The contents of A Comedy of Errors (1998)

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This book is the story of my unprecedented research at the General Register Office in Southport in 1998. It provided detail for the first time on the structures and errors of the GRO index system. No one else from 1837 onwards had ever been allowed into the records and the story I was able to tell in 1998 was therefore unique and a totally new contribution to the corpus of genealogical knowledge.

Chapter 1 “What it is all about”

Preparatory work. Computer entry of index entries and implications for their structures and failings. Proposal for research at the GRO accepted by the Registrar General. Journey to Southport. Scope and nature of the work. Acknowledgements.

Chapter 2 “History and legislation”

The 1836 legislation. Locations for marriages. Banns and notices. Registration districts, registrars, the registers. Registration procedures. Quarterly returns. Inadequacies of the index system.

Chapter 3 “The marriage indexes”

The GRO references in the indexes. Districts, volumes and pages. The limitations of the index in terms of definition and identification.

Chapter 4 “Looking behind the scenes”

Looking for the structure of the records. Computer entry of more and more index entries led to clear structural patterns. Entries per page. Recto and verso pages. Numbering of volumes, and their content in terms of districts. Structures up to 1851 and beyond.

Chapter 5 “The bridal path”

The passage of marriage data from the marriage entries to the GRO, via the Superintendent Registrars. Indexing. Typed indexes. The underlying pattern of parishes, register offices (and synagogues and Friends' Meetings).

Chapter 6 “Chapter of accidents”

The many kinds of errors in the indexes and the marriage records. Copy errors, copying omissions, wrong indexing, indexing omissions, multiple entry, shared registers, indexed witnesses, indexed fathers. Marriages unindexed.

Chapter 7 “Twixt the registers and the General Register Office”

Gaps in the quarterly returns. Erratic returns from clergy. The Registrar General's advice to them.

Chapter 8 “The Grass Roots”

Comparison of a local index (Taunton district) with the GRO index. The errors detected in both.

Chapter 9 “Where next from here ?”

Proposals for a radical overhaul of the records and indexes from the nineteenth century. Some suggestions for further research.

Chapter 10 “Marriages, the numbers”

Statistics (and graphs) of births, deaths and marriages 1837-1899. Some strong seasonal patterns. Evidence confirming non-registration of many births in the early years of the system.

Chapter 11 “Quality and completeness of fiche and film”

Handwritten and typed indexes. Missing frames and other segments in fiche and film.

Chapter 12 “Hints for the reading of difficult fiche and film”

Page Range tables and how to determine the limits for an illegible index reference. Some marginal peepholes in fiche of early indexes. Using a fiche printer to bring out very faint fiche.

Chapter 13 “Changing district names”

Names and coverage of Superintendent Registrars' districts have been changed over the years. Some examples.

Chapter 14 “Name this child”

Data from my computer files used to construct tables of frequency of boys' and girls' given names. Their changes during the 1800s.

Chapter 15 “The GRO marriage index and the IGI”

Some tentative comparisons.

Chapter 16 “In conclusion . . . in brief”

Very brief points to summarise the findings and hopes of the research.

I end with eight appendices. Four are Page Range Tables showing volume structures by district for four quarters. There is an appendix on seasonality of marriages. There is an appendix showing a copy of the Quarterly Return form used by clergy. There are declaration formats for the "truth" of the quarterly copies. There is an appendix listing many names missed from one index when a typist skipped two whole pages. There is an appendix showing the pattern of synagogue marriages. Finally there is an appendix showing the patterns of given names described in Chapter 14.