Associated Content

Sir Sylvanus Percival Vivian (1880–1958)

Edward Higgs

Sir Sylvanus Percival Vivian was the Registrar General from 1921 to 1945, and was instrumental in subordinating the General Register Office (GRO) to the policy and control of its parent department, the Ministry of Health.

Vivian was born on in London on October 1, 1880, and was educated at St Paul's School and St. John's College, Oxford. He took honours in Mods., in 1900 and in Lit. Hum. in 1902. In 1903 he entered the Inland Revenue Department, and remained there until 1912, when he was appointed assistant secretary at the National Insurance Commission. The latter had been set up as a consequence of the 1911 National Insurance Health Act, which introduced the first limited scheme of National Health Insurance. Four National Health Insurance Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were appointed by the Treasury to administer the scheme through approved societies and local insurance committees. It provided for medical benefit through attendance and treatment by medical practitioners, accepting insured patients for cash benefits for sickness, disablement and maternity; and, where surplus funds allowed, for additional benefits including specialist medical hospital or dental treatment and skilled nursing services. After some five years at the Commission, Vivian was seconded in 1917 to the Ministry of Food (The Times).

When the Ministry of Health was established in 1919 it assumed the powers and duties of the English and Welsh Insurance Commissions, and so Vivian automatically became attached to the new Ministry. Sir Robert Morant, who chaired the English Commission became permanent secretary of the new department, and Vivian was so closely identified with him that he was known in Whitehall as "Morant's little Sylvanus". The General Register Office (GRO), which was responsible for census-taking and the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, also became part of the Ministry of Health. The Ministry was unhappy both about the constitutional independence of the GRO, and its professional and statistical capabilities. Rather than an independent research body, the Ministry wanted the GRO to merely service the Ministry's policy sections, and sought to introduce into it statisticians trained in the new mathematical procedures pioneered by Francis Galton and Karl Pearson (Higgs, 188–94).

Given Vivian's ability and close relationship with Morant, it is not surprising that he was appointed to the GRO as 'deputy' Registrar General in 1919 to push through these changes. The existing Registrar General, Sir Bernard Mallet, objected both to the changes introduced, and to his weakened position within the Office, and resigned. Vivian formally became Registrar General at the beginning of 1921 (Higgs, 188–94). This led to a number of changes in the structure and output of the GRO. The last Annual Report of the Registrar General to be published as a Parliamentary Paper appeared in 1920 (Eighty-second Annual Report of the Registrar General), and the series was wound up in 1922. It was replaced in 1923 by a more anonymous Registrar General's Statistical Review (Registrar General's Statistical Review for 1921). The GRO's publications in the inter-war period appear to have closely followed the policy line being taken by the Ministry of Health, avoiding, for example, a direct analysis of the social class influences on mortality. Internally, the post of Superintendent of Statistics, which had originated with William Farr in the 1840s, was abolished. The last Superintendent, T. H. C. Stevenson, became merely one of a number of statisticians within the GRO, and a disgruntled member of staff. However, Vivian appears to have been able to head off more far-reaching proposals for abolishing the GRO completely, and absorbing its staff into the overall functions of the Ministry of Health. (Higgs, 193–201).

Vivian also helped to get the 1920 Census Act passed, which gave permanent authorisation for the taking of a decennial census. This allowed the GRO to set up a permanent census unit (Higgs, 201–2). Vivian was responsible for the organisation of the 1921 and 1931 censuses, both of which saw significant innovations in the questions asked. His preparations for the 1941 census came to be bound up with the planning of a national registration system for the purposes of conscription, which began at least as early as 1935. In that year Vivian was chairing a sub-committee of the Committee on Imperial Defence on the subject, and a draft National Service Bill had been drawn up. Vivian reasoned that the enumeration system required could be used both for national registration on the outbreak of war, or for the decennial census, whichever came first. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the enumeration machinery was activated to compile the national register. The population figures produced were seen by the GRO as the nearest thing to a census likely to be taken in war conditions, and as such they were first circulated for official use and then published in 1944 The register was used for rationing purposes, and for the deployment of labour in the military and other essential services, and also for the issue of identity cards (Higgs, 209–10; General Register Office, National registration). During the war, Vivian was also chairman of the Electoral Machinery Committee (appointed in 1942), and he was a member of the Boundary Commission (Re-distribution of Parliamentary Seats) in 1944. He was knighted in 1937 and retired in 1945. He died in 1958 (The Times).

Vivian was a man of wide culture, although his interests were plainly not statistical or medical. His contribution to literature included an edition of the works of Thomas Campion, and contributions to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Cambridge History of English Literature, and to the Dictionary of Literary Terms (The Times). His last published work, in 1953, was on the manor of Etchingham cum Salehurst for the Sussex Record Society.


Eighty-second annual report of the Registrar General , BPP 1920 XI. [View this document: Eighty-second annual report of the registrar-general ]

General Register Office, National registration. Statistics of population on 29 September 1939 by age, sex and marital condition: report and tables (London: HMSO, 1944). [View this document: [MN0349]]

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

Registrar General's Statistical Review for 1921 (London: HMSO, 1923).

The Times, March 3l, 1958, 10.