Why does the parish register show more baptisms than burials?

Why does the parish register show more baptisms than burials?


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The parish registers from Eversholt, Bedfordshire, are published for the period 1602-1812. They seem mostly complete.

They contain records of 2074 burials, 2792 baptisms and 571 marriages.

I can understand the low number of marriages - one marriage for two baptisms, plus many people died while still children, before having an opportunity to marry. But why are there more baptisms than burials?

A chart of the numbers in each 5-year interval over this period shows that baptisms exceeded burials in 34 of the 43 intervals. One period with low baptisms registered was around 1650, during the commonwealth, when the church was in some chaos. The other with low baptisms was around 1735, when there is some evidence that the parish rector was in jail.

The parish population is not known to have changed substantially during this time. It was 715 in 1801. The parish is rural and agriculture was the major employment.

  • What factors might lead more baptisms to be registered than burials over a 200 year period? Was the parish exporting excess population?

  • Is this a common feature of many parishes?

Update: There does seem to be a gender bias. Guessing from the given names,

  • 1438 males and 1350 females were baptised. (4 unknown.)
  • 1045 females and 994 males were buried. (35 unknown.)

This would suggest that the parish might have been exporting excess males.

I note Completeness of Old Parish Registers in the 1700s and have looked at The Parish Registers of England, by John Charles Cox, Methuen, 1910 and The parish registers and records in the diocese of Rochester : a summary of information collected by the Ecclesiatical Records Committee of the Rochester Diocesan Conference, W E Buckland, Kent Archaeological Society, 1912 but find no solution. I considered posting this at https://genealogy.stackexchange.com/ but tried here first.


I have seen similar patterns in other parishes where I've been researching my own ancestors. A number of factors were at play, and it is difficult to be specific for a particular parish, however, the most likely reasons for Eversholt appear to be:

  1. There was a huge migration of population from rural areas to urban areas over that period. A series of Enclosure Acts, passed by Parliament and the Agrarian Revolution meant that many people were effectively driven from rural parishes to urban centres.
  2. From 1682, the Toleration Act, allowed (Protestant) dissenters to worship in their own chapels and meeting houses, provided they had been licensed by Justices of the Peace. The effect of this was that many people were baptised by the Church of England, but buried by other denominations. These people wouldn't appear in the CofE parish registers. I noticed that there is a Methodist chapel at Wits End in Eversholt. There are, presumably, other non-conformist places of worship, with associated burial grounds, in the vicinity

It's also worth observing that during the Commonwealth period (1649 - 1660) the parish registers were actually the personal property of a parish official (named, confusingly, the Parish Register). The records were often poorly kept, and many were simply removed by the Parish Register when his term in office ended.

When I was at school, the "received wisdom" was that people in the past didn't move far from where they were born. It seems we were misinformed. My personal experience is that my ancestors don't seem to have stayed in one place for more than a couple of generations!


Parish Records

Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith

1 Tim 1. 4.

Thomas Cromwell issued an order to the English Church in 1538 requiring that a record be kept of the christenings, marriages and burials in each parish. This act and any subsequent act until the marriage act of 1757, did not specify what form this entry should take - thus the considerable variation seen both between parishes and between the clergy. It is often worth examining a few years records to see if any patern is followed e.g. the Maughold registers c.1715 leave blank the the column indicating parish of residence unless the party comes from another parish - thus allowing a reasonable imputation of a parish residency. The early records often included much incidental material - sections of these were often included in parish histories etc., some of these are referenced later.

The parish records (though not the indices nor the IGI) contain records of confirmations which can be a useful source of additional information - see for example those for Andreas 1845 in FHS Journal Vol 14 #1 p6-7

In 1732, Bishop Wilson wrote the following:-" I desire that the vicar for the future set down by what authority the Persons are joynd together in matrimony, whither by lyeence and by whose lycence, or upon banns in the church." The Marriage act of 1757, modelled on the earlier English (Hardwicke's Act) required a more detailed entry giving the parish/town of residence, the signatures (or 'X's) of the two parties together with those of two witnesses and if either party was under 21 a declaration of consent by the parent or guardian. The later 1849 act asked for rank or profession of the two parties and their fathers, although not asked for, the full date of birth is often given.

Although by 1538 the Manx Church had come under York, the first parish registers date from 1598 - the earliest being that of Ballaugh followed shortly afterwards by Jurby and Michael.

In 1610 Bishop Phillips issued an order "That there be a Register Book kept by every Minister within his several charge, of the Christenings, Marriages and Burials, etc." Bishop Lake in 1683 commenting on the neglect of register keeping, which he ordered to be done, required "all decayed or lacerated" books to be re-copied and also ordered that "Coppies of all Reg rs be brought in once every year to be entered in the Bopps Reg ry ". Yet another inspection of the registers was ordered in 1717 "so that the Bishop may see in what order the books are, and those who have not bound books for their use, may at the charge of the Bishop, provide such immediately, there being a Bookbinder lately come to the Island." Feltham obviously examined the registers in 1797 and commented on the poor state of many early registers.


Did you know?
TheGenealogist.co.uk allows you to search birth and baptism records from 1534-2005. Why not try a free trial of the website?

Until 1813, the amount of information given is very basic. This included:

It was very uncommon for the mother to be mentioned, as this was considered to be unimportant. Although later on, the mother's name began to be stated, so a record would look something like this: "Francis the son of John Smith and his wife Anne was baptised".

If an illegitimate child was baptised, then the mother's name would be stated, with the word 'illegitimate' or similar in the margin.


How to find baptism records

In 1538, the Second Royal Injunction on Religion drawn up by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s vicar general, required that every parish should make a record of every single baptism, marriage and burial. Even so, there are only approximately 700 parishes that have baptism records dating back to 1538.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in our latest issue, on sale now

How are baptism records used in family history?

Until civil registration of birth, marriage and death records was introduced in 1837, there was no official legal record of our ancestors’ births. However, almost all children in England and Wales were baptised in the Church of England. Most children were baptised soon after birth, making it possible to use the baptism record as a substitute birth record.

Even after the introduction of civil registration, it’s still worth finding your ancestor’s baptism record if you can, as later baptism records should include the names of both parents and the father’s occupation.

Bear in mind that some baptisms took place years after the child was born. The reason for a delay may never be known: the family might have refused to attend their local church, disapproving of the incumbent, or they might have been nonconformists.

Occasionally, a baptism may have been performed as soon as the child was born, possibly at home. This was usually because the child was thought unlikely to survive and midwives, being licensed by the church, were able to perform the rites. The entry in the baptism record is usually in the form of ‘privately baptised’ or ‘half baptised’. If the child did survive then ‘full baptism’ would take place in church later, possibly noted as ‘entered into the congregation’ or similar.

During the 17th century Commonwealth period of 1649 to 1660, parish registers were irregularly kept, so some baptism records may be missing from this period.

In 1752, England and Wales changed from the Julian (or ‘Old Style’) calendar, where the year commenced on 25 March, to the Gregorian (or ‘New Style’) calendar, where it began on 1 January. It is often not clear whether transcribers and indexers of baptism records have ‘amended’ Julian dates to their Gregorian equivalent. Therefore, extreme care needs to be taken to ensure that the date in the original record has been correctly interpreted. This is another reason why it is essential to inspect the original baptism record, either in an archive office or as a digitised image online.

In 1783 William III introduced a duty of 3p on every baptism, marriage or burial recorded in English, Welsh and Scottish registers, to raise money to fight the French. Paupers were exempt from the tax, and many baptism records are accordingly annotated “P”. When the Act was repealed in 1794, some families then had several children of different ages baptised together, creating baptism records for all of them at once.

What are bishop’s transcripts?

From 1598 local parishes were required to make a copy of their register to send to the local bishop, known as Bishops’ Transcripts (BTs). These sometimes provide an alternative copy of baptism records were the originals have not survived, although there may be discrepancies between the information in the original record and in the transcript.

The practice of making these duplicate returns was generally discontinued from 1837. In some dioceses, a further copy of baptism records was returned to the archdeacon. These copies are known as Archdeacons’ Transcripts (ATs).

How to find baptism records

The best place to start with finding your ancestor’s baptism record is the place of birth given on census forms. However, it should be noted that place of birth and place of baptism were not always the same. The first child (and sometimes subsequent children as well) was often baptised in the parish of the mother, as she returned to her family home for the confinement.

The National Index of Parish Register series, available as books from the Society of Genealogists, provides details about all Church of England parishes as well as nonconformist places of worship. You can use this to find where your ancestor’s baptism record is likely to be. Many baptism records are now available in online parish register collections, while others are held in local record offices.

Different websites have different county-by-county coverage of baptism records. There are good collections of baptism records on the paying sites Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist, while free records are available on UK BMD, FamilySearch and FreeReg.

The FamilySearch Wiki, DustyDocs and Forebears provide good guidance on the availability of baptism records, although their information may be a little out of date.

Paul Blake is a genealogist and author of several books including Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors


Hints & Tips from the Search Desk

This page exists to answer some of the questions we are most frequently asked by people exploring their family history. Some of these relate specifically to the OFHS Search Service and will help you to get the most out of the service. Others are of a more general nature and will be of interest to all family historians whether researching ancestors in Oxfordshire, or further afield.

  • What is the Search Service for?
  • How do I start?
  • What date range do the parish indexes cover?
  • Are the indexes complete?
  • How do I tell which parishes are included?
  • Where do I go from here?
  • That's not my ancestor. He spelt his name differently!
  • That's not my ancestor. His age is wrong!
  • What are Bishop's Transcripts and how do they differ from Parish Registers?
  • But my ancestors are in IGI (on FamilySearch). Why can't you find them?
  • How do I find the source of data on the new FamilySearch web site?
  • The Calendar: What convention do you use?
  • The Effects of the Stamp Duty Act of 1783
  • Why were infants baptised?
  • Was everyone baptised as a baby?
  • Why are some baptisms recorded as "privately"?
  • Why was first child baptised away from home?
  • Why is only the father's name given?
  • Why is only the mother's name given?
  • The mothers name is "wrong"
  • Where did a marriage take place?
  • Does "of the parish of . " tell you where they were born?
  • Why can't I find their marriage?
  • Surely everyone married in church after Lord Hardwicke's marriage act of 1753?
  • Why did they marry in the City of Oxford when they lived in the country?
  • What is marriage by banns?
  • How long were banns valid?
  • What is marriage by licence?
  • What is marriage by registrar's certificate?
  • Who are the witnesses?
  • Why do some names have an "x" beside them?
  • They left it a bit late didn't they?
  • At what age was it legal to marry?
  • Do marriage records include details of occupation and parents?
  • Marriage to the sibling of a deceased spouse
  • Where were they buried?
  • Can I trust the age in a burial register?
  • I can't find a burial. What are the alternatives?
  • Why were they "Buried in Woollen"?
  • Where can I get a certificate for a pre-1837 birth / marriage / death?
  • Can you send me a birth / marriage / death certificate?
  • His death was registered in 1867 at Chipping Norton (for example), can you look up the burial?
  • Can I determine my ancestor's year of birth from their age in a census?
  • My ancestor's age in 1841 seems wrong?
  • My ancestor's birthplace in 1841 seems wrong?
  • My ancestor seems to be missing in 1841?
  • My ancestor seems to be missing in 1861?
  • What format do you use to send the data?
  • In what order do you sort the results?
  • Can I re-sort the results into a different order?

