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Civil Registration

Introduction and History

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was first proposed by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. But because the church was such a powerful entity, it took on the role of recording christenings and marriages in Parish Registers. Over the centuries, the increase in the number of non-conformist churches, and the persistence of Common Law marriages and unbaptised children, was increasingly perceived as a problem for the wealthy who needed to define inheritance and ownership. This led to a House of Commons Committee recommending the introduction of a national system of registration and the introduction of a civil marriage. On July 1st, 1837, the new Registration Service began with 2,193 Registrars of Births and Deaths and 619 Superintendent Registrars. This compares with current levels of 1,026 Registrars of Births and Deaths and 380 Superintendent Registrars. The Act permitted non-conformists to marry in their own churches, chapels and meeting-houses, if licensed, but only in the presence of a civil registrar.

The new law was not well-received. First the Church of England did not like it because it eroded her place as the recorder of such events. Many nonconformist sects saw it as a plot to list and track their members, libertarians regarded the law as an infringement of the Englishman's rights to privacy and freedom. The labouring classes could neither read nor write and did not understand the need for some kind of government paper. Finally there were those who saw registration as a precursor of more taxation.

Queen Victoria introduced the legislation to the people of England and Wales and promised that the government would be good. And to sweeten the deal, while everyone was supposed to register births, it was not compulsory. The government used the existing structure of Poor Law Unions to define registration districts.

Originally, the registrars had to travel around and visit the people who had an event and make a note of the details. A new Act of 1874 removed this and it was up to the people to visit the local registrar office to record the event.

The Lincolnshire Archives has a publication: "Poor Law Union Records", from which we quote:

"By the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration act of 1836 (6&7 Will 4 c86) the Guardians were directed to provide a register office and to appoint Registrars of Births and Deaths. The Clerk to the Guardians was given a right of appointment to the office of Superintendent Registrar, and the power of appointment of Registrars of Marriages. Arrangements for carrying out periodic censuses devolved upon the Superintendent Registrar and the Registrars.

The functions of Boards of Guardians under this Act were transferred to County and County Borough Councils under the Local Government Act of 1929 (19 & 20 Geo. 5, c. 17)".

It was not until 1898 that non-conformist ministers and priests were able to apply for a licence to conduct marriages by themselves (i.e. to act as registrars).

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The Registry Office

Each Registry Office creates certificates and once a quarter these are sent to the Registrar General's Office where they are indexed by type and name. Indexes exist for each quarter of a year for each type of event - for example: Marriages, quarter ending March, 1880. To ask someone to look for an event over a two year period requires them to consult eight separate index volumes.

A local Registrar's Office (RO) holds their marriage records indexed by church, not surname, unless it was a civil ceremony, and those are recorded by date. If you don't know the church name, the parish name should suffice. Normally, births and deaths are recorded in approximate date order at the Registry Office. It isn't until the records are sent to the General Registrar's Office (GRO) once each quarter, that an index by surnames is created. It is these quarterly indexes mentioned above that are available at various libraries and archives. The GRO Index number is a volume and page number, and is not unique for each event. For example, for marriages there may be three marriages recorded per page. Until the early 1850s up to eight people (four couples) can share the same page number in each quarter. After that up to four people share the same number. For the first few years of indexing, the volume number was a Roman numeral.

Unfortunately, the volume and page number provided in the national GRO index means nothing to the local RO. But having it proves that the entry exists in a certain time frame. The address of local ROs in Lincolnshire are provided via links below. Fees for certificates ordered from the GRO are more expensive than the RO fees, but if you are uncertain about the details, the GRO may be a better place to search. If you know the date, church, etc., then the local RO is often faster and less expensive. Only the marriage certificates are ordered by church.

One reason why there are missing BMD's in the GRO is because they got lost in transit between the local Registrar's Office and the GRO. It is best to check the local office for any BMD's.

There is no way to view the birth or marriages certificates online (over the Internet). There are volunteers working to put the registration indexes online.

Events recorded since the start of Civil Registration are unlikely to appear in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) or British Vital Records Index (VRI) since most of those entries are from parish registers or transcripts thereof.

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What a Certificate Contains

The information entered on a certificate was supplied by those applying for it. No data was verified, no ages checked for marriages, etc.

