After locating and documenting your ancestors in the GRO (civil registration) indexes, purchasing certificates where necessary and finding them all family members in the various census it is time to consider parish registers.
At one time the registers were kept at the church usually in the safe along with the altar silver and other precious items. If you wanted to search these registers it meant writing to the Vicar and arranging a time to visit and organising a trip to each parish, genealogy was a slow process in those days if you lived a long way from where your ancestors lived and died.
Then in 1992 the Church of England decided that all christening, marriages and burial registers that contained entries more than 150 years old should be deposited in the diocesan record office. Marriage registers after 1837 were exempt as copies would already have been sent to the General Registry Office. It should be noted that most of the Diocesan Record Offices are located in the County Record Office and are administered by the same staff. Many of the registers had been deposited prior to this edict. Some parishes opted to keep their registers, but they had to undertake to store them in a fire proof, humidity controlled safe. These are quite expensive and so only a few parishes could afford to supply these archival standard conditions.
History of the Registers
After the split with the Roman Catholic Church it was decreed by the Church of England in 1538 that parish registers would be kept by each parish cleric, they would contain entries for all the christenings, marriages and burials that took place in the parish. The details of the edict were that the events were to be recorded weekly by the Vicar in the presence of the Churchwardens, that the papers that contained the written accounts were to be kept in a sturdy chest and the chest would be kept in the Church. The chest was to have two locks, the key to one lock to be kept by the Vicar and the other by the Churchwardens. There was to be a significant fine for failure to comply with any or all of the aspects of the decree.
Needless to say some parishes suspected the reason for keeping such records and ignored both the edict and the fines. In 1547 there was a change that stated that the fines, if collect, should now be paid towards the relief for the poor rather than to the diocesan.
In 1598 there was another amendment this time it was decided that the records were to be kept in ‘great decent books of parchment’ and that every month a copy of the previous months entries were to be sent to the Bishops office. These copies are known as “Bishops Transcripts” and are invaluable as they can be used if the original parish registers have not survived. It should be noted when using “Bishops Transcripts” that errors may well have occurred during the copying process. Having said that I have seen a number of B.T’s that have had notes added to them which are not in the original register.
Previous records were suppose to be copied into the new parchment registers if they had been written on loose sheets. The wording contained the phrase “especially from the first year of Her Majesty’s reign (1558), which meant that some clerics took the easy way out and only copied the entries from 1558, the earlier 20 years being omitted. It can be seen that many of the earlier records have been lost over the years.
The week’s entries were to be read out after Evensong every Sunday and the chest was to have another lock fitted so that a third person could hold a key. The new books would have been costly and the expense had to be found by the parish by way of a fee charged for each entry. Many parishioners couldn’t or would pay the fees and often they were waived.
Dade & Barrington Registers
The Reverend William Dade was a clergyman in Yorkshire who felt strongly that more information should be recorded in baptism and burial registers than was being generally entered at the time. He designed what have become known as the Dade Registers. The registers came into circulation in the late 18th century and should have ceased use when George Rose’s Act came into law in 1813, however many parishes continued with the Dade registers as they wished to recorded more information than the Rose registers allowed.
Dade registers required the following information to be recorded :-
Date of birth
Date of baptism
Seniority in family – for example 3rd son
Father’s name & occupation
Grandparents names, occupations & abodes
Date of death
Date of burial
Cause of death
In 1783 the Bishop of Salisbury the Reverend Shute Barrington set out a similar set of registers to Dade, the Barrington registers where a little simpler and easier to use than Dade’s so were more popular with the clergy. When the Reverend Barrington became Bishop of Durham the use of his registers spread to Northumberland and Durham.
Baptisms – up to 1813
Generally these records will record the child’s name and the names of the parents, sometimes only the father’s name is given. It is very rare for the mother’s maiden name to be recorded apart from when recording the baptism of an illegitimate (base born) child. Occasionally a cleric will record only the child’s name and no parentage details are given. At the very least the month and year of the event will be given, most often a full date, day, month, year is recorded. Depending on the whim of the cleric the occupation of the father and address of the family may be recorded.
Marriages – up to 1813
The names of the bride and groom are given, if either or both parties were from another parish this may, or may not, be recorded. The full date of the marriage is normally given. Names of the witnesses to the marriage and whether the couple were married by banns or by licence may be recorded.
Burials – up to 1813
As there were no facilities for keeping bodies in a safe condition for long periods of time burials usually took place within a few days of the death. The name of the deceased and the date of burial will be recorded. If the name of the individual isn’t known then a description of the circumstances of the finding of the body is often given. For example “A middle aged man found drowned in Pitt Farm pond, name unknown”.
