Parish registers

So far, much of your research will have been online, but to get back before the census and the start of civil registration you’ll need to get to grips with parish registers.

These are the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials kept by Anglican parish churches in England and Wales since 1538 (1555 in Scotland) – although few survive from before 1600.

These records are rather more complicated – and piecemeal – than the satisfyingly neat system set up by civil registration. For a start, they don’t record the same thing – baptisms, marriages and burials (BMBs), rather than BMDs.

Also, they were maintained by the local vicar and with little standardisation – some did it well, providing lots of information in a perfectly legible script, others did not. To protect these crumbling paper records, most of those you see now will be on microfiche.

 

What you will find

 

The amount of information provided in parish records varies. Sometimes a baptism record may provide the address and occupation of the father and the full names of both parents including the maiden name of the mother and the child’s date of birth. At other times, just the date of baptism, and the child’s and father’s names will appear.

Parish records do not bind generations of a family together in the same way as civil registration certificates. For example, it is rare for marriage records to contain ages or name the fathers of the bride or groom as a checking point or to take your research back further.

 

Exploring parish registers

 

Parish registers are kept locally by county record offices, so you will need a good idea of your ancestors’ geographical origins to find family members in these records.

If you aren’t sure of an ancestor’s parish, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints database, the International Genealogical Index (IGI), is a good place to start. It lists baptisms and some marriages and deaths – between 1538 and 1875 and from all over the British Isles and abroad. Search it online at www.familysearch.org. Bear in mind that it is incomplete and contains errors, so you must also check the original register where possible.

Several commercial sites such as www.ancestry.co.uk, www.familyrelatives.com, www.findmypast.com and www.thegenealogist.co.uk offer online access to transcribed parish records, including published datatsets such as Boyd’s Marriage Index, Pallot’s Marriage and Baptism Index and the National Burials Index.

Scotlandspeople (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) has a large collection of baptism and marriage records for Scotland.

The Society of Genealogists (www.sog.org.uk) in London holds some copies of parish records, as do many family history societies. Some FHSs and local records offices are digitising their holdings, putting them online for free (or for a fee on data CD).

 

I can't find my ancestor...

 

Although the Church of England acted as de facto registrars before the start of civil registration in 1837, parish registers were not secular.

If your ancestor does not appear in them it may be because they belonged to a non-Anglican religious denomination. ‘Nonconformists’ such as Jews, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians and Congregationalists kept their own sets of records, which may still be held by the body that created them or may have been lodged in the local records office.

A large and growing collection of nonconformist records is available online at www.bmdregisters.co.uk. The IGI is also a very good source and there is a collection at the National Archives – the related research guide provides a good introduction to your research.

 


 

 Your nonconformist ancestors may have had to attend a church far from their home, so the scope of your search for them in church records will need to be wider. Watch out box out Bear in mind when you search that spellings become increasingly flexible the further back you go, and John Weasley may be the son of John Weesely and grandson of John Wesley.

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