Birth Certificates: During the early years of registration many births were not registered because it was not compulsory and there was no penalty for failure to comply. This was especially true for children of illegitimate birth. In 1875, it became compulsory. There was a six week (42 days) time limit in which to register a birth. After six weeks and up to six months the birth could be registered on payment of a fine. After that time, with very few exceptions, a birth could not be registered. It was fairly common for parents to adjust the birth date to within 42 days. Also, as part of the 1875 changes, a mother, when reporting an illegitimate birth, could not name the father; he had to be present and consent to his name being entered.

Guy Etchells also adds this concerning illegitamate children:

Prior to 1834 a woman would be "examined" to determine who the father of her child was in order to alleviate the parish of its responsibilities to care for the child. During this examination the woman would be expected to name the father of the child. After 1834 the mother was expected to provide for her child until he/she was 16.

There was no shame in illegitimacy (as long as the child was not a drain on the parish). Until the end of the 17th century, illegitimacy was simply viewed as part of life.

From 1837 to circa 1850 there was some confusion as to whether an unmarried father could register the birth of his child, some registrars allowed it others would not. This situation was clarified by 1850 by which time no unmarried father could register the birth of his child. The 1875 Registration Act changed the situation again by allowing the unmarried father's name to be added to the registration if both were present and signed as informants.

Starting in the third quarter of 1911, the GRO Indexes began to include the mother's maiden surname. On 1st July 1927, stillbirth registration commenced.

A Birth Certificate will contain the following information:

  1. Date of birth (and time for twins)
  2. Birthplace (street address, farm, village)
  3. Name of child
  4. Gender of child
  5. Forename and surname of the father (blank for illegitimate)
  6. Forename, surname, and maiden name of the mother
  7. Occupation of the father
  8. Signature; a description (mother) and address of the informant
  9. Date of registration
  10. Signature of registrar

You will note that the "time of birth" was rare, often used only for multiple births.

It is still true in the UK that the proud father goes off to the Register Office, records the birth, and gets a short birth certificate. One should note: The hospitals and midwives pass on their records to the register office, who cross you off the list when you turn up to register. You have 6 weeks to do it (strictly 42 days). Also, the hospital records may differ from the final cert - all babies born are listed under their mother's name, which is not necessarily their father's. So the hospital records may have a different surname.

Marriage Certificates: These can be frustrating, in that they may show "of full age" instead of the actual age for anyone over 21 (but this occasionally signified "over the age permissible": 12 for girls and 14 for boys until the Marriage Act of 1929, then set at 16 for both until 1969, now 18 for both - "minority" was still considered under age 21). If the age is given, it is simply what the couple reported, and their veracity may be influenced by their desire or by her condition. The fathers of the bride and groom are listed, but if one did not want father contacted... If the father was deceased, this may be noted, but lack of such an entry does not mean the father was alive. It is also safe to say that a high percentage of the brides were pregnant, so the first child might arrive only a few months after the wedding, if not already in a pram in the back room. Marriages that took place in non-conformist churches before 1898 had to be carried out in the presence of a civil registrar.

Starting in the last quarter of 1911, the GRO Indexes began to include both surnames.

A Marriage Certificate will contain the following information:

  1. Date and place of the event
  2. Names of the bride and groom
  3. Ages of the bride and groom (see above)
  4. Each spouse's "condition" (bachelor, spinster, widow, etc.)
  5. Each person's rank or profession
  6. The bride and groom's respective residences
  7. The bride and groom's respective fathers' names
  8. The fathers' ranks or professions
  9. An indication of the form of the ceremony "after banns", etc.
  10. The signatures (or marks) of the couple
  11. the signatures (or marks) of two witnesses
  12. Signature of officiating minister or registrar

If one of the fathers were deceased or retired, the registrar was supposed to note that, but it was a practice not uniformly followed.

Could you marry your cousin? Check our Consanguinity page.

It was not common knowledge, but some widows remarried in the church only, not recording the marriage with the Civil Registrar. This protected her widow's pension from the first husband.

Death Certificates: In 1837 a death had to be registered within 8 days, this was reduced to 5 days in 1875. At the start of 1866, the indexes to deaths give the age of the deceased at death. Again, the information on the certificate is only as good as the informant's knowledge of the deceased. Women often shaved a few years off their age and this "revised" age might be the one recorded. If there was no body a death cannot be registered. In 1875, to get a death certificate, you needed a certificate from the Doctor with the cause of death. This allowed you to get the Civil Registration Death Certificate and a Certificate of Disposal to take to the undertaker.

Again, there was a "standard" of "No body, no registration." Men who were lost at sea or who died in mine disasters would not get a certificate unless the body was recovered. At last check, this is still true today.

A death certificate will contain the following information:

  1. Place and date of death
  2. Name and Surname of the deceased
  3. Sex
  4. Age at death
  5. Occupation of the deceased
  6. Cause of death
  7. Signature, name and address of informant (and sometimes relationship to the deceased)
  8. Date of registration
  9. Signature of registrar

On 1st July 1927, registration of the death of stillborn commenced. After 1 April 1969, the date and place of birth of the deceased and the maiden name (in the case of a married woman) are also given.

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Adoption

Adoption was never a "civil registration function". There are two timelines for Adoption:

  1. Prior to 1927: Adoption was an informal process within the family. Generally, if a man married a woman with children from an earlier union, the children were still "maintained" by their birth father. But the children may be listed in official records, like the census, with their new father's surname. There was no registration.
  2. 1927 to now: Adoption became a formal legal function in 1927. The new father would have to apply for adoption and go through the legal steps necessary to make the adoption a fact. It should be noted that a 100-year Closure Rule means that adoption information is still sealed.
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Deaths at Sea

Search the Marine Register of Deaths at the GRO. The index to this Register is at the Family Record Centre at Myddleton St, London, and may be available at other large libraries.

The Death Certificate will give the name of the trawler, date, and place of death. Armed with that information, you can search through the Fishing Dock Arrivals section of the Grimsby Telegraph to find when the trawler next docked a after the death. A death likely would not have been reported until the trawler returned to port, although after 1927 they may have used a radio. Look in the Fishing News section of the Grimsby Telegraph on the day the trawler docked for a report of the accident. You may also find a report of the Board of Trade inquiry in the following day's edition. They usually held an Inquiry before the trawler went back to sea.

Another good source for finding the deaths of Grimsby men who died at sea within the fishing industry is the fisherman's chapel within the Central Hall at Grimsby, it was moved from the old Fisherman's mission when it was replaced by New Saint Andrews Church. It has all their deaths and an index. You might try e-mailing the Grimsby library, who could do a quick look up for you.

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Who is the "Informant"?

Death Certificates always list an "Informant". Who was this person? Guy Etchells provides this information:

From the 1953 Act:
16.-(1) The following provisions of this section shall have effect where a person dies in a house.
 -(2) The following persons shall be qualified to give information concerning the death, that is to say-

  1. any relative of the deceased person present at the death or in attendance during his last illness;
  2. any other relative of the deceased residing or being in the sub-district where the death occurred;
  3. any person present at the death;
  4. the occupier of the house if he knew of the happening of the death;
  5. any inmate of the house who knew of the happening of the death;
  6. the person causing the disposal of the body.
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Registering Stillbirths

Stillborn children were not registered prior to 1927.

Stillbirth registration was introduced on 1 July 1927 to help protect infant life, provide a valuable source of statistical information and to give parents the opportunity to have their child officially acknowledged. A stillborn child is a child born after the 24th week of pregnancy who did not breathe or show any other signs of life. When a child is stillborn the midwife or doctor will issue a medical certificate of stillbirth which will be used to register the stillbirth.

When stillbirth registration was introduced the the age limit was the end of the 28th week of pregnancy, not the 24th (as it is now). This is a relatively recent change following the greatly increased survival rates of premature babies.

Current GRO policy on obtaining stillbirth certificates: "Due to the sensitive nature of stillbirth registrations, the procedure for ordering a certificate of the entry differs from other types of certificates. We will only send out the application form after we have been contacted by phone or in writing by the mother or father (if he is named on the certificate). In cases where the parents are deceased, a brother or sister can apply if they can provide their parents' dates of death."