What is the Search Service for?
The Search Service is a finding aid. It is not intended as a complete research tool to provide your entire Oxfordshire family history "on a plate". The search service indexes are computerised indexes, into transcriptions of original documents such as parish registers and censuses. Whilst we strive to make these indexes as accurate as possible, some errors or mis-readings are likely to creep in. Just using the search service is no substitute for studying the complete transcripts which in turn is not a substitute for viewing the original documents.

How do I start?
If you already know in which parish your ancestors lived, the Search Service is probably not the best place to start. You would be better advised to purchase the full transcribed Parish Registers for the parish and get as much detail as you can about the family from these. Almost all the Oxfordshire and North Berkshire have been transcribed and the transcripts are available from OFHS in the form of Microfiche and on CD ROM. The Search Service comes into its own when ancestors suddenly appear in the parish, or disappear from it. Because the Search Service indexes are county-wide, they are ideal for discovering where people came from or went to. The Search Services home page describes the type of searches available. If you are trying to track down a specific ancestor, a search for an "Individual Event", such as his or her baptism, would be appropriate. If you want to get a more general feel for whereabouts in the county family members might be found, a search for a "List of Names" covering all entries for a specific surname in one or more indexes might be the best approach. Do bear in mind that most people dramatically under estimate just how popular their names are. For example, the burial index contains 6500+ entries for SMITH, which you might expect but also contains 540 entries for SLATTER, which you might think was a relatively unusual name. You will find a list of Popular Oxfordshire Surnames on the Search Service web page, to give you an idea of the relative popularity of surnames.

What date range do the parish indexes cover?
Parish registers started in 1538 but not all records from this date have survived. The indexes cover from the earliest available records for a parish up until 1851, in the case of baptisms, burials, and North Berkshire marriages. (This date was chosen to give an overlap to the 1851 census, which was the first to record places-of-birth.) The older Oxfordshire Marriage Index currently ends in 1837, (chosen to coincide with the start of civil registration). The Parish Data Map on this web site, described below includes detail pages showing the search index coverage graphically. This makes it easy to see where there are gaps in the coverage.

Are the indexes complete?
Both the baptism and burial indexes are still being extended. At the time of writing (2011) around 95% of parishes are included.

How do I tell which parishes are included?
The Parish Data Map on this web site, shows which indexes are available for any parish. Click the Details button to see exactly which years are included for a given parish.

Where do I go from here?
If the search service has found that elusive missing ancestor and shown you where he/she was living, the next step is to get the transcribed parish register for that parish and piece together all the other relatives from the same parish. Then view some original records, hunt for family wills and if possible visit the parish. Above all, have fun!

That's not my ancestor. He spelt his name differently!
Most folk could neither read nor write until the latter part of the 19th century. Before this time the spellings which appear in parish registers were the vicar's or parish clerk's spelling of a name he had been told. So you will often find two branches of the same family in neighbouring parishes apparently using a different spelling. and may find spellings changing in the same parish when a new vicar or clerk is appointed. Unless otherwise requested we will normally try to include all likely spelling variants when carrying out searches.

That's not my ancestor. His age is wrong!
An age is not an easy thing to remember. It keeps changing every year! Nowadays we are used to knowing our date of birth, since we so frequently get asked for it on various forms. So calculating our age is a simple matter of subtraction. Our ancestors were not plagued with frequent requests for their date of birth, and even if they knew this, subtracting it from the current year to get an age, would be beyond their powers of arithmetic. So when asked their age, they guessed, based on how old they "felt", and often got it wrong. In such cases you usually find a slowly accumulating error. Another source of "error" can arise when an ancestor marries. Here you can find a sudden step-change in age, where clearly one party has deliberately lied about their age to their prospective partner. Usually this happens when there is a significant age difference between the partners. Each will tend to lie to bring their claimed age nearer to that of their partner.
Ages recorded in burial registers for adults, are particularly unreliable. The person who would have been most likely to know the true age is now deceased, so the age written in the register may be no more than a guess on the part of the parish clerk.

What are Bishop's Transcripts and how do they differ from Parish Registers?
Starting in 1598, the incumbent of each parish was required every year to make a copy of all the baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in his registers for the past year and send this to the Bishop. These records, known as "Bishop's Transcripts" (BT) have often survived and can be used to augment the data from Parish Registers (PR) . Most frequently they can provide data for periods where the Parish Register has now been lost or is unreadable. However they can also be used for cross-checking data from the registers and wherever possible the data in our transcripts and search indexes has been cross-checked in this way. You might think that since the BT was a copy of entries in the PR, any discrpancies between the two must be due to errors made in the BT whilst copying from the PR. Sadly this is not always the case. There is evidence from handwriting and inks used, that in the early registers, incumbents often wrote up their PR entries in one large batch from some "rough notes" possibly at the same time as they wrote up the BTs. So for example you will occasionally find an entry in the BT that is completely absent in the PR. More frequently there are small differences of spelling or of detail between the two documents, suggesting that the original roungh notes may have been very abbreviated and the incument or his parish clerk was relying to some extent on memory when writing out the final versions.

The principle snag with BTs is that for each parish the BT for a single year was on a small slip of paper. This is the form in which they have been kept. So the BTs for a parish consist of lots of slips of paper bundled together. With this sort of arrangement it is all too easy for individual slips, or indeed a whole boindle, to have got lost over the years. So BTs tend to be a resource with rather frequent gaps. However if the original registers have been lost they are certainly better than nothing! For Oxfordshire Parishes, the OFHS book " Oxfordshire Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts " by Colin Harris is the definitive description of what PRs and BTs have survivied and where they are now to be found.

But my ancestors are in IGI (on FamilySearch). Why can't you find them?
(See also the following item)
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is a very useful resource for family historians, created by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) (also known as Mormons) and made freely available via their web site www.familysearch.org. However it must be treated with a certain amount of caution. Records in IGI come from two quite distinct sources. Most are from transcriptions of original documents such as parish registers. These are generally reliable, accurate transcripts. However IGI also contains "Records submitted a member of the LDS Church". These are frequently unreliable. Often, all they tell you is that the submitter has been unable to find any original record of the event and so has made a guess about it!

It is important to remember that IGI was created for the purposes of the LDS religion. Mormons believe that dead ancestors should be offered the opportunity of being baptised into the LDS Church. (See http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism for more details.) For this to take place, it is necessary to know when and where the person was born. If no original record can be found, a "best guess" will be made based on such data as is available. So if a person married and died in a particular parish, it will be assumed that they were born there and an estimate of their birth date will be made from their age at death, if this was recorded, or an assumption that they were aged around 21 when they married and started to raise children, if no better basis can be found. As Family Historians it is important not to regard such records as anything more than guesses. They are no more or less likely to be correct than our own guesses and certainly should not be regarded as corroborative evidence. Such records can often by spotted by the date being quoted as "About" or as just a year, with no actual date, but you should also get into the habit of viewing the items under the "Messages:" or "Source Information:" headings at the foot of the record. These will always tell you the origin of the record and you can then make your own assessment of its reliability.

How do I find the source of data on the new FamilySearch web site?
During 2012 the FamilySearch web site www.familysearch.org changed extensively. The preceding topic was written before the change and parts of it relate to the old version of the site. Apart from a total change to the visual appearance, a major benefit of the new site, is that it makes a clear distinction between transcribed source material and submitted records.

The default situation when searching for records, now starts by listing transcribed material, under the heading "Search Results for Historical Records". Submitted material is only displayed at the foot of the page under the heading "Search Results from User Submitted Trees". Unfortunately it has now become far less intuitive to find out details of the actual source used.

On the old site when viewing an individual record the "Source Information" at the foot of the page included clickable links to a "Batch No.", and a "Source Call No.". The "Batch No." when clicked allowed you to redefine a search within just that batch number. (This gives a great way of locating siblings for example and this still works on the new site.) The "Source Call No." when clicked took you straight to a page specifying the source record used. This facility has unfortunately been lost on the new site.

On the new site, the "Batch No." is now called "indexing project (batch) number:" and is still a clickable link that works as on the old site. Below that you may find entries for a "system origin", a "source film number" and a reference number", but as of December 2012, none of these are clickable links.

To discover the source, you must first make a note of the "source film number" Now go back to the opening page of the FamilySearch web site. Immediately below the title for "Discover Your Family History" click the entry for "Catalog". On the screen that appears, select "Film Numbers" from the left hand "Search" drop-down box. and in the right hand "For" box enter the film number you noted down above. Now when you click on "Search" it will reveal the actual source material used. It is rather more tortuous than on the old version of the site but you get there in the end!.

The Calendar: What convention do you use?
The present-day Gregorian calendar, in which the new year starts on 1st January, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1538. Prior to that, the Christian world used the Julian calender in which the new year started on Ladyday, 25th March. Britian, in common with many other protestant countries, was initially unwilling to adopt this "papish change". It was only in 1752, following Lord Chesterfield's Act that Britain officially adopted the Gregorian calendar and this was the first year in which New Year's day fell on 1st January. (In the same year the 11 days from 3rd to 13th September were omitted, to correct for the accumulated errors of the Julian calendar).

What does this mean for family historians? After 1752 there is no problem. Prior to this date, the days between 1st January and 24th March would count as one year in the Julian calendar and a different year in the Gregorian calendar, so there is scope for confusion. Although the official changeover happened in 1752, it was already apparent that the new calendar was more sensible, so in some parish registers you will find the new calendar in use before 1752. In some cases just a single year will be given, but it is obvious from the sequence in the register that the year number is being changed on 1st January. In other cases both forms of the date will be shown, most often in the form "1749/50", for dates between 1st January and 24th March. You will also occasionally find such dual dates appearing on tomb stones, as in the example shown here, commemorating William Cottle of Oriel College, who died in his 19th year and was buried at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 5th January 1714/15.

