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Anguline Research Archives.
An organisation dedicated to bring rare books on CD at an affordable price, to the local history researcher and to the family history researcher.

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Open Historic Register now.

Almost 100 years ago a Royal Commission on Public Records appointed to inquire into and report on the state of the public records and local records of a public nature of England and Wales stated in their report

“We see no good reason in principle for forbidding searchers to take copies at their own risk. The existing restriction rests merely of financial grounds and we think that it should be removed.”

Master Arthur Francis Ridsdale, who served in the Chancery Division of the High Court from 1912 until his death in 1935 stated in evidence to the Royal Commission in 1914 that prior to the year 1898 or thereabouts, it was usual to permit searchers, who were chiefly solicitors engaged in pedigree cases in Chancery, or professional record agents, to inspect the original registers, then at Somerset House.
Master Ridsdale showed there was a need for inspection of the registers themselves, using examples of the inadequacies of the indexes.
He stated
“What one feels is that very often great injustice might be caused simply from parties not being able to get information which is in the registers and could be found if the solicitor could see them”.

He had been told that access to the registers, had been stopped, because the life insurance companies merely checked the cause of death and did not buy the certificates, and also because it was thought that the attendants might be bribed to alter a register.

Sir Frederick Kenyon, the Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum remarked “The closing of the registers is calculated to defeat the cause of justice.”

The view of the Royal Commission (five of its nine members were distinguished legal brains of the day, the chairman was the great legal historian Frederick Pollock) was “That it was the evident intention of the [1836] Act that the public should be able to obtain certain information from the registers, and the cost of these facilities should not be prohibitive.”

It pointed out that the public were allowed to inspect the original records in other registries, citing the Probate Registry and the Joint Stock Companies and it recommended that the same kind of arrangement should be made for inspection of the original certificates ‘in a public search room only and under proper official supervision.

In its final report the Commission said
“It is true the Act of 1836 provides that the indexes may be searched on payment of a fee, and that this provision would seem to imply (as the Registrar General contends) that the actual registers shall not be searched. Nevertheless, the Act permits the local registers to be searched by payment of a fee, and in practice this was permitted at the General Register Office itself prior to 1898. We see no good reason in principle for forbidding searchers to take copies at their own risk. The existing restriction rests merely of financial grounds and we think that it should be removed.”

Until 1973 the GRO agreed that there was no reason why local superintendent registrars should not permit access by historians to birth, death and marriage registers held locally in registrar’s offices.
In 1973 the GRO stated such searches could only be allowed when the local Registrar has the time to undertake the necessary supervision and in August 1974 access was stopped altogether.
The reason given, the volume of requests for facilities is beginning to reach unmanageable proportions.
In other words it is like the railways cancelling trains because they are too popular.

No Act of Parliament prohibits any registrar, superintendent registrar or the registrar general from granting the public access to any register.

It should be noted that the Public Record Act 1958 Schedule 1, 2 (2)(b) 2) states-

Sub-paragraph (1) of this paragraph shall not apply-
(b) to registers or certified copies of entries in registers being registers or certified copies kept or deposited in the General Register Office under or in pursuance of any enactment, whether past or future, which provides for the registration of births, deaths, marriages, or adoptions…

That does not prohibit Civil Registers being lodged at the National Archives it only states they are not classified as Public Records.
There is no bar on non public records being lodged at the National Archives as Section 2 (4)(e) of the Public Records Act 1958 states-

(4) The Keeper of Public Records shall have power to do all such things as appear to him necessary or expedient for maintaining the utility of the Public Record Office and may in particular-
(e) accept responsibility for the safe keeping of records other than public records;

In other words even if the records are not defined as public records they may still be deposited in the Public Record Office. This allows the Registrar General to deposit the centralised historic registers in the National Archives it is in the Registrar General’s power to prescribe such deposits.

In this day and age there is no risk of theft or damage to the records as access could easily be provided by allowing access to digital copies of the registers.

If a small charge was made for access to the digital registers or even by selling digital copies of registers the 7% income the local registrars estimate (estimated in 1987) they would lose from the sale of historic certificates could easily be exceeded.

It should be noted that a number of superintendent registrars have since 1836 deposited various registers at county record offices for varying periods of time. There is no legislation that bars this action and it is in the public’s interest as noted above.

The current government is pledged to support open data, they pledge to introduce the right to public data in legislation to make sure that all the government data that can be published, is published in an accessible format.

The Rt. Hon. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General stated in his introduction to the 2012, Open Data White Paper, Unleashing the Potential:

“In the last 20 years the world has opened up and citizens across the globe are proclaiming their right to data; this White paper sets out how we intend to use that energy to unlock the potential of Open Data and for the first time the technology exists to make the demand for greater openness irresistible. We are at the start of a global movement towards transparency – and the UK is leading the world in making data more freely available. We are currently co-chairing the Open Government Partnership of 55 governments ; the theme of our chairmanship is ‘Transparency Drives Prosperity’ – demonstrating the value of open governance to economic growth, inclusive development and improved citizen engagement and empowerment."

We ask they make good on that ideal empower and improve citizen engagement by opening historic bmd registers now.
Otherwise they words they write are hollow demands for others to comply with rather than solid ideals promoted by themselves as an example to others.

In their response to the above White Paper the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information states –
“We take it that government bodies which collect or assemble data are not owners but rather custodians of that data.”

The Archives and Records Association include in their response to the above White Paper –
“1. How would we establish a stronger presumption in favour of publication that that which currently exists?
Areas (1) ‘Embedding the principle that data should be open by default in existing legislation’

We agree with both the above statements and ask that the data contained in the historic civil registers is therefore opened to the public in order that they may use it.