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.

Always Check Originals

One of the things I stress a lot is the need to check original documents. And yes, I know that is not always possible, but it is in the vast majority of cases. There are two huge reasons for this. One is so that you have evidence to back up your findings. The other is to help your research: no matter how well you phrase your online search, you often have to rely on a transcription that somebody else made which may not be accurate.

Take my search for Henry Dodwell, for example. I had to be able to find him in the 1891 census, for example, right? Actually, that was a resounding No until I started researching his brother Walter George Dodwell. Originals1Here is the actual census entry for Henry from the 1891 census for Cheltenham. Notice that there are three people living in the household. What I want you to do is to look very carefully at the census and try to transcribe it for yourself before reading further. It’s good practise, if nothing else. Once you’ve done that, read the rest of this post.

So, how did you do? I think it reads “Henry Dodwell son married 31 Sergeant Royal Marines born Cheltenham.” Obviously I have expanded the information a little, but that is essentially what it says.

So, how did the big four family history research sites do? Not one of them got it right. I’d be hard pressed to say which one of them did the best job. Now, admittedly, it’s an old style of writing, and the age is easy to misread, but a son born when the father is only 2 years old? At any rate, here are the results, and I will leave it to you to judge for yourself. I think I might go with Ancestry if only because they are the only one to get the age right. I’m just glad I looked at the original.

Here’s Ancestry: at least they got the age right, and the place of birth, but Harvey? And no occupation in the search results.Originals2

Here’s Find My Past: right name and occupation, wrong age, and incomplete birthplace.Originals3

Here’s FamilySearch: right name, wrong age, incomplete birthplace and no occupation.Originals4

And finally, My Heritage: wrong name and age, no occupation or birthplace.Originals5


Source Interpretation

When you find a source, you need to put your best effort into interpreting it. I know that sounds obvious, but we often miss simple information, or don’t look at it in the right way. I had a situation very recently when, out of the blue, I had an email asking me how sure I was that Constant Comfort Underwood was a girl. Simple question, but the answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Looking at the name one might reasonably think that it’s a girl, right? I mean, we are much more familiar with the name Constance for a girl, but a couple of hundred years ago it was not uncommon for girls to be named after desirable attributes. It was less true of boys, though. Then again, even today you have names where you cannot easily tell the gender. Take Robin, for example. You can’t get much more masculine than the hero Robin Hood, and the (English) robin is a vicious bird with its sharp beak, but nowadays it is often a name given to girls, so you can’t always tell.

So, I thought that maybe this was one of those situations where I had made a superficial Constant1analysis and made a hasty assumption of the gender. This question came up because FamilySearch had a source attached to Constant Comfort Underwood that indicated this was a boy, and my correspondent wanted to know which was correct. So I had a look and realized that the source being quoted did not have an image. This meant that somebody else had transcribed the source and assigned a male gender.

I then went to the original. That didn’t help either, because it just said “Constant Constant2Comfort of Thos & Mary Underwood.” No indication whether it was a son or a daughter. Still up in the air, then. But what I was looking at was a Bishop’s Transcript. That is a record transcribed by the churchwarden from the parish register and then sent to the bishop as a kind of backup.

An even better source would be the parish register. Lo and behold, I now had my proof. Constant3She really was a girl! “Constant Comfort Dr. of Thos & Mary Underwood.”

Lessons to learn from this?

  • Try to check the best original record.
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from the document.
  • Check that anybody else’s interpretation of the record is reasonable.
  • Document, document, document.