Technologies of Inspection: The Register

The “register” is one of the oldest and most successful technologies of inspection. Though increasingly complex over time, the idea behind it was relatively simple, i.e. to create a written record of a certain event. The register established a permanent memory that could be used as a reference for inquiries and decisions. In a tabulated form, it served as a repository of activities and transactions.

A historical ancestor of the register was the “book”, as understood by early-modern statutes. In England, for instance, the 1691 Poor Relief Act was one of the first examples to require this instrument. It provided that every churchwarden in England shall keep a “book” including the names of all pauper persons entitled to public relief.[1] Establishing an official record was a way to control spending and to target state support. An early example of registration concerned “naturalized subjects” residing in the American colonies. After 1739, the Office of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations was to enter names in a book “to be kept for publick view and inspection as occasion shall require”.[2]

During the nineteenth century, registers became a versatile and popular instrument for regulating professions, transactions, and institutions. Numerous wreckages caused by careless sailors, for instance, pushed the British parliament in 1808 to establish a national register containing the name, age, residence of all “fit and competent persons duly skilled as pilots”.[3] In order to determine the ancestry of persons inheriting estates, moreover, “registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials” became mandatory in every parish after 1812, each book made of “good and durable paper”.[4] The first steps towards the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire also passed through the step of registration. A central “Registrar of Colonial Slaves” established in 1819 collected information about all slaves bought and sold under the Crown’s jurisdiction so as to monitor transactions.[5] In 1836, the civil registration of British subjects became a matter of research interest with the establishment of the “General Register Office” in London.[6]

Despite their diffusion in many areas of society, registers were a distinctive feature of institutions. Some governors already kept an internal record of their establishments at least since the early-modern period.[7] Yet by the turn of the century, standardized registers became a legal requirement and a synonym for government inspection. They could be found in all sorts of institutions. Charitable hospitals for the reception of pregnant women adopted a “book” for recording admissions and “bastard children” as early as 1773.[8] Poor houses and houses of corrections began to use registers in 1762,[9] but they became a mandatory provision for every “master of workhouses” in England only in 1834.[10] The written documentation of convicts was already present in the original project for the construction of a penitentiary house in 1779.[11] When the Millbank Penitentiary opened its doors in 1816, the Governor kept a register including the offender’s name, sentence, bodily condition, and behaviour.[12] Legislation on private and public lunatic asylums set registers as a legal requirement for all establishments in England and Wales in 1828.[13]

Given their simplicity, registers could be used in various settings with different people transcribing the information on paper. As long as it was limited to people’s generalities, the act of registration did not require any specific expertise except writing. With superintendents busy with paperwork and management, controlling and updating registers increasingly became the duty of clerks and secretaries in the second half of the nineteenth century. 

Registers did not function in a vacuum, of course. In most cases they served as a reference book for further documentation. Ordinary operations like the admission of a pauper to the workhouse, the transportation of a convict to the prison, or the discharge of a patient, produced a vast paperwork serving as the basis for registration entries. Whenever inspectors made a visit to institutions under their jurisdiction, they checked that all relevant templates were kept updated and properly archived.

[1] 3 Will. & Mar., c. XI, s. 11.

[2] 13 Geo. II, c. VII, s. 3.

[3] 48 Geo. III, c. CIV, s. 2, s. 59.

[4] 52 Geo. III, c. CXLVI, s. 1.

[5] 59 Geo. III, c. CXX, s. 6.

[6] 6 & 7 Will. IV, c. LXXXVI, s. 2.

[7] John Harley Warner, “The uses of patient records by historians: Patterns, possibilities and perplexities,” Health and History(1999), 1: 2/3, 101–111; Barbara L. Craig, “The role of records and of record keeping in the development of the modern hospital in London, England, and Ontario, Canada, c. 1890-c.1940,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine(1991), 65: 3, 376–397; Volker Hess and J Andrew Mendelsohn, “Case and series: Medical knowledge and paper technology, 1600-1900,” History of Science(2010), 48: 3–4, 287–314.

[8] 13 Geo. III, c. LXXXII.

[9] 2 Geo. III, c. XXII, s. 1.

[10] 4 & 5 Will. IV, c. 76, s. 55.

[11] 19 Geo. III, c. LXXIV, s. 61.

[12] 56 Geo. III, c. LXIII, s. 38.

[13] 9 Geo. IV, c. 41, s. 24.


2 thoughts on “Technologies of Inspection: The Register”

  1. Hi Filippo,

    this is an interesting and well-written short account about a practice that has become so ubiquitous and thus is seemingly so natural that one might wonder at first whether it really has much of a history, nevermind an interesting history.





    1. Hi Mark,
      thank you so much for your kind words! As I looked into the history of certification, I came across other instruments of inspection like licenses, orders, and registers. I thought this might be a good space for sharing some of my findings.

      More soon.



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