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ENGLISH & WELSH ROOTS - Government Records of Births, Marriages & Deaths:Civil Registration in England and Wales - Part II
Article posted: May 21, 1999
By: Fawne Stratford-Devai   Biography & Archived Articles


This issue of British Roots is the second of two articles which examine in detail the central government records of Births, Marriage and Deaths in England and Wales - known as Civil Registration. To view part 1, please refer to the last issue of the gazette, Vol. 3 Number 07. Part 2 will discuss reasons why you can't find your ancestors in the records of civil registration; why the registration system is a mess; the campaign by genealogists for cheaper access to records of civil registration more than 75 years old; other records of civil registration not included with the main central registration system; as well as both published and online sources to help you with your research in this area.

WHY CAN'T I FIND MY ANCESTORS? - a few problems to be aware of:
You have carefully searched the main central indexes and even paid a professional researcher in the UK to try and find your ancestor's registration and still you cannot find a registration. There are any number of reasons why you will not find your family in the records of civil registration. I will attempt to highlight a few here:

Lack of compulsory registration: Before 1875 there was no penalty for failure by the parents to register births and the onus was upon the local registrar to seek registrations for which he was paid a sum per entry. As you can imagine, remuneration per entry led to some cases of fraudulent entries! Registration only become compulsory in 1875.

They were never registered: No one really knows how many people were never registered. As stated earlier, it was not until 1875 that registration of births and deaths became compulsory. In the Winter, 1983 Journal of the Bristol and Avon Family History Society a modern registrar estimated that some 5% of registrations were not recorded. Still other articles and discussions estimate that number to be much higher.

Surname variations: Last names were often recorded as they sounded or were simply mis-spelt by the local registrar. At the same time, the person giving the information might not have known the correct spelling of the last name. Local dialect can prove to be a hinderance in the way names sounded and were then recorded. I myself ran into a similar problem with an ancestor that was recorded in different sources as Etherop. While having lunch with Eve MacLaughlin a few years, Eve kindly pronounced the name in a local dialect - a distinct difference in pronunciation that alternate phonetic spellings began to come to light. To make a long story short, the surname turned out to be Retherop (with additional evidence from other documents). As with any research, try alternate spellings of the last name based on mis-spellings and phonetic recording of names. Names beginning with such letters as B & P, V & F, D & T are often the victims of mis-spelling. - Always use your imagination!

Wrong country: As noted above, records for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands were maintained in separate local systems. In addition, records for Ireland and Scotland are also kept in separate registry systems. Where this presents a problem is for couples in the North of England near the Scottish border who simply slipped across the border to be married. Border marriages were quite commonplace and in some instances - preferred! If you suspect your ancestor slipped across the border, check the Scottish records of civil registration. Note: the Scottish Record Office is online - www.open.gov.uk/groshome/.htm in addition their site includes a page for Irregular Border and Scottish Runaway Marriages www.open.gov.uk/gros/summer.htm. The October 1997 issue of Family Tree Magazine [Global Genealogy has a large stock of current and old issues in their physical store, however they don't list them online. Call them at 613-257-7878 if there is a specific issue that you are looking for and they will be mail it to you (small S&H fee applies).] ran an informative article by Alan Readdie on pages 8 and 9 which explains this phenomenon much more clearly than I have space to do here.

Wrong Registration District: Remember, events are registered in the district or sub-district in which they happen and in the early days of civil registration were usually indexed accordingly. The district in which they were registered is not necessarily the home district of the people involved in the event. For example, did a young bride carrying her first child visit her mother in another district when the time came to have the child? It is sometimes useful to look for family members in other districts to find events for your own direct ancestors. In another example, the sister of my one of my own ancestors travelled from her residence in London to her sisters home in Buckinghamshire to marry a man from Oxfordshire! Obviously, the sisters home in Bucks was a central visiting station for many family members. In addition, people have been known to give birth and even to die in hospitals not far from their home that just happen to be in a bordering registration district.

THE REGISTRATION SYSTEM IS A MESS!

In the March 1999 issue of Family Tree Magazine [Global Genealogy have a large stock of current and old issues in their physical store, however they don't list them online. Call them at 613-257-7878 if there is a specific issue that you are looking for and they will be mail it to you (small S&H fee applies).] , Anthony Camp offers a two page review of Michael Foster's book A Comedy of Errors or The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899. A comedy of errors? Yes! This ground breaking book clearly demonstrates the sad "incompetence" of the central registration system. The book focusses almost completely on marriage registrations. However the research results are at once both interesting and disturbing:

Indexing errors in district names, volume numbers and page numbers.
Many names had been entered more than once - as either duplicates or variations on the same name.
In one district - checked for a two year period, 60 entries were missed between the different returns sent in by clergy - which represents one missed entry in every 210 marriages - and if consistant across districts before 1900 represent more than 50,000 marriage entries missed from both the local and central government indexes.
Sometimes if a marriage entry showed a variation on the names from those recorded and the way the couple signed their names, both variations were included in the indexes.
In one random year in one registration district 12 of 406 marriages do not appear in the central indexes; 19 more marriage entries were only indexed under one of the parties + more than 5 % of of local entries are missing from the central indexes....and the list goes on...

