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The early development of the General Register Office

Edward Higgs

The General Register Office (GRO) was established in London in 1837 under the provisions of the 1836 Marriage and Registration Acts (6 & 7 Will. IV, c. 85 and 6 & 7 Will. IV, c. 86). These set up the modern system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths to replace the parochial registration of baptisms, marriages and burials that had been established in the early sixteenth century. It was hoped that improved registration of vital events would protect property rights through the more accurate recording of lines of descent. Civil registration was also to remove the need for Nonconformists to rely upon the Church of England for registration, and provide medical data for research. The whole of England and Wales was divided into registration districts based on the Poor Law Unions and registrars appointed to them. These local officers were to issue certificates of birth, marriage and death, the latter including cause of death. They also sent copies of the certificates to the GRO, which created indexes of these and made them available to the public in a central site at Somerset House. A Registrar General for England and Wales was appointed to head the GRO, and to supervise the local registration system. The latter was carried out through a system of inspectors, first appointed in 1844 (Cullen, 1974; Glass, 1978, 118–45; Higgs, 1996a; Higgs, 2004, 1–90).

Although the GRO was not specifically established to undertake statistical research, the early Registrar Generals, Thomas Lister (1836–42) and George Graham (1842–79), built up a Statistical Department to compile medical, public health, and actuarial statistics. Much of this work was undertaken in the early to mid-Victorian period by William Farr, the GRO's Superintendent of Statistics. Under these men the Annual reports of the Registrar General became a vehicle for administrative and social reform. These were supplemented over time by Weekly and Quarterly reports, and by the Decennial Supplement, which first appeared in 1865 (Eyler, 1979; Higgs, 1996a; Higgs, 2004, 45–89; Szreter, 1991). After the death in 1840 of John Rickman, the clerk of the House of Commons who administered the censuses of 1801 to 1831, the GRO also took over the organisation of the decennial enumeration. This was originally for the whole of Great Britain but from 1861 onwards the census in Scotland was organised by the Scottish General Register Office, which had been established in Edinburgh in 1855. In the nineteenth century, all censuses had to be authorised by a new Census Act every ten years. This meant that the census-taking apparatus, including the central Census Office, had to be created from scratch every decade (Higgs, 1989, 7–14).

The Registrar General was, at first, in a position of great constitutional independence. He was nominally responsible to the Home Office but this department does not appear to have been particularly interested in the GRO, and Lister and Graham negotiated directly with the Treasury over staffing matters. This gave the Office considerable room for developing its own research agenda. This changed somewhat in 1871 when the GRO passed under the supervision of the Local Government Board (LGB), an amalgam of the Poor Law Commission and the Medical Department of the Privy Council. The LGB began a closer scrutiny of the GRO's activities, a process intensified by the appointment of Sir Brydges Henniker as Registrar General in 1880. Henniker, who was in post till 1900, had been the private secretary to the President of the LGB, and proved a rather ineffectual head of the Office. Other government departments began to have a greater say over the structure of the census after the deliberations of a Treasury committee on the census in 1890 (Report of the Treasury Committee on the Census). The published medical output of the GRO also declined in both quantity and quality. This was partly because the overall staffing level of the GRO was stuck at about 80 clerks throughout the late Victorian period, despite the constantly increasing pressure of work (Higgs, 2004, 90–128; Szreter, 1991).

The GRO underwent a veritable rebirth in the first two decades of the twentieth century. New Registrar Generals, Sir Reginald McLeod (1890–02), Sir William Dunbar (1902–09), and Sir Bernard Mallet (1909–20), increased the staffing of the GRO through the employment of women and boy clerks. The published output of the office increased in scale and scope, and the Office's intellectual outlook broadened. Debates over fertility levels, and their impact on the quantity and quality of the 'imperial race', led to the introduction of new questions on fertility in the 1911 census. T. H. C. Stevenson, the GRO's chief medical statistician in the period 1909 to 1931, developed the modern system of socio-economic groupings to analyse the resulting data (Higgs, 2004, 129–55; Szreter, 1984; Szreter, 1991; Szreter, 1996, 67–282). This work also led to the introduction in 1911 of Hollerith machine tabulators to analyse the more complex census data, and these were also used to handle medical and public health data as well. In time, data input became divorced from data analysis, and was physically removed from London to Southport in Lancashire (Higgs, 1996b; Higgs, 2004, 156–85).

During the First World War the GRO was responsible for co-ordinating National Registration, which underpinned recruitment to the armed forces, the movement of workers into the munitions industries, and rationing. National Registration was not, however, continued after the war, and the GRO was absorbed into the Ministry of Health in 1919. The GRO was now seen as merely providing statistical data for policy formation to be undertaken elsewhere within the Ministry, and very nearly disappeared as a separate entity. Under Sir Sylvanus Vivian (1920–1945) the work of the GRO was closely aligned with the policy of the Ministry of Health. The annual reports ceased as a series signed by the Registrar General, and were replaced by the anonymous Statistical Review. However, Vivian continued to build up the resources of the GRO, and the passage of a permanent Census Act in 1920 enabled the establishment of a permanent census organisation within the Office (Higgs, 2004, 186–215).


M. J. Cullen, 'The making of the Civil Registration Act of 1836', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 25 (1974), 39–59.

John M. Eyler, Victorian social medicine. The ideas and methods of William Farr (London, 1979).

D. V. Glass, Numbering the people. The eighteenth-century population controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain (London, 1973).

Edward Higgs, 'A cuckoo in the nest?: The origins of civil registration and state medical statistics in England and Wales', Continuity and Change, 11 (1996a), 115–34.

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

Edward Higgs, 'The statistical Big Bang of 1911: ideology, technological innovation and the production of medical statistics', Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996b), 409–26.

Simon Szreter, 'The genesis of the registrar-general's social classification of occupations', The British Journal of Sociology, 35 (1984), 522–46.

Simon Szreter, 'The GRO and the public health movement in Britain 1837–1914', Social History of Medicine, 4 (1991), 454–62.

Simon Szreter, Fertility, class and gender in Britain 1860–1940 (Cambridge, 1996).

Report of the Treasury Committee on the Census, BPP 1890 LVIII [c.6071]. [View this document: Treasury Committee to inquire into questions connected with taking of census report. Minutes of evidence, appendices]