Parish registers, parochial and civil registration

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Parish Registers were first ordered to be kept by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General of King Henry VIII in 1538. All baptisms, marriages and deaths in each parish were to be recorded and the register to be locked in a coffer with two locks. Failure to comply led to a fine. Many parishes ignored this order. Registers are still kept in locked safes or vaults today.

The order was repeated in 1547 with additions in 1557 and in 1563 when costs involved were to be met by imposing charges for entries which was strongly opposed by the clergy and the act never enforced.

In 1598 the act was enforced throughout the country. All previous records were to be copied into new books especially those since the accession of Queen Elizabeth, thus many registers begin in the year 1558.

During the period known as the Commonwealth 1649-53, records were poor and during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate officers, called ‘Parish Registers’, were appointed to record events in Civil Registers. Marriages were to take place before a Justice of the Peace and it actually became illegal to marry in church.

After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, these marriages were legalised in retrospect although some clergy refused to accept this and forced a second marriage in church or simply branded the children illegitimate.

The ‘Parish Registers’ were dismissed and some clergy confiscated the Civil Registers and destroyed them. This is known as the Commonwealth gap to family history researchers.

Several more acts were passed in 1694, 1711 and 1733 some as a means to raise taxes which again led to some events going unrecorded.

Although at this time church marriage had become the general social ideal, a church wedding for some was too costly and too public. The fact that oral spousal in front of two witnesses was considered legally binding encouraged marriages in places where there was no requirement for banns or licences. This caused confusion which was compounded by corrupt clergymen (and imposters) who would perform a solemnization at any time of the day or night. It was thus possible for an imposter (for a sum of money) to force or kidnap an unsuspecting country girl or heiress into a relationship which would cause her to become her husband’s property. Many of these marriages, though by no means all, were clandestine and took place at the Fleet prison. It has been estimated that in the 1740’s nearly 15% of marriages were celebrated in the Fleet. Termed “Fleet marriages” they were recorded. Clandestine marriages also took place at May Fair and Bench Prison (see National Archives).

In 1754 Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act came into force in England and Wales. It stated that a marriage could only take place in the parish church or public chapel of one of the parties after the publication of banns or by licence issued by the Bishop of the diocese, and banns and marriages were to be recorded separately in their own registers. Marriages were to be performed by a clergy of the Established Church of England to be legally valid. The Act excepted the royal family and Jews and Quakers who had their own legal structures. (see The Changing Seasons English Marriage Records). Those embracing other faiths married in both churches just to be sure their marriage was recognised as legal. Parties under the age of 21 had to have the consent of their parents or guardians and marriages could only take place between 8am and 6pm. Thus this Act prevented clandestine marriages, particularly those of minors ensuring the protection of property interests and preservation of inheritance through the family line. The Act had far reaching consequences for the way in which marriages were recorded most of which still pertain to this day.

In 1763 the minimum age of marriage was fixed at 16 and remains so today with parental consent being now required for 18 years and under. Prior to this date the church accepted marriage of girls aged 12 and boys aged 14.

1823 Marriage Act declared clandestine marriages (ie those without banns or licence) valid, but the officiating minister, a felon.

In 1833 a Parliamentary Select Committee flagged up defects in the system of parochial registration and recommended the establishment of a national civil registration for births marriages and deaths and just such a system was introduced under the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 and the system continues to this day.

On 1st July 1837, the legal recording of births, marriages and deaths began. The country was divided into Registration Districts each under the control of a Superintendent Registrar who in turn was under the control of the Registrar General at the General Register Office now at Smedley Hydro in Southport. However many events were still not registered and in 1875 the rules governing civil registration were tightened so that everyone was aware that births and deaths had to be registered and the Births and Deaths Registration Act made registration compulsory with the imposition of fines for late registration.

The onus for the registration of a birth was passed to the parents whereas before it had been variously the task of vicars to inform the registrars of baptisms and the responsibility of registrars to see that births and deaths were registered. Parents were not bound to give birth information unless requested by the Registrar. Dates of birth were not always accurately given as there was a fine to pay if the registration was after the 42 days. It was thought by some that baptism was a legal alternative.

In the early days of registration many deaths were not registered at all and all deaths were uncertified, the informant just gave the cause of death as they saw it. It was not unusual for a burial to have taken place before the death was registered. By 1845 the rules governing registration were tightened and most causes of death are followed by the words ”Certified by...” A cause of death without these words was probably because a doctor had not been called by the deceased’s family; at that time doctors had to be paid.

After the 1875 Act the responsibility for recording a death was placed on a relation of the deceased and the death had to be registered within 5 days.

Birth Registration since 1837

A birth must be registered within 42 days and fines are levied for failure to do so (£300 I think). They have to be registered in the district where they occur but can be done by an informant making a legal declaration to a registrar in a district convenient to them and the registrar will forward it to the birth district. An informant is either parent (if married to one another), if not married then jointly or by someone who was present at the birth ie matron, grandparent etc. The details are recorded in the register in much the same format as originally introduced in 1837. With the advent of computers, details were recorded using a Registration Service Software package so that certified copies of the entries could be printed. The entries in the register (which is the legal record) were handwritten using registrar’s ink which doesn’t wash or rub out, won’t fade and in fact gets darker with age.

