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A little history of Parish Registers

Parish Registers were first ordered to be kept by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General of King Henry VIII in 1538. Cromwell ordered that every parish in England and Wales must keep a register and that every Sunday, the Parson, in the presence of the wardens, must enter all the baptisms, marriage and burials of the previous week. The register was to be kept in a coffer with two locks. Failure to comply imposed a fine of 3s 4d (17p) which was to be spent on the upkeep of the church. The order was received with much suspicion - most people believed it was the forerunner for some new tax. Many parishes ignored it.

The order was repeated in 1547 during the reign of Edward VI but this time the fine was to go towards poor relief.

In 1557 the clergy were instructed to record the name of Godfather and Godmother. This was an attempt to stem the soaring divorce rate. At that time it was only necessary to state you had in error married your Godparent's son / daughter. In the eyes of the church this was your spiritual brother / sister and the marriage was spiritual incest and therefore invalid. Godparents were sometimes referred to as 'surities', 'witnesses' or the old English 'gossib' or 'gossip'

In 1563 parliament passed an act which carried more weight. 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 entries in paper registers were to be copied into the new books. Paper was at the time much cheaper than parchment (which is made from animal skins) and in many cases loose sheets of paper had been used (which got lost). Over time some paper registers had deteriorated to the point where the registers were unreadable, a fact not helped by the home made ink of the time. Unfortunately the act stated that the costs involved were to be met by imposing charges for entries. This was strongly opposed by many clergy and the act was not enforced.

It was not until the ecclesiastical mandates of 1597 and 1603 that the act was enforced throughout the country. The parish was now to finance the registers and the books were to be kept in a chest with three locks. To ensure that records were kept properly the entries were to be read out each Sunday after evensong. Few of the early paper registers survive but those that do indicate the enormous task which faced those transcribing early paper registers. Often only the bare essentials were copied. E.g. one copied entry of St. Dunstan's West reads:
          1560. February 17. Mr Rithe buried

the old paper register adds:
           A benchar of Lyncolnes Yne, buryed out of the newe brycke byldyngs, beynge in oure parishe, the nether syde of Lyncolnes Yne

Registers were poorly kept during the English Civil war 1643 - 1647 and in the commonwealth period which followed it. Many were abandoned or hidden by the clergy and in some cases were lost completely. Durham has one register which was rediscovered and which sports a set of holes from the fork which dug it up. It was during this period that civil registers were set up and civil marriages allowed. Fees were charged for entries as follows:
          marriage 12d
          burial         4d
          birth           4d
Registers were returned to churches after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

In 1678 an act was passed making it compulsory for all corpses to be buried in a shroud made of wool only. This was to encourage the wool trade. An affidavit was to be made and recorded that this had been carried out. This was not a popular law since the poor could ill afford the shroud. Coffins incidentally were not used for burials until after 1797 by any other than the rich. A separate burial register was enforced from this date.

In 1694 the register entries were finally used as a tax to raise money for a war against France.
          marriage 2s 6d
          burial         4s
          birth           2s
even worse was a tax on all unmarried men of 1s per year! In 1696 an order was passed that a fine of £2 was to be imposed on all who did not report the birth of a child to the vicar within 5 days. Children who were not christened were to pay a tax of 6d to the vicar. Vicars who failed to record a birth were to be fined £2 for neglect. This highly unpopular tax was not abandoned until 1706 when it was realised that enforcing the penalties would ruin many clergy.

In 1711 an order was made that parish registers should be ruled and that pages should be numbered - generally ignored.

1733 a law was passed forbidding the use of Latin in parish registers.

1738 marked the commencement of Methodist registers. At the time the registers had to be hidden since they were illegal.

1752 was the year the calendar was reformed. Prior to this, the year commenced on Lady Day - 25th of March. So, in previous registers, December 31st 1750 would have been followed by January 1st 1750 and not 1751 as it would today.
1751 lasted from the 25th of March to the 31st of December so it was a short year. 1752 was also a short year because 11 days were missed out in September to bring the calendar back in line with the Sun. September ran - 1st, 2nd, 14th, 15th etc... Riots occurred in several places, e.g. Hexham, because people thought that 11 days were being stolen from their life.

1754 - Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act. This Act enforced a separate marriage register which was printed and had spaces for witnesses, the signature of the bride and groom, the condition and parish of the bride and groom and the signature of the minister. It also enforced banns and made clandestine marriages illegal. (No more jumping the broom).

                             George  Morrell              of             this       parish

and   Margaret Pearson                                      of   this  parish
were married in this      church          by         Banns with consent of
                                                                 this            9th       day of
 May        in the year One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-Two
                by me  Geo. Briggs officiating minister                                 

This Marriage was solemnised between us George Morrell       
Margaret Pearson  

In the presence of                             Wm Pearson                               
                                                           Hannah Eggleston                      

1763 the minimum age of marriage was fixed at 16

Prior to this date, the church accepted the marriage of girls aged 12 or more and boys aged 14 or more. In addition, a dispensation on licence could be obtained from a bishop which allowed marriage at a younger age. From 1763 a person below the age of 21 required the consent of parents to be married in England. An example of an early age marriage is this one from Burnley parish in Lancashire:

1582 Edmunde Tattersall of ye age of xiij yeares and Lettice Hargreves of thage of xvº yeares mard 14 May

1783 stamp duty

A stamp duty of 3d was placed on all entries and registers causing many families not to have children baptised. Paupers were exempt. Many entries of 'pauper' were made by the minister when parents would not pay. The duty was repealed in 1794.

1797 Bishop Shute Barrington entries

Bishop Shute Barrington was the bishop of Durham and Northumberland and also an amateur genealogist. He asked that all parish registers in Northumberland and Durham be kept in great detail. Here's a typical Bishop Shute Barrington baptism entry from Gainford parish register:

1805 - Margaret Chapman, born November 18, 1804, baptised March 31st 1805. Second daughter of John Chapman of Headlam, schoolmaster, (son of George Chapman) native of Lartington in the parish of Romaldkirk, Yorkshire, by his wife Mary Robinson (daughter of William Robinson) native of West Rounton, Yorkshire.

Bishop Shute Barrington entries affect only Northumberland and Durham for the years 1797 - 1812 but, offer valuable information and are worth looking for, even if your ancestor was born outside these dates. Look for the birth records of a sibling.

1812 Rose's Act

New printed baptism, marriage and burial registers were to be used by all parishes with separate volumes for each. Unfortunately, this meant the end of the very useful Bishop Shute Barrington records. The marriage register remained unchanged. Baptism and burial registers are as below:

Baptisms solemnized in the parish of          Kirby Stephen                                  
In the county of            Westmoreland                    In the year 1821          
When Baptised
Child's Christian Name
Parent's Name
Quality, Trade or Profession
By whom the ceremony was performed
November 5 1821
Richard Wilson
John Robinson and Sarah
Headlam Nr. Gainford
George Blackett


Burials in the parish of          Gainford                                         
In the county of            Durham                    In the year 1849          
When buried
By whom the ceremony was performed
John Chapman
Feb. 26th 1849
Henry Church


Both forms of entry are still in use.

1853 Cemetery Act

By 1853, many churchyards were over crowded and an act of parliament was passed, which allowed towns to open cemeteries.

Points to watch for

  1. Always look for a printed transcript of the parish register. If you're really lucky, you might find a copy available on the Web. Printed transcripts are much easier and quicker to read.
  2. Look for parish register transcripts or microfilm copies in the local library first. Failing that, check the County Record Office, failing that, look for a microfilm copy at a local genealogical library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As a last resort, check with the vicar of the parish concerned.
  3. Early registers can be very hard to read. Usually the pages were not ruled. The ink quality was poor and the paper may be stained from mold. Often, separate sections of the register were started for baptisms, marriages and burials and sooner or later, ran into each other. You may find that baptism you're looking for mixed in with the marriages or burials.
  4. Before 1733, the register may be written in Latin.
  5. The style of writing has changed over the years and it takes practice to read early script.
  6. Spelling varies tremendously. I have come across the same family's surname spelt three different ways on the same page by the same vicar. The rule seems to have been, 'spell it the way it sounds - add an 'e' if you feel like it'. To give you an example, I know of 44 different ways that the surname 'Dickson' has been spelt. In my own family, the surname 'Foggan' has been spelt with the last vowel as a, e, i, o, u, or y. It also has one or two g's and the first vowel has sometimes been replaced with an 'a' as in 'Fagin'.
  7. If you're unable to find a parish register, (some have been lost), try looking for the bishop's transcripts. For Northumberland and Durham, these are held at the Department of Palaeography in Durham University.




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