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The English Parish Registers

A parish register is a handwritten volume, normally kept in a parish church or deposited within a county record office or alternative archive repository, in which details of baptisms, marriages and burials are recorded.

Since medieval times an ecclesiastical parish had been that area in the charge of the clergyman at the parish church. Parishes began to acquire secular functions after the 1597 Elizabethan Poor law. Until the early 19c there were c 11,000 Anglican parishes in E & W. These parishes are often called ancient parishes to distinguish them from the many new parishes created since c 1830.

Administration of the parish was undertaken by a council known as the Vestry and by officials such as church wardens and overseers. In the 16c & 17c many administrative functions, such as highway repairs, were transferred from manorial courts to the parish which also became responsible for the care of the sick and the poor.

During the 19c responsibility for most secular matters was passed from parishes to central government, or to county or borough councils.

In the 19c the growth and change in population led to the building of many new Anglican churches and the creation of new parishes by dividing up some ancient parishes.

The ecclesiastical parish should be distinguished from a township or civil parish as it became known, which is also medieval in origin. Specifically, the Settlement Act of 1662 allowed large parishes to be divided for poor law purposes into their constituent "townships or villages" and in parts of England, particularly in the northern counties, it was the ancient secular administrative unit, the township or ville, rather than the ancient ecclesiastical parish, which had responsibility for raising poor rates and thus became the civil parish of the 19th century.

To remove confusion, the civil divisions termed hamlets, townships, chapelries, liberties and tithings were all renamed parishes by the 1866 Poor Law Amendment Act. From 1871, ecclesiastical parishes that had not been subdivided into townships or chapelries became civil parishes for civil administration purposes. A tithing was another sub-division of the parish, usually for Poor Law purposes, originally one tenth of a Hundred in area.

The modern day civil parish was confirmed in 1889 as the lowest level of local secular government and is largely based on the original ecclesiastical parish boundaries.

As far as practical Genealogy research goes it is mainly the historic ecclesiastical parish that is relevant.

Transcriptions and indices

Most registers have been deposited in diocesan archives or county record offices. Where these have been filmed, copies are available to scan from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the Family History Library. Microfiche copies of parish registers, along with transcriptions, are usually available at larger local libraries and county record offices.

Since Victorian times, amateur genealogists have transcribed and indexed parish registers. Some societies have also produced printed transcripts and indexes, notably the Parish Register Society, the Harleian Society and Phillimore & Co. The Society of Genealogists, in London, has a very large selection of such transcripts and indexes. The LDS Library in Salt Lake City also has a vast collection of films of original registers.

The LDS, for its own purposes, has also produced an index (the IGI), of very many register entries, mostly baptisms and marriages. The IGI is available as a searchable database on the Internet and on micro-form matter at local "Family History Centres". Like all transcripts and indexes, the IGI should be used with caution, as errors can occur in legibility of the original or microfilm of the original, in reading the original handwriting, and in entering the material to the transcription. "Batch entries" are generally more reliable than "individual submissions." The IGI has included 'user submissions' in it's database, so you will need to double check any results from them to be certain of the validity of the information.

The History of English Registers

In 1497 Cardinal Ximenes introduced a register of baptisms, first in Toledo, then throughout western Europe. In 1563 the Roman Catholic Church ordered the general keeping of baptismal and marriage registers.

On 5 September 1538, following the split with Rome, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Vicar General, ordered that each parish priest must keep a book, and that the Parson, in the presence of the wardens, must enter all the baptisms, marriages and burials of the previous week. The book was to be kept in a "sure coffer" with two locks (one key for the vicar, the other for the wardens). A fine of 3s 4d was to be levied for failure to comply. Many parishes ignored this order, believing it to be the forerunner of some new tax.

The order was repeated in 1547 with the stipulation that the fine was to go to the relief of the poor.

From 1598 records were to be kept in 'great decent books of parchment' and copies or 'Bishop's Transcripts' of new entries were to be sent each month to the diocesan centre. Previous records (especially from the first year of Her Majesty's reign (1558), often on scraps of paper, had to be copied into the new books, but many had deteriorated and were unreadable. The costs of the new books were to be met by charging for entries; this was opposed by many parishes and the act was not enforced until 1603. Finance was to be born by the Parish, and the books were to be kept in a chest with three locks. The week's entries were to be read out each Sunday after evensong.

