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1837 (1 July) – The UK government created a new civil registration system for birth, marriage and death records, taking over the responsibility of registering vital records from the Anglican Church. This corresponds with the first year of the reign of Queen Victoria.

What You Need to Know:

• The country was divided into 27 regions, which were further subdivided into 618 districts. Most districts were further subdivided into subdistricts. Each subdistrict had its own registrar for recording vital records.

• People were initially deeply suspicious of the government’s motives in registering births, marriages and deaths. Some thought it was an attempt by the government to keep track of people so they could be taxed (personal taxes did not exist at the time). Estimates suggest that it took 20 years before the general population realized the government had no ulterior motive in creating the civil register. Thus, up until about 1857 there were people who baptized their children at the local parish church, were married by a clergyman and were buried in churchyards all without feeling the need to inform the government. The situation improved considerably in 1875 when the Births and Deaths Act imposed a duty on those present at a birth to report it. Thus, early English and Wales vital records are incomplete and genealogists should always cross check parish records.

• After 1837, virtually all marriages were recorded by the person performing the marriage ceremony regardless of religion. Most deaths were also recorded because it was necessary to have a death certificate in order to receive a burial license.

• About 98% of marriages were conducted in church. Only about 2% of marriages were conducted by a civil ceremony. Marriage certificates list the following information for both the bride and groom: name and signature, date and place of marriage, condition, profession or military rank, residence, father’s name and occupation and witnesses. Condition meant marital status (bachelor, widower, etc.). Giving the correct age on a marriage certificate was not compulsory and often it is listed as ‘full’ meaning that the person was at least 21 years old.

• Births were supposed to be recorded within six weeks. However, it has been estimated that a significant number of births continued to remain unrecorded for the first several years after the act was introduced. There were several reasons for this. First, registration was not permitted after six months of birth. Some parents believed that it was not necessary to register a birth if the child had been baptized. Other parents wanted to disguise the true age of the child so that the child could be sent out to work as early as possible (just four year prior in 1833 the government passed legislation mandating minimum acceptable ages for workers in certain industries, which some people strongly disagreed with).

• Fines were imposed if a child was registered more than six weeks after the birth. To avoid paying the late fine, new parents simply did not register their children after six weeks if they were not able to do so in the first six weeks. Alternatively, parents would serendipitously move the date of birth to a later date to be within the six week compliance window. [Tip – if family lore has a certain ancestor born a few weeks or months before the date stated on the birth certificate then this may actually be true. The parents may have moved the date of birth to comply with the requirement to register the birth within six weeks. One telltale sign is if the difference between the date of birth and the date of registration is suspiciously close to the six week limit. You can always crosscheck with hospital records to confirm the exact date of birth]

• Births were also supposed to be recorded in the district where they happened, which was not necessarily the district where the parents lived. For example, parents of means would often attempt to go to a hospital to have their children. Given that hospitals in the 1800s were less common than today, this often required parents to travel to another district. To complicate matters, until 1929 registrars were paid on commission. This encouraged registrars to register births that rightfully should have been registered in another district.

• Birth certificates list the first name of the child, sex, name and occupation of the father, name of the mother (including the maiden name), address, date of birth and date of registration. Oddly enough, the surname of the child is not listed (this did not become a requirement until 1 April 1969). It has to be surmised from the parent’s surname.

• Birth certificates that do not list a father’s name are usually indicative of an illegitimate offspring. The reverse, however, is not true. Listing the father’s name does not guarantee that the child was not illegitimate since until 1875 the mother could name any man as the father without the need for the father to acknowledge the paternity.

• Another possibility for not listing a father on a birth certificate is that he was dead at the time the birth was registered. Normally, however, a dead parent would be listed on the birth certificate and have the word deceased listed after the name.

• Even if the father is not listed on the birth certificate, it is possible that the father will be listed on later documents such as a marriage certificate.

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