No matter how new or experienced we are to the pursuit of family history, parish registers reveal a plethora of detail, written in the hand of whoever in the parish was tasked to record the vital record.Once you have traced your ancestors back through the civil registration records and the censuses, the next records to use for your family history are the parish registers.

    • By 1538, an Act of Parliament had been passed that required each church to record the baptism, marriage or burial of a person in a register. This was a task to be carried out once a week, usually after the Sunday service.
    • This ‘register’ was kept, quite often on loose paper sheets but after fifty years it was observed that the paper was deteriorating and it was decided to transfer all the records to parchment books, hence while they survived to this day.

The laborious task of transferring the paper records to parchment was reduced, when it was decided that they need only transfer records from the start of Queen Elizabeth I reign in 1558.

    • Herein lies the first of many possible transcription errors in taking data from the registers. These early records are prone to mis-pellings and the transcriber simply not being able to read the initial records, which of course may have been damaged by damp, decay and vermin.
    • Coverage of these early documents could therefore be a bit hit or miss.

For some parishes, for unknown reasons, there are large breaks in the records.

    • The period of the Civil War and the Interregnum, covering 1641 – 1660, the Government decided to take on the role of recorder of life events.
    • They appointed lay people to take on the task.
    • As a result the system of registration suffered badly and what is left is a sparse set of records for the historian to examine.

Many people did not have the birth of their child registered during this time and note it is a birth they were registering during this period not a baptism. For the privilege of having their child registered, there was a charge for it, four pence, for a marriage it cost a shilling and a burial four pence as well.

    • There have been two periods during which people had to pay for registering births, marriages and deaths from 1694 – 1706. two shillings per birth, two shillings and sixpence  for a marriage and four shillings for a death.
    • On top of that between 1698 – 1703, a stamp duty of three pence was added on top, paupers being exempt from this.

Fair to say the first two events could be dodged by the poor but the burial was going to have to be paid for by the family, which is probably why it cost the most!

    • Once the parish register system was back in place families had mass baptisms for children of all ages.
    • Early records were gathered all together on one register as seen fit by the priest.
    • This can create quite a jumble of data which has to be gone through but by this time the registration was being done in English rather than Latin.

Spend time with these early registers, with patience and practice it’s  surprising how much is legible even in the most spidery hand.

Hardwick’s Marriage Act in 1754 saw the introduction of pre- printed registers for marriages, see the post on marriage registration for a fuller discussion.

By 1813 similar registers were introduced for baptism’s and burials, see the post on birth and burial registration post 1813 to explore these more fully.

Suffice to say that from 1754, the data that can be extracted from these records increased enormously.

One thing that has to be addressed is the change that was made to the calender in the middle of the C18th. Without knowledge of this, some of the results you get pre 1751 will be erroneous.

The parish registers were kept in the parish chest, along with the church plate, which just goes to show how important these documents were to the administrative powers.


Sorry, comments are closed for this post.