Although many people have come to know a variety of problems with the central indexes, the full extent is only just beginning to be systematically revealed by this important book. I would urge everyone who is doing research, or planning to do research using civil registration records to read this book.

The Cry for Cheaper Access to Civil Registration Records:
Since April of 1998 a campaign has been launched by genealogists in the UK for easier and cheaper access to civil registration records. The basic argument is simply a request for easier and cheaper access to records of civil registration more than 75 years old. As you can see from the details of how to acquire records in this article, researchers can basically access the indexes but have no guarantee if they are requesting the right certificate. If you have a fairly common name such as Clayton in Yorkshire or Smith in Oxfordshire, you could spend a great deal of money on certificates that have nothing to do with your family. The campaign is simply asking for access to the original entries (on microfilm/microfiche). This access is allowed researchers in Scotland. Here in Ontario, Canada, our earliest records of civil registration are available to researchers at no cost - both the indexes and the original registrations on microfilm. Is the campaign working?

At the Spring Conference of the Federation of Family History Societies held in Winchester this month, Mr Kieran Mahoney of the ONS spoke to the issue of access to older civil registration records. Mr. Kieran Mahoney has responsibility for Adoption Records and Access to Civil Registration Records on behalf of the ONS. He is also on the Panel which is considering the future strategy for the Records Management Service.

Mr. Mahoney reported that as part of the Options Paper "Supporting Families" delivered at the end of January 1999 Mrs Patricia Hewitt has asked for a Review of the Civil Registration Service.

Therefore, a consultation document will be published in the Summer of 1999 (no definite date as yet). The consultation period will be for only 3 months.

Mr Mahoney's stategic aims are:

1. to significantly improve access to historic records (those over 75 years old);
2. tighten up access to recent records to reduce fraud, especially birth records;
3. to consider moving away from paper to electronic records - to possibly provide better access;
4. to facilitate an electronic Record Management Service in partnership with either or both private and "not for profit" organisations.
5. to ensure to continue to meet local registrar's and their customers requirements.

Mr Mahoney said there is now a genuine desire to change the way Civil Registration is managed.

Mr Mahony promised members of the Federation that a copy will be sent to them so that they can forward copies onto members. The new Chairman of the Federation in turn promised to send this information onto to local societies quickly in order that they can respond accordingly.

The possibility of the Federation and the LDS Church assisting in any work to correct and computerise the records was also put forward. [source: Buckinghamshire email discussion list, April 13, 1999].

On December 7, 1998 the ONS web site reports that a review of options for the future development of the civil registration service in England and Wales is to be carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This follows the Government's proposal in the consultation paper "Supporting Families" that the Registrar General, Dr Tim Holt, should commission a review of civil registration.

Announcing the review in answer to a Parliamentary question from Jackie Lawrence MP (Preseli Pembrokeshire), Patricia Hewitt, Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for ONS, said: "I have asked the Registrar General for England and Wales to carry out a review of the civil registration service with the aim of producing a public consultation document next summer. The review will consider the existing operational framework and set out options for the future development of the service.

"The registration of births, deaths and marriages is based largely on Victorian legislation and the needs of society at that time. This law places strict limitations on the type and extent of the service it can provide to the public. The inflexibility of the service was raised in the Government's consultation document 'Supporting Families'. ..." [source: Office of National Statistics Web site: www.ons.gov.uk/ons_f.htm ]

The recent work of Michael Foster in his book Comedy of Errors only adds fuel to the fire of the debate over access to early records and the problems with the registration system. I would suggest readers have a good look at the March 1999 issue of Family Tree Magazine [Global Genealogy have a large stock of current and old issues in their physical store, however they don't list them online. Call them at 613-257-7878 if there is a specific issue that you are looking for and they will be mail it to you (small S&H fee applies).] for additional details of this important campaign and read Michael Foster's book Comedy of Errors.

Getting back to the records at hand and what is available (or not) for researchers to use when searching their British and Welsh roots from afar, did you know there were other records of civil registration? A number of these "other" records are listed below:

OTHER CIVIL REGISTRATION RECORDS:

Births & Deaths at Sea (known as the Marine Register Book) : These returns commenced on 1st July 1837 and relate to births and deaths occurring at sea on any ship registered in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Births, Marriages & Deaths H.M. Forces: These relate to births, marriages and deaths among members of H.M. Forces and certain other persons working for or attached to H.M. Forces. Entries in the Army Registers appear to date primarliy from 1881, although some records are known to go back as far as 1761. Royal Air Force Returns began in 1920 and Royal Navy Returns commenced in 1959.