In transcripts it is normally easy to tell what convention a particular register is using from the context. In our search indexes that context is lost. Moreover it is not easy to display a dual year within the results. The year field is expected to contain exactly four digits. Moreover attempts to select and sort by date do not understand dual years and are apt to treat 1749/50 as a division sum and show the result as 34.98 which is not at all what was intended! In preparing the indexes we generally use the first four digits of the date as written in the original register. So if the parish is working on Julian dates, it will be the Julian year that appears in the index. If the parish has already adopted Gregorian dates before 1752, the index will show the Gregorian date. If the parish is using dual dates, just the first four digits will appear in the index, which is effectively the Julian date. This is what you will see in an index listing. So there will occasionaly be scope for a one year error, in cases where a parish has adopted the Gregorian calendar in advance of the official start date. The important thing to remember is the point made in the very first paragraph of these "Hints & Tips", that the Search Service is intended as a finding aid, not a complete source of all data. Of course, if you have requested a specific search for a single person, the problem does not arise, since we then supply the full details from the transcript, including dual year dates where appropriate.

The Effects of the Stamp Duty Act of 1783
In 1783 the British government passed a stamp duty act to help pay for the American War of Independence. In particular a tax of 3d was to be paid on every entry in a parish register. The incumbent was empowered to collect this tax and entitled to keep a small proportion for his trouble. However paupers were exempt from paying the tax. The tax was deeply unpopular and was finally repealed in 1794.

There was little people could do about burial entries. The dead had still to be buried. It is possible that the act led to an increased number of so-called "common law marriages" (see below). However it is in baptisms that the consequences of the act are most visible to the family historian. Some couples simply did not bother to baptise their children, so you are more likely to encounter "missing baptisms" whilst the act was in force. Some of these children may be found being baptised "in a batch" after 1794 but in other cases baptisms are never recorded for them. (My personal suspicion is that religious beliefs were satisfied by a surreptitious splash of Holy water, but no register entry was ever made.

Another effect, seen in some parishes where the incumbent was clearly on the side of his parishioners rather than the government at Westminster, is that whilst the act was in force, a large number of entries in the burial register may be recorded as being "paupers", whilst entries in the baptism register are recorded as being the children of "paupers". (At Leafield for example between April 1787 and November 1790, of 59 baptisms, all but 8 were for "paupers". The practice stops suddenly at this point. Presumably the government noticed!) So if you find your ancestor baptised or buried as a pauper during this period, do not shed too many tears for the family's plight. They were probably not in penury, they just had an obliging vicar!

Why were infants baptised?
Infant baptism is an established practice in the Anglican church. The prevailing view up to the end of the 19th century was that a person who died unbaptised, could not gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus it was important to be baptised as early in life as possible. Most commonly you will find a baptism occurring during the first month of life.

Why are some baptisms recorded as "privately"?
If a new-born infant was sickly and thought unlikely to survive, its fate in Heaven required it to be baptised urgently. So any available clergyman was persuaded to attend the family home and baptise the child there, and hence the baptism was done "privately" and recorded as such. If the child recovered it would often be baptised publicly later and you may sometimes find "brought to church" with a date, added beside the original entry, or as a separate entry in the register. However this was not always done, nor recorded. So you should not automatically assume the absence of a "brought to church" entry indicates that the child died. Another aspect of private baptisms was that it was not always possible to locate the local incumbent at short notice, so a clergyman from a neighbouring parish might be called upon. In which case he would quite often record the baptism in his own register, rather than the one for the parish where the parents lived.

Was everyone baptised as a baby?
Not necessarily. If the parents were not firm believers in infant baptism, a child might go unbaptised, or be baptised later in life. Often there will be a note in the parish register indicating the age for such non-infant baptisms but this is not always the case, so you should not automatically assume the baptismal date is close to the birth bate. You will sometimes find cases where several siblings were all baptised at the same time "in a batch". Often this can be the result of pressure being applied to the parents and you will occasionally find cases where several such batch baptisms take place in a parish over a period of a few months. This usually indicates that a new, keen incumbent has taken over the parish and is busy rounding up his stray sheep! Missing baptisms are particularly prevalent between 1783 and 1794, whilst stamp duty was levied on register entries, for reasons explained above.

Why was first child baptised away from home?
You will often find cases where the first child of a marriage is baptised in a different parish from the later children. The explanation is that a young bride often went home to her mother for the birth of her first child, with mother acting as midwife. So the child's baptism can be a pointer to the parish where the bride came from (and can also imply that the maternal grandmother was still alive at the time of the birth).

Why is only the father's name given?
Before 1600 it is very rare to find any mention of the mother's name in a baptism record. Mothers gradually began to be named over the next hundred years and by 1700 they were named in around 50% of baptisms. By 1750 it was becoming rare to find only a father named.

Why is only the mother's name given?
This almost invariably indicates that the child concerned was born out of wedlock, Sometimes this will be specifically stated in the register, using phrases such as "bastard" , "illegitimate" or "natural child" In other cases no such phrase will appear and the situation can only be inferred from the absence of a father's name.

The mothers name is "wrong".
There can be several reasons for a baptism where the mother's name appears to be incorrect. Often the vicar or parish clerk just got it wrong. Before the 20th century, a married woman would only be known by her forename to her close friends. To most of her acquaintances she would be known more formally, as "Mrs. Xxxxx" where "Xxxxx" is her husbands surname. So in entering her forename in the register, the incumbent or the parish clerk was relying on distant mamory, and quite often got it wrong. On the other hand if you find a situation where several baptisms name one wife's name, followed by several with a different wife's name, it is likely that the first wife died and the husband re-married. The confirmation here is to search for a burial for the first wife and a re-marriage for the husband. A final situation is one where two different wife's names will be interspersed. Here the probability is that there are two different husbands, both with the same forname and surname, living in the parish and raising children. Again a marriage search will probably prove helpful. Often in situations like this the fathers are themselves likely to be related (usually cousins) and working out which father is which can be challenging!

Where did a marriage take place?
Most commonly in the parish where the bride's family lived at the time of the wedding, but sometimes in the parish where the bride and/or groom was living, if they were no longer living at home or the bride's parents were dead. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are a special case discussed below.)

Does "of the parish of . " tell you where they were born?
No. This is a common mis-conception. This column in a marriage register entry specifically indicates the parish where the person was living for the 3 weeks prior to the marriage and hence where his or her banns were read. The abbreviation "o.t.p." meaning "of this parish" is used when the person was living in the parish where the marriage took place. Since this is the default situation, many transcripts will leave this column blank for this situation rather than entering "o.t.p." every time. This same convention is used in the OFHS marriage indexes. Note however that an o.t.p. entry is not always to be trusted. If the bride and groom lived in different parishes, the law required that banns were read at both churches. Since a fee was charged for reading banns, this doubled the cost. So many prospective grooms would notionally be lodging in the bride's parish, (e.g. by leaving a suitcase of clothes at a friendly neighbour's house) for the period prior to the wedding. Hence the groom would be o.t.p. and only one set of banns would be read. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are also a special case discussed below.)

Why can't I find their marriage?
They may have married outside the county, or a record may have been lost, but by far the most likely explanation is simply that they never formally married! Such informal marriages, often (but inaccurately) called "common-law marriages" were quite common and carried no stigma. Church weddings were expensive and unlike the situation for baptisms described above, there was no strong theological reason for a church wedding. So you will find many instances of families with firm religious beliefs, who conscientiously baptised their children but never married in church.

Surely everyone married in church after Lord Hardwicke's marriage act of 1753?
It is a common fallacy that Lord Hardwicke's act was about protecting the morality of the nation and ensuring that everyone was "properly married". This is not true. The act was not about morality, it was mostly about money! The act was precipitated by a case finally resolved in the House of Lords in 1753, which had been under way since 1746, following the death of Captain John Campbell, of Carrick, who was killed at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. Captain Campbell had been irregularly married in 1724 and 1725 to two different women, who were subsequently disputing rights to his property and a widow's pension. (You can read all about it at http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/744190
In rural Oxfordshire such property disputes were of no great significance and irregular marriages continued until the advent of "Victorian morality" towards the end of the 19th century. Such marriages were not legally valid, but if you were an impoverished Ag. Lab. the legal status of your marriage was of no great consequence.

Why did they marry in the City of Oxford when they lived in the country?
It is quite common to find a couple, often both from the same parish, who marry in an Oxford City parish, then apparently return home to live and raise and baptise a family. Were they temporarily living in Oxford? Almost always the answer is no. Did they marry in Oxford to be "posh". Again the answer is usually no. Most often they were Ag. Labs. with no such illusions of grandeur. The real answer is more prosaic and peculiar to Oxford, where many of the academics were clerics, who would supplement their finances with an incumbency of one of the surrounding rural parishes. This required them to be present in their parish on Sundays to conduct services but they spent the rest of the week in the city. So some were reluctant to "traipse all the way out into the sticks", on other days of the week to marry a couple. How much easier to use a college chapel or to "borrow" a city church and persuade the couple to come into town? After Lord Hardwicke's marriage act of 1753 college chapels were not licensed for marriages so the result is a wedding in one of the city parishes, of which St Mary Magdalen seems to have been the most popular. Sometimes the register will record both partners as being "sojourners" in the parish but quite often they are recorded as being o.t.p. The rationale seems to be that as far as the person conducting the service was concerned, they were his parishioners and he had personally read their banns (in their own local church), on the preceding Sundays.

What is marriage by banns?
A forthcoming marriage had to be announced in the parish churches of both bride and groom by the reading of Banns as part of the main Sunday Service on three Sundays preceding the marriage. This gave anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. A fee was charged for the reading of banns, so there was some incentive for both parties to a marriage claiming to be from the same parish, so one set of banns would suffice, even if this was not strictly the case. The reading of banns was usually recorded in a book, separately from the main marriage register and some of these Banns Books have survived. They can be a useful aid to finding a "missing" marriage. OFHS parish register transcripts usually incorporate details from any surviving banns books, for cases where the marriage took place in a different parish. However there are no search indexes into these banns transcripts and you will need to view the actual transcript to see if they exist.

How long were banns valid?
The marriage act of 1949 required that the marriage must take place within 3 months of the banns being read. Before that there was no legal requirement on the length of the delay between the banns being read and the marriage taking place. Normally it took place within a few weeks of the last reading of the banns, but you may very occasionally come across an instance of a much longer delay, even of a year or more. Of course the reason for such a delay is likely to be of great interest to the family historian but it had no adverse effect on the validity of the marriage.

