Guide Five: Anglican Parish Registers and their Finding Aids
Before the national registration of vital events started in 1837, the main source of information about births, marriages and deaths is the parish register or the similar relevant record kept by members of nonconformist denominations. In many cases, however, it should be remembered that the event recorded is the baptism, rather than birth, and burial records rather than those of death. Nevertheless, parish registers are extremely important records for researching family history from the sixteenth century. Church records did not come to an end when the state introduced Civil Registration. Religious sects continued to record those who had undergone its ceremonies long after 1837, even until the present.
The search for the family usually begins with information learned from a census return. If the place of birth of an individual is stated, it may be that this was where the child was baptised. However, place of birth and place of baptism were not always the same.
The registers of the established Church of England, which also maintained the parochial structure throughout Wales, begin in 1538 during the period when Henry VIII took this country away from the Catholic Church in Rome. They record baptisms, marriages and burials. Normally they are divided between separate registers for each type of event from the 18th century. Earlier registers may include all three types of event in one volume, the baptisms, marriages and burials being mixed together in the chronological order in which the events were solemnised in the church.
The earliest records were recorded in paper registers. In 1597, it was decreed that these were to be copied into the new vellum or parchment registers but often the registers were transcribed only from 1558 (the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth). Sometimes, these original records survive. In other parishes, the first 60 years of entries are in the same handwriting, having been copied into the new book.
Most searches for a baptism start in the first half of the 19th century. In 1812, Rose’s Act had been passed. This introduced printed paper registers, which begin on 1st January 1813, and standardised the format of entries. Parish registers should include the date of the baptism, the name(s) given to the child and the names and surname of the parents. The occupation of the father and a place of residence was recorded. In the case of an illegitimate child, only the name of the mother will normally be shown though sometimes the name of the reputed father is included. Extra information recorded may be the date of birth of the child or the maiden surname of the mother.
Before 1813, baptisms are included in parchment or vellum registers. These can date back to 1538.
What was recorded about each child was at the mercy of the person who wrote down the entry. This was usually the incumbent of the parish or the clerk. Typically, this will be only the name of the child, the date of baptism and the parents’ names. Where there were unusual circumstances, additional details may be noted. Sometimes, only the father’s name was given.
These have a similar format to the registers of baptism. Generally, only the name of the deceased, and the date of burial is recorded. A very brief description of the person may be included such as the marital status of a woman, an occupation or even religious affiliation if a non-conformist was buried in the parish churchyard. Where a child was buried, the names of the parents may be given. Sometimes the age is recorded.
Rose’s Act, which came into effect in 1813, once again, stipulated what was to be recorded. This was the name of the person, the date of burial, place of residence and age. The date of death may be added in a margin.
Initially included amongst the baptismal and burial entries, later records of marriage were entered in separate registers. Generally only the names of the groom and bride and the date of marriage would be stated. The marital status, place of residence or whether the union was solemnised by banns or licence may be added.
From 1754, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was expected to eliminate clandestine and irregular ceremonies. Only Quakers and Jews were exempt. Those of all others denominations, including Catholics, were now forced to marry according to the rites of the Church of England. Printed paper registers show the names of groom and bride together with their marital status and parish of residence. The way in which the ceremony was performed, by banns or licence, and the signatures or marks of the husband and wife and at least two witnesses were now required.
From 1st July 1837, the format of the marriage records changed again. They should then be identical to the records of Registration giving ages, places of residence and the names of the fathers of the bride and groom. However, the original entry in the parish register made differ from a modern version issued by the GRO in Southport from their centralised copy. The entry in the original register will show the signatures of groom, bride and witnesses, if they could write their names.
Where are the records to be found?
Parish registers have mostly been deposited in county record offices (CRO). Addresses of CROs can be found via The National Archives ARCHON website www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archon/ . Abridged dates of the earliest and latest registers, which have been handed in to safe custody, are found in the The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Phillimore, 3rd Ed, 2003) edited by Cecil Humphery-Smith. This includes only the pre-1832 parishes of England and Wales whose surviving registers to 1812 were surveyed and recorded in The Parish Register Abstract of 1831. These are deemed to be the 12,500 or so ancient parishes. Their geographical locality is illustrated on the individual county maps. The index section shows what finding aids exist to help you to access the records of the parishioners. Also included for each county is a topographical map of 1834, which is particularly useful in envisaging the main routes of communication and the location of the main market towns that our ancestors may have frequented. This publication also includes Scotland.
