When you first start building your family tree, censuses and birth, marriage and death records form the foundations. As soon as you go back before the 1830s, though, parish registers have to be your cornerstones. But why are these records so important, and how can you locate your family within them?
A parish is a local area, usually of similar size to a village or hamlet, centred around a church. For hundreds of years, all over Britain, parishes were crucial to local government, as each church acted like a council – managing and recording the people in its area.
One of the church’s most important tasks was keeping a register of all the baptisms, marriages and burials in its parish. From Henry VIII’s reign in the 16th century until civil registration began in 1837, these registers formed the most important records of births, marriages and deaths all over the country.
When you’re looking for your ancestors’ vital events through the 16th, 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, there are two key things to bear in mind. Firstly, there are no individual certificates for each person – you need to look for specific entries in the lists of names for each parish.
Secondly, there’s no central archive or index to these records. The registers were simply maintained in individual churches all over the land. They’re now kept in a multitude of different record offices, or still in the churches themselves.
So, as we put these records online, as there’s no central archive where we can simply scan all the records in one go as we would with a census, for example. Instead, we’re doing our best to reach agreements with as many local archives as we can, and put these registers online as a series of separate collections. See all our parish collections
Because there was no central governing body, the information in the registers varies from parish to parish. Whereas one vicar might have only recorded the bare necessities, another would have included notes about a happy couple’s preparations, or even his opinions on the deceased.
An Act of Parliament in 1812 standardised the information in parish registers across England and Wales, and acted as a forerunner to civil registration. From this point on, churches were given printed registers with specific fields to fill in.
Before 1812, entries on baptism registers usually show at least the child and father’s names. You may also find the mother’s name, particularly if the child was illegitimate (often noted as ‘base born’ or ‘bastard’).
If you’re lucky, witnesses or godparents will be listed. These are often other family members, giving you new leads to explore in your research.
You’ll also see the date of baptism. Note this is by no means the same as the date of birth – often, people were baptised several years after they were born.
After 1812, vicars had to include extra information, including the mother’s first name, and the father’s occupation and address. These details make it much easier to be sure you’ve found the right people, and give you a great starting point when you try to locate the family in the first census records.
Through the 16th and 17th centuries, people didn’t have to get married at a parish church. Several ‘irregular’ marriages took place without banns having been called or any witnesses, at places like the Fleet Prison. As a result, you’ll often find your early ancestors’ marriages are missing from parish registers.
This changed in 1753, when Hardwicke’s Marriage Act demanded that everyone in England and Wales except Quakers and Jews had to get married in an Anglican church. This Act didn’t apply in Scotland, which led to a thriving border marriage trade in places like Gretna Green. However, it means the registers are far more complete.
Before 1753, you’ll often find the information in marriage registers is limited, with perhaps nothing more than the couple’s names and the date. After the Act, though, things improved greatly. You’ll often discover the groom’s occupation, and both parties’ home parishes – this is a great help as it tells you where you should be looking for records of earlier generations.
Burial registers are even more inconsistent than those for baptisms and marriages. At worst, you’ll find nothing more than a name and date. Ages are also common, allowing you to work backwards and find the person’s baptism entry.
Other details can include a husband or wife’s name, or parents’ names in the case of a child. You may even find the cause of death, particularly in periods when it was most relevant, such as during plagues.
After 1812, vicars had to record the deceased’s address, which makes it far easier to tell if you’ve found your ancestor’s entry.