What is marriage by licence?
As an alternative to the reading of banns, it was possible to marry by licence. This offered a quicker route, with no need to wait three Sundays for the reading of banns. It also permitted a marriage in a parish in which neither bride nor groom were resident. Finally, because it required access to a source of money, it conferred social status. A marriage by licence involved three documents: The actual licence was given to the officiating minister and it was his authority to proceed with the wedding. They were rarely kept after the wedding, so few have survived. The allegation was a signed statement usually by the groom, that the proposed marriage was legal. The bond was a signed promise by someone that if the marriage was subsequently found to be illegal, he would forfeit a specified sum of money (most often "One hundred pounds of good English money"). This meant that the person signing the bond had to be someone deemed worthy of fulfilling this obligation should the need arise. The allegations and bonds were normally kept and many have now found their way to local record offices, in our case the Oxfordshire Record Office. (You will often find them colloquially referred to as a "marriage licence") Transcribed marriage registers will normally indicate when a marriage was by licence, so when providing details for a specific marriage as part of the Search Service, we will include that information. You will need to contact the record office directly to confirm whether the bond or allegation have survived and if so to obtain details of these. You may find this web site helpful for determining id a bond has survivied: www.whipple.org/oxford/ though the absence of an entry from these lists does not mean that the bond has definitely not survived and it is still worth checking at the record office (now renamed as "Oxfordshire History Centre").

What is marriage by registrar's certificate?
Occasionally a marriage register may show that a marriage after 1837 was by "Registrar's Certificate" rather than by banns or by licence. In effect this is the secular equivalent of banns. A notice is posted on a public notice board in the bride's and groom's registration district(s) for three weeks prior to the wedding showing their intention to marry. Like banns, this is intended to give anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. It was no quicker or cheaper than banns, so to the family historian it is most often a pointer that one or both parties was non-conformist and so did not want banns read out as part of an Anglican church service. The marriage had still to take place in premises licensed for the purpose, so before the days of established register office weddings, it may still take place in the local parish church, and so appear in the parish marriage register.

Who are the witnesses?
Following the implementation of Hardwicke's marriage act in 1754, all marriage register entries should include the signature of two witnesses to the marriage. We have no search service index into witness names but when providing full details of a marriage as the result of a search, we will include the witness names. Sometimes these will be other family members and so can provide useful extra evidence for the family historian. Quite often one finds one witness name being repeated for many marriages around the same time. This will normally imply that this person is the parish clerk. Where this is apparent, we will normally mention it when providing details for the marriage. If you have purchased parish register transcripts, it is worth while to look at all the other marriages in the parish for a few years either side of the marriage you are interested in. You will quite often find one or both of "your" couple acting as witnesses for their friends or relatives who married about the same time.

Why do some names have an "x" beside them?
In the marriage register, the bride and groom and the two witnesses were all required to sign their names. If they were unable to write, they marked a cross and the clerk noted the name alongside this. When transcribing registers we conventionally mark this with an "x" in brackets beside the name.

They left it a bit late didn't they?
There is a tendency nowadays to regard the "permissive society" as a modern invention and to assume that the strict urban Victorian morality of "no sex before marriage" was the norm for all time before that. This was certainly not the case for rural communities such as most of Oxfordshire, up to the end of the 19th century. If anything, the motto was "try before you buy!". The ability to produce children was crucial to a rural family. They were the people who you hoped would look after you in your old age. So if a couple planning marriage were unable to conceive a child, the marriage would probably not take place. Hence it is quite common to find the first child being born appreciably less than 9 months after the marriage.

At what age was it legal to marry?
In the UK, the Age of Marriage Act of 1929, specified a minimum age of 16 for a person to marry (with the consent of their parents). Prior to that a girl could marry at age 12 and a boy at age 14. However that does not mean that marriage at such a young age was common. It was in fact extrememly rare. For example in 1871, in the whole of England and Wales there were only 35 marriages in which the bride was under 16. (i.e. less than 0.02% of all marriages). (Source is from ONS web site.)

It is commonly believed that following Harwicke's marriage act of 1753, a minor (a person under the age of 21) could not legally marry, without the active consent of their parents. This is not strictly true in the case of marriage by banns. When the banns were read (as described above), a parent of a minor could object and so prevent the marriage taking place. However if the banns were read without any parental objection, the subsequent marriage was legally binding. Only in the case of a marriage by licence was the formal active consent of a parent or guardian of a minor required.

Do marriage records include details of occupation and parents?
After 1837 the record will include occupations for the bride and groom, together with the names of their fathers, and the fathers' occupations. Often the record will also indicate if the father is deceased. Before 1837 none of this information is recorded. Our search index entries do not include this information for any marriages, but if a detailed search for a specific marriage is requested we will automatically provide this information where it is available.

Marriage to the sibling of a deceased spouse
When one marriage partner died it might seem logical for the surviving partner to marry a previously unmarried sibling of the deceased partner. If the wife died her sister might be the ideal person to care for the children. If the husband died his brother might be the ideal breadwinner to support the family. However the prevailing church view was that the original marriage endowed kinship between the husband and wife. Hence the deceased partner's sibling was the kin of the surviving partner, in which case the rules of consanguinity as specified in the book of Leviticus, would make such a marriage forbidden by God. This view was incorporated in the civil law governing marriage. It was not until the the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907 that men were legally allowed to marry their deceased wife's sister, whilst widows had to wait even longer until the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act of 1921 before they could legally marry their deceased husband's brother.

Before these dates you may find such couples living together as man and wife, without a marriage ever having taken place. Alternatively couples might marry somewhere remote from home claiming to be previously unmarried. Depending on the level of local knowledge, and/or the sympathies of the local vicar, children of such couples might be baptised normally with both parents named, or might be baptised as illegitimate, with just the mother named.

Where were they buried?
Most commonly in the parish where they died. Usually this would be the parish where they lived but if someone happened to die away from home they might well be buried in the parish where they died rather than have the expense of transporting the body back home for burial. At the other end of the social scale, more affluent families may have owned vaults or burial plots in their "ancestral home parish" and so the deceased would be taken back there for burial.

Can I trust the age in a burial register?
In a word, "no". Ages of infants or young married people are usually reliable but for older folk, the deceased themselves probably had only an approximate idea of their age, and anyway were in no position to say! The entry in the register is often little more than a guess by the parish clerk and any surviving relatives.

I can't find a burial. What are the alternatives?
Baptisms and marriages can often not have taken place and so go unrecorded, but everyone dies eventually. So if they were not buried where you expect, they must have been buried somewhere else. If this was in Oxfordshire, the Search Service can often help locate the burial. If not found, they may have left the county, or indeed the country. The latter could have been as voluntary emigrants, or as transportees as a results of some misdemeanour.

Why were they "Buried in Woollen"?
Entries in old burial registers will often include a phrase such as "buried in woollen" or "affidavit sworn" often with the name of a person testifying this. What is this all about? In 1666 parliament passed the first of the "Burying in Woollen" acts, requiring that all persons other than plague victims be buried only in material made from wool. This was an attempt to protect the British wool industry from a perceived threat of foreign imports of linen or other materials. (See www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=47386) It was largely ignored and in 1678 was replaced by an act with more "teeth". This required the person responsible for laying out the deceased to swear an oath before a Justice of the Peace and two witnesses, that only wool had been used. An affidavit to this effect was to be shown to the parson responsible for the burial and he in turn had to include the details in the burial register. These extra names can be of great interest to the family historian. Laying out the dead often seems to have been the responsibility of a small group of older matriarchs within a community and you find the same names cropping up again and again. The example shown here shows an entry from the Deddington Burial Register for the burial of Elizabeth PAINTER on 5 November 1684, where the oath has been sworn by Jane PARSONS. This is the sixth time Jane had performed this function since 1678. She herself died in 1691, in her mid seventies.


If you are very lucky you may find an original signed affidavit, such as the one shown here, which is on display in South Newington Church and is included in more detail on OFHS Monumental Inscriptions CD OXF-MI-SNT.

Where can I get a certificate for a pre-1837 birth / marriage / death?
You can't! Certificates for births, marriages and deaths did not exist before the start of civil registration in July 1837.

Can you send me a birth / marriage / death certificate?
No. We cannot supply such certificates. You need to order them either from the General Register Office, or from the local Register Office of the district in which the birth, marriage or death was registered. The FreeBMD web site at www.freebmd.org.uk is a good place to start a search for such records. This site also contains details of how to order certificates on the page www.freebmd.org.uk/Certificates.html

His death was registered in 1867 at Chipping Norton (for example), can you look up the burial?
No. It is a common misconception that a birth, marriage or death registered at a town such as Chipping Norton, means that the event actually took place in that town. This is far from the case. Registration districts cover a large area, with each registration district including around 30 parishes, and it is not practical to look up each of these by hand. Moreover the registration districts do not follow county boundaries, so for example the Chipping Norton district includes some parishes in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, as well as those in Oxfordshire. Had the death been in or before 1851, we could conduct a burial index search but after that date you have no option other than to purchase the certificate.

The GENUKI web site includes a list of all the Oxfordshire registration districts, together with lists of places covered by each district. You can find it at: www.ukbmd.org.uk/reg/oxf.html

CIVIL REGISTRATION AND CERTIFICATES

Can I determine my ancestor's year of birth from their age in a census?
Yes, but with reservations! At first you might assume that if for example, your ancestor was aged 20 in the 1851 census, they must have been born in 1831 because simple arithmetic tells you that 1851 minus 20 equals 1831. If the census had been taken at midnght on 31st December 1851, this would be true. However censuses were not taken at the end of the year. So your 20 year old ancestor may have been born in 1830 rather than 1831. In fact most censuses were taken around the end of March or the start of April, so the majority of people were born later in the year than the date of the census. This makes the odds roughly 3:1 that a person aged 20 on the night of the 1851 census was actually born in the last three quarters of 1830 rather than the first quarter of 1831. (So an easy rule of thumb for estimating the most probable birth year by subtraction is to treat the census as being in 1850, 1860 etc. Then you don't have to remember whether you should be adding or subtracting one!)

If you want to aim for precision the following are the dates of the principle censuses of interest to UK family historians:

  • 1841 - Sunday 6th June
  • 1851 - Sunday 30th March
  • 1861 - Sunday 7th April
  • 1871 - Sunday 2nd April
  • 1881 - Sunday 3rd April
  • 1891 - Sunday 5th April
  • 1901 - Sunday 31st March
  • 1911 - Sunday 2nd April

All of the above assumes that your ancestor has correctly told the enumerator their age but this is not necessarily the case. Ages can be recorded wrongly for the reasons discussed near the top of this page. Finally ages in the 1841 census can cause further confusion for the reasons described in the following section.

My ancestor's age in 1841 seems wrong?
The method of recording ages in the 1841 census is a source of great confusion, not least to some of the enumerators who conducted the census! The instructions given to the enumerator were: "Write the age of every person under 15 years of age as it is stated to you. For persons aged 15 years and upwards, write the lowest of the term of 5 years within which the age is." So if the age appearing in this census is 35 for example, you should expect the true age of the person to be anywhere between 35 and 39. The instructions go on to give some examples which should have made things clear but some enumerators still got it wrong. The most common "mistake" is to ignore the instructions altogether and record exact ages, which is great for us, as family historians. The fact that the adult ages are not multiples of 5 years gives a clue when this is happening, but even this should be treated with caution. I have come across one enumerator who consistently subtracted exactly 5 years from every age!

My ancestor's birthplace in 1841 seems wrong?
The 1841 census did not record actual birthplaces. The only indication is a column headed: "Where born - Whether in the same County." and another headed "Whether born in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts" . For the first of these, the instructions given to the enumerator were: "Write opposite to each name (except those of Irish, Scotch or Foreigners) "Y." or "N." for Yes or No as the case may be." For the second, the instructions were: "Write in this column, "S." for those who were born in Scotland "I." for those born in Ireland and "F." for Foreigners. This latter mark to be used only for those who are subjects of some Foreign State, and not for British subjects who happen to have been born abroad."
Nowhere does this answer the question " Whether in the same county as what, or whom ?" The intention was that the "Y" and "N" should indicate the birth county relative to the county in which the person was now living, but this is not clearly stated and a high proportion of the letters are wrong. Some enumerators seem to have interpreted it as "in the same county as the head of the household" or as "in the same county as the previous person entered in the schedule." Note also that a correctly entered "N", with the second column left blank, can indicate a British subject born in Buckinghamshire, Wales, or Timbuktu, but not in Scotland or Ireland! A correctly entered "Y" indicates that the person was born in Oxfordshire, but not necessarily (as is assumed by some beginners) that they were born in the actual town or village where they were living in 1841.

My ancestor seems to be missing in 1841?
During the summer months, some agricultural workers lived in temporary field shelters. The 1841 census was held on 7th June by which time these people were away from home and so "escaped" the attention of the census enumerator. Later censuses were held earlier in the year at the end of March or the beginning of April, partly to avoid this problem.

My ancestor seems to be missing in 1861?
The census enumerators' books for 1861 for the Woodstock sub-district, are missing. So if your ancestor lived within this area (which extended as far south as Kidlington and Wolvercote), they will not appear in the 1861 census.

  1. It comes closest to a universal format that can be read with just about any version of any word processor program, but still has all the formatting features needed to lay out the search results neatly
  2. It cannot contain macros or any other "active content", so there is no risk of an RTF file carrying a virus.

In what order do you sort the results?
For parish register data such as baptisms, marriages and burials we normally sort firstly by parish, then by year within each parish. This tends to group family members together. For census index entries, by default we sort by place name, then folio number, then age. This generally groups households together with the parents first and the children, in age order, following. (However if two households for your surname appear on the same page of the census the members will be intermixed). For census transcript entries the data will of course be ordered as enumerated in the census.

Can I re-sort the results into a different order?
You certainly can. Most word processors have the ability to re-sort tables. The exact mechanism will vary and you will need to check the method used by your word processor. For example in the case of Microsoft Word 2002&trade, you would click somewhere in the table to identify it, then select Sort from the Table menu at the top of the screen, to obtain the dialog box shown here. Within this, you would indicate that your table has a Header row , then select the criteria by which you want the table sorted. In this case we are going to sort the data by year, and then by forename within each year. Once you have selected these criteria all you need to do is click the OK button and the job is done. The principle is the same in other word processors but the details will differ. For example the LibreOffice Writer word processor, does not recognise a header row, so instead, you select the data rows you want sorted and identify the sort criteria by column number, rather than header name. Either way, the end result is just the same, data sorted by whatever criteria you choose.


The Parish Registers of Wales

THIS article is based on a study of the original parish registers deposited in the National Library of Wales and the photocopies of other registers which are available in the Library. Over four hundred ancient parishes are represented in these two groups. This is more than a third of the total number of ancient parishes in Wales. Since the registers are derived from all parts of Wales, they are sufficiently representative to form the basis for a general study. The majority of the registers remain in the custody of the incumbents of the various parishes but there is an arrangement for the deposit of the original registers in the National Library for preservation and repair, and the provision by the Library of photocopies to be kept in the appropriate parishes. Another source used in this study was the replies to the questionnaire relating to parochial records sent to parishes by the Library in the period 1933-1940. 1

Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent, issued a mandate, 5 September, 1538, 2 ordering every parson, vicar or curate to keep a register of every wedding, christening and burial in his parish. The parishes were to provide a coffer for the safe keeping of the register. The coffer was to have two locks, one key being kept by the clergyman and the other by the churchwardens. Every Sunday the weddings, christenings and burials of the preceding week were to be entered in the register in the presence of the churchwardens (or a churchwarden). Every time they omitted to comply with the injunction, the party at fault was to forfeit 3s 4d to be used for the repair of the church.

The official keeping of parish registers in England and Wales starts with Cromwell's order. It is probable that records relating to important families had been kept before this time by the religious houses and by the clergy, but I know of no evidence relating to the keeping of any parish register in Wales before 1538. Records were sometimes kept in missals and other religious manuscripts e.g. the death of Issabelle Godynogh on 23 April, 1413 is recorded in the Caernarfon Book of Hours (N.L.W. Ms 17520). Poets and genealogists also recorded dates of births and deaths in their manuscripts 3 and dates are often given in verse in the eulogies and elegies of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Welsh poets. Such details are rare before the introduction of the official registers but they can be important because so few early registers have survived in Wales.

The Injunction of 1538 relating to the keeping of parish registers was repeated by Edward VI in 1547 with the variation that the fine of 3s 4d was to be used for the poor of the parish. 4 A similar order was issued by Elizabeth in 1559, the 3s 4d fine was by this order, however, directed to be divided equally between the poor and the repair of the church . 5 In 1598 Elizabeth confirmed a constitution issued (1597) by the convocation of the province of Canterbury which directed the more careful keeping of parish registers. 6 The parishes were ordered to buy parchment registers and the old registers, which had usually been of paper, were to be copied into the new parchment registers, especially from the first year of Elizabeth's reign .

. (1558). It was also ordered that a transcript of the entries was to be sent to the diocesan registry within a month of Easter every year. Similar instructions were included in the canons of 1603, confirmed by James I in 1604, but the transcripts were henceforth to be sent to the registry within a month of 25 March. 7

Estimates relating to the early parish registers extant in England vary. J. C. Cox estimated that there were 877 registers with entries from 1538 and 1539 extant in 1910. 8 There are very many registers in England with entries starting in 1558 or 1559 because the parishes took advantage of the special emphasis upon transcribing the old registers from the first year of Elizabeth's reign contained in the constitutions of 1598 but did not copy the earlier entries. 9

There were over nine hundred ancient parishes and chapelries in Wales but I know of only one parish, Gwaunysgor, co. Flint, which has a register with entries starting in 1538. 10 There are only about half a dozen registers which start before 1560 and only about seventy registers which start before 1600, and many of these start near the end of the sixteenth century. The purchase of the register of Berriew, co. Montgomery, in 1602 is noted in the register but the entries copied into the register start only in 1596. Over half of these early registers belong to parishes in the diocese of St. Asaph. Very few early registers have survived in the diocese of St. Davids and the diocese of Swansea and Brecon (which was part of the diocese of St. Davids until 1923). In many parishes in the diocese of St. Davids no registers before the printed form registers introduced in 1813 have survived and in many other parishes the printed form marriage register introduced in 1754 is the earliest surviving register. The registers of nearly all the parishes in the diocese of St. Asaph start before 1754 but in over half the parishes in the diocese of St. Davids there is now no register dating before 1754.

The situation is similar as regards the transcripts of the registers (commonly referred to as 'the bishops trancripts') which were ordered to be sent to the diocesan registry annually from 1598 onwards. 11 Transcripts dating from 1598 have survived in several English dioceses and in some dioceses there are transcripts from before 1598. 12 There are no transcripts before 1662 in the Welsh dioceses and for a large number of parishes the transcripts do not start until much later and even then they are often incomplete. 13 There are no transcripts for practically the whole of the eighteenth century for the parishes in the archdeaconry of Cardigan and in the archdeaconry of St. Davids. There are very few transcripts for parishes in the diocese of Llandaff before 1723. Despite all that has been lost through accident and neglect however a great deal has survived. I hope to show this in describing the surviving registers, firstly in the context of the general history of the registers and then by a more detailed description of their contents.

The language of the registers varies between Latin and English from parish to parish and within individual registers from period to period until about 1731. An Act of Parliament passed in that year declared that proceedings in courts of justice should be in the English language from 25 March 1733. 14 Latin is not used in the parish registers except for a few years in a small number of parishes after 1732.

Although the Act did not relate to parish registers, it was assumed that it did apply to them as can be seen from the memoranda relating to the Act in a number of parish registers such as the following from the register of Llanbadarn Fawr, co. Cardigan, in 1733

Note that Hence-forward we are Oblig'd by Act of
Parliament, to keep our Register Book in English.

English was the official language of the law courts during the period 1651-60 15 also and English is commonly used in the parish registers especially after the 1653 Act 16 relating to parish registers.

After the Restoration most registers were kept in Latin and this continued until the end of the century when the use of English becomes more common. Welsh was used occasionally in the registers, most frequently in the mid-eighteenth century, but entries in Welsh occur only in a few parishes and for very short periods. But although the language used is Latin or English, the entries commonly have an undoubted Welshness because of the use of Welsh personal names and of the traditional Welsh mode of naming as can be seen from the following examples:

  • David ap Res ap ho ell et ) nupti 10 0 die maii
    morvyth vch ho ell ap Einga[n] )
    Res ap hugh sepult fuit 11 0 die maii
    David ap Res ap Ierwerth sepult 20 0 maii.
  • Didvill verch dd the daughter of dd ab
    gwilime was baptised the seventh day of June
    in the yeare next above written [i.e. 1573]
    yvan willm ap rosser was buried the xxvii th
    day of november ano dni 1573 Regniq[ue] 16.
    lewys ap owen & wenllia[n] verch llen
    were maried the xiiii th day of June ao dni 1573.

The ordinances relating to parish registers up to 1603 have been described. On 4 January 1644/5 an ordinance was issued directing that henceforth vellum registers should be used and that the date of birth and death as well as the date of baptism and burial should be recorded in the registers. 17 These instructions are rarely reflected in the parish registers because in most parishes there are no entries in the registers for the Civil War and Interregnum period and where there are entries they are usually very defective. In the registers which contain entries from this period it is obvious that the most drastic change took place as a consequence of an Act dated 24 August 1653. 18 By this Act, which became operative on 29 September 1653, the registers were taken from the ministers and civil officials called Registers were appointed to be responsible for the registers. This official was to be chosen by 'the Inhabitants and Housholders of every Parish chargeable.

