First GRO certificate – 1st July 1837

Whilst reading the latest issue of Family Tree magazine (UK issue, Vol 31 No 6, March 2015) I came across an interesting question from a reader in the ‘Dear Tom’ section. What was the first certificate produced by the General Register Office (GRO) on 1st July 1837? They had enquired with the GRO, who advised them that “the current filing system leaves staff unable to ascertain such facts”

This got me thinking about the GRO – why and how it was set up and whether it would be possible to discover the first certificate.

Why was the GRO set up? There was no system of civil registration before the GRO. Prior to this the Anglican Church recorded baptisms, marriages and burials, but not always that efficiently. There was a rise in non-conformist religions, but their registers were not legally admissible, so could not be used in court or to prove property rights and non-conformist marriages were not legally recognised.  The Government wanted to solve these issues and wanted a civil registration system that was accurate, so they could gain statistics about population growth and mortality to improve welfare and public health and as always probably for taxation purposes. They passed the Act for Registering Births, Deaths and Marriages in England in 1836.

How was the GRO established? The Act used the newly created administrative structure of the New Poor Law 1834, which covered England and Wales. It decreed that a Superintendent Registrar should be appointed for each of the 619 poor law districts. Each district was divided into sub districts with their own local registrars.

The local registrars were responsible for the registration of births and deaths in their local district. They were paid for each one they registered. They were supplied with books and certified forms and sent copies and the full registers back to the Superintendent Registrars, when complete. In the beginning not all births were registered for a number of reasons, such as people thought baptisms were legally the same as registering a birth. There were also no penalties for not registering a birth until 1874 when it became compulsory. Deaths were different as you had to have proof you had registered a death before a burial could take place.

Tip – it is worth searching on surname variations as the registrar may have written it wrong if your ancestor was illiterate and dictating to the registrar.

Marriages were slightly different and you didn’t always need a registrar. For marriages that happened in an Anglican Church, the Vicar was the registrar. Two registers were signed, one kept by the church and one returned to the superintendent registrar when complete. Non-conformists had to have a registrar present at the wedding and they were responsible for the register. This didn’t change until 1898 when non-conformist ministers could legally take on the role of registrar.

Tip – the way marriages were recorded in separate registers means if you ask for a marriage certificates at a local register office, they will need the parish or church where the marriage took place to do a search, as no collated marriage register exists.

At the end of each quarter March, June, September, December, the Superintendent Registrar compiled all birth, marriage and death returns from local registrars and sent them to the GRO in London, which to begin with was at Somerset House. These were then copied into volumes by district and then a separate index by surname completed on vellum. These have been made available for the public to search from the beginning.

Tip – it is always worth checking at the local register office if you cannot find an event in the GRO index, as names may have been copied wrong (they had been copied 3-4 times by the time they ended up in the index) or missed.

What was the first certificate? Doing a quick search on free BMD showed there are over 50,000 entries for Sep quarter 1837. This means there were about 500 entries each day in that quarter; a massive undertaking when everything was handwritten. I suspect we will never know what the first certificate was, as with most new legislation there was nearly a year to appoint registrars and set up the system. The novelty of a new system can well have meant hundreds of certificates were produced on that Saturday 1st July 1837.

In 2012 the GRO celebrated their 175th anniversary and holds over 260 million records. It is as important now as it has ever been for both the past and the present.

If you do have a certificate from early July 1837 or even the 1st, ‘Dear Tom’ would be interested to know – with ‘Dear Tom’ in the subject line.


English Civil Registration on FamilySearch Accessed 2 Mar 2015

General Register Office for England and Wales on Wikipedia Accessed 2 Mar 2015

FreeBMD Accessed 2 Mar 2015

The General Register Office celebrates 175 years of civil registration  Accessed 2 Mar 2015


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