1 July 1837 – a date we will never forget!  

1 July 2014

On this day in 1837, civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales. Hallelujah! Prior to that, a parochial system of registration based on baptisms, marriages and burials was in place, introduced by Thomas Cromwell (then Lord Chancellor) in 1538. This new ‘General Registration’ was part of the government’s attempts to find out how many people lived in the country, how quickly they were breeding, what was killing them and of course, how much they could be conscripted and taxed in the intervening time!

Splitting the country into registration districts (RDs), further sub-districts were formed and managed by a local registrar, who was responsible to the registrar general at the General Register Office (GRO), which is now part of the Office of National Statistics. Clerks to the registrar general compiled alphabetical indexes to births, marriages and deaths for each of four quarters of a year: January – March (March quarter), April – June (June quarter), July – September (September quarter) and October – December (December quarter). These were hand copied registers that repeated the information in the local register – room for error number 1.

At the General Register Office, three different indexes were compiled combining all registers and all names alphabetically to create a national index; this mammoth task was carried out by hand. Unsurprisingly this is our room for error number 2 – and this is only a matter of months after the event was originally registered. Travel down the decades to the time when the hand written records were indexed nationally with the use of typewriters. At this point we have indexers not only reading and transcribing the original entry, but also using typewriters! Room for error numbers 3 and 4!

Now fast forward to the more modern age, when the General Register Office started to allow their massive index to be bought and transcribed from their version to an online version that was computer software friendly. People tasked with this transcribing from the GRO index into a computer index may have little or no experience of English and Welsh Christian Names and Surnames; here the room for error is incalculable. Then factor in the compiling of an index for a search engine on any web-based genealogical site where the indexer is only using the third or fourth version of the index, and you can clearly see that we, as researchers, need to be willing to accept that what we find or don’t find is down to a lot of room for error.

From the day your ancestors signed the marriage register in Church, registered the birth of a child or registered the death of a loved one, the capacity for their name to be mis-read, mis-transcribed and mis-indexed is vast. And that is only in a record that is written in English! Imagine the problems for the Latter-day Saints when they began indexing the parish registers first created in the 1530s and written in Latin!

And don’t forget…. sometimes it is not the fault of an index or a transcription. Sometimes our ancestors told lies, varying from little white lies to whopping great big ones. Perhaps they´d told a lie to their spouse about their age and had to maintain it, or possibly there was a more sinister reason – like someone in authority was looking for them.

Having said all of that, thank you for introducing civil registration 177 years ago today…. it certainly assisted the local and family historians of today, as well as providing us with a fair few headaches and an enormous amount of enjoyment! Happy Civil Registration Anniversary!

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