A brief history


"Hatched, Matched & Dispatched"

The story of birth, marriage and death registration in England and Wales is in two distinct parts - parochial registration and civil registration, which began, briefly, during the Commonwealth period.  In the main, parochial registration will be used for research prior to July 1837 and Civil registration for research after that date, although researchers may still find much useful information in the later parochial registers.

This page outlines the basic events and dates that are important to family history researchers and provides links to other useful sites and sources of information.

Parish Registers

The first attempt at keeping records of the population was brought about in the 29th year of the reign of Henry VIII (1538) by the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell.  He ordered the clergy of every parish church in the land to keep a register book of all baptisms, marriages and burials.  Being made from paper, and often just loose leaves, very few of these original books have survived.  The register was required to be filled in every Sunday, in the presence of one of the Churchwardens and was to be kept in a strong chest with two locks, the parson having one key and the other kept by the wardens.

In 1597 the Convocation of Canterbury ordered the parishes to purchase parchment registers, many of the old registers having decayed, and that the names from the original be copied into the new registers from the beginning, 'but especially since the first year of Her Majesty's reign.'  This latter condition explains why many parish registers start from 1558, rather than 1538.  The register still had to be completed every Sunday, but in the presence of both Churchwardens; a third lock was added to the chest with each of the wardens having his own key.  The clergy were also required to make annual returns to a diocesan registrar (Bishops' Transcripts).

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The Commonwealth

After the overthrow of the crown and the execution of Charles I in 1649, registration was temporarily taken out of the hands of the clergy and, in 1653, each parish appointed a lay "register" to keep the records.  Unfortunately, these records do not appear to have survived, making research during the Commonwealth period very difficult.

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Parish Registers part 2

On the restoration of the Crown and the return to England of Charles II in 1660, registration was again handled by the church.  Some of the clergy managed to re-construct the registers for the intervening period from a mixture of the "civil" registers, personal notes and the parishioners' memories.   Obviously the accuracy of these registers is slightly suspect.

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Burial in Woollen

An Act of Parliament of 1679 decreed that all bodies should be buried in a woollen shroud.  "An Act for the burying in Woollen" (30 Car. II., cap.3), intended for

"the lessening the importation of linen from beyond the seas, and the encouragement of the woollen and paper manufactures of this Kingdom ".

An affidavit, which could be sworn before a Parson, Vicar or Curate, had to be brought within 8 days of the burial, under a penalty of 5, that the deceased was not buried in linen.  This can be clearly seen in the burial registers for the period (afft. recd.).

Section 4 of the act stated:

"And it is enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all persons in Holy Orders, Deans, Parsons, Deacons, Vicars, Curates, and their, or any of their Substitutes, do, within their respective parishes, precincts, and places, take an exact account, and keep a Register of all and every person or persons buried in his or their respective parishes or precincts, or in such common burial places , as their parishioners are usually buried."

No penalty was to be incurred by reason of any person dying of the plague, although such person should not be buried according to this Act.

Parish registers frequently contain lists of the affidavits brought, in pursuance of this Act, to the Clergyman on the burial of individuals, of their being shrouded in woollen;  these will often afford information, not to be found in the registers themselves. (Burn)

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In an attempt to curb runaway marriages, new rules were introduced in 1753 (Hardwicke Marriage Act "for the better preventing of Clandestine Marriages") which only permitted marriages to be solemnised in the parish where either party (usually the bride) lived.  At the same time, "banns" were introduced, whereby notice had to be given on three Sundays prior to the marriage, and recorded in the register, giving the opportunity for "anyone who knows of just cause" to object to the marriage.  This was the first time that separate, bound books of printed forms were produced for marriages and banns; prior to this date, all baptisms, marriages and burials had been written in a single volume, usually on separate pages but sometimes mixed together on the page.

In the absence of banns being published, or when the couple wished to marry outside of their own parishes, they had to apply for a licence to marry.  These licences are recorded and provide an additional source of information for researchers.  However, the presence of a licence must not be taken as proof that a marriage took place - we have evidence from our own research that the first licence did not result in a marriage (for example, where the bride-to-be was "with child").

