HC Deb 28 March 1833 vol 16 cc1209-22
Mr. Wilks

rose to move for the appointment of a "Select Committee to consider the general state of parochial registries, and the registration of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials, in England and Wales." The subject deserved the serious consideration of the House, and was very important to all persons possessing property, however humble or exalted, and to whatsoever religious denomination they belonged. From that estimate of its importance in which he trusted the House and the country would agree; he had been induced to undertake a task, that admitted of no adornment, and in which he must trust for success to the intrinsic merit of the subject. It was strange, however, and matter of equal surprise and regret, that the registration of births, marriages, and burials, should never have attracted in this country, famed for intelligence and wealth, the attention which its importance demanded. To this subject, other countries had been early attentive. The biographers of Petrarch stated that the baptism of the far-famed Laura was registered in 1314, in the parochial register of Cabrieres, where she was born and which register had commenced in the year 1308. In 1497, a system of parochial registration was introduced in to Spain, by Cardinal Ximenes; and many useful regulations were comprised in that system, which, after the lapse of many centuries, had not yet been introduced into this country. His regulations required that, on the registry of every parish, should be inscribed, with the names of the children baptized, the names also of their fathers and mothers, godfathers and godmothers, and the witnesses present, as well as the day, the month, and the year, on which the rite was performed. It was supposed that Secretary Cromwell, whilst travelling through Spain, became acquainted with these registers; and that, at his suggestion, in 1538, two years after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Henry 8th, issued an Injunction, which was the foundation of all parochial registers. It was somewhat curious, that the parish of St. Margaret, in which the House was situated, contained one of the earliest records respecting this system of registration; for, in the churchwarden's accounts for the year 1538, was a charge of 2d. for a book for the entry of burials, weddings, and christenings. By the Injunction of Henry 8th, the parsons were to enter, weekly, before the churchwardens, all weddings, christenings, and burials, and then deposit the book in a coffer with two keys; and a penalty of 3s. 4d., to be applied towards the reparation of the church, was imposed for neglect. During the short reign of Edward 6th., a similar Injunction was framed; but it directed the penalty to be applied to "the poor men's box." and not to the Church. From the national Synod held by Cardinal Pole, about 1555, in the reign of Philip and Mary, episcopal interference commenced, and Bishops were directed to inquire, on their visitations, whether the registers were regularly kept. In the reign of Elizabeth, a Bill was introduced into that House, on the suggestion of the illustrious Lord Burleigh, after communicating with the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the establishment of diocesan registries. That Bill, however, did not pass, nor did a plan for a general national registry, recorded by Strype, in his annals, succeed. The matter remained, in spite of the urgent wishes of that great statesman, under royal authority, and the ecclesiastical functionaries; and the information concerning the population of the country, which he felt to be desirable, had never been acquired. By a new regulation, in 1597, an improvement was made, now unhappily fallen into desuetude, by which persons were appointed to examine the parochial books, and to fine the clergy and officers for neglect. Little further occurred until the time of the protectorate—that age of great deeds and great men. Then the evils were not only perceived, but corrected—not merely deplored, but removed. It was then resolved to disembarrass the Church of civil duties, and to separate our civil institutions from the Church. By an Act, passed in 1653, every parish was directed to choose a registrar, to be called "the parish registrar," for the registering, not of baptisms, but of births, and not of burials only, but also of deaths. Two or three small parishes might unite in the choice. The person elected was to be approved by a Magistrate, before whom he was to be sworn, and was to continue for three years in office, subject to dismissal for misconduct, and re-eligible if approved. To this officer all former registries were to be delivered, to be kept with the parochial records. Marriages were to be celebrated before Justices of the peace, and after the celebration, he was to enter each marriage in the register, where it was to be countersigned by the Magistrate, and enrolled at the County Court, by the clerk of the peace. From the poor, no fees were to be taken; and moderate charges to other persons appear to have defrayed the total expense. This system seemed to have been extremely judicious and complete; and happy should he be, if in its admirable simplicity and wisdom it could now be restored. It treated marriage as a civil institution—it provided for individual security, and supplied national information—it included all religionists, because all were citizens—it did not make registration depend on a religious ceremony or peculiar ecclesiastical creeds, but treated it as a matter of civil regulations, in which all were interested and all might partake. Neither as to marriages, nor baptisms, nor burials, did it presumptuously interfere to prescribe or to obtrude the sanctities of religion. The pious might well and wisely invite the clergyman or the minister to administer the rite of baptism—to invoke an heavenly benediction on the bridegroom and his bride—and to soothe at the grave the sorrows of burial by holy consolations and fervent prayer. Much