In March 2006 RON was introduced into the registration service. It stands for Registration On Line and obviated the need for handwritten registers, so all the current handwritten registers were closed.

All registers now are loose binders into which the printed register page is inserted after being signed by the informant(s) and the Registrar. This register page, as was the handwritten register entry, a legal document which cannot be altered or corrected in any way without special procedures, and on the authority of the Registrar General.

Fathers who were not married to their child’s mother had no parental rights over their child even though they had their name in the birth entry. From December 2003 if unmarried parents attended together to register their child’s birth and the father’s details were recorded he automatically gained parental rights together with the mother for their child. This was a great step forward in legal rights.

Death Registrations

Follow the same procedure. The informant will normally be the next of kin or other relative but can also be someone present at the death or making the funeral arrangements plus others. The informant must also have a Certificate of Cause of Death issued by the doctor who attended the deceased in their last illness and has seen them within the last 14 days or after death otherwise the death must be reported to the Coroner for him to either state that the death can be registered or that a post mortem must be held or an Inquest. After a post mortem has been held the Coroner will certify to the registrar that the death can be registered. If the deceased is the subject of a post-mortem, they can only be cremated on a Coroner’s agreement (certificate). After registration on a doctor’s certificate, the registrar issues a certificate to that effect which enables the funeral director to carry out a cremation or burial.

As a result of the Shipman Enquiry and a review of the Coroner’s Service some procedures will change but as yet we are not sure how.

Marriage Registration

Marriage, according to the law of this country, is the union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into for life to the exclusion of all others

Prior to the 1836 Marriage Act all marriages had to take place in a church of the Church of England. The new Act made it possible to marry in a Register Office and by 1900 it is estimated that some 10% of marriages did so. It also enabled non-conformist buildings to be registered for marriages.

It empowered Superintendent Registrars to issue authorities for marriage in the office of a registrar or in a non-conformist church 21 days after the parties giving Notice of Intention to marry (the Notice having been displayed on the Notice Board for that period).

They could also issue licenses for marriage which were more expensive and obviated the need for the 21 days or the requirement to be displayed on the Notice Board. This was an anomaly used by wealthy or famous people to keep their intentions quiet. These have now been abolished and the notice period reduced to 15 days.

The parties wishing to be married have to give notice to the SR in the district where they live and they must have resided there for 7 days and 7 nights beforehand.

Notice is a legal procedure to ensure that a couple are legally free to marry and entails them answering various questions from the Superintendent Registrar about their residency, name, age, condition, nationality and whether there is any relationship to each other. Documentation must be produced as confirmation.

Today Notice can only be taken from parties who are British or citizens of EU countries. All other nationalities wishing to marry in this country have to have the legal right to do so issued by the Home Office and must give Notice in Register Offices designated for that purpose.

In 1994 provision was made for marriages to take place in venues, which have been licensed for the purpose, in England and Wales ie hotels, public buildings, moored boats in fact any permanent structure that meets the legal requirements of health and safety etc. but not in the open as in Scotland which has its own Registration Service. The reason being that in Scotland it is the celebrant who is licensed and not the building. This new law has tipped the balance between church and civil marriages, the churches losing out in a big way.

Civil Partnerships

In 2005 the registration service was enabled to attest Civil Partnerships giving couples of the same sex the same rights as married couples. These are legal partnerships and are formed by reading a statement (which does not have to be out loud) and signing a schedule together with two witnesses. Once the schedule is signed the partnership is formed whereas in a wedding ceremony the marriage is formed once the legal vows have been said before two witnesses. There does not have to be a ceremony to sign the schedule though most couples do celebrate the formation in that way.

These ceremonies have enhanced the Registration Service as do Baby Naming ceremonies, Re-Affirmation of Vows, Civil Funerals, and Citizenship Ceremonies. The Registration Service is moving with the times, it has performed the first ever civil marriage ceremony for a member of the Royal Family and there will be more services coming under its umbrella in the future.

In the last year it has undergone a major change in that the Service is no longer part of a government department, ONS and the Home Office, but now comes under the responsibility of the local authority. Prior to this, registrars were appointed and governed by the General Register Office who had the ability to dismiss them. Every registrar was inspected regularly on all aspects of their work. They were termed statutory officers and were able to appoint their own deputies but as such had no real employment rights in theory.

The General Register Office now only administers the technical side of registration and is always there to answer questions and give advice and keep registrars up to date with new legal requirements.

It is a customer focused service in which we are sharing in many happy but also sad occasions. It demands great attention to detail, a great deal of knowledge to enable the correct legal processes to be carried out, the ability to deal with many different situations and to be all things to all people. It’s a wonderful occupation.

Indexes are now held at the Public Record Office in Kew.

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