A Guide to Parish Registers in England and Wales

This post fits neatly into my aim to provide some background and information relating to UK records to help people researching from overseas and indeed from this country, who might be unfamiliar with these types of records and what sort of information they can glean from them and the common pitfalls.

Today I am focusing on parish registers for England and Wales – as Scottish registers are different and I plan to do some other posts in the future about Scottish and Irish records. Usually most people start to consider delving into parish registers once they go back beyond the realm of the 1841 census and the start of civil registration in 1837. Most people who are new to genealogy might not be familiar with these great resources and their rich history.

Since churches have been in use, record keeping was sketchy, some parishes kept records, others didn’t, so it wasn’t until 1538 that it became a requirement to keep a formal record of baptisms, marriages and burials. This was down to the church split with Rome, Henry VIII’s Vicar General ordered the keeping of parish registers. If you are lucky you may find that the parish you are interested in does indeed have records back to this date, but it depends on the survival of the records in question and of course the date the church was built.

At the time this new law was passed, there were fines put in place for any failure to comply, but many parishes ignored it, thinking it was just a new form of tax. The order relating to the fines was repeated in 1547 stipulating that the fines would go towards poor relief. It wasn’t until 1598 that the law stated that these records should be kept in ‘great decent books of parchment’ and that copies of these should be sent monthly to the diocese in the form of Bishops Transcripts. The cost of maintaining these books was expected to be met by charging the parishioners for the entry into the books, but this didn’t go down very well and wasn’t enforced until 1603. The registers were to be kept in a chest with three locks and the entries for that week were to be read out to the parishioners every Sunday after Evensong. This chest is what is referred to as the Parish Chest, and would not only contain the registers but other documents and books relating to the parish, such as churchwarden’s accounts, poor relief, parish minutes etc.

In the early years the registers were kept however the curate felt like keeping them, some decided to use separate books for baptisms, marriages and burials, whereas others used one book but put the baptisms in the front, flipped the book over and put the burials in the back and put the marriages towards the middle, and some just entered each event as it happened in a chronological order. Some books are nice and neat and easy to read, others are a mess of scrawl and entries put in randomly, almost like ‘find a page, write something down and then go back a few pages and put some more information in.’ Some books suffered damage and may be missing sections or be left semi-illegible. From 1711 registers were supposed to be ruled and numbered to keep things neater, but this wasn’t widely done. Often the further back you go, the harder the information is to read – not just due to handwriting but many parish clerks wrote in Latin. It helps to brush up on the Latin terms for certain key words like son, daughter, wife etc. This is a great place to start – Latin For Beginners. In 1733 entries had to be made in English and not Latin.

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An example of a baptism from 1636 in Latin.

There are several key facts that are worth keeping in mind when approaching parish registers:

  • The old style / new style calendar – From 1087 up to 1155 the new year was considered to be on the 1st January, but from 1155 up to 1752 the country followed the Julian Calendar, whereby the first day of the year was 25th March. From 1st January 1752 it converted to the Gregorian Calendar and continues to do so today. Dates from the Julian Calendar period may well be written to show both old style and new style dates – so for instance 1st Jan 1700/01 to show that although it was considered to be in the year 1700, in the new style it would be 1701.
  • The Interregnum Period – During the Civil War (1643 – 1647) and the following Commonwealth period, record keeping was poor and many were lost or damaged from being hidden by the clergy. From 1653 to 1660 the act registering of baptisms, marriages and burials was taken over by civil officers but these registers were handed back to the churches after the Restoration in 1660.
  • Buried in Wool – To try to boost the woollen trade an act was passed in 1678 that all corpses had to be buried wrapped in a shroud made of wool. To prove this had taken place, an affidavit had to be made and recorded in the register and a fee paid. Plague victims and the destitute were exempt from this. While this legislation was in force until 1814 it was largely abandoned by 1770.
  • Fees – In 1694 the costs to parishioners for each entry were increased in order to finance a war against France. The cost of baptisms went from 4d up to 2s, marriages from 12d up to 1s 6d and burials from 4d up to 4s. In 1696 a tax of 6d had to be paid for any birth not reported within five days, and vicars were fined £2 for neglecting to record a birth; this was abandoned in 1706.
  • Marriages – In 1754 Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 came into force, this meant that a separate register had to be kept for marriages and banns were to be enforced. All marriages in England and Wales (apart from those of Quakers and Jews) had to take place in a Church of England church. This was in order to clamp down on clandestine marriages, thereby making them illegal. An “irregular” marriage was one that took place either away from the home parish of both the spouses (but after banns or licence), or at an improper time. “Clandestine” marriages were those that had an element of secrecy to them: perhaps they took place away from a home parish, and without either banns or marriage licence. Nearly all marriages in England, including the “irregular” and “clandestine” ones, were performed by ordained clergy. There had previously been a Marriage Duty Act in 1695 to fine clergymen for performing marriages without banns or licence, however clergymen operating in prisons such as the Fleet Prison in London could not be proceeded against, so many clandestine marriages continued to take place in prisons until the 1740s. Later pre-printed forms for recording marriages and banns were introduced.
  • Age of Consent – In 1763 the minimum age for marriage was fixed at 16 – to marry younger than this could only be done with a Licence from the Bishop, and parental consent was needed for anyone under 21. A stamp duty of 3d was imposed on entries from 1783 to 1794 but paupers were exempt from this tax.
  • Printed Forms – In 1812 Rose’s Act came into force – this was an “act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England”. Separate printed registers were to be supplied by the King’s Printer, and used for baptisms, marriages and burials. This made the registers more organised, consistent and a lot better presented. The format of these printed registers remains the same today.
  • Civil Registration – Although Civil Registration came into force in England and Wales on 1st July 1837, it doesn’t mean that people stopped baptising their children, don’t neglect parish registers just because there are other records of births, marriages and deaths. You may find a child has been baptised with a middle name that isn’t on their birth certificate as well as other extra information.

