Tracing family history before the beginning of civil registration

By Guest, 26 September 2018 - 8:26am

In a taster of our latest issue's lead feature, Pam Ross has some nifty tips to help you reach back beyond the start of civil registration in 1837

Find birth records before start of civil registration in 1837
A baptism at St Martin's Church, Doking, Surrey, 19th century (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty)

On 1 July 1837 the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales.


Get the full version of this article and much more family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine October 2018, on sale now


Four years later, the first surviving national census was taken.

Both of these sources give us information about the close relationships and origins of our ancestors.

However, let's say that you've found a possible ancestor: John Smith, baptised 28 November 1836, son of John and Mary Smith.

If he'd been born a few months later, the birth would have been registered with the mother's maiden name.

But there's a John and Mary Smith in a nearby parish. Could they be the same couple?

Before 1837, you need to be a bit smarter about the sources you use to confirm relationships.


1. Look at parish registers

Our fictional John Smith was probably baptised within a few days of his birth, as was generally the case.

It's unlikely that his baptism entry would also give his date of birth. Sometimes an incumbent might decide to round up the unbaptised in his parish and do the whole lot at once. On these occasions it's possible that their dates of birth would also be annotated in the original register.


2. Wills can tell you a great deal

Will family history
You can use wills to find your ancestors' relatives

A will names family members and identifies relationships. Wills of the wider family, particularly maiden aunts and childless uncles, are useful as they often name nieces and nephews.

Wills made before 1858 were 'proved' by the church courts, of which there were many. They can be difficult to find but are well worth looking for.

It's getting easier because many are now available online. The National Archives (TNA) holds Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills. They are also available on Ancestry and TheGenealogist.

To find out which church court a will has been proved in, consult the indexes to death duty registers published at TNA and Findmypast. This gives the name of the court that dealt with a will. Not all wills were subject to death duty, but it's worth a try.

Disputes over wills can end up as cases in Chancery. These documents are also at The National Archives.


3. Check bishops' transcripts for discrepancies

If you can't find an event in a parish register, check to see whether any Bishops' Transcripts (BTs) survive. A copy of the parish register was made for the bishop every one to three years, and they're not always identical. BTs are mostly held in county archives, and the earliest date from 1598.

Some information on FamilySearch was originally copied from BTs. In such cases, it's worth checking the original entries for any discrepancies.


4. Eliminate unlikely candidates with family profiling

Victorian infant mortality parish register
Infant mortality was high so check for burials close to baptisms (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

By this time you might have collected several John Smiths in the same area. Unfortunately you must find out as much information as you can about all of them, then identify your relative through process of elimination.

Don't forget to look carefully for infant burials. It's easy to note a baptism and miss the burial a few days later.

It's highly probable that the parents of your John Smith had other children after July 1837. Look out for birth registrations of later children and identify the mother by her maiden name.


5. Search other spellings of names

Still can't find your ancestor? The further back you go, the less educated people were and the more likely you are to find name variants.

Imagine you've turned up to get married in your bride's parish and the vicar asks your name. You don't know the man, and he doesn't know you. You can't read, so you can't check what he's written - and what if you have a speech impediment?

It's no wonder your name could be written down differently each time you tell it to someone in authority. Even the names of the same parents in the same baptism register can be found spelled differently.

Use the different spellings offered by online indexes, but make up your own variants too. Try saying the name with the local accent. Drop your 'h's and slur over letters between name and surname: Thomas Holmes might become Thomas Soames.


Get the full version of this article and much more family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine October 2018, on sale now


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