During the English Civil War (1643 to 1647) and in the following Commonwealth period, records were poorly kept and many are now missing after being destroyed or hidden by the clergy. During 1653 to 1660 the registering of births, marriages and deaths was taken over by civil officers (confusingly called Parish Registers), but the registers were returned to the churches following the Restoration in 1660.

In order to encourage the wool trade, an act was passed in 1678 making it compulsory for all corpses to be buried in a shroud made of wool, an affidavit having to be made (and recorded in the register) that this had been done.

In 1694 the costs of each entry were drastically increased in order to finance a war against France (Marriages 12d => 1s 6d, Burials 4d => 4s, Baptisms 4d => 2s). In 1696 a tax of 6d had to be paid for any birth not reported within five days, and vicars were fined 2s for neglecting to record a birth; this was abandoned in 1706.

In 1711 it was ordered that the pages of registers were to be ruled and numbered (generally ignored) and in 1733 entries had to be made in English rather than Latin.

Before 1751 (when the calendar was reformed), the register year would go from Lady Day to Lady Day (25 March) so, for example 31 December 1740 would be followed by 1 January 1740 (actually 1741).

In 1754 Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act came into being. A separate Marriage Register was to be kept (later with pre-printed forms), and Banns were enforced and Clandestine Marriages made illegal.

In 1763 the minimum age for marriage was fixed at 16 (earlier only with a Licence from the Bishop) and parental consent was needed for anyone under 21. A stamp duty of 3d was imposed on entries from 1783 to 1794 but was exempt for paupers.

In 1812 an "Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England" (Rose's Act) was passed. It stated that "amending the Manner and Form of keeping and of preserving Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of His Majesty's Subjects in the several Parishes and Places in England, will greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates, and otherwise of great public Benefit and Advantage". Separate, printed registers were to be supplied by the King's Printer, and used for baptisms, marriages and burials. These are more or less unchanged to this day.

In 1853 the Cemetery Act allowed for civic cemeteries, many churchyards being full to overflowing.

In the United States, at least the parishes in the Roman Catholic dioceses maintained a similar practice of recording baptisms, marriages, burials, and often also confirmations and first communions. From the earliest pioneer churches ministered by itinerant priests, the records were written in ecclesiastical Latin. But after the Second Vatican Council and its reforms that included translating the Mass into local languages, most register entries gradually came to be written in English. In Protestant communions with stronger similarities to Roman Catholicism, parish registers are also important sources that document baptisms, marriages, and funerals. In Protestant and Evangelical churches, individual ministers often kept records of faith-related events among the congregation, but under much less guidance from any central governing body.

The contents have changed over time, not being standardised in England until the Acts of 1753 and 1812. The following are among what you can expect to find in later registers, though in the earlier ones it is quite common to find only names recorded. Early entries will be in some form of Latin, often abbreviated.

Bishops Transcripts 1598-?

A copy (or transcription) of one year's entries in a parish register were sent by each parish church incumbent to his bishop, usually at Easter. This practice was made general in 1598 although in some dioceses it had been customary from Queen Elizabeth I's reign. It is common place to find gaps, errors and omissions in the extant Bishop's Transcripts although they sometimes contain entries and valuable details omitted from the original register. BTs should be treated as a check on registers and a substitute when registers have gaps or are themselves missing.

Nonconformist registers

A Nonconformist register is broadly similar to a parish register, but deriving from a nonconformist church or chapel.

Nonconformist churches are protestant churches which do not conform to the doctrines of the established Church of England. Examples include the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian churches and the Quakers.

Following Hardwick's Marriage Act of 1753, all English and Welsh marriages (except those of Quakers and Jews) had to take place in a Church of England parish church. However any baptisms and burials (or equivalent ceremonies) from other denominations might take place within their own churches and chapels, and these were often recorded in their own nonconformist registers. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that there was no legal obligation for them to record any such events. A significant number of early nonconformist chapels never maintained any such registers, or they maintained them only sporadically. In earlier centuries such omissions might sometimes be partly due to fear of persecution. Occasionally marriages in other places of worship elsewhere might also be recorded (sometimes involving more than one ceremony), although such entries originally had no strict legal status.

Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of many nonconformist churches were collected and validated by the British government in 1837. These may be viewed at the Public Record Office in series RG 4. This followed long pressure for such unofficial registers to be given a measure of legal recognition. It had already resulted in an earlier system of limited registration for dissenters being established at Dr Williams's Library in London. Some local chapels promptly abandoned keeping their own registers, at least for a while, after this date (which coincided with the start of civil registration in England & Wales). However a second tranche of nonconformist registers was transferred to London after 1857, following a further report by a government commission.

After 1837 marriages could take place in many other licensed nonconformist chapels, provided that the local Superintendent Registrar was in attendance. Eventually the Marriage Act of 1898 enabled some of these chapels to dispense with this requirement, provided that they designated an Appointed Person (usually the minister or priest), who would be responsible for maintaining an official marriage register.

Many nonconformist registers have now been deposited in approved repositories, such as the local county record office. However different churches operate different policies, and it will often be found that rates of creation and survival for such records are less good than for other types of parish register. A number of such registers have also started to appear on-line.

Dade and Barrington Registers 1780-1812

Dade and Barrington Registers are detailed registers that contain more information than standard contemporary baptism and burial registers. They usually commence in the late eighteenth century, but come to an end in 1812, when they were superseded by the requirements of George Rose's 1812 Act, which required more information to be recorded than in normal registers, but actually required less information to be recorded than in Dade and Barrington Registers. There are examples of a few parishes continuing to keep Dade or Barrington Registers after 1813. In some cases, two registers were kept, for example in the Co Durham parish of Whickham both Barrington and Rose Registers were kept for the period 1813-1819, after which the former were discontinued.

Dade Registers are named after Rev. William Dade, a Yorkshire clergyman (b.1740) who went to St. John's College, Cambridge. From 1763 until his death in 1790, he was curate, vicar and rector of five parishes in York and two in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Dade was far ahead of his time in seeing the value of including as much information on individuals in the parish register as possible. In 1777 Archbishop William Markham decided that Dade's scheme should be introduced throughout his diocese. The baptismal registers were to include child's name, seniority (e.g. first son), father's name, profession, place of abode and descent (i.e. names, professions and places of abode of the father's parents), similar information about the mother, and mother's parents, the infant's date of birth and baptism. Registers of this period are a gold-mine for genealogists, but the scheme was so much work for the parish priests that it did not last long.

In 1770 Dade wrote in the parish register of St. Helen's, York: "This scheme if properly put in execution will afford much clearer intelligence to the researches of posterity than the imperfect method hitherto generally pursued." His influence spread and the term Dade register has come to describe any parish registers that include more detail than expected for the time.

The application of this system was somewhat haphazard and many clergymen, particularly in more populated areas, resented the extra work involved in making these lengthy entries. The thought of duplicating them for the Bishop's Transcripts put many of them off and some refused to follow the new rules. Several letters of complaint were printed in the York newspapers of the time, and the scheme suffered when the Archbishop indicated there was no punishment for vicars who failed to comply.

The Borthwick Institute for Archives recommends that researchers looking at Yorkshire parishes between 1770 and 1812 should check both sources.

From about 1783 the Rev Shute Barrington whilst Bishop of Salisbury instigated a somewhat simpler system than Dade's, and followed this in Northumberland and Durham from 1798, when he became Bishop of Durham.

Phillimore Marriage Registers 1538-early 20c

W.P. Phillimore, born William Phillimore Watts Stiff, was the son of Dr Stiff, a Nottingham Doctor. He later took the name Phillimore from the family of his grandmother. While educated as a lawyer, he was also a publisher of books. In later life, he began to transcribe marriage registers, which he later printed in book form. When he died in 1914, he had covered 1200 parishes from different counties in 200 volumes. He founded Phillimore & Co. Ltd in 1897, which have been publishing British local and family history for over a century.

