The History of changes to UK law on
Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths,
changes in Census data collection, and
other useful social and family history data
☞ Further information on the scope of the UK's decennial (10-yearly) censuses is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_in_the_United_Kingdom,
and also at http://www.1911census.org.uk/ (which actually includes data on ALL censuses until 1939, not just on that of 1911).
If you know of any other "gems" worth adding to this list, please pass them on to us via our Webmaster.
Prior to 1837, there was no Central Government registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Great Britain and Ireland. It was proposed by Parliament during the 1750's, but the bill was turned down by the House of Lords, except for Hardwicke's Marriage Act. At that time, the island of Ireland was a single political entity, whilst (as now) Great Britain (or "Britain") meant just the mainland (and adjacent islands) plus the Scottish Islands.
(The Channel Islands and Isle of Man aren't part of the UK, but Dependencies under the Crown. They come under the jurisdiction of the Registrar General of England and Wales for census, but not civil registration, purposes. Records are not kept at the National Archives, but information is available here.)
≈ 4 BC: «And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. ² (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) ³ And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. ⁴ And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David.)» — Luke, Ch.2 (King James Version)
Legislation before 1707 didn't apply in Scotland, and did not necessarily afterwards, even after 1801.
1086: «Then, at the midwinter , was the King [William the Conqueror] in Gloucester with his Council. ... After this had the King a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his Council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out "How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire."» Domesday Book (or "Liber de Wintonia", "Book of Winchester") encompasses two independent works, originally in two physical volumes. These were "Little Domesday" (so named because its format is physically smaller, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex — however, it is often the more detailed volume) and the slightly later "Great Domesday" (covering much of the remainder of England). It contains the earliest reference to most place-names.
1284: The whole of Wales was united with the English Crown by the Statute of Rhuddlan, since when both countries followed a single legal system, English law.
1536-39: Suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
1536 Poor Law reinforced distinction between "can't and won't works"; inidvidual parishes to care for "impotent poor" through collection of alms.
1538: Thomas Cromwell, lay Vicar-General, ordered registration of baptisms, marriages and burials in all English parishes. Old Catholic "Service Books" were "lost".
1547 Vagrancy Act provided that vagabonds could be branded, and enslaved for two years; first Poor Rate instituted in London to replace church collections
1572 Vagabonds Act: JP's were to register the "aged, decayed and impotent" poor to determine the cost of their keep; Overseers of the Poor created
Thursday 4th October to Friday 15th October 1582: Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland adopted the Gregorian calendar; France followed suit in the December.
1597 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the 1601 ["43rd Elizabeth"] Poor Law formed the basis of poor relief for England & Wales for the next two centuries.
1662 Poor Relief [or Settlement] Act established a person's parish should they need (be "chargeable" for) Poor Relief, confirmed by statutory "settlement certificate"
1691 "Act for the better Explanation…" allowed paupers to use their old parish's certificate, to be read in Church, registered in Poors Book; paupers to wear badges.
1st May 1707: Establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain, which united the Parliaments and Kingdoms of England (which included Wales) and Scotland.
1723 Knatchbull's Act authorised parish officers to buy or rent workhouses.
1732 Bastard Children Act ensured that anyone, charged on oath with being the father of a bastard, was jailed until he indemnified the parish from expense.
17th and 18th century: Censuses took place in Quebec (1666), Iceland (1703) and Sweden (1749).
1740–41: The Irish Famine ("Bliain an Áir", the Year of Slaughter) of grain and potatoes, due to cold and rain, estimated 300-480,000 died (≈13%-20% population).
1744 onwards: Rewards offered for apprehending vagrants and their subsequent removal.
† 1751: Britain and its dominions had just 282 days, 25th March to 31st Dec; before then January to March dates were often shown as being in (e.g.) "1750/1".
1st January 1752: For the first time, the year did not start on Lady Day, 25th March († apart from in Scotland where years had started on 1st January since 1600).
Wednesday, 2nd September 1752 (O.S.): Last day that Great Britain and its dominions (incl. Ireland and British America) used the "Old Style" Julian Calendar.
Thursday, 14th September 1752 (N.S.): Introduction within Great Britain and its dominions of the "New Style" Gregorian Calendar.
1753: Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was placed on the statute books in an endeavour to stop "Fleet" and other Marriage abuses, "for the better preventing of clandestine marriages" meaning that they must all take place within the Established Church (except for those of Jews and Quakers). [See article below]
1753: The “Bill for Registering the Number of the People” would provide for a record of the annual number of marriages, births and deaths, and the total number of poor on relief, [but was opposed as it] placed no curbs on the power of the ... state to “molest and perplex every single family in the kingdom”. [see: ref, pp.54-56]
1754: Lord Hardwick's Act required separate registers for marriages (plus banns books), recorded on printed forms.
