Civil Registration

The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836  paved the way for the  appointment of a Registrar General for England and Wales and to set up the General Register Office (GRO). Obviously, the Registrar General couldn't travel around the country personally hunting down births and deaths, so a structure of civil registration districts was established.   Broadly, these registration districts were based on poor law unions.  These were groups of parishes and towns which provided support – of a sort – to those in need in the area, often by placing them in workhouses.  The regime in workhouses was almost universally harsh and feared, but the establishment of poor law unions did mean that responsibility for the needy was shared by the whole union rather than the burden being placed on individual parishes. The unions were run by a board of poor law guardians.  There is more information on poor law unions and other topics relating to civil registration at the National Archives in their research guides.

The guardians appointed a superintendent registrar in each civil registration district,  who reported to the Registrar General.  In turn, each area or sub-district under the superintendent registrar usually had its own registrar.  From 1st July 1837, births and deaths were meant to be registered in the area or district in which they took place, in addition to being recorded at the church if a baptism or burial was performed there.  Sometimes the event was registered in a neighbouring district.

It was up to the local registrar to find out about births and deaths, issue a certificate and  then copy the information to the superintendent registrar or send him the registration books when they were full.  The superintendent registrar would index the local records for the whole district and every three months, all of the events were copied and passed to  the Registrar General at the GRO where entries from all over England and Wales were collated.  

Once collated at the GRO, all the entries were indexed again, so that every entry for a birth, marriage or death had a unique reference made up of the civil registration district, the year and quarter (January – March is Quarter 1; April – June is Quarter 2 and so on) in which the event took place, and the volume and page number of the entry.   In recent years, events have been recorded by month rather than quarter.

The biggest change as a result of the Marriage Act was that, from 1837, marriages didn't have to take place in a church and now had the alternative of having the marriage ceremony take place in a local register office.  Anglicans, Jews and Quakers continued to conduct and register their own marriage ceremonies. For religious ceremonies, there were two new registers, one of which stayed with the church, synagogue or meeting house and the other was sent to the registrar. Other denominations had to apply for their places of worship to be licensed to conduct marriages and could only conduct a ceremony there if, as well as the minister, a registrar was also present to record the events in a Register Office marriage register.   Similar civil registration systems were introduced in other parts of the British Isles.  Scotland has comparable records available to genealogists from 1st January 1855.

In Ireland, civil registration of non-Roman catholic marriages began in 1845 and that of all births, marriages and deaths started in 1864, but the records are patchy as many were  destroyed in 1922 during the civil war.  Also, because of the division of Ireland at that time, the records for all of Ireland from 1864 to 1922, together with those for the Republic of Ireland from 1922 are held in Dublin, while records for Northern Ireland since 1922 are kept at Belfast.  

One of the difficulties family historians may face is that over the years there have been changes to registration districts.  Some have merged, while others have been divided as the local population increased.  Genuki  is one of the best sites for genealogy research information on the whole of UK and Ireland, including detailed information on registration districts.

Changes to civil registration

Since 1837, there have been a number of changes to the civil registration system and it is useful for family historians to know about them.  Although the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 required births to be registered, it was up to the local registrar to find out about births and record the details. There were no penalties or fines for parents or anyone else if they failed to let the registrar know about a birth.  Some parents genuinely believed that baptism was a legitimate alternative to civil registration.  Either through ignorance of the new law or even people taking a stand against them, there were some gaps in the number of births recorded.

In order to “plug the holes”, the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 made it the responsibility of parents or the occupier of a house where a baby was born to register the birth within 42 days or they became liable to a £2 fine, which was a considerable amount of money at that time in the 19th century and roughly the equivalent of £100 today.   

Prior to 1911, births were indexed alphabetically by surname, which was that of the father unless the baby was illegitimate. The only way of checking the mother's maiden name, to be sure it was the right family, was from the full birth certificate or sometimes from a baptism record if her maiden name had been recorded.  From 1911, the GRO index included the mother's maiden name in the reference, which can be very useful to family historians when looking for children of a particular marriage.

In the middle of the 1920's stillbirths and adoptions were included in the civil registration process, although from a genealogist's point of view neither of these are particularly useful.  In the case of adoptions, this is because the records are, quite reasonably, considered potentially sensitive and there are restrictions on who can have access to them.

As far as deaths are concerned, the original Act of 1836 required a death certificate before a burial took place, but some clergy were willing to go ahead with a burial without one.  Perhaps it was difficult for the widow to get to the registrar in the local town or maybe the minister took the view that the state shouldn't interfere in what they saw as church matters.  Occasionally, you will find a burial in parish register taking place some days or even weeks before the 'official' date of death on the certificate.   The 1874 Act stipulated that deaths had to be registered within 5 days, usually by a relative ,and required a doctor's certificate.  If the death was referred to a coroner, a post mortem was performed or an inquest took place, then registration could be delayed.  Civil registration of deaths was amended again in 1926 to require a registrar's certificate or coroner's order before someone could be buried or cremated.  Some family historians aren't particularly interested in death certificates, but they can sometimes contain information about other family members who registered the death.  They can also help to build a medical family history, which is a slightly different way to approach genealogy.

Before 1912, if you were searching for a marriage on the GRO index, each partner was indexed separately, so it isn't always easy for family historians to tell who married who without getting the full marriage certificate.  From 1912, the surname of the other partner is shown in the index.  The Age of Marriage Act of 1929  raised the age at which a couple could marry with the consent of the bride and/or groom's parents to 16 years for both men and women.  Until then, girls aged 12 or above and boys aged 14 or over could marry with their parents consent.   The minimum age at which people could marry without their parents consent remained at 21. Nowadays, people can marry at 18 or at 16 with their parents or guardians consent.  Most recently, in 1995 it became possible to marry in other licensed locations, such as hotels or stately homes.
A change that may be of interest to family historians in the future was the introduction of civil partnerships for same sex couples from 2005.

Comments on this article

Fiddausi 16 December, 2011


k clarke 2 February, 2013

really interesting, thank you.

Georgina Badham 20 June, 2013

How do I cancel the free time on 1837 I do not wish to pay for time

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