CHARLES JOSEPH LA TROBE and the
VICTORIAN BIRTHS, DEATHS and MARRIAGES ACT 1853

[Dr. Madonna Grehan]

Dr. Madonna Grehan Told of the Birth of Civil Registration in Victoria

Dr. Grehan initially worked in general nursing and midwifery and has a Doctorate (Ph.D) in History. In 2013-2014 she received a C. J. La Trobe Society Fellowship and at present she holds a John Oxley Library Fellowship for memorialising the profession of nursing in Queensland. From this arose her interest in the registration of births, deaths and marriages (B.D.M.s).

The credit for introducing registration of B.D.M.s into Victoria goes to an actuary named William Henry Archer (1825-1909). However it was C. J. La Trobe, the first Governor of Victoria who instigated the pioneering legislation before Archer arrived in Australia.

It is unclear why La Trobe introduced the Bill but he may have been influenced by the first civil registration in Van Diemens Land (VDL) when he was seconded there in late 1846 - early 1847.

La Trobe passed the Bill for Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages to the Legislative Council on 29th October 1852 and ten weeks later on 11th January 1853 it passed into law. Similar to that which had been proposed in VDL, it received La Trobe's assent a week later on the 18th January 1853. La Trobe stated "I look upon the Act as no small importance to the Colony."

Whilst the Bill was being considered by the Legislative Council, William Henry Archer arrived in Victoria. Born in 1825 in London, Archer was passionate about life, death and statistics. At the age of 16 he started an apprenticeship with the Medical, General and Life Insurance Company and for seven years he was under the supervision of Francis Neison, a giant of statistics in Britain. After converting to Catholicism he was employed by the Catholic Law & General Life Insurance Company and when that proved to be unsatisfactory he migrated to Australia.

On his third day in Melbourne Archer learnt that the Registrar General's Office was to appoint an officer to oversee the registration of Deeds; Births, Deaths & Marriages; and compilation of statistics pertaining to all aspects of registration. Archer met La Trobe and the Auditor General, Hugh Childers, however La Trobe gave the position to his secretary's brother, Frederick Campbell. Archer thought the position was best suited to him.

His letters to the "Herald" newspaper declared that Victoria's scheme would become the best in the Empire if people with intelligence and the right ability were chosen to implement the Act.

He wrote to Captain William Lonsdale, the Colonial Secretary, and applied for a position in Colonial Administration, setting out his credentials. He wrote again, a fortnight later and this time Lonsdale offered him a position as clerk to work on the Statistical Registers (Blue Books) with a salary of £150. Within a month Lonsdale instructed Archer to draw up a general guidance plan for the Chief Registrar and the Deputy Registrars who would be those responsible for registering the Births, Deaths and Marriages in Victoria.

It took Archer under two weeks to draw up his proposal. His submission went to La Trobe via Lonsdale and he recommended himself to implement the scheme. He pointed out deficiencies in the recently passed statute.

In Archer's proposal the registration districts were fixed and clearly defined to tally with the census districts.

Archer proposed with birth registrations that the surname and rank of the father be in one column with place of birth, and not in two columns. Details of mother should include maiden name. That place of marriage for parents should be recorded and number of issue living or deceased. Details of the informant should indicate relationship to the newborn. He introduced a column for a witness, usually a midwife, nurse or accoucheur.

For twin births, the order of birth (for inheritance purposes) should be noted and for deaths the place of burial and a witness had to be recorded.

Errors in a registration could be corrected within six months by making a new entry as erasure was not allowed. Births had to be registered within sixty days. If twelve months had passed it was illegal for a Deputy Registrar to register the birth.

Archer was interested in 'nosological classifications' of diseases, and thought doctors should sign death records, giving cause of death, duration of condition and when the deceased last saw a doctor.

Compulsory Registration began on the 1st July 1853 in 35 locations within 16 registration districts and prior to that date there was an enormous advertising campaign.

Archer was bitterly disappointed when La Trobe appointed his Private Secretary, Major Norman Campbell, J.P., to the post of Registrar General in December 1853. However Archer maintained his salary, received £300 for house rent and was granted a gratuity of £200 from La Trobe. At a Levee held on Friday 5th May 1854 Archer had the special honour of La Trobe shaking his hand and congratulating him on his success.

He travelled Victoria visiting isolated properties. He advised local registrars, emphasising the importance of good handwriting (no flourishes) and spelling. He checked conditions for storing the records and ensured two copies were being made as four times a year one copy had to be sent to the Registrar General's Office. Archer was happy. He had the support of the press, was relieved of much responsibility and was awarded credit for good results. He was good friends with Norman Campbell and was paid well.

Archer deemed the scheme and its implementation a triumph. That C. J. La Trobe should introduce the Act to the Legislative Assembly just prior to the time Archer arrived in the Colony was fortuitous.

( The above is a report on Dr. Madonna Grehan's address at the General Meeting on 10 September 2016 )

( Contributed by Jan Hanslow. PPPG Member No. 1057 )

(Image Sources: Royal Historical Society of Victoria & State Library of Victoria websites.)


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