Parish Baptism Registers
Parish Baptism Registers. In my post “Parish Chest Records “ I promised I would write more about each set of documents likely to be found in the Parish Chest. I am breaking the topic of parish registers into three posts; Baptisms, Marriages and Burials as I would like you to know the background to each so that you can approach searching parish registers with a good knowledge of the records and thereby get the most out of your researching.
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Parish Baptism Registers – Why and When did they start to be kept?
In 1538 after the split with the Roman Catholic Church Henry 8th Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, sent out an edict that every parish priest must keep a record of each baptism, marriage and burial that took place in their parish. With some reluctance the parish clergy complied and as there had been no instruction as to how these records were to be kept some noted the events on loose sheets of parchment rather than a bound book. The entries were to be written at the end of each week. in the presence of the Churchwardens. The records were to be kept in a coffer with two locks, one key to be kept by the priest and the other by the Churchwardens. A fine was levied if the parish failed to comply.
By the time Elizabeth 1st came to the throne it was recognised that the parish records may have been recorded, but they weren’t being kept in an orderly manner by some parishes. In 1598 another ruling went out to the clergy that the parish must purchase a ‘great decent book of parchment’ and the previous entries “especially from the first year of Her Majesty’s reign” (1558) were to be copied into the new registers. As you can imagine some clergy only did the minimum and copied the entries from 1558, other entered all the entries from the loose sheets of parchment that they could find, whilst those parishes who had purchased a parchment book at the start in 1538 were very smug as they didn’t have to do anything at all!
The events were to be recorded in the register in the presence of two churchwardens once a week and then read out after Sunday evensong so that the whole parish knew what had occurred and no doubt so that any errors could be corrected. The books were to be kept in the parish chest which was now to have three locks, keys held by the Vicar and two churchwardens.
It was also at this time that Bishop Transcripts were to be made and sent each month (some parishes only sent them in yearly) to the Bishop at the local diocesan. These B.T’s as they are often called are a valuable source of information if the original registers have not survived. B.T’s may also have additional notes which aren’t recorded in the parish registers so are always worth searching.
It should also be noted that many parish registers have gaps during the Commonwealth Period 1653 – 1660 and some may have missing entries even earlier. A local resident was appointed at the time to record births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes the parish registers were used for this purpose, other times a new book was used. Plus to add to the confusion the person in charge of recording these events was called the Parish Register. I will cover the Commonwealth Period in a separate post.
In the early years baptisms, marriages and burials were often recorded in one register and all three events were muddled in together. Therefore when researching these registers it is advisable to take your time and make sure that the entry you are reading is a baptism not a burial. Marriages are easier to spot because they, of course, contain two names. When using parish registers which have been digitised and index by Ancestry and FindMyPast be aware that the indexer may have made a mistake and indexed a baptism as a burial and vice versa.
Generally Parish Baptism Registers will record the child’s name and the names of the parents, sometimes only the father’s name is given. If a child is illegitimate then the mother’s name may only be entered. It is very rare for the mother’s maiden name to be recorded apart from when recording the baptism of an illegitimate child. Illegitimate children could also be recorded as being base born or a bastard. 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, that is, day, month, year is recorded. Depending on the whim of the cleric the occupation of the father and where the family lived may be recorded.
In the early period entries were written in latin, but do not be put off by this as there are several genealogy latin primers which can help with the task. I use two books, the first is Latin For Local and Family Historians by Denis Stuart and the other is A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians by Janet Morris. 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 1812 Rose’s Act was passed and from 1813 it was 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. As the new registers were pre-printed the information recorded became standardised. The baptism registers now recorded the following:-
- Date of baptism
- 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.
At various times over the centuries fees were charged for each entry written in a parish register. From 1694 the payment required rose dramatically, the war against France had been costly so more revenue was needed. The fee for a baptism rose to 4d, a marriage 12d and a burials 4d, the poor were except from the fees. As can be expected the number of people claiming to be paupers rose so that the fees could be avoided ! At the same time the fines for neglecting to record events were increased.
Genealogists need to be aware that January 1st hasn’t always been the beginning of the new year. Until 1752 the year began on 25th March, which is why the tax year to this day runs from March to March. 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 you may see dates being recorded as “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.
Wikipedia has a good section on the Gregorian Calendar.
Parish Baptism Registers – Where Can They be Found?
In 1978 the General Synod of the Church of England decided that parish registers which were more than 100 years old or which were no longer in use were to be handed over to the county archives in which the diocesan was situated. Before that date many diocesan archives and county archives shared premises, but the measure ensured that the county archive could ensure that all parish registers were being cared for properly. In some counties the registers are still kept at a diocesan archive, an example of this is the archives at Canterbury Cathedral.
Since the advent of the internet and the increase in interest in genealogy many county archives have entered into agreement with FindMyPast and Ancestry to digitise and index the parish registers in their care. This has many advantages apart from allowing genealogists to be able to research easily from home, the registers are now no longer subject to the wear and tear of many researchers handling them and the archive research rooms are less crowded.
In my post English Parish Registers Online – Who Has Which Counties? you can find a table of which company has digitised which county parish registers. Apart from Bedfordshire and Westmoreland all counties have at least an index to their parish registers if not images of the original records. It can only be a matter of time before all parish registers have been digitised and index by one or other of the genealogy companies.
Even if you visit a county archive you may not be able to handle the actual parish register that your ancestors baptism was recorded in. If the registers have been digitised by Ancestry or FindMyPast then you will be directed to a computer which has the companies website loaded. If the registers have been filmed by the LDS Church you will then be sent to a film readers and handed a roll of film or shown to a computer which is loaded with images of the register taken from the LDS film. Handling of parish registers is now keep to a minimum and it would need a good reason and prior approval from the county archivist before the registers were produced.
So original parish baptism registers are at the county record offices, those parish baptism registers which have been filmed by the LDS Church can be viewed at one of their Family History Centres and those which have been digitised, indexed and put onto their website can be found at FindMyPast and Ancestry. Although it was always a joy to be able to handle a parish register that was hundreds of years old it is a lot easier looking at images online!