Before 1 July 1837, when the Birth, Death and Marriage Acts of 1836 came into force, only Church of England registers had legal status. These acts ended the Church of England’s monopoly in the registration of these events.
However, the Church of England was understandably reluctant to give up its monopoly, and the income that went with it, without a fight and so the new system of Civil Registration did not arrive smoothly. The Church had considerable influence in the House of Lords and consequently the 1836 Acts were flawed pieces of legislation; although they at least succeeded in reaching the statute books, where earlier attempts had failed.
Registration of births and deaths was incomplete to begin with, especially births, but improved considerably over time. In a very few places there was active opposition to registration in the early years, and in some sparsely populated areas such as Wales and Cornwall the rate of registration was known to be low. Research has also shown that people in crowded inner cities were also initially slow to comply. Marriage registration was mainly still in the hands of Church of England clergy, some of whom struggled with the new system, and a few were actively uncooperative.
Some of the deficiencies of the original legislation were corrected by the 1874 Act for the Registering of Births, Marriages and Deaths, including the requirement for medical certification of death. More people now qualified to be informants of births, and registrars were required to be in attendance at fixed hours in their offices. Contrary to popular opinion, however, birth registration did not become compulsory for the first time; before this date people could be, and were, prosecuted for refusing to register. In fact, slightly fewer births were registered in 1875, when the Act came into force, than in 1874.
When a birth, marriage or death cannot be found in the General Register Office indexes, it is much more likely that it has been omitted or mis-indexed than not registered at all. The indexes are compiled from copies of register entries sent by Registrars and clergy to the General Register Office every three months, known as the Quarterly Returns. Not all of these were as complete or as accurate as they might be, so it is sometimes possible to find ‘missing’ entries in the register office or church where they were originally recorded
Civil Registration Timeline
|Unsuccessful bill to set up a civil registry
|Further unsuccessful bill
|Separate Acts were passed to establish Civil Registration of Marriages, and Births and Deaths
|The above Acts came into force on 1 July, postponed from the original proposed start date of 1 March.
|Repeal of that part of 1836 Marriage Act that required notices of marriage to be read at meetings of the Poor Law Guardians.
The indexes, previously handwritten, were now printed.
The age at death was added to the death indexes.
|Vaccination Act – Registrars of Births had to inform the local Vaccination Officer of all births registered
|Birth and Deaths Amendment Act.
A medical certificate was now required to register a death.
More people are qualified to be informants of births and deaths.
A woman registering the birth of an illegitimate child could not name the father on the birth certificate unless he came to register the birth with her.
The low-cost Certificate of Registry of Birth was introduced.
The onus was now on parents to register a birth, not on the Registrar to seek them out.
Registrars had to keep fixed hours at their offices where they could be called on to register births and deaths. Home visits to register births or deaths cost 1/-.
Masters of British registered merchant vessels, or of foreign registered vessels carrying passengers to or from British ports, were required to record details of all births and deaths on board ship. On arrival in the UK, returnd of these were to be forwarded to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, who would in turn forward them to the Registrar General for England and Wales (or Scotland, or Ireland, as appropriate).
Captains of Royal Navy ships were to make similar returns to the Admiralty, to be forwarded to the Registrar General, as above.
|Authorised Persons Act. Individuals could now apply to become authorised to perform and register marriages. Previously only Registrars of Marriages, ordained ministers of the Church of England, Secretaries of (Orthodox) Synagogues and Registering Officers of the Society of Friends were qualified for this.
|Marriage Act. A man could now legally marry his deceased wife’s sister.
|The indexes were now typed.
Only the first forename was shown in full, middle names were only represented by initials.
Indexes were now compiled from carbon copies of the Quarterly Returns, not slips copied out by GRO clerks.
|Marriage Act. A woman could now legally marry her deceased husband’s brother.
|Adoption of Children Act.
Legitimacy Act provided for re-registration of children born out of wedlock when their parents married, provided they had been free to marry at the time of the birth.
Births and Deaths Registration Act began registration of stillbirths.
All the above Acts came into force in 1927.
|Registrars became salaried for the first time, having previously been paid on piece work.
The legal age for marriage was fixed at 16 for both sexes.
|The short birth certificate was introduced.