Were Your Ancestors Non-Conformists? This is a question that all genealogists seeking English and Welsh ancestors should ask themselves before they embark on searching church records. And the next question (have you noticed that family history is full of questions?) should be were your ancestors non-conformist all the time? The answer to the first question will almost certainly be yes, no and maybe. The answer to the second question will again most likely be yes, no and maybe. How can I be so certain that your ancestors were non conformist? Well, it is because non-conformists in genealogy terms are those who didn’t align themselves with the Church of England and up until Henry 8th had his famous disagreement with the Pope in the 1530’s the main church in England and Wales was the Roman Catholic Church. So therefore we are all descended from non-conformists.
Having got that out the way let’s look at non-conformist records dating from 1538 when the Church of England was the main church and everyone was expected to attend and follow their rules and regulations. These records are important to genealogists because it is so easy to hurl yourself through the C of E parish registers and then find you have lost all trace of your family and think they had moved away. Whilst this might be the case it could just be that they had decided to attend a chapel or meeting house and abandon attending the local parish church. Also bear in mind that joining another religion may not be a long term affair – I have ancestors who, I think, must have disliked a new Vicar as the moment the writing changes in the parish register my people start attending the local Baptist Chapel and after a few years the Vicar moves on and my family start attending the parish church once more!
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Were Your Ancestors Non-Conformists? – what will the records tell me?
Be aware that many non-conformists traveled quite some distance to attend services and some preachers/ leaders traveled around what was known as a circuit preaching and performing ceremonies such as baptisms and burials. Often the book in which events were recorded traveled with the preacher and you need to search for records in adjoining counties as well as closer to home. It is so much easier now that many records have been collected in, indexed and are online.
Some non-conformist records can be very detailed, the Quakers were especially good at fully recording their members lives. Even if you don’t have any Quakers in your family do take a look at a marriage entry – they name everyone who was present at the marriage as well as great detail of the events that led up to the wedding. Depending on the denomination you should find at least the following:-
- Birth/Baptism – date, child’s and parent’s names, abode and occupation
- Marriage – date, both parties names, abode
- Deaths/Burials – date, name of deceased
These details are very similar to what you would expect from a Church of England parish register. Marriages are rarer events to be recorded in non-conformist registers as the law restricted who could perform them. For a long period only Church of England churches, Jewish synagogues and Quaker Meeting Houses could perform marriages, so you may well find your non-conformists marrying in the parish church. However as I mentioned above you may get much more information, here are two examples:-
Wesleyan Baptism 1837 – Henry the son of Thomas Day Labourer of Westcott in the parish of Sparshot in the county of Berkshire and of Rachael his wife who was the daughter of Thomas and Ann Rowland was born on the third day of January 1837 and was baptised 31st January 1837.
Quaker burial 1690 – Sarah Clarke widow which was ye wife of Thomas Clarke and ye daughter of Joseph Smith was departed this life ye 6th of the 3rd month. (note Quaker records do not refer to the months of the year as this against their beliefs – Click Here to read my post “Gregorian Calendar – The mystery of the missing 11 days!” which will explain how to work out months prior to 1752.
Were Your Ancestors Non-Conformists? – where can I find the records online?
In 1837 the government attempted to call in all the non-conformist registers that were scattered across the county, whilst this meant that many registers were handed in by no means all of them were and occasionally I have heard a newly discovered non-conformist register has been deposited into the archives. The registers that were handed in under the 1837 act are housed at The National Archives, Kew under reference numbers RG 4, RG 5, RG 6, and RG 8. In addition there are non-conformist registers in other archives. Note – details of Jewish records are excluded from this post as they are generally held by the Synagogues and also are a specialist genealogical subject of which I have no experience.
I am pleased to say that Ancestry has a good collection of digitised images, indexes and transcripts of non-conformist registers right across the spectrum of denominations. here is a run down of their holdings.
England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970
These are the records held at The National Archives under reference RG4. They cover all denominations and this collection contains over 2.5 million individual records.
England & Wales, Quaker Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers, 1578-1837
These are the Quaker records surrendered in the 1830’s and come under The National Archives reference RG6. You will find births, marriages and deaths registers here as well as monthly and quarterly meeting records.
West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985
A mix of all denominations here including Baptist, Congregationalist and Independent, Moravian, Methodist, Inghamite, Quaker, and Presbyterian records. Also contains some other records such as church rolls and notices of members joining or leaving a congregation.
London, Non-conformist Registers, 1694-1931
These records are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Denominations covered include Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists. As you can imagine, I am sure, London had a vast number of non-conformist chapels etc. Some of which sprung up and disappeared within a matter of years. If the records have survived they may well be in this collection.
Manchester, Non-Conformist Births/Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths/Burials 1758-1912
Included in this collection are some Jewish records, but as I mentioned above my understanding is that this is quite unusual. Denominations are Methodist, Quaker, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, URC, Congregationalist, Baptist, Unitarian, and Jewish. Records start 1758, but most come from the 19th and 20th centuries. No records after 1912 for privacy reasons.
Liverpool, Quaker Registers, 1635-1958
Quakers were also known as the Society of Friends. Original records are held at the Liverpool Central Library. The records include birth, marriage and burial registers as well as Membership Records, Monthly Meeting Minutes, Inward and Outward Certificates which recorded members joining and leaving a meeting house.
Norfolk & Suffolk Non-conformist Records, 1613-1901
This collection can also be viewed free of charge at FamilySearch. Records cover both Norfolk and Suffolk and comprise a wide range of denominations.
Gloucestershire, Non-Conformist Baptisms Index, 1739-1987
This collection is held at the Gloucestershire Archives and whilst the name search is hosted by Ancestry when an entry is clicked you get taken through to the Archives. I must say the Archive website is one I haven’t looked at before, but does look as if it contains much to interest Gloucestershire genealogists.
Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania, 1682-1750
I have included this digitise book in with this post as it might not be the easiest item to find in Ancestry without the title. It is indexed as well as browse-able and is possibly one of the items that I feel Ancestry hides away – I have written a post about such items Click here to read “Hidden Records on Ancestry”. If you have Pennsylvania Quaker ancestry then this is a must for you.
Quaker Records, Dublin, Abstracts of Wills
Dublin Quakers ? This is for you, indexed as well as browse-able in alphabetical order.
Were Your Ancestors Non-Conformists? – Summary
The history of non-conformist worship in England and Wales is a complex one which to explain fully would take up too much space on this website! If you find you have a number of non-conformists on your family tree I suggest that you get a copy of Mark D. Herber’s excellent book “Ancestral Trails” from either Amazon Click Here or AbeBooks who usually have a few second hand copies at very reasonable prices – USA readers Click Here and UK readers Click Here. This is THE book for British Genealogy and should be on every genealogists book shelf! he has an excellent 20 page chapter on non-conformist records.
I have confined myself to the records held by Ancestry in this post and will follow up with a post on the records held by FindMyPast very soon. Between Ancestry and FindMyPast they hold all the National Archive non-conformist records RG 4, RG 5, RG 6, and RG 8 plus a good range of other non-conformist records.
Do run your family names through the Ancestry databases, remember these databases may not come up in a general search or as green leaves on your online Ancestry family tree – you need to go hunting for yourself. I bet you find someone in these collections who decided that they would follow a path other than that of the Church of England. Do let me know who you find!
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