1760 to 1820: "In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost."
— Thompson, E. P. (1991): "The Making of the English Working Class" (Penguin), p217
1782 Gilbert's Act: Groups of parishes could set up workhouses; paupers no longer had to wear the letter "P".
1783 to 1794: Stamp Duty of 3d on every baptism, marriage and burial, except for "paupers". Many children therefore remained unbaptised (so unregistered).
2nd August 1790: In its first census, the population of the United States was enumerated to be 3,929,214.
1792 Acts attempted to prevent abuses by parishes in the removal of paupers; whipping female paupers forbidden; Overseers punished for neglecting their duties
1795: Removal of paupers could only occur after they became a charge on the rates
1798: Thomas Malthus published his controversial "Essay on the Principle of Population", suggesting Britain would soon have more people than it could feed.
1800: Scared by Malthus' prediction, Parliament passed the Census Act.
1st January 1801: Establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, following the Acts of Union (1800).
10th March 1801: First official 10-yearly census in Britain — just head counts and statistical summaries for Government planning.
It was the responsibility of the clergy and Overseers of the Poor, asking just five questions: few records survive.
Monday, 27th May 1811 (also 28th May 1821 and 30th May 1831): Statistical summaries, as in 1801.
1813: Rose's Act (1812) regulated "Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials in England", but CofE clergy's opposition affected Dissenters' registrations.
Preprinted registers were to be used for separate baptism and burial registers as a way of standardizing records — marriages had been separate since 1754.
Baptism registers showed child's and parents' Christian names; father's surname, occupation, address; and officiating clergyman's name, but no birth date.
Dissenting non-conformists had to be married within the recognised Church of England, though Quakers and Jews did not.
Burial registers listed the name of the deceased, age, where he/she lived, and the name of the officiating clergyman.
16th August 1819 : "Peterloo Massacre", when 15 people died, c.600 were injured, as c.60,000 demonstrated for a seat in the UK Parliament for Manchester —
through the Industrial Revolution, Manchester's population had risen from below 16,000 in 1756 to 75 in 1801 (later to 126 in 1821, 142,000 in 1831).
You can view a 3D-simulation here; download a students' worksheet; research your Peterloo ancestors; or read about "unrepresented towns" here.
1821: The first census in Ireland took place. Most of the records were destroyed in 1922, but as much recovery as possible by 2022 is being attempted.
1832: Lord Nugent's Bill called for General Registry to address "legal problems [of] the dubious status of the Dissenter’s Registers as evidence in Courts of Law".
1832 Reform Act: Abolition of "rotten borough" two-MP constituencies (incl. Aldeburgh, Dunwich and Orford), often with v.few (often absentee) eligible voters.
Suffrage extended to propertied male adults, increasing the electorate from 366,000 to 650,000 (18% of males over 21).
1834 Poor Law replaced the parish basis of poor relief, and introduced Poor Law Unions and elected Boards of Governors.
1836: An "act for registering births, deaths and marriages" passed with an accompanying Marriage Act, relaxing Hardwicke's rules and enabling civil marriages
1st July 1837: Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in England & Wales. Registrars, not next-of-kin, were responsible for registering births and deaths.
As they were paid for the numbers of registrations, they sought data for these events by paying midwives and undertakings for relevant information.
Some falsified returns, as they were paid for the number of returns they made.
1837: The registration of Maritime births and deaths commenced.
1837: For the first time since the Commonwealth in the 1650's, it was possible to have a civil marriage ceremony, being conducted by the Superintendent Registrar.
4th Nov 1839: Newport Rising — last large-scale armed rebellion in Britain, by Welsh coal-miners, when c.22 were shot by troops. Leaders, including the Chartist John Frost, convicted of treason, were to be hanged, drawn and quartered — the last so to be sentenced in England and Wales — later commuted to transportation.
6th June 1841: First national UK census, collecting just Name, Age (if > 15yo, rounded down to the nearest 5 years), Occupation and if born in the same county.
On the island of Ireland, a more detailed "separate census form was used for each family and delivered to the dwelling by the enumerator before Census Day".
April 1845: Ireland civil registration introduced, restricted to civil weddings held in Register Offices and all non-Catholic church weddings.
1845-49: Up to 1½ million Irish died, a similar number emigrated, during the Great Famine (part of a Europe-wide crisis), though food exports to Britain continued.
