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Registration before civil registration

Edward Higgs

The history of the registration of vital events in England and Wales can be traced back to 1538. This was when Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's vicar-general, sent a series of instructions to the bishops of the Church of England. These included injunctions to parish priests on teaching the people the rudiments of the faith; preaching scripture; guarding against superstitious ceremonies; placing an English Bible in each church; and on the keeping of registers of the baptisms, weddings and funerals at which the clergy officiated (Elton, 254). This was part of the process by which the medieval Catholic Church was brought under the control of the Tudor monarchs. In December 1538, Cromwell issued a circular to justices of the peace denying rumours that parish registration was for the purpose of taxation. He stated that the real reason for its introduction was 'for the avoiding of sundry strifes, processes and contentions rising upon age, lineal descent, title of inheritance, legitimation of bastardy, and for knowledge whether any person is our subject or no' (Elton, 259–60). The injunction respecting registration was repeated, and penalties for neglect laid down, by an act of 1597. This also ordered that transcripts of the registers should be sent annually to a diocesan registrar (Nissel, 6). These 'bishops' transcripts' are now held at diocesan registry offices (Gibson).

An Act, which came into force in 1653, transferred responsibility for keeping the registers — to be called Parish Registers — to elected officials. The minister or his clerk, was often elected, and the previous arrangements continued much as before. The parish registers themselves were kept in the parish chest, although many have now found their way into local county record offices. This system continued into the nineteenth century, even though civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837 (Humphrey-Smith; The National Index of Parish Registers).

In Scotland, where civil registration began in 1855, the older system of parish registration goes back to 1552. This was when the Scottish Church ordered baptisms and banns of marriages to be entered into a register. Registration was extended to burials in 1565. Little appears to have been done to enforce these orders, or that of the Privy Council in 1616 that each parish should keep a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials (Steel, 69–85). In Ireland the system for recording baptisms, marriages and burials was even more complicated than in England, Wales and Scotland. This was because of the existence of both the Roman Catholic Church's registration system, and that of the Protestant Church of Ireland, as well those of Presbyterian, Methodist and Quaker congregations. From as early as 1634, local parishes of the Church of Ireland were required to keep records of christenings and burials, but most extant records start in the period 1770 to 1820. The records of the Catholic Church begin even later (Grenham, 24–37).

Very few English parishes have registers going back to 1538, and there are plainly differences in the quality of the coverage. The registration system was especially disrupted during the English Civil Wars and the Commonwealth period in the 1640s and 1650s, but many individual registers have been lost at other times. Increasingly the comprehensiveness of the parish registers was undermined by the expansion of the number of Nonconformists, who sought to undertake their own registration. The expansion of the cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a resulting breakdown in the parish system, and a rise in the number of people with few links with any organised religion at all (Wrigley and Schofield, 15–30). The registers in Scotland were even more poorly maintained, and when an attempt was made in the 1801 British Census to collect data from them, comparatively little useful material could be obtained. Most available Scottish parish registers are in the General Register Office for Scotland at New Register House in Edinburgh.

The increasingly poor state of English parish registration led to numerous attempts to shore up the system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Lord Harwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 attempted to prevent 'clandestine' marriages by imposing a standard form of entry for marriages, which had to be signed by both parties to the marriage and witnesses. Additionally, except in the case of Jews and Quakers, legal marriages had to be carried out according to the rites of the Church of England. Sir George Rose's Parochial Registers Act of 1812 laid down that all events had to be entered on standard entries in bound volumes. It also declared that the church registers of Nonconformists were not admissible in court as evidence of births, marriages and deaths. Only those maintained by the clergy of the Church of England could be presented in court as legal documents. This caused considerable hardship for Nonconformists (Cullen; Glass, 118–19; Higgs, 2004, 3).

A number of proposals were presented to Parliament to set up centralised registries for recording vital events in the 1820s but none came to fruition (Higgs, 2004, 10–11]. Eventually, increasing concern that the poor registration of baptisms, marriages and burials undermined property rights, by making it difficult to establish lines of descent, coupled with the complaints of Nonconformists, led to the establishment in 1833 of a Select Committee on Parochial Registration. This took evidence on the state of the parochial system of registration, and made proposals that were eventually incorporated into the 1836 Registration and Marriage Acts. These, in turn, established the modern system of civil registration, and set up the General Register Office to administer it (Cullen; Higgs, 1996; Higgs, 2004, 1–22; Report of the select committee … on the general state of parochial registries].


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

G. R. Elton, Policy and police. The enforcement of the Reformation in the age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge, 1972).

Jeremy Gibson, Bishop's Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bands and allegations. A Guide to their Location and Indexes (Bury, 2001).

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

John Grenham, Tracing your Irish ancestors : the complete guide (Dublin, 1999).

Edward Higgs, 'A cuckoo in the nest?: The origins of civil registration and state medical statistics in England and Wales', Continuity and Change , 11(1) (1996), 115–34.

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

C. Humphery-Smith, ed., The Phillimore atlas and index of parish registers (Chichester, 1994).

The national index of parish registers (Chichester, various dates).

Muriel Nissel, People count. A history of the General Register Office (London, 1987).

Report of the select committee … on the general state of parochial registries and the laws relating to them, and on a general registration of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials in England and Wales, BPP 1833 XIV.

D. J. Steel, Sources for Scottish genealogy and family history (Chichester, 1970).

E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The population history of England 1541–1871 (London, 1981).