So where can I find these records?

A great site to use when checking out details for parish registers for the areas you are interested in is Genuki. You can navigate to the towns and parishes of a county you are interested in, and can provide details of what churches were in that parish and the dates of records available and often where these records can be found. A great many websites now are digitising parish registers, so rather than relying on transcriptions, you can view the actual register pages themselves. Sites like Findmypast, Ancestry and FamilySearch all have a good combination of transcribed and digitised parish registers. FreeREG is also a great free site for parish register transcriptions.

A transcription is a good guide to get you certain bit of information, but I can never stress more highly the importance of checking the original document. Transcriptions are subject to human error, and especially for example details from member submitted entries from the International Genealogical Index. Many a time have I seen dates for baptisms, marriages and deaths from these entries that have turned out to be incorrect – listing dates of burial as a date of death, a place an event occurred being incorrect, the date not made clear in terms of old style / new style. Plus, there may well be extra information on the original entry that isn’t covered by a transcription – such as the place a person was from – often to distinguish people in the parish it was customary to put the area they were from, the occupation of a father on a baptism, or even occupations given on marriage and burial entries. You might also see if someone was a widow(er) at the time of their marriage, details of witnesses and whether they could read or write.

What information can I find in parish registers?

While some information can vary (as I will mention later) in general you should be able to find the following:

Baptisms:

  • Name of child – forename, any middle names and surname.
  • Date of baptism – occasionally date of birth but not always.
  • Name of father – their occupation (after 1812 and may be provided prior to this period.)
  • Name of mother – often just her first name.
  • Abode – where the family were from (after 1812 – prior to this it may not always be provided.)
  • Who performed the ceremony (after 1812) – it may also denote whether it was a private baptism rather than one done in front of the whole congregation.
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Example of a baptism register from 1874.

Marriages:

  • Date marriage took place (and from 1754 dates the banns were read out if by banns.)
  • Names of both spouses – forenames and surname (although some very early entries might not give the brides surname.)
  • Marital condition – bachelor, spinster, widow, widower (although early marriages may not provide this information but should do after 1754.)
  • Residence – may be given as ‘otp’ – of the parish or ‘botp’ both of the parish, or if not in the parish should state where they were from (although please note just because they were living there does not necessarily mean they were born there.)
  • Whether by banns, licence or certificate (after 1754 this should be given.)
  • Signatures of spouses (after 1754 – see if they were literate or signed with x.)
  • Names of witnesses (after 1754 – if you see the same name over and over again it can be the name of the parish clerk.)
  • Officiating minister (after 1754.)
  • After 1837 marriage entries were down in the form as seen on certificates – so also provide ages of spouses, occupations, names of fathers and their occupations as well as the other information previously provided.
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Example of a marriage entry from 1834.

Burials:

  • Name of deceased.
  • Date of burial.
  • Abode – From 1812 but sometimes given in earlier registers.
  • Age – From 1812 but sometimes given in earlier registers.
  • Some burials of children may give the name of father or mother.
  • Some burials of women may state if they were the wife of so and so or if they were a widow.
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Example of burials from 1785.

