HC Deb 23 February 1832 vol 10 cc686-9
Lord Nugent

rose, pursuant to notice, to ask for leave to bring in a Bill for the formation of a General Registry of Births. He was sure that the fate of this Bill would mainly depend, not so much on a general recognition of the grievances and inconveniences now felt upon this subject, as upon the question whether it was calculated to remove them. The evils arising from the existing state of things, were familiar to most Gentlemen acquainted with the difficulty of ascertaining questions relating to descent, alliance, or birth. It was well-known that there was no direct legal proof of the date of an individual's birth, except the oral testimony of individuals cognizant of it; in other words, that all testimony as to that date perished with the parties to whom the fact was known. In cases of pedigree, and whether parties were of age at a certain time, the question was generally beyond proof; because, in nine cases out of ten, such questions did not arise till the parties were dead, together with all who could bear testimony to the facts. The only other legal evidence as to the date of a person's birth, was in the baptismal register, and that only proved that a party was in existence at the time the baptismal entry was made, and said nothing of how old he was upon that occasion; nor, indeed, would any entry as to the time of birth be received as legal evidence of the fact. This was a most inadequate proof, and gave rise to many frauds, in spite of the law. These inconveniences affected all classes of the community, but they fell most heavily on the Dissenters, particularly the Baptists, whose religious opinion was, that persons ought not to be baptized until they arrived at the age of sixteen. Many persons, dying before arriving at that age, no date whatever of their birth was preserved. Besides, the difficulties arising from non-registration, generally, a peculiar evil arose in the particular case of Baptists; who were sometimes induced to an occasional conformity, at the expense of their religious opinions, for the purpose of obtaining the benefits of registration for their children. He knew that ministers of the Baptist persuasion considered it a desecration of the Sacrament of Baptism, to baptize children of tender years; but they were, nevertheless, occasionally tempted to be guilty of this desecration of the Sacrament. There was, he was aware, a registry kept of the birth of Dissenters; but it was necessarily imperfect; and, in the case ex parte Taylor, a late Master of the Rolls, Sir William Grant, stated it as his opinion that that registry was not evidence in a court of law. To judge of the inconveniences of the present system, suppose, in a case of pedigree, it was necessary to prove the birth of a person born seventy years ago. All the witnesses conversant of the fact, were probably dead; and if the inquiring parties did not know the county and parish where the child was born, they had to hunt through upwards of 10,000 parish registers; and, failing in this search, their only resource was, in family Bibles and prayer-books, always secondary, and sometimes not admissible, evidence. He would state to the House the general means by which he proposed to remove these inconveniences. He did not propose to interfere with the baptismal registers, but to establish a purely civil registration of births, to be kept by a recognized officer, and to be open for general inspection on the payment of a small fee. Attested copies of registries, or registers themselves, he proposed to make evidence in a Court of Justice. No new machinery would be set up, no expense would be incurred, and very little additional trouble would be given. He intended that the clerk of each parish should be required to receive the entry of the birth of each child born within the preceding three months, from either the parent or attesting witnesses. The parish clerk was to make his return to the high-constable of his division or hundred, who was already compelled to make certain returns to the Quarter Sessions, to which he should add those he received from the Clerk, and the Clerk of the Peace should copy them into a book which would form the registry of births for his county. He had stated the grievances that existed, and the remedies he proposed to apply to abate them, and, without troubling the House with any further detail at the present moment, he would move for leave to bring in a Bill for the general registration of births.

Sir Robert Inglis

said, such a Bill as the noble Lord proposed, to be effectual, must be compulsory. He had made (if he understood him correctly) the Clerks and Officers responsible, but it was not compulsory upon the parents to make the necessary communication. The consequence would be, that a great proportion of persons would not be registered, and the same uncertainty would continue to prevail as at present. It was absurd to suppose the great majority of people would take the trouble of having their children registered, when they had no inducements connected with either pedigree or property to do so.

Mr. Strickland

begged to suggest to the noble Lord, whether, providing another column in the parish registers, which should receive the age at the time of baptism, would not accomplish his object.

Mr. O'Connell

observed, that such a measure as the noble Lord contemplated was much wanted in Ireland, and he believed the hon. member for the University of Oxford was in error, when he supposed the poorer people were not interested in recording the birth of their children. He apprehended that few would be found not ready to avail themselves of the advantage. The Catholic clergy kept registers of baptisms and marriages, but their admission, as evidence in a Court of Justice, was a disputed point, and he, therefore, should be happy to lend his assistance to establish an authentic record.

Mr. Croker

begged to add his testimony to that of the hon. and learned member for Kerry, that a registry was much wanted in Ireland. A few years since, it was extremely difficult to establish the date of any man's birth. He knew a Peer who had found this difficulty very great, before he could establish his claim to vote for Representative Peers.

Mr. John Wilkes

said, the measure proposed was actually necessary. The Commissioners for real property had, in their report, complained of the existing laws as being so defective in this respect, as to augment the difficulties of the transfer of property. All persons desirous of accurate statistical information, had deplored the want of all authentic records in this country by which that could be obtained; while, in all other countries, such information was fully supplied. He, therefore, in common with other hon. Members, would be ready to render any assistance to supply this defect, and the noble Lord might depend upon his support.

Lord Nugent

was gratified at the promises of support he had received: he would simply state one case with which he was acquainted, to prove the necessity of the Bill he proposed. In a parish he knew, there stood the following entry: "The child of Jacob Andrews and Mary his wife." Three months after this, came the marriage of "Jacob Andrews with the same Mary." The birth of a child before marriage might be accounted for, but how the child should be entered as that of Jacob Andrews and "his wife," was not so easy to be understood. These parties afterwards became Baptists, and had themselves Baptized; they were afterwards reconciled to the Church of England, and "Mary, the wife, dies," and is registered as being buried three months before her child was Baptised, and six months before she was married. All this confusion arose from the clergyman having filled his book, and then begun again at a preceding page, and somebody fancying that a subsequent date being on a prior page was wrong, took the trouble to alter the whole of them, thus making Jacob Andrews stand as the widower of a lady three months before he married her. As to the suggestion of the hon. Member (Mr. Strickland), to establish another column in parochial registers, that, besides being liable to the same errors as those he had just pointed out, would have the additional defect of requiring each parish register in the kingdom to be examined upon particular occasions, and would leave the Dissenters exposed to the same difficulties as at present.

Leave given to bring in the Bill.