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Victorian Registrars and the GRO

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  • Victorian Registrars and the GRO

    The following would not have been possible without the excellent books written by Michael Whitfield Foster:

    "A Comedy of Errors" and "A Comedy of Errors, Act 2".

    Without the knowledge gleaned from these books I would not have been able to write the article.



    What was supposed to happen!

    This information relates to registration during the Victorian period. I cannot say if, or when, any regulations changed after that date. Everything I have written here relates to marriages, but the way the registrars dealt with births and deaths, after the registration had been made, would follow a similar pattern to a marriage in the registry office. Everything I have written is what was SUPPOSED to happen.....the number of ways mistakes could occur was virtually endless!!!!!

    When civil registration began, churches where marriages could be conducted by their own minister were issued with two marriage register books. Registrars were issued with one marriage register book which was for use both at civil ceremonies and for church and chapel marriages where the registrar needed to be present (that's most dissenting churches).

    For a Church of England wedding, the vicar was to fill in the two copies of the marriage cert, AFTER the couple had taken their vows, one entry in each register book. The couple would then sign or mark (X) both copies of the register. Both registers were to be filled in in unison, so both books would be completed together. For register office and dissenting church weddings the registrar would have the happy couple sign his single copy register book.

    At the end of the quarter the ordained church minister (for Church of England and other churches that didn't require the attendance of the registrar), completed the GRO copies of the marriage entries for the quarter just ended. These GRO copies were hand-written on pre-printed loose sheets, with four marriages to a side of paper up to 1852 and two marriages to a side after that date. Once the minister had written up his sheets, detailing all the marriages for the Quarter, he would forward them to the local superintendent registrar, who would also have made copies of all the marriages he had conducted, on similar loose sheets.

    The superintendent registrar would wait until he had collected the sheets from all the ministers in his district (churches had a special form to fill in if they had conducted no weddings). He would then tie them into a bundle along with his own copy entries, and send them off to the GRO.

    So, the clerks at the GRO would receive a bundle of sheets from every superintendent registrar in England and Wales. Within each bundle would be sheets in all different handwritings from all the different ministers and registrars for that area.

    The GRO would take all the bundles from all the sup. registrars offices and pile them into their different Volume Numbers. They would also sort the bundles for each volume number into a particular sequence (same each Quarter). So, Volume 1a would begin with the paperwork from the superintendent registrar for Paddington District, every Quarter.

    Each sheet of paper for each volume number would then be numbered. So, taking Volume 1a ....the first sheet from Paddington would be page number 1 on the front and 2 on the reverse (so, either four or two marriages to a page number, depending on the date), continuing through the districts until the last marriage in Hampstead, which was the last district in Volume 1a. Volume 1b would also begin with page one, and so on.

    So, eventually, the GRO clerks would have a pile of paper for each volume number, each beginning with page one and ending with page ....whatever. Smaller volumes might have under 1,000 pages, but larger volumes might have as many as 1500 pages. So, for after 1852, when there were two marriages to a page number (and so four names - two brides and two grooms), that would be about 4,000 names for a small volume and 6,000 names for a larger volume. Maybe as many as 200,000 marriages altogether (numbers varied quite a lot) so getting on for half a million names per Quarter, all written within the body of all these loose sheets of paper, and not a computer or even a typewriter in sight!!!

    The clerks would then copy out all the bride and groom names, along with the district name, volume and page number for each person, onto little card index cards. These cards would be sorted into alphabetical order for each volume and then sorted into one complete alphabetical run for the whole of Eng/Wales for that Quarter.
    Then all they had to do was write up the card details onto the ledger pages that we see on Ancestry and 1837 and in the ledgers at the Family Records Centre in London. The ledger pages would then be bound into a book for that Quarter. All these original ledger pages were handwritten.

    Now, back at the churches.........eventually the vicar would complete his two identical marriage register books. One he would keep (or would now likely be stored at the local County Record Office). The other he would send to the local superintendent registrar. It is from this second marriage register book that the details will be taken if you order a certificate from a local register office.


    What could go wrong

    Vicars not remembering to submit their copies of entries until months or sometimes years after the events.....registrars not noticing.......

    Bad handwriting................

    Entries filled out before the couple arrived at the church....then they cancelled, but the entry still remained in the register and got copied and indexed!

    Copy sheets not forwarded by the superintendent registrar at the right time.

    Vicars not realising when the Quarter end had been reached

    Vicars not sending in their records for several YEARS and then submitting them for the wrong time period - then the GRO were equally likely to mis-index them as well (a lot of these are the entries with an a after the page number)

    Clerks at the GRO mis-sorting bundles or sheets, mis-recording page numbers....misreading writing........indexing the wrong people on the cert (witnesses in the GRO index instead of the bride and groom!!)

    Mis-copying information onto the card index.

    Mis-sorting the cards

    Bad copying of the card data into the GRO ledgers.

    Many of the Victorian ledgers have now been typed. This was probably done in the early 20th Century - no one knows for sure (the old pages were not kept!). If you look at the old handwritten pages that still exist, sometimes the same surname written again and again is really hard to read, isn't it??? (so mis-typed) ......

    Typist might turn two pages at once

    Typist might misread Volume and Page numbers .... misread district names.........

    and a million one and other things......!!

    Hope this helps someone........... Merry Monty Montgomery


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