1846: At the insistence of Liverpool ship-owners, whose vessels were regularly quarantined off New York because arriving passengers had cholera or typhoid, the Liverpool Sanatory [sic] Act was passed, leading to the appointment of the UK's first Borough Engineer, James Newlands. Life expectancy in the city was then just 19 years, and a quarter of infants died before their first birthday, but the sewage system that he introduced rapidly improved public health.
1846: Final repeal of the Corn Laws, which caused a major realignment of the British parliamentary party system.
1849: British Consuls overseas started returns of births, deaths and marriages.
30th March 1851: Census now included Relationship to head of the household, Marital status, and Place of birth. The rounding down of ages was dropped.
1852: The boundaries of many Civil Registration districts were changed and have subsequently changed several times.
1853/54: The third worldwide cholera pandemic (1846–60), from India, claimed 23,000 lives in Great Britain, over 10,000 in London. In Spain, over 236,000 died.
1st January 1855: Civil Registration began in Scotland.
1858: Until 12th January 1858, all Wills had to be proved by the Church and other Courts: the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was the most important of these Courts, dealing with relatively wealthy individuals living mainly in the south of England and most of Wales. The Principal Probate Registry was established in 1858, and keeps a copy of every Will proved in England or Wales since then, as well as copies of Letters of Administration: an application for administration could be made when a person died without leaving a Will.
1858: New divorce laws make ending an unhappy marriage a realistic proposition for ordinary people for the first time.
1858: Following major cholera outbreaks in London (in 1831, 1848/49 and 1853/54), the "Great Stink", caused by sewage in the Thames, led to the construction of the city's first sewage system. The final and only subsequent cholera outbreak, in the East End in 1866, was in an area not yet served by the new development.
1861-1864: The Lancashire Cotton Famine: disruption of raw cotton imports during the American Civil War caused mill closures and mass unemployment.
1862: In England … the livelihood of 20-25% of the population was based on [cotton, 10% of] British capital, ... and close to half of all exports [in] yarn and cloth. [ref]
1864: Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Ireland.
1866: For the first time, the age at death was recorded.
1867 Reform Act increased the numbers of voters from one million to two million men, and disenfranchised more smaller boroughs.
1869: Opening of the Suez Canal, a route unsuitable for sailing vessels, ultimately leading to the loss of the UK's entrepôt (trans-shipment/re-export) trade.
1871: Local authorities became responsible for supervising public health and Poor Law administration
1873: Publication of the two-volume Return of Owners of Land for England & Wales (excluding London); in 1874: Scotland; and in 1876: Ireland.
"The immense herd of country newspapers have actually reproduced it, as far as their own neighbourhoods are concerned, in their columns." — John Bateman
1873: The financial Panic of 1873 (caused in part by the Suez Canal) triggered the Long Depression (in the UK until 1896) but, even so, real per-capita income rose.
1874: The Registrar of Births & Deaths was no longer legally responsible for recording information re births and deaths. Parents/next of kin were now responsible.
1875: The name of the father of an illegitimate child could only be included on the child's birth certificate if the father accompanied the mother to the Registrar's.
1878: Steamboat imports of cheap N. American and Russian grain effected UK farm profitability, so agricultural workers moved to the cities over the next 25 years.
1881: Army registers began. However, many Army records were kept by the various Regimental Chaplains.
1884 Representation of the People Act extended the borough franchise of 1867 to the counties, increasing the electorate from three to five million men.
1898: Authorised Persons Act – Dissenting congregations could appoint an authorised person to register marriages. Registrar no longer obliged to be present.
1907: Marriage Act permitted marriage with deceased wife's sister.
1911: For the first time the maiden name of the mother was recorded in birth-registration entries.
2nd April 1911: First UK Census Return completed directly by "Head of Household". Now included Industry employed in, and how long couple had been married.
1912: The surnames of both bride and groom were recorded together in marriage-registration entries.
7th November 1917: In Petrograd, the October Revolution occurred on 25th October (O.S.). Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1918.
1918 Representation of the People Act gave suffrage to most of the adult population (men over 21, women over 30) increasing electorate from 7.7 to 16.2 million.
The 1918 influenza pandemic (Jan.1918 to Dec.1920) was unusually deadly, and infected 500 million people around the world. Probably 50 million, and possibly 100 million (3-5% of Earth's then population) died — more than WWI and WW2 combined. In British India alone, it is estimated that 17 million people died.
19th-21st July 1919: Luton Peace Riots, after the Committee to celebrate victory in WWI excluded ex-servicemen’s bodies, and a drumhead service was banned.
1920: RAF registers started.