In the next half-century after 1832, the rapidly growing population increased the need for new churches to deal with the religious well-being of our forebears, Many new parishes, each with its church, were created out of the ancient parishes in the Victorian era. The records of these “modern” parishes may also be found in the county record office.
The National Index of Parish Register series (SoG) provides detail about all Church of England parishes, both ancient and modern. This includes the date of foundation and the name of the parish from which it was separated. Information is also included about nonconformist places of worship.
Some churches have chosen to retain their records and have not deposited them in the county record office. If so, access to the records may be more difficult. The address of the incumbent can be obtained from the most recent Crockford’s Clerical Directory or the CRO can advise. The results of the search may be obtained by letter or e-mail, or through a personal visit to the church, arranged in advance by appointment. A fee will probably be charged for access or a postal search.
Dade and Barrington Registers
Occasionally pre 1812 registers can be very informative indeed. Many parishes, mainly in the north-eastern counties of England, adopted a much more detailed and informative form of register. These were the so-called Dade registers. Devised by the Rev. William Dade, a Yorkshire clergyman, born 1740, their use was encouraged by William Markham, Archbishop of York, throughout his diocese. Dating from between 1770 and 1812, they are found mainly in the dioceses of York. Similar detailed registers were introduced by Bishop Shute Barrington in the dioceses of Sarum and Bristol and the Archdeaconry of Berkshire and later into in the north-eastern counties of England, when Barrington became Bishop of Durham.
Whenever they were accepted by the particular parish for the keeping of its records, they record not only the date of baptism and parentage but a great deal of extra genealogical material. The position of the child in the structure of the family, such as “3rd son and 5th child”, is noted together with date of birth. The names of all four grandparents and their occupations and places of residence or birth will be recorded. Information is also included about two of the child’s great-grandfathers, being the fathers of the two grandmothers! Sadly the addition of this extra information was considered burdensome by ministers and was largely dropped after the instigation of Rose’s Act of 1812.
If you are conducting searches at the end of the 18th and in the early 19th centuries in an area where such registers were used, you should extend the search of the baptismal records. You may find siblings of your direct ancestor who was recorded in the detailed format. If they were, what a bonus! You will have learned how many older children there were in that family and their sexes. Most importantly, you will have been provided with a statement of who you are looking for in previous generations and even which parish registers are worth searching for them.
An alternative source of information is the annual copies of the entries in the parish registers. These were sent from each parish to the ecclesiastical authorities from as early as 1597 and are generally called Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs). In some diocese, there are two sets of such records. The other copy was returned to the archdeacon and these are called Archdeacon’s Transcripts (ATs). Both sets of records are now to be found in the diocesan record office (DRO). This may or may not be the same as the county record office. A guide to the BTs and ATs for each diocese can be found in Bishops’ Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations compiled by Jeremy Gibson (FFHS, 5th Ed, 2001). These are particularly valuable where the parish registers have been lost or are deficient for some reason.
It cannot be expected that all the transcripts will survive for a given parish. Just like any annual returns that must be filed, many did not find their way safely into the appropriate place in the records. Indeed, some dioceses had a disaster where many, if not all, of its returns were lost through fire or decay in the place where they were stored. Where they have survived reasonably well, they provide another chance of finding a baptismal entry for that elusive ancestor. Usually the transcripts become much more patchy as the 19th century drew to a close.
Where two sets of transcripts exist, it can be the case that one set is stored parish-by-parish in chronological order. This is useful where all entries for a surname need to be extracted from a certain time period. The other set may be stored by year with all the returns for each parish within a deanery being kept together. Such a collection can be of greatest interest when the approximate year of a particular event is known, such as a person’s birth, but the parish is yet to be determined. A wide geographical area can be quickly searched within a few years of records.
Copies of records
Since the records were created, a copy of the parish registers or bishop’s transcripts may have been made. Such a “modern” copy may date from anywhere from the 19th century to the present. It may be handwritten, typed or printed. It may cover a large time period or only a few years. It may include all three types of event, baptisms, marriages and burials. Alternatively, the copy includes just one sort of record. Most importantly, it may have been indexed by surname. Many copies of the transcript may exist. If so, one of these may be more accessible or closer to your home than the original. An indexed transcription may allow a more efficient search to be made.