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Re-registering

It is (or was) possible to re-register some events. Mistakes made by staff are usually just initialled on the original certificate. But when requested by the registrant, a new entry is made and the old one sealed - you are not allowed to see it.

When a child's birth is re-registered, the original entry becomes closed. The information may be the same but when re-registered after marriage the 'illegitimate' child becomes legitimate (ie. a child of the marriage, even if it is years later, as long as the original father was the man the mother marries). You wouldn't normally be told it was a re-registration. You might pick this up by the information on the certificate by the registrar's signature and date on the new certificate, but most people wouldn't notice this subtle anomally and not realise the birth had been re-registered.

What are likely to be the differences on the two certificates? On the original entry the mother's name would be her maiden name, obviously different from the father's name. On the new certificate, her name will appear as name (married name) and maiden name as 'formerly xxxxx'.

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Resources

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Lincolnshire Registry Offices

The Registrar General's Office is at:

The General Register Office
PO Box 2
Southport
Merseyside
PR8 2JD
Phone: (0845) 603-7788, Fax: (01704) 550013
This office is staffed from 8am to 6pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to 5pm on Friday and 10am to 4pm on Saturday. Caution: telephone calls will be queued, leading to long wait times for some.

For GRO Marriage Certificates, look up both the bride and groom. The GRO references will be identical 'if' you have the correct individuals. At last check, a GRO certificate cost £8.00

Certificates of birth, death and marriage can be obtained from the Superintendent Registrar at the following District Register Offices:

If ordering from a District Office, please note the following:

  1. Civil Registration in England and Wales began on July 1st 1837.
  2. Check which registration district the area would have been in at the time. Boundaries change and registers do move from area to area over certain time periods.
  3. If you have a document which records an "R.S.D.", that is not a Registration District. That is a "Rural Sanitary (or Sanitation) District".
  4. The cost of a standard certificate is currently £7.00 - send a Sterling cheque payable to the Superintendent Registrar plus return postage or two International Reply Coupons.
  5. The GRO (formerly the St. Catherine's) Index references are of no value.
  6. For marriage certificates, the precise place of marriage (the church) must be given. Marriages are generally filed by church name.
  7. The local RO may not have a recent marriage because they have to wait for the church to submit the registers (they wait until the book is full), whilst the GRO receives these on a quarterly basis.

In some cases, if you are not certain of the location, contact a regional library. They often have birth and marriage indexes of the surrounding area. For example, the Grimsby Central Library can assist with finding the quarter and parish for local marriages - contact them at tel 01472 323600. Local libraries sometimes do not have the staff time to do lookups for you and may direct you to a volunteer.

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Other Registers

The Registrar General [England and Wales], holds a series of indexed "Miscellaneous Registers". These include:

  1. Army Chaplains' Registers of births (1760-1955), marriages (1796-1955) and deaths (from 1761).

  2. Army Regimental Registers of Births (from 1761), registers of Marriages on HM Ships (1849-1889) and deaths (1899-1902) of Field Forces during the wars in South Africa.

  3. There are also a larger series of registers of First and Second World War deaths provided under the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Special Division) Act. It gives Regiment, Regimental No., Rank, full name, age, place of birth, date of death, place of death, cause of death.

  4. Often overlooked as a civil record are Coroners reports. There is a book available from the Federation of Family History Societies entitled "Coroners' Records in England and Wales". This covers available coroners' records, where they are deposited and any reference you may need. The book is priced £2.95.

Similar Registers are available in Edinburgh for Scottish persons.

The above is typical of many record sources identified in Colin R. Chapman's "Tracing your British Ancestors", ISBN 1 873686 07 2.

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Foreign Currency Conversion

This section has been moved to a separate page. See our Foreign Currency Conversion suggestions.

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Family Deeds

Many of our relatives did not own land, but rented it. There is a story passed on in my family that certain relatives owned railroad cars, but it is far more likely that they actually leased them. It is was the British way. If you are lucky enough to find a branch of your tree that owned land, there should have been a Deed. Deeds are not part of Civil Registration, but are a document that you might find at the Archives. Pat Johnson has been adding Lincolnshire families to her Family Deeds website, so give it a try.

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[Last updated: 30-May-2014 - Louis R. Mills]