Friday 12 August 2016

How To Find And Use Parish Records In Your Family History Research

Civil registration and census records are a wonderful resource but will only take your family tree back to 1837, to go back further you will need to find and use Parish Records.
I will guide you through the process of researching your family tree using Parish Records, but first some background.

What Are Parish Records?

Thomas Cromwell (of Wolf Hall fame) was the Vicar General in the time of Henry VIII. Henry VIII had split from the church in Rome and in 1538 Cromwell declared that all baptisms, marriages and burials must be recorded by the vicar or rector in charge of the parish in a register book. These were originally written on paper and because of that not many survive.

In 1598 in the reign of Elizabeth I another Order was issued. This time it dictated that all entries must be on parchment, and the clergy were to copy the old registers from the beginning. Many chose to interpret this as the beginning of Elizabeth I reign and so only copied from 1558. They were also obliged to copy each register every year and send it to the Bishop. These copies are known as Bishop Transcripts. Parchment is more durable than paper and many of these records still survive.

There are gaps in the parish registers from about 1645 to 1660 due to the Civil War and Commonwealth period. In 1653 Parliament took over the registration from the church and only marriages performed by local magistrates and recorded in their registers were declared as legal. People were charged one shilling per entry and so many just did not register at all.

In 1753 Hardwicke's Marriage Act was passed. This required all couples to marry by banns or licence in the home parish church of one of the couple.  The only exceptions were for Jews and Quakers. 

The 1929 Age of Marriage Act raised the legal age of marriage to 16. Prior to this it had been 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Couples under the age of 21 had to have their parents permission if marrying under licence or could marry by banns as long as there were no objections.

Where Do I Find Them?

There is not a central archive or index to parish registers. Parish records were originally kept in the parish church where they were written. If they are no longer kept in the church will be found in the local County Record Office. This makes it a little tricky hunting them down. Many are accessible through the major genealogy websites for either a subscription or pay as you go. 

Family History Societies may have digitised images or transcripts online. Many have transcripts on CD or books for purchase. A list of all members of The Family History Society can be found here

Sometimes just Googling the Parish/Town will bring up free transcripts.

Whichever method you choose really depends on where your family's parish was. Not all sites have all parishes. Some counties, like Suffolk, are almost impossible to find online at all whilst others like Norfolk have transcripts or browsable images for free on many websites including UK Genealogy Archives, Freereg and Familysearch.

There are websites that list where documents are held or are available online. Below are some useful directories;

How do I use them?

Early registers vary with the amount of information in them. There was no standardisation and so depending on the vicar at the time the records may have very little information, from just a name and date of the event, to more detailed information with notes in the borders. In 1812  the "Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England" was passed and the registers were pre-printed. This meant that from that date all registers recorded at least the same minimum information.

Horatio Nelson  baptism courtesy The Genealogist 
Horatio Nelson's entry, in 1758, has his date of birth and some notes in the margins. The vicar has included his birth date and mothers name. Many would just have the child's and the father's name.

Once the printed registers were in place the information was more standardised. Many vicars still added their own notes such as date of birth or in the case of Henry Blogg, 1876, that he was "base-born", that is illegitimate.

Henry Blogg baptism courtesy The Genealogist 


Date of baptism, child's name, fathers name, mothers name 
Occasionally Date of Birth, Address, Occupation of Father. 

It is always worth looking at the originals as often transcripts only have the minimal information but the vicar may have written notes in the margins. Date of baptism may be just days after birth or years later.


Usually it will just have the name of the person and date buried. Occasionally it will say widow of....or relict of....son/daughter of...

For children it may say infant or give an age. If you are lucky it may give an adults age or more details such as "rector of this parish" "churchwarden"

After 1812 the deceased address is also recorded.

Marriages and Banns

Until Hardwick's Act in 1753 people did not have to get married in the parish church and so many marriages will be missing from the registers. After 1753 the grooms occupation and both parties home parish is recorded. 

banns-of-john-james-davies-and-ellen-blogg-the genealogist
Marriage Banns courtesy The Genealogist 

Don't forget that the rules of good research remain. Use transcripts as a guide to find the originals. Don't assume anything, be discerning. How likely is this your relative? Could they be somewhere else? It is always easier if the person you are looking for has an unusual name and lives in a very small community. 

I have included here a few links to online resources but check out my post about online resources that has many more. 

Like to read more tips for beginners?  Then just click on the tree below or the Family Tree tab above.



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