Consular & High Commission Returns: Beginning July 1, 1849, registers were kept for births, marriages and deaths of British subjects in most foreign countries registered by British Consuls and from the same time period, births, marriages and deaths of British subjects in most Commonwealth countries that were registered by British High Commissions were also recorded.

Miscellaneous Records: These include births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials, in a large series of Miscellaneous Records (including certain Regimental Registers). Other records include certificates of marriage forwarded by the British High Commissioners in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ghana from 1950 and foreign certificates of marriage forwarded by British Consuls; separate registers containing the registration of deaths of Servicemen in World Wars I and II; births and deaths aboard British registered hovercraft and deaths occurring on off-shore installations (i.e. oil rigs).

Some of these miscellaneous vital records have been released on microfiche to some libraries and archives within Britian. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article they are not available at the main Family History Library of the LDS in Salt Lake City.

Online resources:

Online Marriage Index Transcriptions for selective portions of the central marriage indexes. As part of the work leading up to his book, A Comedy of Errors, Mike Foster of New Zealand extracted extensive portions of the main marriage indexes for specific years and quarters and essentially reconstituted others. These files are available online with Mike's permission at the following web site:www.cs.ncl/ac.uk/genuki/StCathsTranscriptions/

Civil Registration in England and Wales explained by the premier website for researching in the UK - Genuki: www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/civreg/index.html

The General Register Office (GRO) is part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in England. The website of the ONS is found at: www.ons.gov.uk/ons_f.htm

As you begin to order certificates, you will find that you incorrectly identified index entries or were sent the wrong certificates. If you are wondering what to do with these unwanted certificates I suggest you visit the UK BDM Exchange at: web.ukonline.co.uk/graham.pitt/bdm/ . The purpose of the site is to provide a free resource to genealogists who wish to share information about details contained on birth, death or marriage certificates registered in the UK. In addition they now have a section for the exchange of information in UK Parish Records. Who knows, maybe someone inadvertently ordered a certificate for one of your ancestors!

FreeBMD Project - FreeBMD stands for Free Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The FreeBMD Project's objective is to provide free Internet access to the Civil Registration index information from England and Wales. The website is located at: http://test.rootsweb.com/FreeBMD/FAQ.html .

Published resources:

A Comedy of Errors or The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899 by Michael Foster . This ground breaking book clearly demonstrates the sad "incompetence" of the central registration system. The research results are at once both interesting and disturbing.

Family Tree Magazine [Global Genealogy have a large stock of current and old issues in their physical store, however they don't list them online. Call them at 613-257-7878 if there is a specific issue that you are looking for and they will be mail it to you (small S&H fee applies).] in particular try and find the back issues for October 1998, November 1998 and December 1998 and read Pauline Litton's always enlightening "Pitfalls and possibilities in family history research" - these three issues feature Civil Registration Records Pitfalls and possibilities.

Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford .

Your English Ancestry, A Guide for North Americans - revised edition by Sherry Irvine

Illegitimacy- A McLaughlin Guide by Eve McLaughlin

Unpublished Personal Name Indexes in Record Offices and Libraries. A Gibson Guide. By J.S.W Gibson

Record Offices--How to Find Them. A Gibson Guide. By J.S.W. Gibson, and Pamela Peskett .

Next Issue: Stay in touch for the next issue of British Roots when we look for more records of Birth, Marriage and Death in local Parish Records!





EXTRA BITS:


Have you joined a local Family History Society in England? Many family history societies have surname registers, offer free look-ups from various sources, and have publications and books for purchase. Their holdings are detailed, and an on-line registration form may be available. A membership in a local family history society is extremely beneficial - you can draw from members expertise; order photocopies of parish register transcripts and other published indexes; request a search of their computerized indexes for all occurances of your surname(s) as well as have access to their newsletters, which often detail the history of the area and even include regular lists and indexes to little known local records. A good starting point for finding local Family History Societies is the GENUKI web site:
For Societies in England: www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/Societies/England.html
For Societies in Wales: www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/Societies/Wales.html
For the Channel Islands: www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/Societies/ChannelIslands.html
For the Isle of Man: www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/Societies/IsleOfMan.html

Did you know? There is a contemporary account of the procedure of Emigration from the port of Liverpool to the New World and the Colonies from an article printed in the Illustrated London News on Saturday July 6th 1850 - read it online at: www.genuki.org.uk/big/emdesc.html

About Fawne Stratford-Devai
Fawne Stratford-Devai's work on Land Records and early Ontario records is well known in the genealogy community. A published author of several Canadian and UK research books, she has also contributed articles to the Ontario Genealogical Society's newsletter "Families" as well as writing for the online family history newsletter the "Global Gazette". Biography


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