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Thomas Henry Lister (1800–1842)

Edward Higgs

Thomas Henry Lister was the first Registrar General, the head of the General Register Office (GRO), from its inception in 1836 till his death in 1842 of a lung disease. As such he was responsible for the production of the early Annual Reports of the Registrar General, and for the organisation of the 1841 census. He died, however, before the release of the Census Reports for that census. As his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography indicates, Lister has always been remembered as a novelist rather than as a civil servant, although this may be somewhat unjust (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Lister was born in 1800 into a landed family, his father being related to the first Baron Ribblesdale. He went to Cambridge University but left without a degree to move in aristocratic circles. In 1826 he published Granby, a romantic novel set in English high society. This was followed in 1828 by Herbert Lacy, another fashionable novel, and by a tragedy, Epicharis, staged in Drury Lane in 1829. Even after he had been appointed as Registrar General in 1836 he continued his literary career, publishing The life and administration of Edward, First Earl of Clarendon in 1837–8 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). This explains why Lister has usually been seen as a nonentity, who got his job in the GRO because he was the brother-in-law of Lord John Russell. Even such a judicious scholar as John Eyler has been content to follow S. E. Finer's assessment of him as a 'flatulent young novelist' and 'decorative headpiece' for the GRO. William Farr, the GRO's Superintendent of Statistics, is seen as the real head of the Office (Finer, 143; Eyler, 46).

However, it should be noted that Lister was not without some experience of information gathering prior to his appointment as Registrar General. He was nominated as a commissioner for inquiring into the state of religious and other instruction in Ireland in 1834. The following year he was appointed as a commissioner to investigate the opportunities for religious worship and the means of religious instruction in Scotland (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). These were subjects which would interest the GRO in subsequent years.

Similarly, his tenure as Registrar General was not without its positive aspects. When the GRO was established by the 1836 Registration Act it had no clear authorisation for the development of statistical work. The Act merely indicated that "the Registrar General shall send once in every year to one of the principal secretaries of state a general abstract of the numbers of births, deaths and marriages registered during the foregoing year in such form as the said secretary from time to time shall require..." (6 & 7 Will. 4, c.6). As such, Lister's lack of statistical skills may not have seemed such a problem when he was appointed. Much of the subsequent development of the GRO's statistical reporting was the result, therefore, of administrative action. Other civil servants, such as Edwin Chadwick, medical doctors, and statisticians, plainly wanted the Office to produce demographic, actuarial and medical statistics. But it was Lister who negotiated with the Treasury for the appointment of men like William Farr, and for the creation of a nucleus of the future Statistical Department within the GRO. Farr, it should be noted, was not formally appointed to the post of 'abstractor of statistics' until July 1839, by which time the basic structure of the Office had been laid down by the Registrar General (Higgs, 2004, 22–44). The First Annual Report of the Registrar General, published in 1839, was plainly Lister's responsibility, with Farr's 'Letter' on mortality being only one of 17 appendices (First Annual Report of the Registrar General).

Similarly, although Farr and other statisticians had important input into the 1841 census, it was Lister who was the census commissioner. All the GRO correspondence relating to the content and organization of the enumeration of 1841 went out in his name (National Archives, London: RG 27/1). It was Lister, for example, who took the final decision to introduce household schedules into census administration, although he was being pressed to do so by the London Statistical Society. The changes to the organization and form of the British census introduced in 1841 were undoubtedly the most important in the Victorian period, and much of the responsibility for this lies with Lister (Higgs, 1989, 7–10). How he might have developed the GRO and the census subsequently, and what might have been his relationship with Farr, it is impossible to tell.

However, it was plain that Lister was not a good administrator of a civil service department. When his successor, Major George Graham, took over the GRO he found that there was a backlog of nearly two years in the compilation of the registers of births, marriages and deaths, and the departmental accounts were in chaos. Staff had been overpaid, or had not contributed enough to the superannuation fund, whilst the office keeper had been swindling the Office by making false claims for postage. The Treasury was convinced that the work of the Office was so badly managed that the department was grossly overstaffed. If it had not been for Graham's administrative skills the young department might have been in serious trouble, and even then its work suffered from Treasury funding constraints for many years (Higgs, 2004, 72–3).

Lister's legacy was, therefore, a mixed one. He helped to lay the administrative and methodological foundations the GRO's work but would, probably, have been unable to see it flourish.


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

S. E. Finer, The life and times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London, 1952).

First annual report of the Registrar General (1836) BPP 1839 XVI (187) [View this document: First annual report of the registrar-general]

Edward Higgs, Making sense of the census. The manuscript returns for England and Wales, 1801–1901 (London, 1989).

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

TNA RG 27/1. History of the Census of 1841: the Registrar General's plan for taking the first Census by the Office with layout of forms and instructions, 1841.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.