WI report - October meeting

Sunday 28th October 2018


Shortly after her appointment to this post, Kristin Hunt told Lerryn WI and their guests, she was enthusiastically greeted by a man in the street, and her companion asked who he was. Kristin struggled to remember at first, but finally recalled, “Oh yes, I remember him now: I married him last Saturday.”

The Registrar is a public servant, but is responsible for conducting and recording the births, deaths and marriages that form major landmarks in the most personal aspects of our lives. This can create ambiguities in the way the person doing the job is perceived. When Kristin first started, she used to carry with pride the official briefcase with ‘EIIR’ stamped on it – until she was asked by an anxious-looking client, “Are you from the VAT?”

This ambiguity was often reflected in the titles on the envelopes addressed to her, which ranged from ‘Care Manager’ to ‘Head of Nails, Screws and Fixings’ and – her favourite – ‘Regeneration Officer’.

An increasingly demanding aspect of the work is responding to the enquiries of people pursuing their family histories. The compulsion towards family history research can be defined, Kristin said, as “the only disease that gets worse the longer you have it.”  Dealing with an innocent request to trace the birth certificate of  someone called John Smith who was “born in your area – sometime around 1850” can involve a lot of work.

Such work does not always produce results, or not the anticipated ones. Although births should be registered within 42 days, this does not always happen and the information given on birth certificates is not always accurate. One elderly lady seeking her first passport in order to visit family abroad found herself in need of her birth certificate for the first time in her life. When this document was with much difficulty located, the lady had to be told that she was in fact illegitimate. Because her parents had delayed the registration of the birth until after they were legally married, their child had also inadvertently been robbed in her old age of two years of her pension rights.   

Sometimes parents’ attempts to ‘get round’ the official systems can result in some interesting detective work later on. One man needing a copy of his birth certificate presented problems because none of the records exactly matched the information he was providing, and the only child born to the parents he identified as his had a first name different from his own. A very sad story finally emerged: two sisters, both pregnant but one unmarried, gave birth at about the same time. Life would have been very hard indeed at that time for an unmarried woman and her baby.  However, the legitimate child died in infancy, so the family simply swapped babies. The married couple brought up their nephew as their own, lovingly supported by the child’s ‘aunt’, who lived nearby. Had the child never needed a copy of his birth certificate, their secret would have remained safe.

Some people, without any attempt at subterfuge, simply refuse to comply with the system and the general expectations.  If people die away from home, returning the body for a funeral can be an expensive business. One old lady died in Looe while visiting her grandson there.  He duly registered the death, but refused the services of the undertakers who were ready to transport the body back to the midlands. “I’ve got the old lady in the back of the van,” he said firmly.

Changes in the law that allow marriages to take place in venues other than registered offices have made weddings a more entertaining event for some families, but have also opened up new potential for chaos. Kristin vividly remembered standing with the Best Man on a castle drawbridge one fine morning. When he checked in the traditional way, just to be sure that the rings were there and safe, he dropped the bride’s ring and they both watched in horror as it rolled for a second before disappearing through a gap in the planking and into the moat below. Luckily, the moat was dry and the registrar had great presence of mind. She kept her eye on the  spot where the ring must have gone down while the Best Man scrambled down among the weeds and litter below, following her directions on where to look. While Kristin was still silently planning improvisations that might at least get them through the ceremony, he found it.

Occasionally, the registrar is in a position to guide people away from too-obvious mistakes. The father who wanted to give his baby son a name that would remind him of his place of birth was persuaded that ‘Martin’ would be a sufficient reminder without naming the child ‘St-Martin-by-Looe’. It was too late however to dissuade Mr and Mrs Oliver from calling their son Oliver – or to suggest to the Bottoms that their daughter might be named something other than Rosie.

Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

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