Who are You? Identification in the British Empire

In the last decades, a growing body of literature organized around the works of Jane Caplan, Edward Higgs, and John Torpey has opened up the historical inquiry of state identification procedures [1]. In tracing the emergence of a “politics of registration”, as Szreter and Breckenridge defined it, scholars have considered a variety of practices for describing the individual, including passports, identity cards, signatures, censuses, civil registers, photography, tattoos, fingerprints, and biometric technologies[2].

These identification practices owe their validity to specific laws. The following table includes some of the most important statutes concerning registration in the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Click on the Reference Link to access a PDF copy of the original statute.

Year Name Regnal Reference
1801 Public Notaries Act 41 Geo. III, c. LXXIX
1812 Parochial Registers Act 52 Geo. III, c. CXLVI
1819 Registry, etc., of Colonial Slaves Act 59 Geo. III, c. CXX
1823 Registering of Vessels Act 4 Geo. IV, c. XLI
1836 Births and Deaths Registration Act 6 & 7 Will. IV, c. LXXXVI
1837 Births and Deaths Registration Act 7 Will. IV & 1 Vict., c. XXII
1843 Public Notaries Act 6 & 7 Vict., c. XC
1856 Marriage and Registration Act 19 & 20 Vict., c. CXIX
1858 Births and Deaths Registration Act 21 & 22 Vict., c. XXV
1864 Registration of Burials Act 27 & 28 Vict., c. XCVII
1874 Births and Deaths Registration Act 37 & 38 Vict., c. 88
1885 Registration Act 48 & 49 Vict., c. 15
1888 Local Government Act 51 & 52 Vict., c. 41

[1]          Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds, Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Edward Higgs, The Information State in England: The Central Collection of Information on Citizens, 1500-2000(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[2]          Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter, eds, Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3; Ilsen About, James Brown, and Gayle Lonergan, eds, Identification and Registration Practices in Transnational Perspective: People, Papers and Practices(London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013); Simon Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe(New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007); Xavier Crettiez and Pierre Piazza, eds, Du Papier à la Biométrie: Identifier les Individus(Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2006); Gérard Noiriel, ed, L’Identification: Genèse d’un Travail d’État(Paris: Belin, 2007).


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