Phillimore Marriage Records are a series of books published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Phillimore & Co. Ltd. They cover marriages from various parishes from each county, however there may be some omission as some of the registers have not survived. In some counties, the coverage of parishes is very good, whereas in other counties just a few parishes were transcribed - most counties do not have every parish transcribed.

Boyd's Marriage Index 1538-1840

Boyd's Marriage Index was compiled by Percival Boyd from printed and transcribed parish registers, Bishop's Transcripts, marriage licences and other sources. Only a percentage of actual marriages in each county is indexed. There are actually three series. The first series is arranged in county order; not all counties are included and not all parishes within each county. The second series, also called the Miscellaneous Marriage Index, is arranged in phonetic name order. The third series was completed by the library staff of the Genealogical Society, Salt Lake City, after Boyd's death in 1955. This series is arranged in strictly alphabetical order. For microfilming, the second and third series were combined and are called Boyd's Miscellaneous Marriage Index, Second Series. There are some counties included in the later series that were not included in the first series.

Note that all entries appear twice: once for the groom and once for the bride. There are some errors in the Boyd's indexes and information should always be checked against the original sources. The tally of parishes represented in Suffolk is the highest of any county covered in Boyd's; Norfolk only includes half as many. Note that although the County of London was not formed until 1888, the part of the first series called "London" and "Middlesex" includes parishes in the City of London and the county of Middlesex. Many persons living in nearby counties married in London.

Pallot's Marriage Index 1780-1837

Pallot's Index had its beginnings in the early 1800s, with the creation of an English firm of heir searchers. Subsequently it became the property of Messrs Pallot and Co. who gave the index its name.

Today, Pallot's Index belongs to the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies at Canterbury, Kent. They made it available for consultation at their library or allowed searches for a fee. Recently, has joined with the Institute to produce the index on CD-ROM and offer it through the databases on-line.

Once, Pallot's Index was much larger. Unfortunately, it suffered severe damage during World War II. What survives is roughly 1.5 million references to marriages and 200,000 references to births. It is the marriages, which are most useful, for London and environs in particular; there are entries for 101 of the 103 ancient parishes. Of the county marriages, there are listings for thirty eight counties, and for nine of these more than one hundred parishes are represented in the index: Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Middlesex/London, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Somerset, and Yorkshire is close behind with ninety three. Probably less than half of all parishes have been indexed for the full fifty-seven years, most are 1790 to 1812.

Pallot's Marriage Index for 1780-1837 has excellent coverage of the City of London and good coverage of Middlesex. Like the Pallot's Baptism Index it was started in 1818 and contains entries from registers now destroyed, but this index survives intact. The card index is owned and held at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, who sell copies on CD, and it is available on line via Ancestry. The original handwritten slips are hard to read and thus many errors have crept into the electronic version.

Civil Registers 1837 to date

In the United Kingdom, maintaining the civil registry is the duty of the General Register Office.

The mandatory civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales was introduced on 1 July 1837. Initially the onus lay on registrars to discover and record events. Subsequent legislation introduced similar systems in Ireland (all of which was then part of the United Kingdom), and Scotland.

The administration of individual registration districts is the responsibility of registrars in the relevant local authority. There is also a national body for each jurisdiction. The local offices are generally responsible both for maintaining the original registers and for providing copies to the national body for central retention. A superintendent registrar facilitates the legal preliminaries to marriage, conducts civil marriage ceremonies and retains in his/her custody all completed birth, death and marriage registers for the district. The office of the superintendent registrar is the district Register office, often referred to (informally) in the media as the "Registry office".

Today, both officers may also conduct statutory civil partnership preliminaries and ceremonies, citizenship ceremonies and other non statutory ceremonies such as naming or renewal of vows. Certified copies of the entries made by the registrars over the years are issued on a daily basis either for genealogical research or for modern legal purposes such as supporting passport applications or ensuring eligibility for the appropriate junior sports leagues.

On 1 December 2007 Registrars and Superintendent Registrars became employees of their local authority for the first time following the enactment of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.

Births in England and Wales must be registered within 42 days, whilst deaths must be registered within 5 days unless an inquest is called or a post mortem is held.

Marriages are registered at the time of the ceremony by either: (1) the officiating minister of the Church of England or the Church in Wales (2) an Authorised Person at a Registered Building, religious or not (3) a registrar at a Register Office, Registered Building or Approved Premise.

The official registers are not directly accessible by the general public. Instead, indexes are made available which can be used to find the relevant register entry and then request a certified copy of the details. Increasingly local indexes are being published on the Internet.

The General Register Office - now merged into the Office for National Statistics - has overall responsibility for registration administration.

Civil registration came into force in Scotland on January 1, 1855. A significant difference from the English system is the greater detail required for a registration. This means that if a certified copy of an entry is requested, it will contain much more information.

The General Register Office for Scotland has overall responsibility for registration administration and drafting legislative changes in this area (as well as census data). They are governed by the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1965 and subsequent legislation (responsibility for which has now been devolved to the Scottish Parliament).

Vicar-General Marriage Licences 1660-1850

The Archbishop of Canterbury, through his Vicar-General, issued common licences for couples to marry in any parish church or chapelry in the province of Canterbury. These Common licences merely dispensed with the calling of banns on three successive Sundays.

If the couple lived in different ecclesiastical provinces (one in the Province of Canterbury and one in York Province) an application had to be made to the Master of Faculties of the Archbishop of Canterbury. These licences were known as Faculty Office licences.

As the original licences were generally handed to the parties concerned, the records which survived in the custody of the Vicar-General's Office consisted of the marriage allegations (sworn statements in application for a licence) and, until 1823 when this requirement lapsed, marriage bonds. The Vicar-General's Office also kept a calendar of licences issued. The allegations show the full names of the bride and groom, whether over 21, their respective parish, and the church for which the marriage was licensed.

The original records of the Vicar-General are kept at Lambeth Palace Library, London. Full allegations corresponding to this index are available on microfiche. There is an index to the surnames of couples entered in the manuscript calendars of the archepiscopal marriage licences issued by the Vicar-General's Office for the period 1 Jan 1694 to 31 Dec 1850.

The IGI, or The International Genealogical Index

The International Genealogical Index is a database containing well over 100 million names, mainly baptismal entries from parish and non-parochial registers all over England & Wales, together with a smaller number of marriages, deaths and burials. The Index has been compiled and computerised by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is arranged under counties, the entries are listed in alphabetical order of surnames grouped under spelling variations as decided on by the compilers.

One of the beliefs held by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is that they cannot be saved without their ancestors, and they therefore feel that they have a duty to perform on their behalf that which they can no longer do for themselves. To aid them in this the LDS church has filmed, indexed and made available baptism and marriage records from many parishes in the U.K. and elsewhere.

The I.G.I. is an purely an index to the temple work that has been performed by members of the LDS Church. It can be used as an aid to finding one's deceased ancestors, but should always be checked against the records it refers to, as it is nowhere near accurate.

The church has extracted records from various registers to produce indices to those registers, and used to process these indices through the temples and onto the I.G.I. as a result. The policy here was to only index registers for which no entry was dated later than 31st December 1865, although this wasn't always strictly followed. As a result, entries from this source (which currently account for about 83% of the entries in the I.G.I.) primarily relate to events occurring on or before this date.

The surnames themselves are arranged in alpha order of forenames and then chronologically. Marriages are indexed under the names of both parties. The coverage of any given parish is not necessarily complete. In Wales the LDS has not been allowed to microfilm or index the parish registers so the Welsh IGI contains only a small number of entire registers. But this is less serious than it seems as they have been able to use the BT's instead.

There is a problem peculiar to Welsh research in that the method adopted to cope with the patronymic system, when registers pre 1813 also contained no surname column, assumed incorrectly that in all cases a son took his father's christian name as his surname. For example, a 1783 baptism for William, son of John Thomas would be indexed under John, not Thomas in the Surname Index. It gets worse, if there are more than 2 father's names, the rest are discarded completely, so the actual surname may not appear at all never mind in the wrong place. There is also a Given Name index, where, for example, all the Williams are grouped together.

The IGI is available on the Internet or fiche for searching at many Records Offices, and some FHS centres, as well as the LDS FHCs where name extracts are increasingly downloadable to CD for taking away with you.

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All the information here should only be used as a guideline and must not be relied on as primary evidence.