Parish Records

Parish Records – going further back

The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales in 1837. As discussed, this has enabled family historians to research family records back to 1837 (in England and Wales) with relative ease.

1538: The Church of England is ordered to keep records of baptisms, marriages and burials

For those family historians who wish to delve further back ‘pre-civil registration’, then parish records are the next step. This is because, in 1538, Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s Vice Regent) ordered the recently established Church of England to maintain parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials in England and Wales. For family historians, this was another immensely important development. Please see our timeline below for a summary of events up to the introduction of civil registration.


Prior to 1538, the only records kept were ad hoc notes of prominent families kept by local Catholic institutions. (The Church of England replaced the Catholic Church as the established church in England and Wales in 1534). It is important to note that parish registers are church records and as such, baptisms, marriages and burials are recorded rather than births, marriages and deaths.

Timeline - Baptisms, marriages and burials

1538Decree by Thomas Cromwell (Vice Regent of Henry VIII).
All parishes had to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Fines were levied for non-compliance.
1552The Privy Council ordered Scottish Church Ministers to also maintain ‘Old Parish Registers’ (OPRs).
1597 (w.e.f. 1598)Decree by Elizabeth I
Parish records were to be entered in bound parish registers.
These Records were to be transcribed and sent once a year to the diocesan Bishop. They became known as 'Bishops' Transcripts'.
Records to be written on parchment - much harder wearing.
Result: Parish records in England & Wales from 1598 were much more likely to survive.
1653Oliver Cromwell's attempt at the civil registration of marriages during his Protectorate.
1642 - 1660The ‘Commonwealth Gap’.
Turmoil caused by the English Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell’s early attempt at the civil registration of marriages has led to this genealogical road block.
1660Church record keeping started up again when Charles II ascended the throne.
1752Great Britain moved from "Old Style" (OS) Julian calendar to the "New Style" (NS) Gregorian Calendar
This was in line with the rest of the Continent and Scotland. In 1752, the official year moved back from 25 March to 1 January. Also, 11 days were shaved off September; 2nd September was followed by 14 September 1752. Continental Europe had used the "New Style" calendar Gregorian Calendar since 1582 and Scotland since 1600. This can be a source of some confusion. for genealogists. It's not uncommon to see documents with both the OS and NS dates.
1753 (w.e.f. 1754)The Marriage Act – “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage” aka Hardwicke’s Marriage Act.
Marriage formalised for the first time. The main aim was to stop the growth of ‘clandestine (i.e. irregular) marriages, the most famous example being the ‘Fleet Marriages’.
Main provisions:
  • Marriages had to take place in an Anglican church/chapel
  • Marriage must be in the bride or groom’s parish
  • There must be 2 witnesses
  • 21 days notice required before you could marry (to allow time for objections – e.g. from parents).
  • Exemptions for Quakers and Jews, marriages ‘beyond the Seas’ and Scotland.
  • Specially printed registers (essentially forms) were to be used for entering information.
1856Scotland passed law requiring 21 days’ residency prior to marriage – to stop so many couples eloping to Scotland.
1812 (w.e.f. 1813)1812 The Parish Register Act “An Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Births, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials in England” aka Rose's Act.
Formalised record keeping for baptisms and burials in much the same way as the Marriage Act had for marriages.
Main provisions:
  • Printed register books were provided for baptisms, marriages and burials, which were to be recorded in separate books.
  • Copies of the parish registers were to be sent annually to the diocese.
  • Baptisms or burials performed outside the parish church/chapel, had to be notified to the church minister so that it could be entered in the parish register.
CIVIL REGISTRATION BEGINS
1836 (w.e.f. 1837)The Marriage Act (w.e.f. 1 January 1837).
Legalised civil marriages. Provided there was a registrar and two witnesses, marriages outside of the Church of England could be conducted in buildings registered with the authorities.
Births and Deaths Registration Act (w.e.f. 1 july 1837).
Introduced the Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.
1855Scotland’s General Registry Office was established.
1864Ireland’s General Registry Office was established until 1864 (non-Catholic marriages from 1845).
1874 (w.e.f. 1875)Registration of births and deaths act 1874.
Civil registration made compulsory.

The importance of ‘Bishops’ transcripts’

Thanks to Elizabeth I’s decree in 1597 (see timeline) a separate set of parish records, written on durable parchment, were lodged with the diocesan Bishops. Even if you have successfully sourced the required parish records, it is worth making an effort to view these ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’. In theory, these Transcripts should contain the same information as the original parish records. However, in practice, they can contain different information and are likely to be in better condition.

Where to search?

Online resources include the popular subscription based FindMyPast.co.uk.

Many parish records are not available online but it can be great fun visiting the following places, provided you know roughly the area in which your ancestors lived:

  • The Local Register Office.
  • Local Record Offices. They hold both the original parish records and Bishops’ Transcripts.
  • Parish Churches. Phillimore Atlas provides an invaluable atlas and index of parish records.



Baptisms

Baptismal records are one of the most important sources of information available to family historians. This is especially so after the Parish Register Act (1812) which made it mandatory to record the child’s parents and address (although baptism records are unlikely to provide a complete address). Parental information provides the family historian with the all important link to the previous generation. Prior to the Parish Register Act, some parental details were recorded but it was at the discretion of the parish.