You may find that some parish clerks were detailed in the information they took, often noting the date of birth along with the date of baptism, they might even give the mother’s maiden name. Some earlier registers often didn’t give a mother’s name at all, and some very early ones don’t even give any parent’s names! Age at burial wasn’t often given in early parish registers and seems to be something that was down to the clerk and what information he decided to take down. Sometimes they might just state ‘infant’ for a child’s burial – so it’s not always clear whether they were a baby or a toddler or older. They might make a special note of someone who died at an advanced age, like in their 90s or if they had reached the age of 100 or more. Some parishes followed the Dade or Barrington style of record keeping, being more detailed in their approach, including details like order of birth for children, like the first son, first daughter etc. But often things like that were too time consuming to keep up with and didn’t last long.

You may also find that they give some extra information about a burial, such as the cause of death – particularly if it had been of a violent nature – such as an accident, murder or suicide and also if there had been some sort of epidemic such as smallpox or cholera. In areas where there were near the sea you might also find many burials of victims of drowning. In Chatham, Kent there were many of these, and sadly often people who were unknown, perhaps unrecognisable.

You might find that a parish has a very opinionated curate or clerk who likes to leave little comments about their parishioners. I have come across some very interesting comments regarding mothers of illegitimate children, especially one poor woman in Llansanffraid Glyn Ceiriog who seemed to have had a few ‘base born’ children – “The said Sarah is ye 5th base child to ye said wicked, debauched animal Mary Roberts.”

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The baptism of Sarah (Parry) Roberts from 1799 in Glyn Ceiriog.

You may also find that a certain area might be more inclined towards adult baptisms, such as Coggeshall in Essex. It was quite common for some parents to baptise their children in batches, waiting until they’d had a few children and then had them baptised together. In cases like these you may find a burial for a child that had died without having been baptised, or you may find a child baptised very quickly before they died and may be buried on the same day. Sometimes you might find a child has been baptised twice, either due to the parent’s believing the child was close to death and wanting to ensure they were baptised before they were buried but they then survived and ended up being baptised again later on. Sometimes they may have been baptised in more than one church – so one in the parish church and the other in nonconformist chapel. So don’t always restrict your search to a couple of years either side of an estimated birth year.

Although these were official records, much like many other sources, the information is only as good as the person giving it. You may find that an age given at burial could be quite a bit out for someone where you know a date of their birth or baptism, but if the person giving the information about them to the clerk doesn’t know how old they really were, they could just guess. I’ve seen entries where the age at burial doesn’t even match the age given on their death certificate.

Nonconformist registers are a little different. After Hardwicke’s Marriage Act had come into force, although these other denominations couldn’t perform marriages, they could still register baptisms and burials within their own churches and chapels. However as they were not bound by the same laws, they didn’t have to keep a formal record of these events, so a large portion of these nonconformist chapels either kept very poor or no records at all, this may have been down to fear of persecution. Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of many nonconformist churches were collected and validated by the British government in 1837 (and again in 1857) in order to try and give these sorts of registers some form of legal recognition. There had previously been an earlier system of registration maintained by the Dr. Williams Library in London. After Civil Registration began, these chapels could then start holding marriage ceremonies again, as long as a registrar was present. Often nonconformist registers can provide more detail in their entries, mostly they record a date of birth rather than a baptism, but some will do both, you might also find a date of death provided too.

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An example of a nonconformist baptism register from 1810.

Digitised records of nonconformist registers including the Dr. Williams Library collection, are available via Ancestry, and also via The Genealogist (which in turn is via the BMDRegisters site from The National Archives.) Findmypast has recently released a great collection of Shropshire Parish Registers which not only covers standard Church of England and Anglican registers, but also nonconformist chapels.

Catholic parish registers are not always so widely available online, but gradually more are becoming available to search. Only 77 Catholic parish registers are held at The National Archives (mainly covering Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland) under the collection of nonconformist records from the rounding up done by the government in 1837 and 1857 and these fall under the RG4 collection available via BMDRegisters and Ancestry. It may be down to the amount of clandestine marriages that continued to take place after 1754, as to why so few registers were submitted. The majority of Catholic Parish Registers remain in the custody of the parish priests, some have been transcribed and indexed by the Catholic History Society and many have been deposited at the Catholic National Library and some are available to consult at the library of the Society of Genealogists. Currently Ancestry has records of Catholic registers for Liverpool, Lancashire.

I’m sure there are probably many things I haven’t covered as this isn’t an exhaustive detailed history, but hopefully  it will provide you with some good points of key information to bear in mind when using these great records.

 

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