A snap of a visit to Edinburgh records the beginning of a long transformation that changed an entire profession…

Scottish registrars visiting NRH 1932 from recording angels article
Members of the Association of Registrars of Scotland with three members of staff at New Register House, 23 April 1932.

This seemingly innocuous photograph captures a moment in the long transformation of the once all-male world of the Scottish registrars, a profession now staffed predominantly by women.

It captures a visit to New Register House in Edinburgh by members of the Association of Registrars of Scotland (AROS) in 1932. They had come see the Hollerith tabulating machine being used by the Registrar General’s staff to process the data gathered in the latest census of 1931.

At the front centre of the group stands F G Peddie (1867-1942), President of AROS, and to his right, G P Strathern (1864-1937), his successor. Their careers were typical of male registrars: working for parish councils as inspectors of the poor before being appointed assistant registrars. In 1915 they were appointed to registrar posts (Cupar, Fife, and Eastwood, Renfrewshire respectively).

Many other registrars, usually in the smaller districts, were schoolteachers. For example Thomas Buchanan (1875-1938), middle row, second from left, was first appointed assistant registrar to his father at Renfrew, 1901-1913, then registrar at nearby Inchinnan.

Thomas stands beside his sister, Helen Miller Buchanan (1879-1955), a dressmaker who in 1916 became assistant registrar at Renfrew. On her father’s death in 1924 she was appointed registrar, having already done much of the registration work while his health failed.

It was common for male registrars to be assisted by female members of their family, especially in country districts. This seems to have helped women enter the profession as part-timers.

Registrars were appointed and paid by local authorities but the Registrar General satisfied himself of their qualifications and monitored their work. In 1924 his District Examiner reported that Nellie Buchanan was ‘a well-educated and a capable and intelligent woman’, with considerable experience of registration work gained during her father’s ill health. She was diligent and particular with details, and would ‘devote her time and attention solely to registration work’ – whereas a male appointee, as a presumed breadwinner, would have needed another source of income.

Most local authorities still found it ‘expedient’ to appoint a suitable male, if one could be found. Although the Registrar General no longer believed it was illegal to appoint female registrars, he doubted the suitability of women in industrial or heavily populated districts, where males had the advantage.

This perhaps referred to the burden of eliciting the necessary information from doctors and clergymen, as well as from the informants themselves. It was also alleged that male registrars were ‘more suitable and acceptable to the registering public’.

Nevertheless by the 1920s, scores of female registrars, interim registrars and assistant registrars had been appointed, mostly to small, rural districts. The first female registrar was Agnes Edgar, appointed to Rerrick, Kircudbrightshire, in 1883, followed during the 1890s and 1900s by about 20 more women. In 1913 there were 32 female registrars in post, including the earliest burgh appointment, made at Wick in 1912.

Wartime vacancies created more opportunities for women. In 1917 Lizette Neil Evans (1892-1957) standing at the right of the female trio, was appointed assistant registrar in her home town of Gourock. A post-war registrar stands in the middle: Jane (Jeanie) Gardiner Thomson or Thompson (1891-1963), who took over full duties at Polmont,Stirlingshire, in 1931.

It’s striking that in the years since, the profession in Scotland has become almost entirely female. Of the 716 registrars now in post, 638 are female, a remarkable 89 per cent of an occupation that began in 1855 as exclusively male.

The three women visitors to Register House in 1932 were not only early pioneers in their profession, but their presence on an increasingly equal footing with their male colleagues was a harbinger of further change.

You can learn more about Scottish registrars at www.nrscotland.gov.uk

Dr Tristram Clarke

This article by Tristram Clarke, former head of Outreach at National Records of Scotland,  first appeared in History Scotland magazine in May 2019.

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