Women may be described as the widow or wife of the husband. For example “Sarah wife of Robert Smith”. Sometimes if this information is written the forename of the woman is omitted. If a child or young person dies then they may be described as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Sometimes for males an occupation is given.From 1666 they may well be mention of the deceased being buried in woollen, this was in accordance with the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666 & 1680.
Baptisms – from 1813
The information given in the baptism registers is:-
Child’s Christian Name
Parents names; Christian & Surname
Quality, Trade or Profession
By Whom the ceremony was performed
There was no provision for the recording of the child’s date of birth, but this can sometimes be found in the margin. An illegitimate (base-born) child may have only the mother’s name recorded or may have the phrase “reputed child of” and then the name of the person whom the mother said was the father.
The Commonwealth period saw the church records being poorly kept, some parishes well away from the areas of conflict continued as before, but most parishes saw some disruption. Parish clergy may have been banished from their parishes and no one took their place, other areas later (1653 – 1660) saw the introduction of officials called “Parish Registers” who were given the task of recording births, marriages and deaths as opposed to christenings, marriages and burials.
Some registers went missing during this time only to reappear with the dispossessed clerics, others were lost for ever. Things returned to normal following the Restoration in 1660. However you need to be aware of this time period when much disruption occurred. Wills and other probate documents will be covered in another lesson, they can be a very good source of information for this time period.
Buried in Wool
In 1678 the wool trade in England was suffering from decline so an act was passed making it compulsory for all corpses to be buried in a shroud made of wool. An affidavit had to be declared by someone who had viewed the body prior to burial to confirm that the shroud had been made of wool. Wealthy families who wished to bury their dead in linen or some other material could pay a fine to allow this to happen.
These affidavits sometimes were written alongside the burial entry and sometimes were on separate papers. Later there were pre printed forms that could be filled in. The person who made the affidavit generally was a family member or a local woman who took on the job of laying out the parish dead.
The fees for registering an event rose dramatically in 1694, the war against France had been costly so more revenue was needed. A christening rose to 4d, marriage 12d and burials 4d, the poor were except from the fees. Also the fines for neglecting to record events were increased. By 1733 it was decided that entries should be in English rather than Latin, but by then most of the registers were already being written in English.
In 1752 it was decided that Britain would come into line with Europe and adopt the Gregorian calendar, this meant that 2 September was followed by 14 September. Therefore for a time period you will see in registers both “old style” and “new style” dates between 1 January and 25 March i.e. a baptism recorded as occurring on 7 February 1752 (new style) will be recorded as 7 February 1751/2.
Hardwick Marriage Act
Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act of 1754 came into effect to prevent irregular and clandestine marriages. A separate marriage register had to be kept, later registers were pre-printed forms. The reading of banns was more closely enforced as was the issuing of licences.
In 1812 Rose’s Act was passed and this stipulated that registers were to be better kept and preserved. Printed registers one for each event were supplied by the King’s printing press and these registers have remained almost unchanged to the present time.
By 1853 the condition of churchyards in the major cities had become a disgrace due to over use. The Cemetery Act of that year allowed for separate burial grounds apart from parish churches, these were either established by local authorities or private investment companies.
Where to find the parish registers
TheGenealogist offers only transcripts of registers, this is not to say that their collection is of no value, but there is always the chance that an error has been made during transcription. Also some transcripts aren’t a record of everything that is in the original document.
www.familysearch.org is the Mormon (LDS) website, for their own religious reasons the LDS Church members research their family history. So that their members can undertake this practice the church has undertaken for many years to film and more recently digitise parish registers amongst many other documents. These are then indexed and placed online freely available to all. These are indexes only and do not contain details other than the very basic information. The church is now placing online, where the original document owners agree, scans of the actual registers.
Ancestry.co.uk have the entire parish register and bishop transcript collection that is held by the London Metropolitan Archives as well as other collections from an ever increasing number of County Record Offices.
FindMyPast.co.uk has an agreement with Westminster Archives to scan and place online indexed images of their parish register holdings. They also have the contract with the Federation of Family History Society to place online the transcripts that their members have compiled from parish registers in their area.
OnlineParishClerk.co.uk is a website that encourages people to adopt a parish, transcribe the registers and place them online. The coverage is patchy over the country, but is being added to constantly. Again it is important to remember that whilst transcripts are valuable, looking at the original document is much preferable.
When adding records to your family tree it is good practice to record where you got the information from and whether it was from an original document or a transcript.
Parish registers are a wonderful resource for family historians, it is thought provoking to view the handwriting of a cleric who knew and had spoken to your ancestor.