The Beginnings of Registration
Developments to 1921
Registration after 1922
and Future Developments
The General Register Office
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This year, 2005, we celebrate the 160th anniversary of the introduction of a civil registration system to Ireland. In 1845, legislation came into force which provided for the registration of civil marriages here and for the regulation of all non-Catholic marriages. The Act also created the Office of the Registrar-General who remains to this day responsible for the collation and custody of all birth, death and marriage records. Further legislation which became operative in 1864 provided for the inclusion of Catholic marriages, together with all births and deaths, at which stage a comprehensive registration system was in place.
There are few people who do not need to use the registration service at some time. Increasingly, documentary evidence, particularly of age and marital status, is needed for official and other purposes and it is therefore important that complete and accurate records of births, marriages and deaths are kept. These records also form a basic, continuous source of vital information about the population. They are used along with other data sources, for example, the census of population, for many purposes including planning of schools, hospitals and housing and for medical research into the causes and prevention of disease.
Today, the Registrars General in Northern Ireland and in Ireland hold some 28 million records relating to births, deaths and marriages. Whilst the basics of registration have altered little over time, developments and changes in the fields of medical science, family law and new technology present a constant challenge which the registration system and those working in it must meet. We aim to do this efficiently and effectively while maintaining a high standard of service to the public. The process of modernising and improving the registration system which is presently underway is the major current challenge to the system. The aim is to provide a high quality service in keeping with the needs of the twenty-first century.
I wish to acknowledge the help and support of all those involved in the production of this document. Special thanks are due to Dr. Joseph A. Robins for allowing us to use material from his publication on the background to the first Irish Registration Acts, to our colleagues in the Registrar General's office, Belfast and to John Ribbins for his helpful advice in planning and editing this publication. I would also like to thank others who gave valuable assistance to us, including the National Library, National Archives, Trinity College and other repositories of archival material.
This pamphlet is published both in commemoration of the anniversary and in recognition of the efforts of all those who have been involved in administering and delivering our registration services over the last 150 years.
From the earliest times, knowing about the number and condition of the population has been accepted as important. To assist in this, systems of registering births, deaths and marriages have been a feature of developed states for hundreds of years. However, registration came relatively late to Great Britain and Ireland . It was not until 1538 that Thomas Cromwell, Henry Vlll's Chancellor, introduced a system whereby the clergy of the Established Church were required to keep registers of all baptisms, weddings and funerals at which they officiated. But despite the imposition of penalties for neglect, the system never attained the high standards sought.
There followed a number of attempts over the years to make registration comprehensive and compulsory but it was not until 1836, following a Parliamentary report, that legislation was introduced creating a civil registration system in England and Wales. During the passage of this legislation, the government made clear its intention to extend the principle of registration to Ireland . Nevertheless, some eight years were to elapse before this was to occur.
The provisions introduced in England and Wales empowered the Established Church to register the marriages but marriages in other churches were to be registered by a civil registrar. In Ireland the Roman Catholic Church was concerned that this latter requirement might detract from the religious nature of the marriage ceremony. Consequently, provisions were introduced by the government in 1845 to enable the registration of non Catholic marriages and for the appointment of registrars who were also given the power to solemnise marriages by civil contract. In addition, the post of Registrar General of Marriages was created and given responsibility for the central collection and custody of marriage records.
Over time, demand grew for a general registration system of births, deaths and marriages. The lack of a comprehensive system in Ireland was having repercussions in Britain where many Irish emigrants had gone or were going.
The growing number of laws regulating factory employment, public health conditions and the rights of inheritance were creating circumstances in which it was necessary for the ordinary citizen to prove such things as his age and legitimacy. This was causing various problems. For instance, in 1854, the Inspector of Factories for Scotland reported great difficulty in the operation of the Factory Acts because of the large number of young Irish emigrants presenting themselves for employment with fictitious "birth certificates". The inspector for the Eastern and Metropolitan areas of England reported similar difficulties. By hiring young Irish labourers, factory owners were getting around the legal ban on employing young persons under 18 years on the task of looking after machinery required to be kept in motion during the night.