as he condemned and deplored the mockery of mere forms, and much as he desired a new modelled system of civil registration, he should yet more deplore that social state in which a spontaneous desire of religious sanctions did not exist. During the short period of its existence, this system proved practically good, and the registries preserved were remarkably accurate and neat. But like many other real improvements, it was swept away on the Restoration, and with the return of Charles 2nd, the registration relapsed to the parochial clergy, with whom it had subsequently remained. From that period no material alteration was made till the reign of William 3rd; when parochial registration was regarded as a source of revenue. By an Act in the 6th and 7th of that reign, duties were granted on marriages, births, and burials, to carry on the war against France. Collectors were appointed to inspect and enforce registries of all persons born as well as baptized, and of all persons buried in common burying-places, as well as in parish church-yards. These registers, under a penalty of 100l., clergymen were even then compelled to keep; and by the 7th and 8th William 3rd, parents were obliged, also, under a penalty, to notify to them, within five days, the birth of a child. These were registries not of baptisms but of births—and the registry was compulsory on parents. Again, in the 23rd George 3rd., a Stamp-duty of 3d. was imposed on all registers of burials, marriages, christenings, or births; and by another Act, in 25th George 3rd; the duty was extended to the Dissenters' registries of births, baptisms, or burials, and those registries appear, at least for these fiscal purposes, to have been as completely recognised as the registries of the Established Church. Why, then, should the Dissenters subsequently have been deprived of that just equality which lawyers and the Legislature, when taxes were to be imposed and revenues extorted, were prompt to allow, but which ceased when, in 1794 the tax was repealed? The Act of 52nd George 3rd, commonly called Sir George Rose's Act, passed in 1812, and probably originated with the commissioners appointed to examine the state of the public records, was intended to effect great and important improvements in the parochial registration, and to enforce a general system of registration of births and of deaths. This was the Act under which all parish registers were still kept, and certainly added to the innumerable proofs of the wretched state of our legislation; statutes being indefinitely multiplied without unity of purpose or accuracy of effect. The momentous nature of the object might, one should have thought, ensured some care in devising a mode for its attainment. The proof of primogeniture, and evidences of pedigree with the enjoyment or the acquisition of vast portions of the property of the country must depend on a complete and correct register of births, marriages, and deaths. Yet the imperfections of the present system were obvious, and its practical inadequacy almost incredibly great. The Act was called "An Act for better regulating and preserving parish and other registers of births, baptisms, marriages, and burials in England." Mark, "other registers," and registers of births! But this Bill had no provision as to other than parochial registers, nor as to a registry of births. In fact, when it passed that House it corresponded with the title. It contained wise regulations as to dissenting registries, and in the schedule there was a column for an inscription of births. But in the other House these regulations and the column were erased, and the title remained to excite expectations, which the Act did not realise. Among the objects of that Act was the establishment of duplicate copies and diocesan registers of all the parish books; and as fires in churches and parsonage houses, had consumed, in a short hour, the records of ages, and so destroyed the evidences on which titles, and rank, and fortune might be claimed, duplicates placed in secure depositories, were obviously to be desired. It was provided that copies of all the registers should be annually made, and verified by the minister, whose declaration should be attested by the churchwardens; that these should be sent, indorsed in a form prescribed, to the registrar of each diocese; that he should yearly make a report to the Bishop, especially noticing all parishes in default; that the copies sent should be carefully arranged, and be deposited in a place secure from damage and destruction by fire; that alphabetical lists should be made, in suitable books, of all names so transmitted, and that before March, 1813, each Bishop, with the custodes rotulorum, and the chancellor of each diocese, should report to the Privy Council as to the places where the documents were deposited, as to their security from fire; and as to a suitable mode of remunerating the officers for additional trouble and expense. Such were the enactments of the Bill. What would the House suppose were its results? To acquire information, he had obtained, by the order of the House, a return from the several dioceses of that result. From the statements then of the public officers, and not from vague conjecture or prejudiced representation that result might be known. And would the House believe that no report to the Privy Council had ever been made by the high ecclesiastical and civil functionaries, who were somewhat anxious for patronage and power, but negligent of the positive duties to perform which they continually demand patronage and power. In several dioceses eminent for population, and property, such as, London, Bristol, and Chester, at least one-fourth part of the parishes, had made no annual returns. Parishes containing 50,000 inhabitants, had made no returns since the passing of the Act; and other parishes yet more populous had made no returns for the last ten years. Returns, when made, as in the other dioceses where the defaults were less flagrant, were incorrect, and not in compliance with