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Major George Graham (1801–1888)

Edward Higgs

George Graham was born in 1801, the fourth son of Sir James Graham, baronet, of Netherby in Cumberland. He entered the East India Company Service and retired as a major in 1831, having been Military Secretary in Bombay between 1828 and 1830. He then became private secretary to his brother Sir James Graham, who was appointed as Home Secretary in the Peel government in 1841. Major Graham was the second Registrar General, holding the post from 1842 to 1879 (The Times, 22 May 1888, 6). As the head of the General Register Office (GRO) he was in ultimate charge of civil registration and of the taking of the decennial censuses in England and Wales. He was also responsible for the administration of the census in Scotland in 1851, and for the censuses of educational and religious provision taken in the same year. He died in 1888.

Graham has been almost totally eclipsed by the attention given to his subordinate, William Farr, the GRO's Superintendent of Statistics from 1839 to 1879. Those who have even noted Graham's existence have tended to regard him as either a weak figure, or as a capable but dull administrator who contented himself with providing Farr with the tools for his statistical work (Eyler, 1979, 49; Lambert, 1963, 419). However, this is hardly the figure that emerges from an analysis of the extant administrative record, and a good case can be made for the success, and much of the élan, of the GRO in the high Victorian period as being the product of Graham's character and abilities (see Higgs, 2004, chapters 2 and 3, for what follows).

Thomas Lister, the first Registrar General, had been a poor administrator, and on his death in 1842 he left a department that was overstaffed, inefficient and corrupt. Graham turned the Office around by sacking the Chief Clerk and Office Keeper, the latter for embezzlement. By introducing pre-printed registers he was able to cut the staffing of the Records Department of the GRO, and thus gained the good opinion of the Treasury. He subsequently used his good standing with the latter to obtain greater resources for the GRO, and to improve pay levels. It was Graham, rather than Farr, who undertook the day to day organisation of the work of the department, including disciplining staff, negotiating with other government departments and local authorities, overseeing budgets, dealing with problems in the local registration service, and the like. It also fell to him to undertake the detailed organisation of the census every ten years — deciding on the form of the census schedules, obtaining funding from the Treasury, ensuring the creation of the local census-taking apparatus, overseeing the printing and despatch of the census schedules and enumerators' books and instructions, dealing with the press, and so on. Since in the nineteenth century a new Census Office had to be established and staffed with temporary clerks every ten years, this was an onerous responsibility. The censuses of ecclesiastical and educational provision instituted in 1851 also appear to have been his personal initiative (Census of Great Britain, 1851, Religious worship (England and Wales): Report and Tables BPP 1852–53 LXXXIX; Census of Great Britain, 1851, Education. England and Wales. Report and tables BPP 1852–53 XC; Census of Great Britain, 1851, Report and tables on religious worship and education in Scotland, 1851 BPP 1854 LIX.301).

Graham was responsible therefore, for the efficient running of the civil registration and census-taking machinery in the GRO's mid-Victorian heyday. This provided the medical and demographic data that William Farr was to put to such brilliant use in the published Census Reports and Annual Reports of the Registrar General. As Farr noted in his last public address, a letter to The Times of January 1880:

For more than 37 years I have had the pleasure to serve under Major Graham, and had constant cause to admire and respect the energy, ability, personal attention to details, and capacity for organisation which marked his successful control of civil registration. No one acquainted with his duties, or with the way in which they were performed by Major Graham, can either describe his post as a sinecure or refuse to recognise the value of the services of the late Registrar General, although of a distinctly different character to my statistical duties (The Times, 20 January 1880, 8).

But Graham was also responsible for writing much of the content of the Annual Reports during his period in office, since his general report therein was often longer than Farr's 'Letter to the Registrar General'. The former was usually a broad-brush reflection on the trends in vital events, with digressions on such matters as the ability of people to sign the marriage register; the relationship between marriage rates and the economy; illegitimacy levels; the effect of the weather on death rates; and so on. For much of the 1850s and 1860s the Registrar General's personal report also included a summary of the quarterly reports on mortality in the various registration districts, which the GRO began compiling in the 1840s. The Superintendent of Statistics' 'Letter', which is frequently confused with the Annual Report as a whole, was usually concerned with mortality, or life tables, although Farr occasionally digressed into reports on the international statistical congresses he had attended, and the like. Compared to the Registrar General's report, this was a much less constant feature of the Annual Report (Higgs, 2002).

It has been argued that Farr wrote Graham's reports. There is no evidence for this, however, and it might be better to envisage Graham and Farr as a partnership to which both contributed.


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

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

Edward Higgs, 'The Annual Report of the Registrar General, 1839–1920: a textual history', in E. Magnello and A. Hardy, eds, The road to medical statistics (Amsterdam and Atlanta, 2002), 55–76.

Royston Lambert, Sir John Simon and English social administration 1816–1904 (London, 1963).

The Times, 20 January 1880, 8.

The Times, 22 May 1888, 6.