in England and Wales
Birth, marriage and death certificates started in England and Wales in 1837.
The registration of births marriages and deaths was meant to be compulsory but two factors prevented all early births and deaths being recorded:
The first was that a registrar was responsible for recording births and deaths. There was no obligation for parents or the berieved to go to him and as a result the registrar went around midwives and churches collecting details, some events simply went unrecorded.
Second, since a small fee was charged for each registration and there was no penalty for failure to register. Many births and deaths went unrecorded, especially in more remote areas. There was no way round paying for a marriage licence if a union was to have any legal validity (although we do find cases of unregistered marriages). It was not necessary to have a death certificate before a corpse could be buried - in fact the only reason to bother with a death certificate at all was if the deceased was insured and the insurance company demanded to see a death certificate before paying out. For the first few decades of the registration system, many births and deaths, possibly millions, went unrecorded other than in parish registers. Then, in autumn 1872, a serial killer was discovered at West Auckland, County Durham, which lead to a change of law. The killer was a middle-aged woman named Mary Cotton who, between 1860 and 1872, was believed to have poisoned as many as 21 people, mostly her own blood relatives but including four husbands, for their insurance money.
Mary poisened her victims using arsenic, ignored the existing registration systems and escaped detection by constantly remarrying and changing her name. She accomplished this with ease and so disturbed the authorities that nine months after her execution at Durham in March 1873, the fee for the registration of births and deaths was abolished (the marriage licence fee remained) and a substantial fine or imprisonment was introduced for failure to record a birth. The new penalty for not reporting a death was prison. From January 1, 1874 it also became necessary to obtain a death certificate, signed by a medic, before a funeral could proceed.
Births and deaths now had to be registered at the local Registrar's office but, marriages could also be registered at the local churches.
The Act of Parliament for registration of births, mariages and deaths. 17th August 1836
An act for registration of marriages 17th August 1836
An act suspending the above two acts 24th February 1837
The act which explained the above acts and commenced registrations 30th June 1837
Birth, marriage and death certificates started in Scotland in 1855. Births and deaths had to be registered at the local Registrar's office but, marriages could also be registered at the local churches.
Birth, marriage and death certificates started in Ireland in 1864. Births and deaths had to be registered at the local Registrar's office but, marriages could also be registered at the local churches.