the Act on which their validity depended. Notwithstanding all these defects the reports as to default were very few. No one alphabetical list of the names in the registers had ever been made, and even, where parishes had incurred the trouble and expense of transcribing the registers, and forwarding them, the postage induced a refusal to receive them, or some error in their direction led to their return to the Post-office. In fact, many hundreds had accumulated at the Post-office, to the inconvenience of that establishment, and they were all positively burnt; a bonfire was actually made of documents that had cost a great deal of labour, and on which the happiness of many families might depend. In very few dioceses were the copies deposited in places which even the registrars considered as secure from fire; in several they were in private houses, and in hazardous situations: and the intelligent and very effective and indefatigable registrar for the diocese of London was compelled to state, with regret, that he had no other depository for his numerous, though imperfect and irregular documents, except a room on the first-floor of his own offices, of which the upper story was let out, and which was liable to all the casualties of ordinary dwellings. In making these remarks, he disavowed any intention of imputing misconduct to the diocesan registrars, and any wish to place on them the blame of the complete failure. The Act provided no remuneration for the burthensome but proper duty it enjoined, and the heads of the Church had hitherto omitted the report to the Privy Council, by which the omission would have been known and repaired. It was not of individuals, but of the system, he complained, and the House and the country must agree with him. There was not a guardian or a parent who would not say, that such irregularities and imperfections ought not to be tolerated. But if these evils were surmounted, the general body of parish registers throughout England and Wales were in a bad condition. He should too long occupy the House, did he notice the complaints which topographers, antiquarians, heralds, and all persons led by interest or by taste to examine the registers had united to make. Entries of baptisms celebrated years before the clergyman, making the entry, was incumbent of the Church, had been made. He would not dwell on their removal—their insecurity—their use as testers for beds, or thread papers—of the interpolations, intentional erasures, and fraudulent destruction; he would not recount the ludicrous entries and misnomers of which he had heard—he would only state that, even if the Act of 1812 had been perfectly obeyed, and if the parish registers were uniform and inviolate, secure and uncorrupt, yet revision was indispensable, and improvement required. After all, it would only be a registry of baptisms, and not a registry of births, and the latter was demanded. The House probably knew that the clergyman was not authorized to make any notation in the registry, of the age of the person baptized; and such an entry was perfectly gratuitous and of no avail in law. In several cases, the Courts of Law had decided, that a baptismal registry could not be given in evidence of the age or legitimacy of a child; as the statement was only an unauthorized declaration, which might, indeed, be true, but might, also, be intentionally false. In an important case of Wiper v. Law, Mr. Justice Bayley ruled that the entry of a date of birth, opposite to the date of baptism, in the parish register, could not be received as evidence; and the Court of King's Bench confirmed that opinion by a unanimous judgment. Such was the law, even, where entries of age and of birth had been made by the clergyman who celebrated the baptism; but ordinarily, no such entry was made; and how, then, could the date of the baptism prove the age of the recipient of that rite? He would mention one case to illustrate the inefficiency of such proof. A man, attending to be married, was asked by the clergyman, who was somewhat tenacious for the rights of the Church, whether he had been baptized? He answered, that he was then unbaptized, though about twenty-three years of age. The clergyman refused to perform the marriage ceremony until the baptismal rite was previously performed. Vain were all solicitations; the conscientious and inexorable priest refused to listen, and the bridegroom was compelled to submit; and in the same book, therefore, the baptism and marriage appeared as celebrated on the same day; and how could the baptismal register supply an evidence of age? Often, too, it happened that two or three children of the same family were contemporaneously baptized; and he had before him a document in which three children were so baptized, and the name of the youngest was first entered in the baptismal registry, while the eldest daughter was entered last, though the youngest was an infant, and she was ten years old. In consequence of such errors, if the baptismal registry were an evidence of age, the youngest child might claim a fortune of which the eldest might be hopelessly deprived. The House must be sensible that the system of registering baptisms must be imperfect; and that there ought to be a national registry of births. As to the marriage registry, it was perfect and comprehensive compared to the registry of baptisms, though its forms might be greatly improved to assist researches for pedigree; and though that very comprehension was deemed, as the House well knew, by vast masses of the community, to be founded on religious intolerance, under which they had long groaned, and from which they desired a relief which the establishment of a national and civil registry would greatly assist. By Catholics and Dissenters a compulsory conformity to the sacrament of a church with which they disagreed, could not but be regarded as offensive and unjust; and every conscientious clergyman would, he thought, be gladly relieved from what he must piously consider mockeries of a sacred rite. As to the burial