births, deaths and marriages

1837 is something of a landmark year for family historians researching ancestors in England and Wales, because it saw the introduction of a national system of civil registration for recording births, deaths and marriages.  For the first time, the same information was collected throughout England and Wales and was,  because it usually included the names of one or more relatives, of immense genealogical value.  Possibly most importantly, civil registration provided a means of collating and organising birth, marriage and and death records nationally so that it became potentially far easier to locate ancestors who had moved from one area to another – as long as they hadn't moved to Scotland or overseas.    Lastly, civil registration was meant to include everyone and was intended  to be compulsory, although, in truth, it took some time before most events were routinely registered.

Prior to 1837, the main source of information for genealogists on family events, sometimes referred to as 'hatchings, matchings and  despatchings', was Anglican parish registers and similar records kept by other denominations.   Only Jews and Quakers were allowed to keep their own registers,  partly because their ceremonies were quite different from those of the established church and they also  kept meticulous records.    

Hardwicke's Marriage Act in 1753 meant that, for a marriage in England or Wales to be legal, it had to take place in a parish church after banns or with a licence.  Once again, Jews and Quakers were exempt from the Act, although strangely  it didn't specifically say that marriages they performed were actually legal.  The result of the Hardwicke Act was that almost all marriages, whether for Anglicans, non-conformists or Roman Catholics, can be found in those Church of England parish registers that have survived from the period 1754-1837.     

Regardless of the religious beliefs of the people concerned, for any ceremonies that took place in the church or chapel, the registers recorded baptism dates not births and burial dates not deaths, although some clergy chose to add birth or death dates.   Indeed some clergy added a variety of comments concerning their parishioners and their lives.

The details that were recorded varied from place to place and church to church.  For example, some of the burial registers included information about the family, such as “ John Page, infant son of William Page and Martha his wife was buried 18th January 1801”, while others simply read “John Page buried 18th January 1801”.  Some ministers obviously had an interest in what caused  their  parishioners' deaths and wrote remarks such as “general decay of nature” or “cholera”.  However, there is no way of knowing whether these were medically accurate or assumptions on the part of the person completing the register.   As some places only had Anglicans churchyards, it was quite common for non-Anglicans to be buried there and appear in the burial register for that church.

In 1812, Rose's Act tried to tidy things a bit by setting out the minimum information that had to be recorded for baptisms, marriages and burials and recommended the use of separate registers for each type of ceremony.  So from 1813, most registers were written on sequential, pre-printed pages as a means of reducing later amendments or fraudulent entries.

But it wasn't until 1837 and the start of civil registration that all these records began to be brought together locally and across England and Wales.  At last, searching for particular individuals became a little simpler for the genealogist.

Comments on this article

Alan Mitchell 25 October, 2010

I want a site where I can complete the names of both parties entering into a marriage contract and it will bring up the date and place of the marriage.

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