1921: Separate registration systems were set up to record births, marriages and deaths in the island of Ireland.
19th June 1921: Census postponed from April due to industrial unrest, and not taken in Ireland due to the Irish War of Independence. For release, 1/1/2022
6th December 1922: Enactment of the Constitution of the Irish Free State, following its adoption by Dáil Éireann in constituent assembly on 25th October.
Following Irish independence, the UK became "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
18th April 1926: Separate censuses took place in the Irish Free State and in Northern Ireland.
Visit https://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/1926-census.html to read about moves for early publication of the Irish Free State census data.
1926 Legitimacy Act allows births to be re-registered if the unwed parents have subsequently married; another Act introduces registration of stillborn children.
1927: Adoption is legally regulated and the General Register Office creates the Adopted Children Register to record the details.
1928 Representation of the People Act gave universal suffrage to the adult population over 21, increasing the female electorate by five million.
1929: The minimum age of legal marriage in the UK was raised to 16 — formerly 12 for girls and 14 for boys.
1930: Abolition of Poor Law guardians. Workhouses closed.
26th April 1931: UK census excluded Northern Ireland. Scottish records survive in Edinburgh, but those for England & Wales lost in an unexplained fire in 1942.
26th April 1936: Census in the Irish Free State. [For this and subsequent Irish censuses, visit https://www.cso.ie/en/census/censusthroughhistory/ ]
29th December 1937: Coming into force of the Constitution of Ireland. [All entries below refer only to the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.]
3rd September 1939: War declared
29th September 1939: Not a census, but registration on the outbreak of war for every civilian member of household, of full birth date, full name and occupation.
It is already available online at www.findmypast.co.uk/1939Register, but there are restrictions or conditions on viewing persons still alive in 1991.
1941: The ten-yearly census due that year did not take place, because of World War II.
1948: Introduction of the National Health Service
1949: Air registers began.
1959: Royal Navy registers commenced.
1960: Marriage Act now permitted marriage to a divorced wife's sister.
1969: Family Law Reform act. The age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18.
1969: The first major changes to the format of birth and death certificates takes place. The child's surname is now specified, as well as the parents' place of birth, and the mother's usual place of residence. A deceased person's date of birth now recorded.
1969 Representation of the People Act gave suffrage to the adult population over 18 years old from 1970.
1974: General Registrar's Office moved from Somerset House to St Catherine's House.
1986: Details of the occupations of both parents were now recorded on birth certificates.
2005: Civil partnerships introduced
2012: Abolition of the requirement for marriages between 8am and 6pm — previously daylight was required to see the parties, in case anyone wished to object.
2014: The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 comes into force. The first marriage in England & Wales is in March; Scotland follows at the end of the year.
2016: "The population of the island of Ireland [has shown] significant growth over recent years, [but] is still some way below the record high of the early 1840's [of] 8.53 million. ... As of mid-2016 [it was] approximately 6,609,576 [so], for the first time in 165 years, exceeded the population recorded in the Census of 1851, the first census immediately after the Great Famine, when the population of the island was recorded at 6,575,000."
2021: Census day was 21st March. Visit https://census.gov.uk/ for more information.
May 2021: England & Wales marriage certificates to include names and occupations of both parents (following Scotland's lead of several years) — also see below.
|❋ An asterisk denotes that there is additional information above about this Census or Registration.
Detailed Census information is not generally released until the 1st January after it is 100 years old.
⬇︎ © Who do you think you are?, July 2018 ⬇︎
Marriage Registration: Changes in the law from 4th May, 2021
You may be interested to learn that there are some quite fundamental changes about to take place to the way marriages are registered. It is a change which goes back to the Cameron government, but only became law at the end of February and takes effect on 4th May this year. From May onwards, the marriage certificate will contain the names of mothers as well as fathers and this, apparently, was what instigated the changes. In addition, there will be room for more than one set of parents, to allow for situations such as adoption or remarried parents. Further, there can be up to five witnesses, although the legal minimum remains two. Finally the marriage will no longer be registered in church.
The parish priest is still responsible for arranging and carrying out the wedding, and ensuring the couple are qualified to marry, as well as calling banns. Instead of signing a register, a new document signed during the ceremony is then sent to the Register Office, where it is entered on an electronic register, and the couple are then sent a marriage certificate from the Register Office. This means that all the marriage registers and marriage certificate books held in the churches nationally must be closed, ruled through and returned personally to the Register Office.
Each church holds two duplicate marriage registers, of which one will be returned to the church safe for aiding people who are doing research.
[With thanks to a local Rector, who kindly allowed for her notes to be posted here.]