Copies of the transcripts may be found in local or national libraries, the record office itself, or may have been collected by a genealogical organisation. The Society of Genealogists (SoG) holds the largest collection, having a transcript for some part of the records of about 10,000 of the 12,500 or so ancient parishes. Its catalogue can be searched online at www.sog.org.uk/sogcat .
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons (LDS) also has a very large collection of film and fiche copies of parish registers or bishops’ transcripts. Reference to the appropriate microfiche or microfilm can be located through www.familysearch.org . Any of these can be ordered for examination in any of their branch libraries. There is a very large permanent collection held at the main London LDS library housed temporarily at The National Archives in Kew. The catalogue to these copies can be viewed at www.londonfhc.org .
The National Index of Parish Registers series, published by the Society of Genealogists, states where transcriptions or copies can be searched in other major record offices and libraries.
If a secondary copy is used and the entries being sought are found using the internal index, you will have saved yourself a great deal of searching through the original. If the entry is not found, you should still search the text. Do not rely on the transcriber or indexer being perfect. Many errors were made in reading the original entry and just as many in producing the index to the transcription. If in doubt, go back to the original parish register. The entry may just have been left out by mistake! Anything that you find in a transcription should be checked against the original.
Once the office or library where the registers have been deposited has been ascertained, a visit can be made to make the required searches. Consult the website of the office. This can be done through www.genuki.org.uk or www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archon/ . Learn about opening hours and any special access requirements which will make your visit more profitable..
Do not forget to make an appointment and check if a special reader’s card or ticket is needed for access before setting off. If travelling from afar, choose a day when the office is open for the longest period. Book any necessary equipment, such as a microfilm or microfiche reader, or a table depending on how the records are made available.
Some parishes churches have, of course, lost their records through theft, fire, war or the slow ravages of time. If so, and this is the parish where your ancestors chose to worship, to marry and to baptise their children, and where they were ultimately buried, the significant events in your genealogy may have been lost forever.
Finding aids and indexes
FamilySearch (The IGI & BVRI)
If the baptism, marriage or burial cannot be found in the parish registers which you have searched, you should try any available index. The main first port of call for most genealogists and family historians was the International Genealogical Index or IGI. Compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), it can be very valuable in locating baptisms (and even some births) and marriages. Possible baptisms for siblings or marriages for the parents of a child can also be identified even if the baptism of a particular ancestor is not found here. Burials are not included. The entries are taken from either the parish registers or the bishop’s transcripts or both, depending on what the Church has microfilmed. The IGI also includes the great majority of the Protestant nonconformist records in class RG4 at TNA, which were deposited in 1837. Other sources, such as the records of some workhouses and the main London Lying-In Hospitals, are also to be found there. The IGI records only names of the parents and child, the parish or place of baptism (or birth) and its date. The original entry may contain much more information. It should always be viewed in the original form.
The “old” IGI, its supplement known as the British Vital Records Index (BVRI), which is also available on CD, and many other databases of baptisms and marriages collected by the LDS Church can be now be searched online through the website www.familysearch.org . Once again, “parent” searches and those using the batch number, which identifies the records collected from a given parish, can be used to increase the versatility of this very large database.
There are also a number of indexes to baptisms, marriages and burials which cover a whole county or a few parishes in an area for a given time period. These should be consulted, depending on the geographical area and decade in which the marriage is most likely to have taken place.
If a baptism or burial index exists, it should be included in Specialist Indexes for Family Historians edited by Jeremy Gibson & Elizabeth Hampson (FFHS, 2nd Ed, 2000). Many of these have been collected together and can now be searched on the www.findmypast.co.uk website. Other very useful databases of baptisms and burials, which are often indexed by name, can be found through www.ancestry.co.uk , www.familyrelatives.com , thegenealogist.co.uk and www.freereg.org.uk. The coverage of geographical areas varies with some websites having much better coverage of certain counties than others. Some specialise in records taken from printed versions of the parish register, while others have arrangements with local archives to index and include images of the original registers and related documents as well.
It may be that the county, which is of interest, is one for which there is an active Online Parish Clerk scheme. If so, volunteers will attempt to transcribe, index and make available online as many records as possible for their “adopted” parish. These can be best be accessed through a link to “OPC” from the www.ukbmd.org.uk website.