. to the relief of the poor' and he was to 'be sworn and approved by one justice of the Peace'. The Register was to keep the register-book and to enter therein all publications (of the intention to marry), marriages, births and burials. He was authorised to charge twelve pence for publications and the certificate thereof, twelve pence for every entry of marriage, four pence for every entry of birth, and four pence for every entry of death, but he was to take nothing from poor people who lived upon alms. The greatest change took place in relation to marriages. The Register was to publish all intended marriages 'three several Lords-days then next following, at the close of the morning Exercise, in the publique Meeting-place commonly called the Church or Chappel or (if the parties so to be married shall desire it) in the Market-place next to the said Church or Chappel, on three Market-days in three several weeks next following, between the hours of eleven and two which being so performed, the Register shall (upon the request of the parties concerned) make a true Certificate of the due performance thereof, without which Certificate, the persons herein after authorized shall not proceed in such marriage'. The Act declared that the only legal marriage was a civil contract made before a justice of the peace to whom the certificate of publication had to be presented and who had also to be satisfied of the consent of parents if either of the parties was under twenty one years of age. When this Act was confirmed, 26 June 1657, the clause which declared that no other marriage was 'accounted a Marage according to the Laws of England' was declared null and void. 19

The 1653 Act contained detailed instructions concerning the procedure in marriages and the registering of births and burials but the details in the registers which contain entries for the period 1653-60 vary a great deal. Entries for baptisms rather than births are quite common and the marriage entries often contain no references to publications or justices of the peace. It is fairly certain that a great many couples were married in the church in the traditional manner after going through the civil marriage ceremony. The following entry from the register of Tremeirchion, Co. Flint, reflects the many elements which may be recorded in a marriage entry.

Thomas Hughes & Jane Morgans (after their Banes were thrice asked at Dymerchion & Kilken: & Certificates thereof exhibited before a justice of peace) were lawfully married at the p[ar]ish Church of Caerwys the 28th day of March 1654.
Testante Rich' Jones Vi :s

Publications and marriages are regularly entered in the register of Ilston, co. Glamorgan, and some of the publications were made on three market days at Swansea. A protest against publications (in October and November 1654.) is recorded in this register. It related to the proposed marriage of 'William Barwick of Lanridian & Margrett Quick, widdow of the same p[ar]ish'. It was objected 'againste them att that time by David hughes of Penbray ytt the said Marett Quick widd' had promise to marrey with the said David hughes'. The objection was delivered to a justice of the peace who found it 'to be of no value'.

The Act of 1653 authorised justices of the peace to unite a number of small parishes 'which shall be accompted one Parish as to matters onely within this Act and one Register to serve for such Parishes and places so united'. In the Ilston register Llanrhidian is described as 'being united unto the p[ar]ish of Ilston' in accordance with this Act. The parishes of Bletherston, Llawhaden and Wiston in co. Pembroke were similarly united. The entries for these three parishes for the period 1653-7 were recorded in three separate sections within one register volume. The appointment of Griffith Twyning as Register for the three parishes is recorded at the beginning of the volume. In this register a number of marriages which took place before Sir Erasmus Phillipps at Picton Castle and before Richard Castle at Narberth Castle are recorded. The following examples of entries are from the Wiston section of this register:

Jon Mirriman & ffrancis Nash widd' were published in wiston church 3 sev[er]all lords daies / To witt / the last of Aprill the 7th & the 14th of May 1654 & were Maried at Picton Castle by Sir Erasmus Phillipps barr' the 15th day of May 1654. Henry the sonn of Jon Eynon & Mary his wife was borne the 27th of october 1654. Judith Baker widd' was buried the 8th of november 1654.

In the registers where there are entries for the Civil War and Interregnum period it is obvious that they are very defective in many cases because there are so few entries and then only for a few years. In the register of Ruabon, co. Denbigh, for instance, there are very few entries for the period 1644-62. There is less than a page of entries of baptisms between April 1644 and October 1653. On 6 October 1653 there is a long memorandum in the register, signed by a justice of the peace, confirming the appointment of John Powell as Register after he had been chosen by the parishioners in accordance with the law. Following the memorandum there is less than half a page of entries under the heading 'Borne and baptised' which cease in the following January, with one additional entry for 1659. At the bottom of the page there is a note by the curate of Ruabon stating that John Powell 'entered no more names into this books then are above written while he was parish Register viz from Sept: 29 1653 unto Jun: 1: 1662' when the register was returned to the curate. There is a similar memorandum relating to the burial entries where John Powell is described as 'Parish Register in the fanaticke times'. There are no marriage entries for this period in the register and 'Clandestine justices marriages not entered' has been written alongside the memorandum explaining the gap in the marriage entries.

There may be a satisfactory official explanation for the gap in the entries after 1653 in the Ruabon register. At a meeting of the Denbighshire Quarter Sessions at Ruthin, 4 October 1653, the justices appointed 'Capt Wm. Res to be register for the p[ar]ishes of Wrexham, Ruabon, & Arbistocke & Wrexham to be the place of publication'. 20 Since Wrexham is named as the place of publication it is possible that the entries for the three parishes were made in the Wrexham register.

Unfortunately this cannot be confirmed because the Wrexham register for this period has not survived. At the same meeting three other Registers were appointed, one each for the commotes of Is Dulas, Is Aled and Uwch Dulas. There is evidence in the register of Beaumaris, co. Anglesey, of similar action and that it had been intended to use the register of Beaumaris for the commote of Dindaethwy. It is possible, using ultra-violet light, to read the names of about ten parishes at the top of different pages in the register. The few entries made under these parish headings have been deleted and the pages used for Beaumaris entries at a later period. There are only a few entries for Beaumaris itself for this period and they appear to have been written at a later date because they are not in date order. The entries for births relate to only a few families such as Beane, Hussey and Manley. Most of the marriage entries recorded, they belong to the period 1653-6, took place before one of the bailiffs of the borough, and one each before the mayor and a justice of the peace:

With the Restoration the clergy became responsible for the registers again and returned to the old individual methods of registering baptisms, marriages and burials, in Latin or English. The earliest registers of many parishes start soon after the Restoration. In some registers there is a memorandum welcoming the Restoration. In the register of New Radnor, co. Radnor, it is described as '.. . the reestablishment of the church of God in Trueth and Peace by the blessed returne of or dread Soveraigen Lord Charles the 2d'. Lewis James, the curate of Bedwellte, Co. Monmouth, also recorded the restoration of the King 'after his ma tees long Travells and Troubles' and also his own restoration to his cure from which he had been ejected.

Be it Remembred That the Twentieth day of June 1650, Lewis James Clre then Curate of Bedwelltie, was Eiected att Chepstol, and (after his tenne yeares Eiectmt.) he began (againe) to Read & preach in Bedwelltie Church aforesaid, uppon Sunday, being the Twentieth day of May 1660, (Edmund Rosser haveing given over the place ye. Sunday before, 13 0 Maii 1660.)

Coffins were not commonly used for burials until the eighteenth century. 21 In order to support the woollen industry Parliament enacted laws in 1666 22 and 1678 23 directing the burial of corpses in wool only. Following the 1678 Act it was necessary for an affidavit to be made to the minister within eight days stating that the requirements of the law had been fulfilled. The names of the persons who made the declarations are often noted beside the burial entries in the registers or a note to the same effect follows the entry of burial. The affidavits were recorded in a separate volume in some parishes such as Dolgellau, co. Merioneth, where there is a separate volume for the period 1678-1708. The following is an example of a declaration from that volume in 1694:

I recd an Affidavit the 21th day of Aprill made by Edd. Jon. Ellisae of this p[ar]ish sealed & subscribed by Lewis John & Gryffith ap Richard wittnesses & taken before & subscribed by Jon Owen Cler Min er of Talyllyn in this County of Merioneth that the above registered Gwen vch Humphrey was buried in woollen onely according to ye statute in yt Case made & provided

Maurice Jones Rectr.

There was a fine of £5 for not complying with the Act by burying the corpse in linen or material other than wool. One half of the fine went to the poor of the parish and the other half to the person who provided the information relating to the non-compliance with the law. The Act was not repealed until 1814 24 but it appears to have been generally disregarded long before then. In the register of Abernant, co. Carmarthen, however, the following memorandum was written in August 1800:

An Oath was made before me that the two last were buried in Flannel according to an Act of 30 C 2 Ch 3. But notwithstanding the party belonging to the Burial of Jane W. of Joel David of Pantyllyn have been frequently admonished by me, they totally disregarded my admonition & neglected to comply with the above mentioned Act.

Dd. Lewis Vr. of Abernant.

In 1694 the Crown was granted a tax for five years on every birth, marriage and burial and an annual tax of 1/- upon bachelors and widowers over 25 years of age. 25 These taxes were granted 'for carrying on the war against France with vigour'. There was a graduated scale of taxation, the ordinary rate being 2/- for every birth, 2/6 for every marriage, and 4/- for every burial paupers were excepted, but a duke for example paid £30 upon the birth of an eldest son. The tax was payable upon birth and not upon christening and in the following year an Act was passed imposing a fine of 40/- upon parents who did not inform the minister within five days of the birth of a child. 26 The parents were to pay sixpence to the clergy for recording the birth of a child who was not christened. There was so much avoidance of the tax, however, that in 1705 an Act was passed to safeguard the clergy from the heavy penalties they had incurred by not applying the law effectively. 27

The next important Act relating to parish registers was passed in 1753. 28 The purpose of the Act was the 'preventing of Clandestine Marriages', which had attained scandalous proportions. It was commonly known as Lord Hardwicke's Act. By this Act all marriages from 25 March 1754 had to be either by licence or after the calling of banns. They were to be solemnised in some church or chapel which had been customarily used for such a purpose and in the parish of residence of one of the parties, unless by special licence. The marriage was to be registered in a volume separate from that used for registering baptisms and burials and there was a prescribed form of entry for banns and marriages. Following this Act .

. Nonconformists, apart from Quakers and Jews, had to marry in the established church until the 1836 Marriage Act came into force on 1 July 1837. 29 Register books with the prescribed form of entry printed with blank spaces for the details were published and used in most parishes but manuscript registers with entries written according to the prescribed form were used in a fair number of parishes. There was more than one type of printed register. In one type there was one long entry recording the banns and the marriage together, in the other type the banns and the marriage were recorded separately either in two separate sections within one volume or in two separate volumes. The following example is from the register of Llanbadarn Fawr, co. Cardigan, which is printed according to the first pattern:

Banns of Marriage between Shadrach Jones and Averina Jones were publish'd
on the twenty-first & twenty-eighth Days of April, & on the fifth Day of May 1754.

