Saturday 24 March 2012

Something for the Weekend 3

Most weekends BI-Gen will take a break from the world of family history news and wander into other areas. This new ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature will give myself and others the chance to vent their spleens with an opinion-piece, to recommend a product or research technique, or to simply show-off their expertise! Who knows what will find its way onto the blog? If you’ve an idea, run it past me.

This week, Michael Sharpe, author of Family Matters: A History of Genealogy, is our guest blogger...

Time to Bring Vitality to Our Vital Records

News that the General Register Office (GRO) has been forced to make redundancies and to hold the price of birth, marriage and death certificates in the light of declining revenue prompts me to reflect on the history of this most obscure and lumbering institution.

Family historians and the GRO have often enjoyed an uneasy relationship. Since its formation under the Registration Act of 1836, the GRO has jealously guarded its role as the custodian of the records of civil registration and has resisted all attempts to open its holdings to the public. As early as 1912, the Society of Genealogists (SoG) was campaigning for researchers to be able to access the civil registration records, rather than just the indexes, a battle that has been engaged many times since.

Like other service providers, the GRO has been riding the wave resulting from the massive interest in family history seen over the last decade. As more people took up the search for their roots, the number of certificate applications steadily increased – but so too did the price. In 2010 the cost of certificates went up sharply, from £7 to £9.25, an increase of almost one-third. Yet even in genealogy the basic laws of economics apply. Demand for certificates is not without limit and in recent years there are signs that a ceiling has been reached. In 2010/11, following the increase, certificate sales declined by 6%, to £15.9 million, and the GRO’s ‘profit’ (yes, despite being a public institution it is allowed to make a profit) was down by £1.5 million to just £0.5 million. Meanwhile, much valued facilities such as the checking service for certificate applications and Traceline (a service for tracing missing relatives) have been withdrawn.

Experienced researchers will be familiar with the idea of looking up the indexes and sending off for certificates, but many newcomers find the whole setup completely baffling. Why, when everything from 100-year old census data to 19th century newspapers and passenger lists are available on commercial websites, do people have to fill in a form – and until a year or so ago it was a paper rather than an online form – and wait for information to be sent through the post?

What researchers are waiting for is an online system that offers low-cost instant access to the GRO’s registers. In Scotland, such a system has been in operation for several years, operated by Scotlandspeople, offering access to the registers held by the General Register Office of Scotland. In England and Wales the GRO’s efforts to digitise its holdings relied on a high profile project called DOVE (Digitisation of Vital Events). This collapsed in 2008 – just as the financial crisis hit – amid acrimony between the GRO and its contractor.

Four years on, the GRO’s plans remain mired in secrecy and no firm dates for an online service have been given. The Identity and Passport Service, of which the GRO is a part, claims that new legislation would be required in order to extend its services in this way. Exactly the same argument has always been trotted out by “the small person in office” (to quote George Sherwood, one of the SoG’s founders) to resist any form of change. Civil registration, of course, was not put in place for family historians, but we are one of the biggest users of the information it generates. Our voice needs to be heard as we strive towards a civil registration service that is fit for the twenty-first century.

Michael Sharpe’s book FamilyMatters: A History of Genealogy, describing the evolution of family history in Britain over the last 200 years, is published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd,


  1. Demand for certificates is not without limit and in recent years there are signs that a ceiling has been reached.

    It's my guess that demand from genealogists could fall as more baptism records come online.

    It surely behoves the GRO to look at where the demand for certificates is coming from - how many are for genealogists, how many for people who need them for more official purposes (eg claiming insurance)

    1. Hi,
      I see that the UK GRO,is still fighting a rearguard action in preventing online access to our B.M.D records. Just like the Irish GRO,both organisations failing to move into the 21st century, by placing their records online. If by chance, they are using the excuse that they cannot afford the cost, surly they can ask one of the many genealogical companies to fund the cost for a 3-5 year licence to operate the online venture..
      Pat Dublin