6 best websites for tracing your nonconformist ancestors like Sophie Raworth
As Who Do You Think You Are? sees Sophie Raworth uncover nonconformist forebears, Jonathan Scott hunts for online resources for researching dissenters
Sophie Raworth discovered that her Birmingham ancestors became members of the radical New Jerusalem movement
Nonconformity is the blanket term given to all non-Anglican Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers.
And if your ancestor was a nonconformist, there are a host of sources available. You could have two bites of the cherry, as nonconformists may be recorded in parish church registers as well as in records created by their own denominations.
Lots of nonconformist birth, marriage and death registers (BMD) have been digitised and are available through subscription and pay-per-view sites.
For example,TNA series RG6 comprising Quaker BMD records can be explored via the website chosen by this month’s expert. There are also collections on Ancestry and Findmypast.
And while many nonconformist collections survive within local county collections, The National Archives' research guide makes a good starting point.
1. Methodist Heritage (link)
This is a great place to familiarise yourself with Methodist history. There’s advice aimed at researching Methodists, more general genealogical tips and a map showing heritage sites across the UK.
Clicking the ‘Read stories and share yours’ box leads to a family of websites where you can share photos, stories and research, grouped to focus on different branches of Methodism.
There’s also the overarching My Methodist History, My Primitive Methodist Ancestors, My Wesleyan Methodist Ancestors and My Bible Christian Ancestors, which focuses on this 19th century Methodist movement.
2. Strict Baptist Historical Society (link)
This simple, attractively designed website is full of interesting content. This particular page leads to a Pastors and Chapels Database, but there’s also an allied Pastors Gallery, where you can explore photographs taken from Cheering Words magazine, which published portraits of pastors between 1878 and 1941.
There’s an expanding names database – an ongoing project to draw out data from various Strict Baptist magazines, including details of military service during the First World War.
There’s lots to recommend this website, including a useful links page, and a general history of the denomination.
3. Quaker Library (link)
The library of the Society of Friends’ main purpose is not genealogy, but the study and preservation of wider Quaker history. However, the website still serves as a useful portal to find out more about the subject and the kinds of records that may be available.
It holds records of Quaker meetings in London and Middlesex (those from outside this area are normally held at local archives), plus there are archives relating to the Friends Ambulance Unit, and non-Quaker organisations such as the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors.
4. Salvation Army Heritage Centre (link)
The heritage centre in William Booth College houses a reference library, archive and museum collections.
There are useful subject guides, including records of Salvation Army (SA) ministers, but I particularly recommend the heritage centre blog, which, at time of writing, included a recent post about interviews of women seeking admission to SA homes.
It focuses on Book No. 53, covering October 1915-March 1916, when some 700 women and girls sought aid. Of those more than 400 were maternity cases, and nearly half went on to be admitted to SA homes.
5. The Story of Nonconformity in Wales (link)
The Welsh story of nonconformity is told through this section of the Welsh Chapels website, which is part of the Welsh Religious Buildings Trust.
It includes material about Quakers, Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, Presbyterians, Independent Congregationalists, Unitarians and Wesleyan Methodists. Each section traces the spread of the chosen denomination, from early dissenters through to wider growth during the 19th century.
There are also distribution maps showing the locations of chapels across Wales.
6. BMD Registers (link)
Chosen by Stuart A Raymond, author of Tracing Your Nonconformist Ancestors and partner in thefamilyhistorypartnership.com
“The National Archives (TNA) holds a huge collection of nonconformist registers available online at BMD Registers. These records were originally deposited with the registrar general in 1841, in response to the nonconformist plea that their registers should have equal status with Anglican parish registers. Not all registers were deposited and another collection was made in 1857.
Bearing in mind that nonconformists (other than Quakers) had had to marry in Anglican churches since 1754, and that many of their congregations did not have their own burial grounds, the majority of these registers record baptisms (or sometimes, as in the case of Baptists, births – the Baptists did not baptise their babies). Quaker marriage records, however, are included, and are much more detailed than those of other denominations.
“The database also includes the records of two major attempts at national registration of nonconformist vital events. The Protestant Dissenters Registry records details of over 200,000 individuals from 1743. The Wesleyan Methodist Registry opened in 1817, and includes around 50,000 names.
“Another important element of the database, although not strictly nonconformist, are the records of clandestine marriages conducted at the Fleet Prison and other London marriage centres. Until the Marriage Act of 1754 put a stop to the trade, a huge proportion of London marriages were clandestine.”