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How to find baptism records

Genealogist Paul Blake explains why English and Welsh baptism records are important in family history research, and where you can find them online

An early photograph of a baptism ceremony, c. 1860 baptism records

When were baptism records introduced?

In 1538, the Second Royal Injunction on Religion drawn up by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s vicar general, required that every parish should make a record of every single baptism, marriage and burial. Even so, there are only approximately 700 parishes that have baptism records dating back to 1538.

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How are baptism records used in family history?

Until civil registration of birth, marriage and death records was introduced in 1837, there was no official legal record of our ancestors’ births. However, almost all children in England and Wales were baptised in the Church of England. Most children were baptised soon after birth, making it possible to use the baptism record as a substitute birth record.

Even after the introduction of civil registration, it’s still worth finding your ancestor’s baptism record if you can, as later baptism records should include the names of both parents and the father’s occupation.

This 1827 baptism records list from London shows the father's profession
This 1827 baptism records list from London shows the father’s profession

Bear in mind that some baptisms took place years after the child was born. The reason for a delay may never be known: the family might have refused to attend their local church, disapproving of the incumbent, or they might have been nonconformists.

Occasionally, a baptism may have been performed as soon as the child was born, possibly at home. This was usually because the child was thought unlikely to survive and midwives, being licensed by the church, were able to perform the rites. The entry in the baptism record is usually in the form of ‘privately baptised’ or ‘half baptised’. If the child did survive then ‘full baptism’ would take place in church later, possibly noted as ‘entered into the congregation’ or similar.

During the 17th century Commonwealth period of 1649 to 1660, parish registers were irregularly kept, so some baptism records may be missing from this period.

In 1752, England and Wales changed from the Julian (or ‘Old Style’) calendar, where the year commenced on 25 March, to the Gregorian (or ‘New Style’) calendar, where it began on 1 January. It is often not clear whether transcribers and indexers of baptism records have ‘amended’ Julian dates to their Gregorian equivalent. Therefore, extreme care needs to be taken to ensure that the date in the original record has been correctly interpreted. This is another reason why it is essential to inspect the original baptism record, either in an archive office or as a digitised image online.

In 1783 William III introduced a duty of 3p on every baptism, marriage or burial recorded in English, Welsh and Scottish registers, to raise money to fight the French. Paupers were exempt from the tax, and many baptism records are accordingly annotated “P”. When the Act was repealed in 1794, some families then had several children of different ages baptised together, creating baptism records for all of them at once.

When the Act was repealed in 1794, some families had several children of different ages baptised together.

What are bishop’s transcripts?

From 1598 local parishes were required to make a copy of their register to send to the local bishop, known as Bishops’ Transcripts (BTs). These sometimes provide an alternative copy of baptism records were the originals have not survived, although there may be discrepancies between the information in the original record and in the transcript.

The practice of making these duplicate returns was generally discontinued from 1837. In some dioceses, a further copy of baptism records was returned to the archdeacon. These copies are known as Archdeacons’ Transcripts (ATs).

How to find baptism records

The best place to start with finding your ancestor’s baptism record is the place of birth given on census forms. However, it should be noted that place of birth and place of baptism were not always the same. The first child (and sometimes subsequent children as well) was often baptised in the parish of the mother, as she returned to her family home for the confinement.

The National Index of Parish Register series, available as books from the Society of Genealogists, provides details about all Church of England parishes as well as nonconformist places of worship. You can use this to find where your ancestor’s baptism record is likely to be. Many baptism records are now available in online parish register collections, while others are held in local record offices.

Different websites have different county-by-county coverage of baptism records. There are good collections of baptism records on the paying sites Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist, while free records are available on UK BMD, FamilySearch and FreeReg.

The FamilySearch Wiki, DustyDocs and Forebears provide good guidance on the availability of baptism records, although their information may be a little out of date.

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Paul Blake is a genealogist and author of several books including Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors