Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

What are Parish Registers?

old wooden parish chest with metal strapping
Parish Chest, St Mary Magdalene, Great Burstead.
© Copyright John Salmon contributor to the Geograph Project and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A look at Parish Registers and their importance in researching the family history of your Essex ancestors.

Introduction

Parish Registers are records of baptisms, marriages, and burials made by the Church in England and Wales, and Non-Parochial Registers are records of baptisms, marriages and burials made by Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, Independents, Protestant Dissenters, Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers (Society of Friends) in England and Wales.

Looking at these records is often the next step after Civil Registration and the Census Returns in finding out about your family history. This article describes a brief history of Parish Registers, where they can be accessed, what they contain, and problems the registers raise.

Parish Registers

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell issued a Mandate that ministers of parish churches were to record baptisms, marriages and burials occurring at their church. These records were to be stored in a 'parish chest'. Often written on loose sheets, very few of these records survive.

In 1598, Elizabeth I ordered that the loose leaf registers were to be transferred to a parchment book, especially those since the commencement of her reign in 1558. Hence it is often found that some parish registers start from this date. These registers have baptisms, burials and marriages in the same volume, but mixed up together in a chronological order. A copy of a year's entries would be sent to the diocesan bishop. This are called Bishops' Transcripts. Some still survive and are a useful substitute if the Parish Register no longer exists.

In the following centuries various Acts of Parliament and Ordnances changed the structure of the records and how the events were to be recorded; some impositions were intended to raise revenue by way of tax. Because of the latter impositions, the English Civil War, and clandestine marriages, it is often found that some events were not recorded in the registers or they have been lost or destroyed.

In 1754, Hardwick's Act introduced a specially printed register for marriages, and George Rose's Act, 1812, introduced separate baptism and death registers with headings for each piece of required information. Prior to this, the event would be recorded in many different ways depending on the officiating minister.

Accessing Parish Registers

Most Parish Registers have been lodged at Country Record Offices, and Non-Parochial Registers at The National Archives, although some may still be retained by the incumbent of the church.

Once you have identified the parish from your earlier research, a good starting point is to search on the UK archives network (part of The National Archives) and the relevant County Record Office to ascertain the location of the Parish Registers. Many County Record Offices have online catalogues of their collections. The Essex Record Office have placed digital images of the Parish Registers on their website. This dealt with in more detail in the article on Parish Registers at the Essex Record Office

Do not be put off, however, by the thought that you may have to travel to view these Parish Registers, many County Record Offices have copied images of the registers onto microfilm/microfiche and these may be purchased; while many organisations and individuals have transcribed many Parish Registers and these are available in print, CD, or online (payment or free). The difficulty comes in identifying which of these hold the transcribed information you are seeking.

These are just some of the possible sources:

Subscription sites like FindMyPast.co.uk and Ancestry.co.uk now have several databases of parish registers.

The local county family history society may also operate a 'look-up' service to save you traveling to the Country Record Office.

Note: the online records compiled by Family History Societies and orginally held on Family History Online is now to be found on FindMyPast.co.uk website.

Free Reg. This project seeks to provide transcriptions of registers - free. There are several on there for Essex parishes.

Indexes on familysearch.org. Transcription of many registers which have been microfilmed by the Mormons. These may also be available at Mormon genealogical libraries.

Boyd's Marriage Index. Registers from over 4,300 parishes have been indexed, a total of over 7 million names. A full index is available from the Society of Genealogists, but local indexes are often found in County Record Offices and libraries.

Ancestry.co.uk has Pallot's Marriage Index and Pallot's Baptism Index. Payment required.

Non-Conformist Records are held in the National Archives but they can now be found on Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk.

Request 'look-ups' on various Forums. See the article Family History Forums

Often it is necessary to widen your search from just one parish. A useful resource for finding out contiguous parishes (those parishes that immediately surround a parish or location) is England Jurisdictions 1851 on familysearch.org.

parish register
Parish register of Maldron in Cornwall
Image courtesy of British Library on Flickr NKCR

Contents

Prior the dates below, the event would be recorded in many different ways depending on the officiating minister.

Marriages

From 1754, the marriage register should contain: name of man and parish of residence; name of woman and parish of residence; date married; names of two witnesses; name of officiating minister.

Baptisms

From 1813 baptism registers can contain: date baptised; child's christian name; parents' name and surname; abode; quality, trade or profession; by whom the ceremony was performed.

Deaths

From 1813 can contain: name; abode; when buried; age; by whom the ceremony was performed.

Problems with Parish Registers

Lack of detailed information such a full address, marriage information on baptism, or dates of birth, makes definite identification of individuals extremely difficult. The baptism provides the parents' names which then can be used to find their marriage in the marriage register, however, as the marriage date is unknown, then many years' worth of marriage registers may have to be searched, not only in the parish where the baptism occurred, but in surrounding parishes and beyond depending on how mobile the parents were.

The baptism registers will rarely provide the date of the birth, but in the time of high mortality rates in children, most children will have been baptised within several days or a few weeks. There is, however, a possibility that may not have been baptised for several years after their birth.

Before 1733, the register may be written in Latin; the handwriting and its style will often be difficult to read, and the spelling will vary tremendously. Sometimes the poor quality of the microfilm or image creates an additional barrier.

Transcriptions are not always reliable, but they do save time. However, if possible check the information against the original register.

Conclusion

Researching Parish registers can be very time consuming and challenging. However, you may be lucky and find that your ancestors stayed in the same area for two or three hundred years and you may be able to identify several generations of your family tree.

 

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