registry, the observations he had made upon the baptismal registries would nearly apply to it. For the security of property, and for statistical information, a general registry of deaths was required, and not that imperfect registry of burials at present obtained. Even as a registry of burials, it was imperfect; since churchmen were interred in Dissenting burial grounds, or at the cemeteries which, in imitation of the mournfully beauteous resting-place of Père Le Chaise, at Paris, were about to be formed in the vicinity of the metropolis, and already existed near all our large and populous towns. As to burial registries, then, might be not repeat his former inquiry, and ask the House, whether a new and improved system were not required? He had not pressed on the attention of the House one consideration of great weight. He had assumed that all the people of England and Wales were members of the Established Church, and had only stated the objections which the members of that Church who regarded their fortune, and loved their children and their country, were entitled to urge. But how much force was added to the argument, when the House recollected the vast portion of the people who were Dissenters from that Church, and to whom baptismal and burial registries could not apply. Could the House be unaware, that it had been lately and authoritatively said, that two-thirds of the whole population of the principality of Wales were Dissenters? There were, he believed, no less than 8,260 Dissenting and Methodist chapels and meeting-houses in England and Wales; the number of them was increasing monthly, and he had no doubt that the whole body of Dissenters were not less than 4,000,000 of the people, and amounted to nearly one-third of the whole population of Britain. That body included men not inferior in wealth or influence, in ingenuity, or learning, or industry, or worth, to the best and most favoured of the population. Of them, also, a considerable portion including many hundred congregations, disapproved of infant baptism, and must be specially precluded from all registries except registries of births. For that great portion of the people, no provision, by the existing laws, supplied the means of effective and legal registration, which their security—and the general welfare, inseparably involved in their security—imperiously demanded. They kept, as was well known, congregational registries of baptisms and burials, and also a registry of births; but these registries were not public records, and extracts from them could not be received in evidence. A former Master of the Rolls, as well as Sir John Nicholl, had refused to receive the copy of a dissenting registry as evidence; and had decided that an examined copy from a registry of births, at a great public dissenting institution, called Dr. Williams's Library, could not be evidence. Dissenting registers, therefore, were comparatively proscribed; and practical evils, greater than those which the Test and Corporation Acts really inflicted, were yet quietly endured. Was this of importance only to themselves? Who, though now a rigid member of the Established Church, could foretel or foresee how his own family or fortune—how the sale or purchase of estates by himself or his posterity—might be involved in these defects of Dissenters' registrations, and in the failure of those proofs of pedigree which such defects might create? The community was one vast family, and no real evils could affect a large part of the population, without spreading some portion of such evils over those who seemed to be most distant or secure. It was from this general view that he had devoted some attention to the subject; and it was not only as a lawyer or a Dissenter, but as a legislator and a patriot, that he had felt shame, vexation, and regret. Inquiry had convinced him that on this, as on some other subjects, England was behind the age—that her legislation was defective—that they contented themselves with botching up some grievous rent, but did not wisely, extensively, and deliberately survey, and comprehensively, but discreetly, modify and improve our institutions. When they compared the wretched system of registration established in England with those of foreign countries, how inferior did it appear? In France, registration was a civil affair. All births, marriages, and deaths were registered before the Maire of every different commune. By the Code Civil, all the forms were prescribed, and accuracy was secured by regulations, particular and minute. Duplicates were prepared and closed at the end of each year, with formalities that prevented interpolations. Alphabetical indexes were made in a tabular form. One copy was yearly sent to the legal court of the district, and placed under the care of the Procureur du Roi: and, decennially, another complete alphabetical index for the whole district was made. The results supplied accurate information to the government, and gave to families and property an adequate security. Nor should it be forgotten, while we treated these matters as unimportant, because they answered no party purpose, and could not be made the subjects of political debate, that Napoleon deemed this subject worthy of regard, amid all the magnitude of his engagements and all the splendour of his victories—and presided and advised at the Council of State, at which all these minute arrangements were considered and dictated;—and rightly did he judge. As a lawgiver he acquired laurels that no defeats could blight—no reverses injure—and that no lapse of ages would destroy. In Holland and Flanders there was a similar system of registration to that existing in France, and within three days after the birth of a child, it was produced by the parent at the local office, and the acte de naissance was inscribed. A general system of civil registration existed, even in Italy, where, since the Restoration, the registries—to the regret of the people—were again kept by the priests; who were bound to send attested copies of the registries to