Parish Registers

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England & Wales commenced on 1 July 1837. If we are to trace persons for whom one or more of these events was earlier than this date, we must rely on the earlier system of ecclesiastical records to provide evidence of these three key events. Do not forget, however, that the church did not stop performing and recording these ceremonies just because there was a civil process. Registers continue up to the present day and are a valuable parallel source to civil records.

History of Parish Registers - Some Key Dates
Registers were first introduced in 1538 following the English reformation by edict of Thomas Cromwell, Chancellor to Henry VIII though very few original registers survive from this early date. Cromwell required the minister and churchwardens of each parish church to maintain registers of all baptisms, marriages and burials performed. Little instruction was given concerning what details were to be recorded and the very early registers frequently contain limited information. A baptism, for example, may offer as little as "Baptised a son to John Smith" and a date. The mother's name is frequently omitted.

The first important change came in 1597 when Elizabeth I required the records to be kept in parchment books (many earlier ones were kept on loose sheets of paper) and earlier paper records to be transcribed onto parchment at least back to the start of her reign in 1558. In many cases, this minimum requirement was adopted. Elizabeth also required ministers to submit a copy of all register entries annually to their bishop. These are known as "Bishops' Transcripts" and can provide an invaluable replacement for registers which have been lost.

There is a gap in register keeping during the Commonwealth period 1653-1660 when a system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was briefly imposed. Some parishes, however, defied the requirement and kept registers as before. The civil registers are often poorly kept and the system was viewed unenthusiastically by many people. The consequent deficiency of the records for this period is often called the "Commonwealth Gap".

There was an increasing problem of irregular marriages, including those conducted by itinerant ministers. These include the marriages conducted in the precincts of the Fleet debtors' prison and provincial centres including Peak Forest Chapel. Lord Hardwicke's "Act for the Better Prevention of Clandestine Marriages" came into effect in 1754 and required all marriages to take place in a licensed place (usually the parish church) and to follow either reading of banns or issue of a licence. The marriage register was to be signed by the parties and by two witnesses. Printed register books were introduced. Quakers and Jews were, however, exempted from the act.

In 1813, George Rose's Act came into effect to require the keeping of separate baptismal and burial registers to record specific details of each event. Printed register books were introduced for this purpose. While these guaranteed a minimum of information, they also discouraged ministers from entering gratuitous information relating to the event.

On 1 July 1837, civil registration was introduced. This had no effect on the keeping of baptism and burial registers but a standardised marriage register was adopted to satisfy both church and civil requirements.

The Effects of Nonconformity
From the late 16th century onwards, a variety of Protestant nonconformist churches began to emerge. These would frequently conduct their own baptisms, often clandestinely, and (up to 1754) marriages though few possessed burial grounds until much later. In addition, several Catholic priests operated in secrecy performing baptisms. Nonconformity was attacked by both church and state until the Toleration Act of 1688 brought much of the persecution to an end and chapels could operate increasingly openly though Catholicism continued to be suppressed. Nonconformity grew steadily and although Hardwicke's Act prevented marriages in nonconformist chapels after 1754, an increasing number of baptisms and burials were carried out in nonconformist chapels and recorded in their registers. By 1837, a significant percentage of churchgoers were attached to nonconformist churches rather than the established church and this was one of the driving forces behind the introduction of a universal civil registration system. Following the introduction of civil registration, the Registrar General offered nonconformist churches the opportunity to submit their registers for authentication which gave their contents a legal status for such purposes as disputes over inheritance. Many were submitted and are deposited at the PRO in Classes RG4 and RG8.

Where to Find Parish Registers
The Parochial Records and Registers Measure of 1968 required that proper storage facilities should be provided for parish registers. In the vast majority of cases, this will mean the registers were deposited at the diocesan (usually the County) record office. In some cases, however, the registers have been retained by the church. Registers still in use will also still be retained by the church. There is a standard tariff of charges which ministers may apply for searching registers in their possession. The most comprehensive guide to the location of Church of England registers is Phillimore's Atlas and Index of Parish Registers but more detailed information is published in the National Index of Parish Registers series. There are also lists published by many record offices.

You are unlikely to get your hands on an original register, particularly a very old one. Most have been microfilmed or scanned and access to originals is only permitted if the film is illegible. This is designed to assist in conservation of the originals.

Bishops' Transcripts, where they have survived, will usually be deposited at the Diocesan Record Office (usually County Record Office). Jeremy Gibson's Guide provides much information on where to look for BTs.

Nonconformist registers surrendered following the introduction of civil registration are deposited at the PRO and have been microfilmed. Local archives will frequently hold copies of the films for chapels in their area. Registers compiled after 1837 may have been deposited with record offices and local lists should be consulted. Some registers, however, may still be held by the minister and others may be deposited in a library belonging to the particular denomination The SoG's "My Ancestors Were..." series of books provide useful, though seldom comprehensive, lists of surviving registers.

Family History Centres run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (commonly known as LDS or Mormons) are able to order microfilms of many parish and nonconformist registers. Where a reference is found in the IGI (see below), this will include the LDS film number from which the data was extracted.

Many registers have been transcribed and published by Parish Register Societies and Family History Societies. There are also many Lancashire register transcripts on the Lancashire Online Parish Clerk web site.