The aim of this Act was to “greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates”. Here is a summary of the information recorded both before and after this Act:

Baptisms – information
1538 – 1812 (period before the Parish Register Act) 1813 – 1837 (period before Civil Registration introduced)
The Parish Register Act 1812 introduced pre-printed forms and formalised record keeping.
Sometimes, the date of birth was recorded – but it was not a requirement.
Abode: unlikely to to be a full address.
If no father, ‘quality, trade or profession’ of mother was recorded.
Date of baptism Date of baptism
Name of child Child’s Christian name
And sometimes:
Parents’ names
Father’s occupation
Father’s date of birth
Parents’ full names
Abode
‘Quality, trade or profession’ of father*
Parents’ full names



Burials

As with baptisms, the quality and existence of burial records was greatly enhanced by the Parish Register Act. Here is a comparison of information collected before and after this Act:


Burials – information
1538 – 1812 (period before the Parish Register Act) 1813 – 1837 (period before Civil Registration introduced)
The Parish Act 1812 introduced pre-printed forms.
Name Name
Date of burial Date of burial
And sometimes: Address (unlikely to be full address)
Age Age
Occupation By whom the ceremony was performed
Cause of death Sometimes (not a requirement):
Occupation
Cause of death
Parents’ names (if a child)
Marital status
Parents’ name (if a child)

Marriages

Marriage records are obviously of great importance in linking family groups and enabling research to continue through the female line. The Marriage Act of 1753 has had a hugely beneficial effect on the existence and quality of marriage records prior to civil registration in 1837. This Act was designed to stamp out ‘Clandestine’ Marriages i.e. marriages which did not require banns or licence.

The immediate consequences of the act were to push the ‘problem’ to Scotland. Gretna Green became the ‘go to’ Scottish village for eloping couples because it was the first Scottish village travellers used to come to. The consequences for family historians is that it formalised and improved the information recorded. Here is a summary of the information recorded both before and after this Act:

Marriages – information
1538 – 1753 (period before the Marriage Act) 1754 – 1837 (period before Civil Registration introduced)
The Marriage Act 1753 introduced pre-printed forms.
Names of bride and groom. Names of bride and groom.
Date of marriage. Date of marriage.
And sometimes:
Whether the marriage was by licence or banns
If one of the couple was from a different parish to where the marriage was taking place, the parish was noted.
Parishes of bride and groom.
Name of church and parish in which marriage conducted.
Whether the marriage was by licence or banns
Parental consent (if applicable)
Signatures of bride and groom
Names and signatures of minister and two witnesses.
Sometimes:
marital status of bride and groom were recorded



Other sources

Parish registers are unlikely to be your only source of pre-civil registration information. The reason for the introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was because so many births, marriages and deaths were going unrecorded by established channels i.e. the established Church. As a result, it is highly likely that, at some point in your research, you are going to need to look further a field. Here are some of the areas, you may need to source:

Non-conformist birth marriage and death registers.

All non-Anglicans are technically ‘non-conformist’ but ther term generally refers to Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and Presbyterians i.e. Protestants who were not members of the Church of England.

Visit The National Archives for more information.

Marriages under Licence

Marriages under license enabled the happy couple to bypass the reading of banns on three consecutive Sundays before the marriage could take place. Also, until the 1754 Marriage Act, marriages under Licence enabled the couple a free choice of location for their marriage. After the Marriage Act, either the bride or groom had to stay in the parish in which the marriage was to take place for at least 4 weeks.

You can search the Faculty of Marriage Licence Records between 1694 and 1850 at FindMyPast.co.uk. Alternatively, visit the Society of Genealogists to order documentation. Marriage licences are worth tracking down as they may contain additional information to that found in the parish records.

Clandestine or irregular marriages

These were marriages where no marriage banns or marriage licence were required. They were not conducted in a church or chapel and were outside the parish of the bride or groom. The reasons couples chose clandestine marriages were various; the cost (they were cheaper), as a cover for an unplanned pregnancy, or to bypass parental consent.

Various acts were passed in the 1600s to stamp out such marriages but without success. They were eventually outlawed by the Marriage Act (1754) – see timeline above.

London’s Fleet Prison was probably the most famous venue for clandestine marriages. In the years leading up to the Marriage Act, over 10% of all marriages were conducted in or around this prison. Check out our Fleet Marriages page for more information on clandestine or irregular marriages, and the reason behind the boom of ‘fleet marriages’.


Scotland

From 1552, the Privy Council ordered Ministers of the Church of Scotland (the established church) to maintain ‘Old Parish Registers’ (OPRs). However, there was no uniformity in the details recorded. Also, the requirement to maintain parish registers was deeply unpopular. Of the only 3,500 records that survive, the quality is very variable. Civil registration in Scotland was introduced in 1855.

To search Scottish parish registers visit ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk

Ireland

Ireland’s General Registry Office wasn’t established until 1864 (non-Catholic marriages from 1845). During the 1800s, Ireland was mainly Catholic. As a result, Catholic parish registers are a common source of reference for the majority of family historians researching Irish ancestry.

Visit Ancestry.co.uk for Catholic parish registers from 1655 – 1915. The vast majority of Ireland was Catholic and 94 percent of Catholic parishes are included in this collection.