A Select Committee Inquiry in 1833 examined the parochial registration system in England and Wales and recommended a civil registration service. This was brought into effect on 1st July 1837 when all births, marriages and deaths which occurred after June 1837 had to be registered. This remains very much the basis for the system of registration in use today. The Marriage Act which was part of this change in legislation was fairly controversial as it ended the Church of England’s virtual monopoly in registering such events.
In practical terms it meant that Thornbury had to have a Registry Office. The problem was where it was to be sited and who was to build it. At this period the matter was the responsibility of the Board of Guardians of the Thornbury Union, which later became Thornbury Rural District Council.
The Guardians seem to have dealt with the second of these problems very quickly.
The architect that they chose was a young man Samuel Whitfield Daukes who was born about 1811 and aged only about 25 at the time of submitting his design for the Register Office. Samuel Daukes had been born in Middlesex and was the son of a business man. He trained in York and set up his architect’s practice in Gloucester in 1834. In 1836 he submitted his plans to Thornbury. This was also the year he married Caroline Sarah White of Long Newnton and the couple lived in Barnwood.
His later career shows how talented he was. From 1839 to 1842 he was architect for the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway and he built the Cheltenham Railway Station in 1840. He designed the Park Estate in Cheltenham and many of the buildings in it including Cornerways. His other works include the Montpelier Exchange now Barclays Bank in Cheltenham, the Tudor style Francis Close Hall in Gloucester (1849) which is now part of the University of Gloucestershire. He was also the architect for two very fine mansion houses; Abberley Hall (1844) and Bricklehampton Hall (1848) in Worcestershire.
By 1848 he had set up a practice in London and designed what became Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. He still seems to have retained contacts in the Gloucestershire area because he was responsible for the work on Eastwood Park Mansion House which was enlarged and largely rebuilt in 1865. He died on 8th March 1880 leaving a widow, Caroline Sarah Daukes of the Knoll, Beckenham. He also had premises at 7 Whitehall Place, Middlesex.
The design also seems to have been a relatively simple matter. Samuel Daukes was an admirer of Pugin and his designs included churches in the neo-Norman and Perpendicular. He was able to use these styles and also the Italianate styles of Abberley Hall, Witley Court and Colney Hatch. He seems to have been able to reflect the classical styles of many cultures. Thornbury’s Register Office is described on the English Heritage website as being in the “Greek Revival” style but we believe it is also possible to detect an Egyptian look in the inwardly leaning shape of the doorway.
In November 1836 Samuel submitted his design with a plan and an explanatory letter to the Board of Guardians. The accompanying letter described the very specific brief that the architect was working to.
“In accordance with your advertisement I beg to submit for your consideration a Design for a Register Office which is prepared in compliance with the instructions issued by the General Registrar and which is included in the following description. The building is calculated to contain sufficient Records for more than 500 years considering there will be 30 births 21 deaths and nine marriages per annum for every thousand of population of which there are 16,000. The office is substantially built perfectly fireproof and as neatly finished Internally and Externally as its adaptation demands.
The office is thoroughly ventilated and enabled without the slightest danger to the building to be properly heated. The system is upon Mr Prices plan of Bristol which ventilates as well as heats where applied.”
Where to put the Register Office was a more problematic issue. In June 1837 the reply to Samuel’s letter makes it clear that the building had not actually been designed for the site it now occupies. The reply also suggests it may be necessary for Samuel to see its new site and to alter its elevation “it having been originally designed for the site near the Market House.”
The site next to the Market House (now Wildings shop) in the High Street was by no means the only other contender for the placing of this building. The Society of Thornbury Folk bulletin of 1954 has an article by Stafford Morse that says “that The Guardians had suggested making the new register office part of their new Union Workhouse which they were about to build, but this raised such a storm that they hurriedly abandoned the idea. Who would like to be seen going to the Workhouse to register a birth or death ; while a marriage – Unthinkable!”
On 20th December 1836 the Corporation of Thornbury had a special meeting “to consider offering for sale to the Board of Guardians the three old houses at the bottom of Back Street and garden adjoining for the erection of a Register Office. Resolved to offer same for sum of £210.” This was after the Council had agreed to accept an offer from Colonel Maclaine to site the Office on his land where it is now on the High Street. Colonel MacLaine had already objected to the windows in the south side of the building as it would interfere with his right of building on the surrounding land.
In the event Colonel Maclaine’s objections must have been satisfied, as an agreement to purchase his land adjoining the High Street for £100 was signed on 10th May 1837. We believe that the building was completed and opened by 1839.
The Registrars. Pigot’s Trade Directory of 1842 indicates that one of the earliest Superintendent Registrars was a well known local attorney Richard Scarlett. Being a Registrar seems to have been a part time occupation and subsequent trade directories have entries such as that for Edward Gough Councell linen draper and registrar of marriages (1868). The posts of Superintendent Registrar, Registrar of Births and Deaths and registrar of Marriages were three separate occupations, all of which were part time. In 1895 for example these were filled by Mr T Harney, Dr E M Grace and Francis Williams respectively. Thomas Harney also had posts associated with the assessment and school attendance for Thornbury Union, Dr E M Grace was the local physician and surgeon, coroner and public vaccinator and Francis Williams had time to be a brushmaker, assistant overseer of the poor and correspondent to the Western Daily Press.