No. 1. Shadrach Jones of the Parish of Llanfihangel Geneu'r Glin
Miller and Averina Jones
of this
Parish Spinster were
Married in this Church by Banns
this Tenth Day of May in the Year One Thousand Seven Hun-
dred and fifty four by me John Edwards Cler, Vicar.
This Marriage was solemnized between Us Shadrach Jones
the mark of
Averina A J Jones

In the Presence of Thomas John
Evan John

There are marriage entries in Welsh according to the prescribed form in the manuscript register of Llanllwchaearn, co. Cardigan, from 1754 to 1761, and in the manuscript register of Llanhywel and Llandeloy, co. Pembroke, from 1754 to 1765.
The clandestine marriages, which the 1753 Marriage Act was intended to prevent, are sometimes noted in the parish registers. In the register of Llawhaden and Bletherston, Co. Pembroke, four such marriages are listed in 1748 and there may have been more because the bottom of the page has been cut off. Occasionally there are references in the baptismal entries as in the following entry from the register of Dolgellau, co. Merioneth in 1733:

Catherine the daughter of William Jones and Ursula his pretended wife by a Clandestine Marriage was baptised the third day of June.

At least two types of register with printed forms for recording baptisms and burials were published before the end of the eighteenth century. In 1781 J. Nichols of London published registers entitled Proposed Form of Register for Baptisms and Proposed Form of Register for Burials. The volumes have an interesting introduction which refers to the various orders and laws relating to the keeping of registers and suggests improvements in the methods of caring for churchyards. Six pages were set aside at the end of the volume, two pages for an alphabetical index to facilitate the searching of the register, and four pages for noting happenings of interest .

. in the parish. The pattern for the entries can be seen from the following column headings and entries from the printed registers used in the parish of Hubberston, co. Pembroke, where the entries start in 1783 and continue until 1812:


Parish registers are records of baptisms that were performed by churches of all denominations. The churches would record all baptisms that they performed in registers.

These records are the official source of information for births that occurred before 1856 when civil registration began in NSW. Churches continued to record baptisms after this date. These records after 1856 can be a useful supplement to the official certificate.

Find parish registers on microfilm in the family history area in the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room.


Derbyshire Parish Registers Online

A guide to accessing Derbyshire Anglican church registers from 1538 online via Ancestry.

What are parish registers?

Parish registers have been, and still are, created by all Anglican churches. They record ceremonies of baptism, marriage and burial. Between 1538 and 1753 all ceremonies were recorded in the same register, usually, though not always, chronologically. From 1754, marriages were recorded in a separate pre-printed register, and from 1813, separate pre-printed registers were required for baptisms and burials as well. For many parishes from 1754 there are also banns registers that record the reading of banns for three weeks prior to a marriage ceremony taking place. The banns are read in the bride and groom’s parish not just the parish in which the ceremony is taking place.

Especially before the establishment of civil registration for births, marriages and deaths in 1837, the parish registers are the key source available to family historians.

Which parish registers are available on Ancestry?

Images of the original parish registers are arranged into four ‘record collections’ as follows:

  • Derbyshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812 (note: this only includes marriages to 1754)
  • Derbyshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1932
  • Derbyshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1916
  • Derbyshire, England, Church of England Burials, 1813-1991

In addition to these collections which have been provided in association with Derbyshire Record Office, there are also the following categories which do not include any images or refer to all entries in the original registers as they are transcripts from published sources:

  • Derbyshire, England, Select Church of England Parish Registers 1538-1910 (similar to IGI)
  • Derbyshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records (taken from published sources including Phillimore’s Derbyshire parish registers: Marriages and Derbyshire Record Society’s Chesterfield Parish Register 1558-1600 and 1601-1635.
Searching the Derbyshire parish registers

You can search across all the records and categories available on Ancestry using the general search from the home page. Alternatively, if you know your ancestor was baptised, married or buried in Derbyshire, we recommend specifically searching the Derbyshire parish registers.

1. From the top menu, click ‘Search’ and then select ‘Card Catalog’:

2. In the title field, type Derbyshire, followed by the type of record you are searching for (i.e. baptisms, marriages or burials) and then click ‘Search’:

3. Select the collection covering the date range you wish to search:

From here you can then enter the details of the person you are searching for, including specifying a particular place, or just simply typing Derbyshire.

Alternatively, you can also browse a specific register without using the search facility at all – this is particularly useful if the search has not returned any relevant results but you are sure the event did take place in Derbyshire (unfortunately, it is never possible for the transcripts in the searches to be completely free from human error). To browse, select the parish name from the list on the right:

Once you have selected the parish name you are interested in, you then need to select the date range you wish to browse. Some of the date ranges do overlap, and you may find you need to check both. Particularly if the date range is very long, you may want skip ahead rather than clicking through each page one at a time. You can do this using the small tool at the bottom of the page and jumping ahead to a different page number (this may take a bit of guess work).

Unfortunately, many of the earlier registers are not arranged in an obvious chronological order and identifying the correct page is therefore awkward. In these cases we recommend browsing the register page-by-page until you find the correct date and entry type (i.e. baptism/marriage/burial).

Errors on the databases

Unfortunately, as thousands of registers were added across the four collections in one go, there have been some errors in the labelling on the Ancestry site. We have been meticulously working through each register on the four datasets to identify the errors so that Ancestry can correct them. Most of the errors are minor and concern the links for the ‘date ranges’ covered for each parish. However, some of the errors are much more significant as the register has been labelled up as the wrong place. The process of correcting the errors is taking much longer than we had anticipated, so please continue to bear with us. In the meantime, here is the list of post-1813 baptism registers that are mis-labelled:


Church Records

Parish registers of all denominations are an excellent source of genealogical research as they contain baptisms, marriages and sometimes deaths/burials for all classes of the population.

They also pre-date the introduction of civil registration in Ireland in 1864 in most cases.

Roman Catholic

Original registers are kept in the individual parishes. The records on this website were compiled from these locally held registers in the majority of cases.

The start dates of the recording of baptisms and marriages can vary widely from parish to parish. You will need to check what exists and what is available to search online. The registers can be difficult to decipher names and addresses were not standardized it may not be possible to find a complete family in one parish as sometimes families move between parishes and adjacent counties.

Many of the Catholic parishes in Ireland and Northern Ireland up to 1880 are online and can be used in conjunction with the index on this website. The website at registers.nli.ie contains images from the NLI’s collection of Catholic parish register microfilms. This website contains an index and transcriptions of the majority of the Irish Catholic parish registers. As our index was mainly compiled using the parish registers held in the local parishes there will be differences between what we hold and what may be on other websites. There are records on this site that are not on the National Library’s Parish Registers site. The National Library may also have some parish registers that are not on this site.

We have provided a link to the relevant microfilmed Catholic parish register which can be found at the bottom of a record transcript if there is a match. This link will bring you to the relevant parish register of baptism or marriage. It will not bring you to the page on which the record was originally entered.

The microfilmed parish registers are not complete they cover the period up to 1880/81, whereas the records on www.rootsireland.ie go to at least 1899. You should check the Online Sources lists to see exactly what has been made available on www.rootsireland.ie by each participating county genealogy centre. However, if you are searching in the period post-1880 the transcripts available on www.rootsireland.ie cover the majority of the counties in Ireland.

There are parish registers on this site that have never been microfilmed likewise not every parish register has been transcribed by our county genealogy centres. We are continuing to index records and regular updates are made to our website.

The Irish Family History Foundation has been the coordinating body for a network of county genealogy centres and family history societies on the island of Ireland for over thirty years. The genealogy centres’ databases include various denominations of church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials, census returns/substitutes, and gravestone inscriptions.

New records will be added as the computerisation of sources continues in the local genealogy centres.

Church of Ireland

The Church of Ireland, as the Established Church, had a more regular system of recording entries, using formatted books long before its Catholic counterpart, making its registers easier to research.

Many Church of Ireland registers were destroyed in the fire at the Public Record Office, the Four Courts, Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Surviving parish registers are held locally by the rector whose permission must be sought to consult them, or they are in the RCB (Representative Church Body) Library.


Old Parish Registers

Before the introduction of civil registration in 1855 Church of Scotland parish ministers and session clerks kept registers of births and baptisms, proclamations of banns and marriages, and deaths and burials. Approximately 3500 of these Old Parish Register (OPR) volumes have survived. They are far from complete and contain much less information than the statutory registers of births, deaths and marriages.

The earliest entry is for Christian Hay who was baptised on 27 December 1553 in Errol in Perthshire (OPR 351/1).

You can search the Old Parish Registers as index-linked digital images on our ScotlandsPeople website, at the ScotlandsPeople Centre and at Local Family History Centres. You can also order an official extract from the registers.

This guide provides details of the gaps in the records, examples of the different types of entries you will find as well as sections on Scottish handwriting, personal names, place-names and further reading. There are separate pages for:

  • Old Parish Registers - Births and Baptisms
  • Old Parish Registers - Marriages and Proclamations of Banns
  • Old Parish Registers - Deaths and Burials
  • Coverage of the Old Parish Registers (including the 'Detailed list' 'List of OPRs' and post-1854 entries)
  • Change in Calendar - Dates in the Old Parish Registers
Scottish Handwriting

Some entries are difficult to read because they were badly written or the ink has faded over time. In older records there are unfamiliar handwriting styles and abbreviations. We provide online tuition, evening classes and a self-help pack on Scottish handwriting. The Palaeography page has further details. Our Scottish Handwriting.com website includes several examples from the Old Parish Registers.

The ScotlandsPeople Centre's Reference Library holds published transcripts of several early Old Parish Registers.

Personal Names in the Old Parish Registers

The spelling of surnames can vary, for example, Kinel or Kinnell Johnston, Johnstone or Johnstoun and MacDonald, McDonald or Mcdonald. You will also find inconsistencies in the recording of fore-names, for example, Jean as Jessie or Jane Margaret as Maggie and Elizabeth as Betsy.

Traditional naming patterns result in the same names being repeated in different generations, for example, John, James, William and Robert for boys and Margaret, Mary, Janet or Elizabeth for girls. Sometimes if a child died in infancy the parents gave the next child the same name.

Place-names in the Old Parish Registers

Our publication ‘Civil Parish Map Index’ can be consulted in the search rooms and copies are available for sale in the Shop. There is a small collection of maps and plans plus gazetteers and place-name guides in the ScotlandsPeople Centre's Reference Library.

Further Reading

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Cameron, Anne ‘The fate of the Old Parish Registers under the Registration Act of 1854’ describes how the changeover from the ecclesiastical to the statutory system of registration took place at parish level (Published on the Scottish way of birth and death from the records of the Registrar General 1855-1939 website under detailed research)

Seton, George, 'Sketch of the history and imperfect condition of the parochial registers of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland'. The author became the first Secretary in the General Registry Office of Births, etc in 1855 (equivalent to today's Deputy Registrar General post).

Edina, Statistical Accounts of Scotland online 1791-1845 has contemporary commentary on the state of the registers.

For information about the parish registers of other countries please go to our Useful Websites - Births, Deaths and Marriages page.


Research Help: Irish Church Records Explanation

Before the commencement of civil registration in Ireland, parish records are the most important source of information for those researching their ancestry. There is, however, much confusion amongst genealogists and historians concerning the existence or availability of Irish parish records.

