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Little Histories sets out some of the stories behind the Births, Deaths and Marriages registers. Author Megan Hutching, of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, profiles seven people who have worked closely with the registers. They describe the evolution of record keeping from beautiful old books, painstakingly handwritten, to computerised data systems that can search millions of records and verify the details of any particular one. Little Histories also contains some fascinating images. Among the book’s illustrations are some pictures of the earliest registers from as far back as the 1840s, published for the first time.

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Cover image for 'Little Histories'

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      A group of unidentified women and children. Early 1900s.
      A group of unidentified women and children. Early 1900s. Reference Number: F- 11038-1/2.
      Cowan Collection. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.


        Registering births, deaths and marriages sounds like fairly straightforward and perhaps dull work. After all, it appears to be merely filling in forms and checking them. When you have read this brief history of the Office of the Registrar-General or Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) as the office is more usually called, it will be clear that every registration has a story attached to it, and often it is one of great complexity.

        In the days when having children out of marriage was seen as shameful, staff in the registries were responsible for registering these births, and the adoptions that usually followed. When divorce was uncommon, staff entered the annulments on the marriage records. When girls became pregnant by their stepfathers, staff entered those details. In small towns they knew all the secrets.

        Until recently, new staff members had to sign a declaration saying that the information they dealt with was confidential and would remain confidential, and now it is part of the code of conduct that staff do not look through the registers for their own personal interest. People interviewed for this history recall being given the advice not to look at their family members’ records in case they found something they did not want to know.

        Working in the registries, staff are witness to the changes in New Zealand society, reflected in seemingly mundane things such as changes over the years in names that children are called, but also in legislation such as the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 and the Civil Union Act 2004. As Olivia Bradbrook said in her interview for this book,
          “there’s so much wonderful history in BDM. The deaths, the marriages, the births. That’s where they all end up, and the next generation starts there. They’re the history of New Zealand. That’s where it begins and that’s where it ends.”

          This history begins with a brief overview of the different government departments in which Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) has been located. Chapter Two looks at the different legislation which has governed the work of the office, and the third chapter records the changes in work practice over the years as the registry has moved from paper-based registers to the current computer-based one. Chapter Four contains stories about registry office marriages, and there is an appendix which lists the legislation mentioned in the second chapter.

          The information is based on interviews with seven current and former staff and on research done in annual reports and other government publications. The interviews are archived at the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Oral History Centre in Wellington, where they are available to researchers, subject to any conditions placed on them by the interviewees. Those interviewed are Brian Clarke, Eileen Kennedy, Brian Hesketh, Danielle Amon, Evan Gould, Jack Wright, and Olivia Bradbrook.

          Frank James Denton, with his second wife Ethel and their baby, 1913 and One month old baby Austin with parents Emma and Richard, 2007..
          ABOVE LEFT: Frank James Denton, with his second wife Ethel and their baby, 1913. Reference Number: G-70179-1/2. Tesla Studios Collection. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.

          ABOVE RIGHT: One month old baby Austin with parents Emma and Richard, 2007.