Alan Crosby: The great parish register robbery

By Jon Bauckham, 9 July 2015 - 12:09pm

Ever found a frustrating gap in a parish register? Rather than lax record keeping, there might be a more unusual explanation says Alan Crosby

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 9 July 2015
Alan Crosby
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The Church of St Nicholas with St John in Newchurch, where John Tattersall committed his parish register theft in 1606 (Credit: Alexander P Capp)

I recently came across a possible reason for those annoying gaps in parish registers – a topic that Helen Osborn tackles in the August issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

Among the prosecutions that were heard before the Bishop’s Court in Chester in 1606 was a case brought by the churchwardens of the chapelry of Newchurch in Rossendale, in East Lancashire.

They claimed that John Tattersall had gone into the church and “didest take out... the Register booke of the same Church without the licence or Consent of the Curate or Churchwardens”.

Not only that, but Tattersall “didest keepe and use the same att his owne will and pleasure... so that the names of the Christeninges weddinges and burialls which happened… were omitted and could not be written in the said booke for the space of Twenty weekes”.

Now that’s going a bit too far. I’m sure that most researchers wouldn’t mind borrowing a parish register to work on at home, but – thank goodness – we can’t do that any longer (or at least I hope we can’t!)

In this case Tattersall was discovered and the register volume was retrieved. Unfortunately, it was subsequently lost again and the registers don’t now begin until 1653.

What’s puzzling is that there is no indication of why Tattersall committed this offence. It was probably for religious reasons (the region was a hotbed of Puritanism and religious faction) but I do wonder whether he was perhaps a very early family historian, trying to get his head round the often rather complicated family histories of Rossendale.

In the surviving registers for the area, an amazingly large number of people shared the same few surnames. On almost every page, you’ll find Hargreaves, Hartleys, Schofields and Stansfields.

Sadly, however, it looks like we’ll never know the real reason for his crime.
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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