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.

1939 Register

I love documents, so having a whole new set of documents to explore is exciting. What I am referring to is the fact that the 1939 Register of England & Wales is available online, and has been since February 2016. So, what makes it so exciting?

Well, for one thing, nobody was expecting it to be available until 2040, 100 years after it was compiled, so it’s 25 years earlier than expected. For another, it was used for various purposes. Initially, it was used as the basis for issuing national identity cards for the 1939_2duration of the war (although they were not phased out until 1952 – my two older sisters had them, but not me). As such, the Register includes dates of birth which are often difficult to find without forking out a bundle for an official birth certificate.

Unlike a census, it was also a working document, and changes were made to it over time. For example, you will often see entries for women who married or divorced and changed their names as a result, so you may get hints as to the spouse’s last name  1939_1written right into the Register. See, for example, this page. The information written in red and green makes it so much easier to find Norah’s marriage to William E McTrusty, and Phyllis’s marriage to James H Smith in the marriage index than looking through a bunch of entries and wondering who the spouse might be.

It was also used as the basis of the National Health Service Central Register long after the 1951 census came along. Remember, censuses were not working documents, which underlines the fact this was not a census. For some interesting information about the 1939 Register and its various uses and idiosyncracies click see this article from the Lost Cousins website.

At first, the Register was only available through Find My Past, but in February 2018, My Heritage allowed searches (but no images), while Ancestry made both available a few months later. Click one of the above links to go straight to the search page for the 1939 Register for each site.