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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.

Baptism records

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. 

Burial records

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.

Marriage records

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 may 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?

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.

Bishops’ Transcripts

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

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

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 Any of these can be ordered for examination in any of their branch libraries. The main London LDS library’s large microfilm collection, previously housed at the National Archives in Kew, has been transferred to and is now deposited and available at the Society of Genealogists.

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 or 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)

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 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.

Other indexes

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  website. Other very useful databases of baptisms and burials, which are often indexed by name, can be found through and
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 website.

National Burial Index

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 It can also be searched, along with other marriage indexes, at  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

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 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, , and and through the local Online Parish Clerks if they exist for the area concerned. There are also useful marriage indexes on 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 . 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 . Versions of the City of London Burial Index can be viewed on  and

Written by Ian Waller and updated by Geoff Swinfield and Else Churchill  2012

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