everyone who researches family history in England and Wales between 1837 and the present day uses the General Register Office (GRO) indexes. Nowadays we usually access them online, in database format, but they started out as bound volumes of hand-written parchment pages back in the 1830s. They were compiled by an army of clerks, and in case you were wondering, they were all male until well into the 20th century. Oddly enough, there were female registrars of births and deaths as early as the 1870s, but that's a tale for another day.

When the GRO was set up in 1836, many of the staff were recruited from Grosvenor and Chater, a firm of law stationers who also operated as a kind of employment agency providing clerical staff. The senior clerks were always part of the civil service establishment, however. The clerks who prepared the indexes were part of the Record Branch, while others worked in the Statistical, Correspondence or Accounts Branches. The Record Branch clerks who prepared the indexes were divided into transcribers, sorters and indexers. The transcribers copied the names and references from birth, marriage and death entries onto slips that were then sorted by (guess who) the sorters. The details from the sorted slips were then written up on parchment pages by the indexers. These were bound into volumes, most of which were still in daily use in the Public Search Room until 2007. The transcribers and indexers were paid according to the number of entries they completed, known as 'task work', but their work was checked, and if it was not satisfactory they had to do it again. The indexers could even have money docked from their wages for the parchment they had wasted - it was expensive stuff, after all, at 1/- per skin. 

Marriage index December quarter 1865
On some of the original pages you can see, in pencil, the names of the indexer and of the senior clerk who checked his work. In the example above you can see the name 'Beddoes' in the top left corner and 'checked T Davies'. There were records clerks called John Beddoes and Thomas Davies on the staff of the GRO at that time. I know this because I have compiled a database of nearly 400 people who worked at the GRO in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sad but true. From 1866 the system changed when the indexes were sent off site to be printed, and the transcribers and sorters were re-classified as 'index compilers'. 

From the beginning the GRO had more work that it could cope with, and the Registrar General frequently asked the Treasury for more staff, or at least for more money to pay overtime to the existing staff. The work was monotonous and the hours were long, often six days a week, and the clerks were not well paid. In the 1840s and 1850s in particular there were many instances of GRO clerks with serious money problems, appearing in the bankruptcy courts or even being imprisoned for debt. Running the GRO can't have been easy, and in 1870 the Registrar General, George Graham, had this to say:

'In some offices where there is occasionally a sudden temporary influx of work requiring speedy attention I know the system of writers supplied by Law Stationers who, as middlemen, abstract a large share of the poor writers' hard earnings in payment for the Law Stationers' patronage: I am also acquainted with the system of employing boys from 13 to 16 years of age at very low wages and then discharging them ; but I do not approve of either system in established government offices. I have had great experience of temporary clerks and boys in a temporary office; having had under my control 105 temporary clerks, 37 of whom were not 20 years old.
If temporary clerks and writers and boys are on day pay, they may be placed at desks; but no amount of supervision can obtain from all of them a good day's work. They know that the more work they execute in a day, the sooner their temporary employment will cease and they will be again turned adrift; therefore it is their interest to do as little work as possible'.

So next time you search the indexes by pressing a few keys and jiggling the mouse a bit, spare a thought for the GRO clerks a century and more ago who made it possible.


1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post, Audrey, thank you. Sometimes I miss the excitement I used to feel at St Catherine's House, lifting one after another of those hefty registers up onto the reading desk until I finally found the name I was looking for.