Finding Aids
There is no comprehensive index to events in parish registers. None was required and there has been no official attempt to achieve this. You must therefore rely on a variety of finding aids to locate particular events. These include:

With all indexes and transcripts, however carefully made, there is a risk of errors in their compilation. All of the above should be treated as finding aids only and the original registers should be consulted to confirm the information found.

Marriage Licences
The "usual" process of marriage involved the calling of "Banns" at the parish churches of bride & groom on three Sundays preceding the marriage. In the event of there being no objection, the marriage could then go ahead. An alternative was to obtain a licence, usually from the local bishop, which permitted the couple to marry more-or-less immediately. Since there was obvious potential for abuse, the bishop required the couple to sign an "Allegation" which confirmed that there was no known impediment to the marriage and also, for a "Bond" to be entered into whereby if the allegation proved false, the bondsmen (who might include the groom) would pay a substantial financial penalty. A "Licence" would then be issued which the couple would take to the minister and which gave him authority to marry the couple. The place of marriage will frequently be specified but this is not always the case, particularly with earlier licences. The licence was usually retained by the minister and seldom survives. The Bond & Allegation are usually to be found in the Diocesan Record Office. Those for many counties have been indexed and indexes published.

The value of these documents is that if a couple married by licence, the surviving documents can identify the church where the marriage was to take place allowing searches to be made of the appropriate registers. The documents will also often record the ages of the parties and their residence, neither of which is guaranteed to appear in the marriage register. Bondsmen were frequently related to the couple and their names may assist in further research.

The Information Recorded in Parish Registers
The lack of clear direction to ministers concerning what should be recorded until printed registers were introduced in 1754 (marriages) and 1813 (baptisms & burials) means that considerable variations can be found between the registers of different churches. In general, one can expect that the earlier the register, the less information will be recorded. In the earliest registers, a baptism may record only the father's name and even into the 18th century, it is not uncommon to see baptismal entries as limited as "John son of William Smith". Mothers' names become more common in the late 17th and early 18th century. Where mothers' names are recorded, their maiden name is seldom given, the exception being "Dade" registers which are discussed below. Details of residence will appear in some 17th and most 18th century registers and occupations from the 18th century onwards. Printed registers from 1813 require the name of the child, forenames and (married) surname of the parents, residence and occupations of the parents and the minister's signature. In addition to the required date of baptism, some ministers will helpfully record the birthdate. This may often be found in the case of simultaneous baptism of several children to the same couple. Illegitimacy will be clearly indicated by any one of a variety of terms such as "...bastard son of...". The name of the reputed father will sometimes be found.

Marriage registers follow the pattern of baptismal registers with the names of the parties only appearing in the early registers and additional information appearing in subsequent centuries. Marriage entries will often state whether one or other party was widowed. Marriage by licence will generally be recorded as such and the absence of any indication may usually be taken to mean a marriage by banns though this cannot be guaranteed. If one party is from outside the parish, this will usually be noted. From 1754, the requirements of Hardwicke's Act result in consistent, if limited information appearing. Ages are almost never found in marriage registers unless one or other party was a minor. Neither are parents' names given.

Burial registers also follow the above patterns. Information may consist of no more than a name, in later centuries supplemented by a residence. A married woman may be described as "wife/widow of...". Children will usually be indicated as "son/daughter of..." An approximation may be made that an entry of this form relates to a child under 15 years but one should not be rigid on this. Age at burial appears sporadically until 1813 when it is required by the printed registers. Cause of death is occasionally found in the registers but more often is not recorded. The printed books from 1813 require date of burial, name, age, occupation and residence of the deceased to be recorded with the minister's signature. In the case of a child, the name will include the parents' forenames.

Before the printed books came into use, ministers would often record gratuitous information about the deceased or the ceremony. This might include for a burial, the circumstances of the death or for the baptism of a child to a prominent couple, some information about the parents. Occasionally none-too-complimentary comments about a deceased person will be found.

Dade Registers
From around 1770 to the early 1800s many parishes, particularly in Yorkshire, adopted a style of register promoted by William Markham, Archbishop of York from 1771 based on the ideas of William Dade, a Yorkshire clergyman. Dade registers for baptism and burial entries will usually record not only the name of the subject but also of parents, including mother's maiden name, and of the subject's grandparents, at least in the male line. Dade registers are therefore some of the most valuable. The introduction of printed forms in 1813 brought the practice to an end.

Common Problems
Parish registers present a number of research problems:

A considerable amount has been published about parish registers in general books about family history. There are also many books specific to the subject and the following is but a sample:

National Index of Parish Registers Vol 1, D. J. Steel (Parish registers)

National Index of Parish Registers Vol 2, D. J. Steel (Nonconformist Registers)

National Index of Parish Registers Vol 3, D. J. Steel (Jewish and Catholic records)

National Index of Parish Registers Vol 4 etc., Various compilers (details of availability and locations of registers for various counties

The Parish Chest, W. E. Tate (The classic study of parish registers and other parish records)

Parish Registers, Eve McLaughlin (useful summary booklet)

Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, Cecil Humphery-Smith (parish boundary maps and summary of locations and indexes)

Marriage, Census and Other Indexes for Family Historians, Jeremy Gibson (County-by-county summary of available indexes)

Bishops' Transcripts and Marriage Licences - A Guide to their Location and Indexes, Jeremy Gibson (County-by-county list of holdings)

There is also at least one record office or society publication for each county listing the location of registers for the county. Check with local record offices and societies for details.

Amended 3 January 2011 - John Marsden