The first problem is identifying which records exist for a particular area and the period covered. A parish is an administrative unit, be it civil or religious. In general, the Church of Ireland parish boundaries follow those of the civil parish. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries many new parishes were formed (particularly in urban areas) and some old parishes were united as a result of falling populations. Many of these changes are recorded in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1838). The boundaries of Roman Catholic parishes can be difficult to define as, on the whole, they do not conform to those of the Church of Ireland or to civil parishes. Another problem is that the names of Roman Catholic parishes not only differ from those of civil and Church of Ireland parishes, but may also be known by several names.

In Ireland Protestant dissenters, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, do not conform to a parish structure, but are Congregational in their church government. In ordinary terms, this means that their followers were not (generally) tied to attending any particular church, chapel or meetinghouse.

In where the name of a Minister or Priest is known, but not to which parish or congregation he was attached, it is worthwhile consulting the various published directories of the various denominations. The Irish Catholic Directory was first published in 1836 the earliest directory for the Church of Ireland was published in 1814 as the Ecclesiastical Registry by Samuel Percy Lea the first Irish Presbyterian Directory was published in 1840 as McComb’s Presbyterian Almanac the minutes of the annual conferences of Irish Methodists have been published from 1746.

The information contained in parish registers differs, depending not only on the denomination concerned, but also upon the individual who maintained the register. Among Disstenters and Roman Catholics, many registers were simply notebooks and on the death of the minister or priest were often considered that person’s personal property and passed out of the hands of the church. While other register books were in a printed format (particularly so in the Church of Ireland), often all the details that were meant to be inserted were not. Another point to remember is that while many registers were written neatly, some others can be extremely difficult to read.

The information recorded in Irish parish registers will usually include:
* Baptism – Name of the child and date of baptism and birth (usually only date of baptism in early registers), names of the father and mother and their home address. In Roman Catholic registers the mother’s maiden name is normally recorded and the names of least two Godparents. In Church of Ireland registers, the father’s occupation may be recorded.
* Marriage – Usually record the names of both parties and the home address of each and the names and addresses of at least two witnesses. From the middle of the 1850s Roman Catholic registers (particularly in urban areas) often record both parents’ names and their address. In Church of Ireland registers, before the advent of civil registration, the name of the bride’s father is far more likely to be recorded than ever that of the groom. Protestant Dissenters often married in the Church of Ireland because of the legal implications relating to the validity in law of marriage. [Jane – refer here to ‘See also section on Civil Registration’].
* Burial – The name of the deceased and the home address and date of burial. Church of Ireland registers will often include the deceased’s age, occupation and cause of death. More often than not Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters failed to maintain any type of burial records.

Roman Catholic Records

There are very few Catholic records which pre-date 1800. Those that do tend to relate to urban areas and were begun in the very late eighteenth century. In general, records date from the 1820’s-30’s. Few parishes have maintained burial records.

Most Roman Catholic parishes contain a parish church and a number of other smaller churches or chapels. Usually only one register will have been kept for the whole parish, but occasionally it might be found that each church or chapel has its own register. Establishing into which Roman Catholic parish a rural Irish address falls (especially those taken from civil registration records) can be difficult. The best and most reliable source is the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, which was published first in 1837. For example, having established that Balgeeth townland falls into the civil parish of Ardcath, in Co. Meath, by looking up the entry for the civil parish of Ardcath in Lewis one finds the description: “In the R.C. divisions the parish is the head of a union or district which comprises also the parish of Clonalvy and part of Piercetown, and contains two chapels, situated respectively at Ardcath and Clonalvy…” Thus, we have discovered that the whole of the civil parish of Ardcath falls into the Roman Catholic parish of the same name. The registers of Ardcath R.C. parish date from 1795.

The National Library of Ireland(NLI) has microfilmed almost all of Ireland’s Roman Catholic parish registers up to the year 1880 (and in more recent times filming has been extended to approximately 1900). Microfilm copies of the NLI’s Roman Catholic parish registers for the the six counties of Northern Ireland are also held at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast. PRONI also has copies for most of the parishes in counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, which are part of the province of Ulster, and some for counties Louth and Leitrim (which border Ulster).

Church of Ireland Records

The Church of Ireland, the state church in Ireland, was disestablished in 1869, and from the 1st January 1871 it became an entirely voluntary body. Under the direction of the Irish Master of the Rolls, and through the Parochial Records (Ireland) Act of 1875, it declared that marriage registers dated pre-1845, and baptismal and burial records pre-1871 were public records and should be deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin. Some parishes parishes opposed this decision and there was a further Act passed in 1876 which allowed records to remain in local custody, provided there was provision made for their safe keeping in the form of a fire-proof safe.

By 1922, the records of 1,006 Church of Ireland parishes had been deposited in the Irish Public Record Office, while a further 637 parishes kept their records in local custody. When the Public Record Office was consumed by fire during the Irish civil war in 1922, all but four sets of registers were completely destroyed. The first thing that people hear when they begin Irish research is that all Irish Church of Ireland parish records were destroyed in 1922, but the above figures show that over one third survived.

This was a loss to all, not just members of the Church of Ireland, because these registers also contained information on both Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters.

The privileged position of the Church, up to about 1800, gave it the exclusive right to administer the rites of baptism, marriage and burial. In reality, an ‘official’ blind-eye was turned and the non-Anglican denominations baptized, married and buried their own (although in large urban areas most burials came under some sort of notice of the Church of Ireland as that church controlled almost all urban graveyards and would thus be recorded in Church of Ireland parish registers).

The best publication to consult to establish the current situation relating to Church of Ireland parish registers is ‘A Table of Church of Ireland Parochial Records and Copies’, edited by Noel Reid and published by the Irish Family History Society in 1994. A typical entry records the name of the parish, the years for which the records were extant up to 1922, whether they survived and where they are now held (in original form, microfilm or transcript). However, bear in mind that this publication dates from 1994 and is now out of date in places.

Only the records of baptism, marriage and burial were covered by the Parochial Records Act (1875), all other records kept by Anglican parishes remained in local custody. In more recent years many parishes from the Irish Republic have deposited their records at the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin (which is a stated place of deposit for Church of Ireland records under the 1987 National Archives Act. The types of records, other than registers of vital events, which can be of use to family historians are such items as vestry minutes, confirmation rolls, lists of names of parishioners.

Methodist Church Records

When John Wesley came to Dublin in 1747 shortly after Methodism had been planted in Ireland. Those who joined Methodist societies were from all Protestant denominations, but in doing so remained in full membership with their own churches.

There was a split in Irish Methodism in 1816/1817 over the issue of retaining loose links with the Church of Ireland and the administering by Methodist preachers of the rite of baptism (and to a lesser extant that of marriage). The result was that two bodies emerged, the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion (now a formal church) which from then on allowed its preachers to baptize and marry and the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which held that its members should still subscribe to the Church of Ireland to the rites of baptism, marriage and communion. However, after the distebalishment of the Church of Ireland, the split between these two bodies appeared to matter little and in 1878 they united to become the Methodist Church in Ireland.

Other branches of Methodism include the Primitive Methodist Connexion, which began in England in 1812, and which was also established in Ireland from 1832 The Rev. John McClure, amongst others, is credited with bringing the Methodist New Connexion to Ireland when he began preaching in Dublin in the autumn of 1800. One year later, in the New Connexion conference minutes, Dublin is referred to as a circuit.

Irish Wesleyan Methodists only began keeping registers of baptism and marriage from the time of the split in 1816/1817, before that one should expect to find relevant records of these events amongst the records of the Church of Ireland (and to a lesser extent the various Presbyterian churches). Primitive Wesleyan Methodists did not begin to perform (and thus record) the rites of baptism and marriage until shortly before the Irish Methodist union in 1878.

Registers are usually maintained on a circuit basis, and their start dates tend to be somewhere between 1816/17 and c1830. A further source for baptismal records of Irish Wesleyan Methodists is the Irish Wesleyan Methodist Connexional Baptismal Register. This record is an official church transcript, compiled during the mid-nineteenth century, of almost all of the then surviving baptismal registers for the various circuits. It covers the period c1815 to c1845. It can be seen on microfilm in both the National Library of Ireland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Very few Irish Methodist churches have burial grounds.

Most of the Methodist churches from the six counties of Northern Ireland, (Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) and Tyrone) have had their registers and other records microfilmed by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). PRONI has also filmed many, but not all, Methodist records from the counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, which are in the Irish Republic.

Presbyterian Church Records

Presbyterianism was introduced into Ireland in the seventeenth century by ‘planters’ from Scotland. (An explanation of ‘planter’s and plantations in Ireland is in preparation) It should be remembered that the Penal Laws applied to all those who were not members of the Church of Ireland, the state church in Ireland. However, while other Penal Laws remained in force, after the passing of the Irish Toleration Act in 1719, all forms of Protestant dissenting public worship was legalised. Information on Presbyterians can also to be found in the registers and records of the Church of Ireland. While most rural Presbyterian congregations had burial grounds, few maintained burial registers until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As many Irish towns, particularly in the north of Ireland, had more than one Presbyterian church, to differentiate between each congregation to terms ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ were employed, i.e. Ballymena First, Ballymena Second. A number of congregations existing in a town might have been the result of some historical dispute over doctrine, the choice of minister, or simply because a congregation had grown too big and needed new accommodation.

There were a number of Presbyterian traditions in Ireland, the main ones being the Synod of Ulster and the Seceding Presbyterians (both of which now form a part of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland the Synods of Munster and Dublin which are in union with the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland the Covenanters and a number of small divisions.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has microfilmed almost all of the surviving registers for the Presbyterian congregations of the nine counties of Ulster, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) and Tyrone. A number of early original Presbyterian registers and records are held by the Presbyterian Historical Society for congregations from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

This society began in Ulster in the mid-17th century, mainly around Lurgan, Co. Armagh and Lisburn in Co. Antrim and birth, marriage and burial information exists from that time.

Abstracts were made of all monthly meetings from 1860 forward. These abstracts are located in the Dublin Friends Historical Library (DFHL) and are retrospective to the 1670’s. National Abstract Registers have been maintained in Dublin since 1859.

The DFHL holds the following: the registers, minute books and archival material belonging to each monthly meeting private papers, family photographs, and diaries.

Prof Theodore Moody (TCD)( 1907-1984) created a reference system for Society in 1984, arranging that microfilms of the Ulster province archives were given to the DHFL, and the Lisburn Archives.

ffeary-Smyrl, Steven C. Exploring Irish Genealogy, No. 1. Irish Methodists – Where do I start? published by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, Dublin 2000. ISSN: 1393-9645

Goodbody, Olive: Guide to Irish Quaker Records, 1654-1860
Eustace, P.B & Goodbody, O. Quaker Records, Dublin, Abstracts of Wills (2 vols.) Irish Manuscripts Commission 1954-58.


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