In Ireland a variety of interests also pressed for the registration of births and deaths. Members of the Presbyterian community complained that the absence of this facility made it very difficult to establish rights of inheritance and noted that those of its members seeking commissions in the Indian service could not show proof of their age or origins. The Irish Poor Law Commissioners were finding it very difficult to impose compulsory vaccination against smallpox because of the absence of information about births and deaths and both the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland also argued persistently in favour of a registration system. Eventually, in 1861, two private Members Bills were put before the House of Commons. One proposed the establishment of a registration system based on the Royal Irish Constabulary and the other proposed the use of dispensary doctors as registrars. Both proposals were referred to a Select Committee of Parliament which concluded that the dispensary doctors were the most appropriate persons to act as local registrars. For Catholic marriages, it also recommended an arrangement whereby Catholic clergymen would forward to the Registrar General details of all marriages solemnised in their churches.
The General Register Office was located in
the King's Inn from 1848 to 1872
Eventually, in 1863, a Bill providing for the registration of births and deaths in Ireland drafted along the lines suggested by the Select Committee was introduced and passed. Whilst the Act did not encompass Catholic marriages, a Private Members Bill was successfully introduced later that year which resulted in the civil registration by the state of marriages celebrated according to the rites of the Catholic Church. A complete Irish civil registration system was then in place.
In the early days, the organisation of the service was based on the "unions" of parishes set up under the Poor Law( Ireland ) Act 1838. Initially, these unions formed the registrars' districts (for Protestant and civil marriages) and later the superintendent registrars' districts (for births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages). The Clerk of the Union was usually the superintendent registrar and also often registrar of Protestant and civil marriages. The medical officer of the dispensary district was usually also the registrar of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages.
Throughout Ireland there were 163 union based registration districts each headed by a superintendent registrar and there were also around 798 dispensary based registration districts, each headed by a registrar of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages who reported to the relevant superintendent registrar. In addition, there were 130 registrars of Protestant and civil marriages who reported directly to the Registrar General.
From the start, those who worked in the service were remunerated on a fee-paid basis, the amount depended on the volume of business conducted. The superintendent registrars received from the Register General a fee of two pence for each entry made in their areas and the district registrars were paid out of the local rates, levied by the Poor Law Union, a fee of one shilling for each entry made by them.
1845 was the first year in which marriages (other than Roman Catholic Marriages) were registered and 6,114 marriages were recorded in the last nine months of the year. The majority of these (4118 were according to the rites of the Established Church, 1586 were in Presbyterian Meeting Houses and 348 marriages were before Registrars of Marriages. In 1864 the first year for the registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (including Catholic Marriages) - there were 136,643 births, 94,095 deaths and 27, 373 marriages recorded.
High Street Belfast 1850 showing the premises (1st right) of William McComb, first registrar of marriages for the district of Belfast. He was also a well known publisher and stationer, who produced a guide to Belfast in 1861.
In 1845 Dublin City was served by two Registrars of Marriages. The Registrar for Dublin (City) North was Robert Hartford and his office was located at 9, Middle MountJoy Street , Dublin . Mr. Hartford is also described in the records as "Secretary to the Bills Society". Mr Thomas W. Reily, a barrister by profession, was the Registrar for Dublin (City) South and his offices were located at 48 Dame Street , Dublin 2 (arrowed).
The original Registration Acts placed a requirement on the Registrar General to supply a sufficient number of strong iron boxes to hold the register books. Every such box was to "be furnished with a lock and 2 keys and no more and one of the keys shall be kept by the registrar and the other by the superintendent registrar".
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Advertisement for Registration Ink from Henderson 's, Belfast Directory 1846/47. Permanent high quality ink was to be used for registration purposes.
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