the civil authorities at least every three months. In Austria, too, a system prevailed which did credit to the liberality of the Catholic priesthood of that great country, and which no Protestant priesthood should be loth to imitate. Although the Catholic clergy kept the general registry, yet they received from the Protestant ministers certificates of marriages, births, and deaths, and entered them in the national register for universal security and use. He repeated, then, though with more of grief than exultation, that we were behind the age; and that foreigners might regard our municipal arrangements with wonder and contempt. Unhappily it was proved that in no other country did there exist so confused a system of registration—in no other country was property so endangered—in no other country were the rights of children so compromised—and in no other country were municipal rules, so practically intolerant, allowed to remain. But these defects were no new discovery. They had been indicated and deplored by eminent lawyers. Lord Wynford recently stated that on a correct registration depended all the rights of property. Lord Eldon repeatedly declared that our registers and documents were shamefully and injuriously impaired and incorrect—and the Commissioners for inquiring into the Law of Real Property had stated in their first Report that nothing could be more inconvenient than the present system, and they had suggested the substitution of a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths, which should embrace all classes of the community. Sanctioned by such authorities, on a subject universally interesting, though generally overlooked, he trusted that it would not be thought that he had misapplied the time of the House. From the importance of the subject, and the intricacy of the details, he did not feel justified in submitting any measure to the House; but he thought it more decorous and discreet to refer the whole topic to the consideration of a Select Committee, which he hoped the House would appoint. He would not enter into the details of any plan, and would only state his idea, that a system of civil registration, somewhat similar to that organized during the Protectorate, might advantageously be adopted. The plan, whoever be the registrar, must embrace a registry of all births, marriages, and deaths; and if the established clergy should prefer (as in the reign of William 3rd.) to conduct that registry, he should rejoice at it. But whoever might be its conductors, it must be not sectarian, but national, civil, and not ecclesiastical; and must be independent of baptismal ordinances, or matrimonial church services, and burial rites;—though he trusted that at all those memorable epochs of our short life, the blessing of the Deity would always be invoked, and the benefits of pure piety be universally appreciated and enjoyed. If, by the labours of a Committee and the sanction of this House, the evils he had adverted to could be swept away, and a new, and national, and civil registry be constructed, a most salutary reform would be accomplished, which every enlightened man would approve of, and future generations applaud. The hon. Member concluded by moving "for the appointment of a Select Committee, to consider and report on the general state of parochial registries, and the laws relating to them; and on a general registration of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials, in England and Wales."

The Attorney General

said, he heartily concurred in the object proposed by his learned friend. He had been made aware, by his professional pursuits, of its very great importance. As a question of evidence concerning property, it was one of as great difficulty, as it was of importance. He spoke from long practical experience, and he was sure that no subject better deserved the consideration of the House and the public, than the one introduced to their notice by his hon. friend. He would not enter into any details, but would reserve to himself the right of discussing them hereafter, assuring his hon. friend that any difference of opinion should be discussed, on his part, in a spirit desirous only of coming at the truth on a subject of such importance.

The Solicitor General,

as a member of that Commission to Inquire into the Laws of Real Property, the Report of which the hon. Gentleman had referred to, was well aware of the defective state of our registration. It was more easy to trace a pedigree 500 years ago than five years. When there was a necessity for a man to go back to his great grandfather, it was found to be extremely difficult. Moreover, the present system gave rise to many forgeries. Owing to the state of the law, any scrap of paper preserved in a family became evidence, and gave rise, when there was a necessity for them, to many frauds. He knew of several instances of entries into baptismal registers which had been forged for the purpose of proving pedigrees. The entries were made in Bibles, to which the artificial appearance of venerable age was successfully imparted. Indeed there was a regular manufactory of Bibles for that purpose. He rejoiced that this subject had been taken up by his hon. friend, and he begged to express his cordial wishes for the success of the Motion.

Mr. Charles J. Kemyss Tynte

said, that having the honour to represent a county in which were a very large body of Dissenters, he felt rejoiced in an opportunity of congratulating the Dissenters and the people of England upon the liberal manner in which his hon. friend's Motion had been met by his Majesty's Ministers. The Dissenters had long patiently endured their grievances, and now he was glad to find that the justice they had anticipated from a Reformed Parliament was about to be realized. He felt himself bound to say, that he believed that no class of persons in the country more deserved, or would prove themselves more worthy of the boon that he felt assured would now be granted them, than the Dissenters.

Motion agreed to, and a Committee appointed.