Civil Registration

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It was Oliver Cromwell who first suggested making a register of Births, Marriages and Deaths in the 1650s. Nothing happened for nearly two centuries but on 1 Jul 1837 a new law was passed, setting up the system of Civil Registration we have today.

It caused a storm of protest. The Church of England said it threatened the Parish Register system, free thinkers said it was a plot to remove an Englishman's right to keep himself to himself, non-conformists said its aim was to identify them prior to removing their right to be different and almost everyone said  it was part of a scheme to identify potential tax payers.

In an effort to placate the critics, the element of compulsion was removed, and thus many early births went unrecorded because individuals were not required to inform the Registrar - it was up to him to discover and record the facts. At regular intervals throughout the year, each local Registrar set out, travelling around his "patch" collecting data where and how he could from rectors, midwives, neighbours and those parents who were willing to pass on information. 

From the start, most deaths were registered because people wanted burial of adults to take place in a churchyard and this could not happen without a certificate. However, the deaths of many young children went unrecorded. 

With the exception of Quakers and Jews, all marriages before 1837 had to take place in a Church of England church. After 1837, non-conformists could  marry in their own churches and for anyone who wished it (and this was a popular choice) a civil ceremony in a Registry Office before a Superintendent Registrar was available. 

Not until 1874 was the element of compulsion finally introduced. From then on, parents had a legal duty to inform the Registrar of the birth of a child within 42 days, marriage was not recognised without separate certification from the Superintendent Registrar, and burials could not take place without production of an official Death Certificate. Tough penalties were introduced to ensure that registration took place and that there were no more "secret" citizens.

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005