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.

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