Skip to main content Accessibility help

New Sources for Social and Demographic History: The Belgian Population Registers*

  • Myron P. Gutmann (a1) and Etienne van de Walle (a2)


In 1853, the First International Statistical Congress unanimously voted a resolution recommending the establishment of population registers in every country:

It is indispensable to establish in each commune a population register. Each household will occupy one page. The first inscriptions will be entered according to the information provided by the general census, and all mutations that will occur in the composition of households will be noted successively and in order. Administrative measures will provide for the assessment of changes in legal residence, in order that there may be an exact match between the persons crossed out and the new inscriptions.

Such a register has existed in Belgium since 1846. No other country except Sweden, Finland, and Hungary had much experience with such documents in 1853. The resolution was nevertheless ratified in successive International Congresses, but there was no rush to implement it. Several European countries followed suit, including small German states, the Netherlands in 1856, and Italy in 1864. According to a recent United Nations survey, eleven European countries have population registers that trace their origins to the nineteenth century or before: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.



Hide All


1 Compte rendu des travaux du Congrès Général de Statistique réuni à Bruxelles les 19, 20, 21 et 22 septembre 1853 (Brussels, 1853) 145.

2 United Nations, Methodology and Evaluation of Population Registers and Similar Systems, Studies in Methods, Series F, No. 15. For a detailed description of the early Dutch and Swedish systems, see Thomas, Dorothy S., “The Continuous Register System of Population Accounting,” in The Problems of a Changing Population (Washington, 1938), 27697.

3 Professor Andrea Schiaffino, personal communication.

4 van den Brink, T., “The Netherlands Population Register,” Sociologica Neerlandica, 3 (1966), 3253.

5 Thomas, Dorothy S., Research Memorandum on Migration Differentials (New York, 1938), 41013.

6 In 1977, the Belgian Government consolidated communes (most of whose borders dated to the eighteenth century) for purposes of administrative efficiency. La Hulpe is one of the few communes in Belgium that has not become part of a considerably larger administrative grouping.

7 La Hulpe is in the French-speaking section of the Belgian province of Brabant. Copies of the nineteenth-century registers are kept at the Archives Générales du Royaume, in Brussels. For earlier publications based on the La Hulpe population registers, see van de Walle, Etienne and Blanc, Olivier, “Registres de population et démographie: La Hulpe, 1847-1880,” Population et Famille, 36 (1975), 11428 ; and van de Walle, Etienne, “Household Dynamics in a Belgian Village,” Journal of Family History, 1 (1976), 8094.

8 Coding directions and sample code sheets are available from the authors.

9 We found two cases of children born to La Hulpe residents who appeared not to be present in the population, but these children had not really been missed. When we made a thorough search for the family, we discovered that the folios on which they had been registered had not been microfilmed! This should serve as a reminder to all who work with microfilm or photocopies to check to make sure all the pages of the original register have been copied.

10 The 1191 deaths include transcriptions of deaths of La Hulpe residents who died elsewhere, but not stillbirths. For yearly totals, see Table 2.

11 We also checked for double-counted individuals, only to find two in 1846, out of a population of over 1500. Double-counting was not really a problem. It involved widowed grandmothers probably living alternatively with two of their married children, who both reported them.

12 There are few variables in the initial registration that are worthwhile to check. Marital status seemed to us to be sufficiently straightforward, but we found a few surprises. Some individuals who were recorded in 1846 as married appear in the marriage registers in 1847 or 1848. In these cases, the couple lived together in consensual union before they were officially married. We might also have checked occupations, but we were uncertain of the usefulness of such an endeavor. What would a discrepancy imply? In a rural community like La Hulpe in the mid-nineteenth century, occupations were still quite fluid, and many residents had several, reported differently under different circumstances.

13 We checked 123 verifiable ages. Our assumption was that ages represented exact age at last birthday as of 15 October 1846, the date of the census. Of the 123 ages checked, 112 were accurate within a year of age last birthday. Of the remaining eleven, nine were mis-stated by one to five years, and only two from five to ten years.

14 A register of stillbirths was kept for statistical—not legal—purposes. Unfortunately, the registers of stillbirths for La Hulpe have not survived.

15 There were 122 stillbirths in La Hulpe from 1847 to 1880. When we included all stillbirths as births and deaths, there were 1904 births and 1313 deaths.

16 Coale, Ansley J. and Demeny, Paul, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations (Princeton, 1966).

17 Registration was important because of its bearing on later events. For example, for a person to marry, it was required either that his or her parents be present at the wedding, or that a copy of their death certificate be obtained and shown. Failure to register the death might delay the subsequent marriage of the child. Similar rules called for a copy of a person’s birth certificate at the time of marriage. While failure to produce a copy was not grounds for preventing the marriage, it was an inconvenience and might produce delays while suitable affidavits were sought. In over forty years of the marriage register, only one person had not been registered at birth or, in the case of foundlings, at the time of admission in the foundling hospital.

18 For births, the bad years are 1851, 1872 to 1877, and 1879. For the exact yearly figures, see Tables 1 and 2.

19 492 La Hulpe residents died in the years 1851 and 1869-1879. Of those, 192, or 39 percent, were not in the population register. In the years 1851, 1872-1877, and 1879, 470 children were born to La Hulpe parents. Of those, 143, or 30.4 percent were not recorded in the population register.

20 Between 1869 and 1880, 82 deaths were recorded in the population register without an exact date. In those years, a total of 285 deaths were recorded in the population register.

21 We should note two limitations on using the bans for this purpose. First, it is not absolutely certain that every ban published led to a prompt marriage. To the extent that we were able to check the bans, there were always two of them, and they did lead to marriage. Second, the bans, obviously, do not provide the date of marriage. While it was common for there to be bans on two Sundays and marriage in the third week, that was by no means universal. As a consequence, we have arbitrarily dated marriages we discovered by studying the register of bans as occurring in the month three weeks after the first ban. We did not specify the date of the marriage, only the likely month and year. In other words, when the bans took place before the tenth of the month, we assumed the marriage followed during that month. Otherwise, we assumed the marriage took place in the following month.

22 On 1 January 1857, the population of La Hulpe according to the population register, was 1862 individuals. On 1 January 1967, the population had barely increased. It numbered 1872 individuals.

* This research was supported by PHS Research Grant No. 5 R01 HD 08760-02 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The authors wish to acknowledge the generous help of Mademoiselle D. Van der Veeghde at the Kingdom's Archives in Brussels in securing the La Hulpe records; ind they also wish to thank Stephanie Farrior, Laurel Cornell, Nicolas van de Walle and Dominique van de Walle for their assistance in the process of data accumulation and verification reported in this paper.

New Sources for Social and Demographic History: The Belgian Population Registers*

  • Myron P. Gutmann (a1) and Etienne van de Walle (a2)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed