During the reign of Henry VIII it was decided that a formal system to record locally the important events of a person's life should be introduced. In 1538 his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, introduced a parochial system of registration based upon baptisms, marriages and burials. It was the duty of the Clergy in each Parish to keep a book recording all these events.
It was not until 1597 that annual returns of the information collected had to be sent to a diocesan registrar, and the same year each parish had to purchase special parchment registers in which to record the details.
In 1666 the "Wool Act" added to the task of recording burials. To secure income from the duty on wool the Law required that all corpses had to be buried in a "woollen shroud" and that an affidavit to this effect had to be completed after each burial.
In March 1754 a Marriage act, known as Lord Hardwicke's Act, came into force. It tightened up on the preliminaries needed before marriage. One area therefore controlled was the marriage of minors, for whom parental or guardian consent was now required. Gretna Green then became famous because runaway marriages illegal in England could still take place in Scotland, and the village was close to the border.
The increase of non conformist churches, whose clergy were not bound by the laws already in place, lead to a House of Commons Committee recommending the introduction of a national system of registration and the introduction of a civil marriage. On the 1st July 1837 the new Registration Service began. On that date 2193 Registrars of Births and Deaths and 619 Superintendent Registrars took quill in hand and made the first entries in the new registers. This compares with current levels of 1026 Registrars of Births and Deaths and 380 Superintendent Registrars.
From its introduction in 1837 to 1929 the local service was administered by the Poor Law Board of Guardians. In 1929 that responsibility was transferred to local Government.
Since then occasional small amendments have been possible, such as giving the informant the facility to register a death by declaration, with the details then being sent on to the District where the death occurred.
In 1995 the Marriage Act was amended to allow the County Council to licence other venues for civil marriage ceremonies. This has lead to thousands of places being licensed across the country - from the hospitality suite in a Football Ground to Stately Homes and Castles.
And the Future?
Although the quill may have disappeared and computers introduced, the Registration Service is still bound by laws written for our Victorian ancestors' way of life! As Registrars we are only too aware of the need for change to accommodate the way of life we have today, unfortunately much of the change requires parliamentary time to create the legal framework needed. A complete review of the registration service in England and Wales is underway but the change may not occur for some time.
In the meantime the aim is to continue to provide a highly effective and efficient service despite the financial and legal constraints placed upon the service.