National Burial Index
Burial records from many parishes and some cemeteries have been indexed into the so-called National Burial Index (FFHS, 3rd Ed, 2010). This is available on CD from the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS). It can be searched by surname, nationally or by county or parish. The NBI is also available online at www.findmypast.co.uk .
In addition, to the local marriage indexes, which may be identified by consulting Marriage Indexes for Family Historians by Jeremy Gibson, Elizabeth Hampson and Stuart Raymond (FFHS, 9th Ed, 2008), there are two national marriage indexes:
Boyd’s Marriage Index, compiled under the direction of Percival Boyd, may include marriages in the county that interests you. Divided into separate sections for men and women and produced as a typescript, it provides a very useful method of locating missing marriages. The seven million or so marriages are arranged in 25-year periods, from 1538 to 1837. The first and last sections cover slightly longer periods. Some counties have their own index whilst others, with a smaller coverage, are included in the so-called Miscellaneous Series. Surnames are indexed phonetically to a certain extent, with similar names being grouped together.
The original version of the index is at the Society of Genealogists (SoG) but has been made available on microfiche so it can be viewed in record offices and larger libraries. Most usefully, it is incorporated into www.findmypast.co.uk . It can also be searched, along with other marriage indexes, at http://sog.ourarchives.info/bin/index.php on the Members’ area of the Society of Genealogists’ website (MySoG). This index allows you to search a much wider geographical area more easily. Searches can be made for names that sound the same too. This cannot be done so easily in the original typescript format.
Many additional marriages for the counties of London and Middlesex collected by Cliff Webb to “fill in” missing gaps in the coverage in Boyd’s Marriage Index have been indexed into Webb’s London Marriages which can be searched at www.origins.net .
Pallot’s Marriage Index was compiled in the 19th century and includes entries from 1780 to 1837. Produced from parish registers and augmented with printed material, especially from the printed Phillimore Marriage Register series from other counties of England, it contains nearly one million entries. The groom and bride are indexed separately on very thin pieces of tissue paper or card, housed at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS), it can be searched for a fee. It has also been filmed by Ancestry and is available online through their subscription website www.ancestry.co.uk . Unfortunately, the compilation of the computerised index by Ancestry leaves a great deal to be desired. The reading of the additional notes and parishes of residence of bride and groom is often very bizarre. It is imperative that you use the facility available on the site to examine the filmed image of the original slip. You can then decipher what the 19th century indexer noted from the primary source. If it is still not legible, go back and examine the original church entry. You will probably need to do this anyway since usually only the year of the marriage is shown in the Pallot Index. The slip may not indicate if the marriage was by banns or licence.
This marriage index provides an excellent way of finding marriages in the half century just before the beginning of Civil Registration. It is especially good for marriages in what is now Greater London. It includes virtually all the marriages solemnised within the surviving registers of the 103 churches of the square mile of the City of London. It is also very good for those areas or parishes whose records are not included in the IGI. This is especially true of the East End of London around Wapping and the very large and popular parish of St Andrew, Holborn. Some of the parishes included had their records destroyed during the Blitz in World War II. In these cases, it is not possible to examine the register in which the marriage was originally found. At least the entry was indexed before the original was lost forever. The Blitz itself also severely damaged the equivalent Pallot’s Baptismal Index. Only about 100,000 slips survived.
Once again, when seeking a missing marriage, make use of the databases and search facilities on www.ancestry.co.uk, www.familyrelatives.com , thegenealogist.co.uk and www.freereg.org.uk and through the local Online Parish Clerks if they exist for the area concerned. There are also useful marriage indexes on www.origins.net for a few counties.
The vast majority of London parish registers, which are housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), have been digitised and indexed by www.ancestry.co.uk . These include the post-1837 marriage registers of the Church of England. Where such an entry is found, a copy can be obtained online without having to pay the certificate application fee payable for the Registrar General’s copy. Furthermore, these original entries will show the actual signatures of the bride, groom and witnesses as written at the time of the ceremony.
Several useful databases for London research, such as the London Docklands Baptisms Index and the West Middlesex Marriage Index, can be used on www.findmypast.co.uk . Versions of the City of London Burial Index can be viewed on www.findmypast.co.uk and www.originsnetwork.com .
Written by Ian Waller and updated by Geoff Swinfield and Else Churchill 2012
©Society of Genealogists 2012
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