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The General Register Office and the First World War

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The effects of the First World War extended to every aspect of government. Throughout the Civil Service male staff left to join the armed forces, and departments coped without them in a variety of ways. The remaining staff worked overtime, some worked beyond their normal retirement age, and some of the recently-retired were recalled to service. With varying degrees of reluctance departments employed women in posts previously occupied by men, and where they already had a female labour force the numbers were increased. Non-essential functions were scaled down, and some departments not considered central to the war effort lent staff to ‘front-line’ departments like the War Office and the Admiralty. The General Register Office (GRO),  responsible for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, was no exception to this state of affairs.

The clerk is perched high on a stool, bent over and closely engaged with inscribing a thick volume or ledger
A clerk at work (New Penny Magazine, 1899)

Extra Demands

Soon after the outbreak of war 62 male staff from the GRO joined the forces, more than half the number who were of military age. Twelve men were lent to other departments, meanwhile a number of temporary clerks of both sexes joined the department, ( the number of female clerks was increased from 37 to 76): this helped to alleviate the situation,  but the General Register Office was not able simply to carry on with business as usual.. There were considerable extra demands caused by the war emergency, both in increased demand on its usual services, and entirely new functions it was required to perform.

First, and most obvious, was the great increase in the number of deaths to be registered, mainly those of servicemen abroad and at sea. Establishing a register of war deaths was nothing new, one had been created for the Boer War of 1899 to 1902; this time the war was much closer to home, and soldiers were repatriated to hospitals in the UK where some of them subsequently died of wounds received overseas. The bodies of many Royal Navy personnel  and merchant seamen killed as a result of enemy action were brought ashore and all of these deaths had to be registered by the local registrar of deaths. In peacetime deaths resulting from accident or violence in England or Wales   would normally be subject to a coroner’s inquest, with the coroner being the informant of each death. There was some discussion between the General Register Office and the Home Office on the procedure to be adopted, and it was decided that the military or naval authorities, or the person finding a body would register the death; the coroner would be informed, but unless they considered that the circumstances warranted an inquest, no further action need be taken.

Certificate applications soar

As well as collating and indexing birth, marriage and death registrations, a major GRO function was the production of certified copies of these events. In the early months of the war there was in increase in the marriage rate, which could be explained by couples wishing to marry before the man was posted overseas. It then returned to normal levels and the birth rate fell slightly throughout the entire war. However, a great deal of extra work was involved in responding to the unprecedented demand for certified copies; birth and marriage certificates were required by the wives of servicemen in order to claim separation allowances for themselves and their dependent children, and for pension purposes. Death certificates were required by next-of-kin to obtain probate or administration, and while some applications for birth and marriages certificates could be handled by local offices or churches, only the GRO could issue certificates from the registers of war deaths, or deaths at sea. Where the military or naval authorities required verification of the details of a birth or marriage, and full details were supplied, the GRO could provide verification statements, free of charge. Certificate applications were at their peak of 108,958 in 1918, an increase of 30% on the rate for 1914.

Registration of refugees

These activities were carried out by the records branch of the GRO, but the statistical branch also had an important and expanding role. Their first new task was to set up and maintain a register of Belgian refugees, soon after the outbreak of war. This was no mean feat, and although much of the information was gathered by organisations outside London, the GRO was also the official registration authority for the Metropolitan Police District. When registration was made compulsory in November 1914, the refugees had to notify the registry of every change of address, and the records were also cross-referenced by their places of origin to facilitate repatriation as each region was deemed safe. As well as maintaining these records, the GRO dealt with enquiries from Belgian nationals wanting to trace relatives from whom they had become separated when they fled to the UK.

In 1915 an act for National Registration was passed, to record the entire civilian population of working age. The GRO was the obvious candidate among government departments to take on this task, since it already had a tried and tested  mechanism for taking the census, which it had done every ten years since 1841. Sylvanus Vivian, then assistant secretary at the National Insurance Commission, commented that the scheme proposed was perfectly good for gathering information, but did not contain sufficiently robust mechanisms for keeping it up to date. When food ration books were introduced in July 1918, using the National Registration records, this added even more to the department’s workload.

Conditions at Somerset House, London, were less than ideal; there were too many small rooms spread over several floors, and there was not enough room for the extra functions taken on by the GRO, which had to be accommodated elsewhere. By 1917 the National Registration section alone employed 54 clerks (49 of them female), three typists, a porter and a messenger. Employing extra temporary staff helped with the increased workload, but only overtime and extra shifts kept the service going at an acceptable level. While some of Vivian’s observations about its deficiencies turned out to be correct, the experience of establishing a system of National Registration in 1915 stood the GRO in good stead for the next time a National Register was required, in 1939. And the Registrar General in charge of National Registration in 1939 was…Sylvanus Vivian.

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