Accessing Parish Records – Genealogy Sites

Many parish records are available online, and the best places to look for them are Ancestry, Find My Past, and My Heritage. There’s FamilySearch as well, but I will cover that in the next post. Just bear in mind that there is no simple way to work out where the records you are looking for are kept. They may not even be online at all, so you may need to use several different techniques to find them. And yes, I know these websites I mentioned require a subscription, but you can search the catalog without a membership, and the search results will help you decide whether a subscription to that site would be useful for you.

Ancestry. For my personal research, Ancestry has been a boon. That’s because the counties I search the most have records on Ancestry, including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset. If you already have a subscription you can skip the first step.

  1. Navigate to Ancestry. Scroll to the bottom of the page and select Vital Records under Historical Collections. This will bring you to a search page.
  2. At the top of the page you will see five options. Select Search and then Card Catalog. This will bring up the card catalog search page.
  3. On the left side, select Birth, Marriage & Death.
  4. In the Title box in the upper left, type the name of the county you are interested in and then hit the orange Search button.a_search
  5. You now have a list of collections that contain baptism, marriage,  and burial records for that county, including how many records are in the collection.

Find My Past. The process here is very similar, but the search option is right on the front page of the site.

  1. Navigate to Find My Past.
  2. At the top of the page click Search and select A-Z of record sets.
  3. On the left select United Kingdom (or just England).
  4. On the new page, click in the search box, enter the county you are looking for, and hit your Enter key.fmp_search
  5.  You now have a list similar to that for Ancestry.

My Heritage. This website has a lot of data, one way or another. But it’s focus is not on the United Kingdom. As such it is more limited, but if it has what you need it is just as important as the others. Here is the process:

  1. Navigate to My Heritage, scroll to the bottom of the page, and select “Historical records” under Home.
  2. On the “Welcome to SuperSearch” page, click on “Browse collection catalogue” on the right side towards the top.
  3. On the next page, again towards the upper right, click in the search box, enter the county name, and hit Enter to start the search.mh_search
  4. You now have a list similar to that for Ancestry.

Availability of parish records

Today, I will attempt to give a synopsis of why parish records may have been lost, and also where you may be able to locate those that have survived. For some details, I am indebted to the book Tracing Your Georgian  Ancestors 1714-1837 by John Wintrup. I did say I would explain where you might find the parish records, but I feel it is important for me to explain more about the records first.

With a few exceptions, mostly in urban areas like London, separate baptism, marriage hardwickeand burial registers were not kept.  That is, until 1754, when Hardwicke’s Marriage Act required separate marriage registers to be kept. Most parishes listed the various events separately,  meaning that all the baptisms on a page were in the same place. But if you are unlucky, you will find baptisms, marriages and burials all interspersed on the same page.

Because only minimal information was included, people sometimes had difficulty proving their identity or relationship to another person. biglandAn example would be  trying to establish a right to inherit land or property through a will or intestacy. Perhaps in part prompted by this, Ralph Bigland wrote a book in which he made recommendations for more genealogical information to be included in parish registers. No rules were changed at that time, but in quite a few parishes, the entries in the registers did start to include more information. Some bishops even recommended that course of action. Even so, this improvement was spotty, to say the least, and it would not be until 1813, just 24 years before civil registration began, that rules were introduced requiring this.

George Rose MP introduced a comprehensive bill into Parliament in 1812 which would iron chesthave required genealogical information for all baptisms, marriages and burials. Much to his disappointment, the rules were considerably watered down during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. It is ironic, therefore, that the Act is commonly called Rose’s Act. Even so, from 1813, parishes were required to keep separate registers for baptisms, marriages and burials, and to enter the information in printed forms in a bound volume to be kept in an iron parish chest. Many parishes, though, continued to use the old wooden chests.

By no means all parish records are available. Reasons include simple neglect by those having care of the records, destruction of the churches, especially during air raids in the second world war, fire, and flood. Records may also be missing between 1783 and 1794 because of a stamp duty imposed on every baptism, marriage, and burial entry in the register.

And next time I will talk about how to access the records.

Parishes before 1837

Prior to 1 July 1837, when civil registration began, the records of the various Church of England parishes in England & Wales were extremely important. By their nature, they did not record information about everybody within the parish. They did not include Catholics, Quakers, Jews, or non-Conformists, for example, but I will try to cover those in another post. Parish records are divided into three different types:

  • Those kept by the parish as the smallest unit of the Church of England. These include parish registers and churchwardens accounts.
  • In its civil role, the parish was also responsible to the Justices of the Peace. Records include the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor.
  • Those provided by the parish to higher levels of the church hierarchy. These include bishop’s transcripts and probate records.

The size of a parish is not well-defined, and size varied widely. In the City of London, for example, a parish may consist of just a few streets. parish_mapLarger cities, such as Gloucester and Norwich (both of which had cathedrals), often had multiple parishes as well. On the other hand, one parish in Lancashire covered over 160 square miles. There were some oddities, such as extra-parochial parishes, peculiars, and chapels of ease, and I will try to cover those in a later post.

Instead of recording births, marriages and deaths, the parishes tried to record baptisms, marriages and burials that took place within the parish. The registers are sometimes in very poor condition. parish_registerBaptisms, often referred to as christenings in the registers, were mostly of infants, but sometimes included older children and adults as well. They were supposed to be written up by the clergyman every Sunday after the religious services, and in the presence of the churchwardens. This was not widely followed, though, and several weeks worth of entries were often made at the same time. Until around 1750, only minimal information was kept that a family historian would find useful.

The registers were stored in a locked chest, often referred to as the parish chest. parish_chestMany of these were of wood, but later ones were of iron. The parish chest was often used to store the civil records referenced above in addition to the registers.

The bishop’s transcripts were a copy of the baptisms, marriages and burials prepared by the churchwardens and sent to the bishop annually. As such, they were never stored in the parish and would not have been found in the parish chest.

For my next post I will look at where you might be able to find parish records.