Sunday, 19 January 2014

No hiding place...?

 Queen Victoria 1837-1901

This week, on 22nd January, is the anniversary of Queen Victoria's death in 1901. The Victorian era was a period in which there were many changes and innovations - the birth of photography, the coming of the railways and advances in industrial technology, postage stamps and the invention of the telephone, amongst others, not to mention the first public toilets appearing on London streets (known as 'halting stations') following their success at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Two significant advances from a family historian's perspective were the introduction of of civil registration in 1837, the year Victoria came to the throne, and the first 'proper' census, where individual names were recorded, in 1841.

Both systems were regarded with some suspicion and not a little confusion. People often assumed that the registering of births, marriages and deaths wasn't required if there had been a baptism, wedding or burial in church - one reason that there are gaps in the records.

Another reason was the way such information was compiled. Until 1874 it was the responsibility of the registrar to seek out and record all births and deaths in his district. An onerous task which, unsurprisingly, led to an estimated 15% of such events being missed. After this date an act of parliament shifted the responsibility to the persons concerned, with fines if the information was not registered within a set period of time.  If parents missed the deadline for registering a birth, the option of not bothering at all might prove more appealing than paying the fine. In one recorded case, the parents of a new baby boy not only gave him the name of his deceased elder brother (not an uncommon practice at the time, with infant mortality being what it was), but actually went as far as reusing his dead sibling's birth certificate rather than register the name for a second time!

As with civil registration, the census had its dissenters, considered by some as a grave invasion of privacy. Many went to great lengths to ensure they weren't at home when the enumerator called to record the inhabitants of the household.

It is said that JMW Turner, the painter, spend census night on board a boat moored in the Thames in order to avoid being included in the records. In another case, two sisters, so opposed to the system, hired a cab and spent all night driving around the lanes so as not to be at home for the official's knock on the door.

If any of your ancestors are missing from the records, perhaps it's because they felt the same way.


You can search the birth, marriage and death indexes on or the censuses on Both are part of FreeUKGEN, set up to make records relevant to UK genealogy available to search for free online.

You may wish to make a donation to help with running costs, as it is a charity organisation, or even volunteer to help transcribe those records which have yet to be added to the database.

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