It was this reform that led to the popularity of Gretna Green for runaway marriages.

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Rose's Act

"An Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England" (52 Geo. III, c.146)

In 1812, printed forms were introduced in separate registers for baptisms and burials (Rose's Act):

"amending the Manner and Form of keeping and of preserving Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of His Majesty's Subjects in the several Parishes and Places in England, will greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates, and otherwise of great public Benefit and Advantage." 

These forms have remained substantially unchanged to the present day.

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Civil Registration

In 1833 a House of Commons Select Committee was set up to enquire into the whole system of parochial registration and to look at the need for a system of national civil registration.  The General Registration Acts were passed in 1836, bringing into being the current system of registration.

July 1st 1837 saw the appointment of 2,193 Registrars of Births and Deaths and 619 Superintendent Registrars  (for marriages) in England and Wales, under the first Registrar General (Thomas Lister), based at the General Register Office in London.   However, registration was not compulsory in the beginning, with the Registrar being responsible for attempting to secure a registration.  Because many births and deaths were not being registered (most occurred at home and not in hospital as is common today) registration was made compulsory in 1874.

Before 1876, deaths were not required to be certified by a doctor, so the registrar had to rely on the informant to provide the cause of death.

In 1926, in an attempt to prevent the irregular disposal of bodies, the Births and Deaths Registration Act (1926) introduced the requirement for a registrar's certificate or coroner's order to be produced before burial or cremation could take place.  It also required a notice of disposal to be sent to the registrar after the funeral had taken place.  At the same time, registration of still-births was required.

Today, each registration district has to submit copies of the registers quarterly to the General Register Office, where they are recorded and indexed.  The indexes are kept on open shelves in the Public Search Room, where they can be examined free of charge.  


In the first 150 years of civil registration, 112 million births, 75 million deaths and 40 million marriages were registered in England and Wales.

In 1837, 4 per cent of all marriages took place at register offices; in 1987, the figure was almost 50 per cent.

In 1987, more than 400,000 marriages were recorded in England and Wales - one every 80 seconds.

The public search room attracts over 2,000 visitors each day (over two thirds of whom are researching their family history) with over 1,500 copies of certificates being issued daily.

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Useful Addresses:

Canterbury Cathedral Archives, The Precincts, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 2EH   Tel: (01227) 463510

Registers and other parish records relating to the East Kent region

Centre for Kentish Studies, County Hall, Maidstone, Kent.

Registers and other parish records relating to the West Kent region, plus large collections of estate records, company records, etc. relating to Kent

The Family Records Centre, 1 Myddleton Street, London, EC1R 1UW     Tel: (0181) 392 5300

Houses the public search rooms for both the Office for National Statistics (census records) and the Public Record Office (births, marriages and deaths) previously located at St. Catherine's House and Chancery Lane.   Also indexes of wills and administrations from 1858-1943.

Registered copies of wills proved after 1 January 1858 are available for public inspection at:

Probate Search Room, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6NP
Tel: (0171) 936 7000

Postal enquiries should be made to:

York Probate Sub-Registry, Duncombe Place, York, YO1 7EA

Wills proved prior to this date can be seen at the FRC (PCC for south of England) or at the BIHR (PCY for North of England)

Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, St Anthony's Hall, Peasholme Green, York, YO1 2PW     Tel: 01904 642315

Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU     Tel: (0181) 876 3444


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The dates, events and figures for this article were obtained from the leaflet "150 YEARS of Civil Registration", produced by the Kent Registration Service in 1987.

Other information, including addresses, has been extracted from leaflets produced by the PRO, which contain a great deal of useful information for family history researchers in England and Wales.  Up-to-date versions of these leaflets can be obtained from the PRO or the FRC or from the PRO website.

For information on where to find registers in England and Wales, see Humphery-Smith.

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This page last modified on January 04, 2007