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In the early Middles Ages, manorial lords would keep a priest in their household, and usually ended up building a separate chapel for them to say Mass. Out of the Lord’s manorial landholdings grew the parishes, and from the private chapels developed parish churches.

Many parish registers were kept during the Middle Ages, but sadly none survive outside the Vatican Archives, whence many were sent by anxious priests during the Reformation. Very few of these registers are identified by place and access to them is not allowed so, for our purposes, parish registers date from 1538.

Before 1830 there were some 11,000 parishes in England and Wales. Since then, many new parishes have been created out of older, larger ones, with former ‘chapels of ease’ (built to save parishioners’ lengthy journeys to the parish church) becoming parish churches in their own right. The parish was run by a clergyman, or incumbent, either a vicar, rector or parson. When clergymen had more than one parish, they either neglected their duties in one or paid a curate to undertake the work on their behalf. The clergyman or curate’s work of baptizing, marrying and burying resulted in one of the most important genealogical tools, parish registers (PRs).

Below the clergyman was a council called the vestry and also a staff of parish officials, who performed many of the functions that had been performed before the Reformation by manorial officials. They generated a wealth of records relating to our ancestors, known by their traditional place of storage, the parish chest.


Parish registers to which access is permitted date from 1538 and consist of baptisms, marriages and burials, we normally turn to PRs, once we have gone as far back as we can through General Registrationrecords and census returns, and indeed the latter will indicate in which parish you will need to search. Baptism records provide parents names, which lead back to searches for marriages. Marriage records do not provide ages or parents’ names, so we use the ages usually recorded in burial registers to ascertain when our ancestors would have been baptised. By working back step by step, it is sometimes possible to trace back to the 16th century unaided by any other categories of records. But because PRs are not always very informative, genealogists end up seeking further co-ordinates on their ancestors from sources such as manorial records, wills and so on.

It was Thomas Cromwell, Vicar-General to Henry VIII, who inadvertently laid the foundations of modern English genealogy by issuing orders to all parish clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Unfortunately, most were kept on paper and have been lost to damp, rats, fire or flood, so only a small proportion of registers date from 1538. In 1558, so orders were issued for registers to be kept on parchment, and the survival rate increases rapidly, though in general terms relatively few have survived from before 1600.

While the Anglican Church was a religious institution, it was also a branch of the state and if anyone, except Quakers and Jews, wanted legal proof of their marriages and their children’s ages and legitimacy they had no choice but to have Anglican marriages and baptisms, Equally, until relatively recently, there were very few places to bury a body except for the ancient, consecrated ground of parish churches, 5 most people, Anglican, atheist, agnostic and non-conformist alike, lie buried in parish churchyards. It is often helpful, therefore, to think of PRs not so much as religious records, but as civil ones.


These provide the date of baptism, name of the child and the father’s full name. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, parents’ names were sometimes not recorded, reducing genealogical research to a guessing-game, although hopefully, other sources such as manorial records will have survived to provide further coordinates. Mothers’ Christian names usually appear from the 17th century. Between 1780 and 1812, mothers’ maiden names appear fairly often and, as the 18th century progressed, it became more usual to record the child’s date of birth as well. Fathers’ occupations and places of residence within the parish were often recorded.

In 1812, Rose’s Act introduced printed registers with spaces requiring:

· Date of baptism

· Name of child

· Name, residence and occupation of father and the Christian name of the mother

All of which are excellent for genealogy, but removed most of the optional extra information, which many clergymen had hitherto been recording.

If the child was too ill to be bought to church, it might be privately peptised at home. The register entry may record this as ‘P’ or ‘Priv’, and when the child was finally brought to church for a public ceremony, the register entry might be annotated ‘rec’d’ or ‘received into the church’.


Marriages before 1754 gave the date of marriage and the Christian and surnames of both parties. Additional information was sometimes given, such as the groom’s occupation, the bride’s father’s name and whether the marriage was by banns or licence. Marriages usually took place in the bride’s parish, but those by licence might take place in the town where the licence was issued.

On 25 March 1754, Hardwicke’s Marriage Act came into force and remained so until 1837. Marriages had now to take place (with certain exceptions) in the bride or groom’s parish by an Anglican clergyman, either after banns had been read in both parties’ home parishes for three Sundays running, or on the production of a marriage licence. Jews and Quakers were not obliged to comply, but everyone else had to, regardless of denomination. Boys could still marry at 14 and girls at 12, but parental consent was required for all under 21. Marriages were now to be recorded in a separate register (until then they were usually listed with the baptisms and burials, sometimes neatly separated, other times jumbled up together), with a form requiring:

· Date

· Names of both parties

· whether they had been married before (‘bach[elor]’, ‘spin{ster], wid{ow/er]’).

· parish of residence (‘otp’ means ‘of this parish’, ‘soj[ourner’] meant someone who had only recently settled there).

· Signatures or marks of both parties

· Names and signatures of two witnesses, who would usually be siblings of the bride and groom.

Generally, the printed forms prevented any extra comments which clergy might have been tempted to make but some still did: the registers of St Mary, Lewisham, around 1803, for example, contain many marriages of people not from that parish. To satisfy the law they had been resident there for three weeks or so they claimed and were official ‘of this parish’. But next to their signatures or marks the incumbent wrote their real parishes of residence from as far afield as Sussex and Birmingham. As someone who hates filling in forms, I say hurrah for the incumbent of Lewisham!

Ancestors also appear in marriage registers as witnesses. If they do, there is a good chance they may be related to one of the two parties, indicating wider family connections than you suspected. Such references may also provide useful evidence that an ancestor was alive on that date. Be aware, though, that some people were regular witnesses

· if you see them witnessing several marriages on the same day, they probably were not related to either party at all.

From July 1837, civil registration marriage certificates were used both in and outside of parish churches.

Marriage licenses, allegations and bonds

Marriage licences, which originated in the 14th century, enabled marriages to take place immediately especially if the girl was pregnant ~but were more usually obtained as status symbols for those who thought it above their dignity to have banns read out in front of the hoi polloi.

Apart from some issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which allowed the marriage to take place anywhere, marriage licences would specify one of two places, theoretically the parties’ home parishes. But in practice, at least one was often the parish in which the couple were staying at the time for a minimum of four weeks (after 1753) or 15 days (after 1823).

Licences may be found in family papers but were more often handed into the officiating priest. What survives in record offices are more usually the associated bonds (until 1823) and allegations. An allegation was a statement made by the prospective groom swearing that both parties were free to marry, usually stating names, ages, places of residence, marital status, groom’s occupation, where the couple intended to get married and name of the consenting parent of either party under 21. Be aware that, between September 1822 and March 1823 only, both couples had to produce evidence of baptism or an equivalent certificate proving their age: these will be found with the allegation and are well worth seeking.

A bond was made stating a sum of money to be forfeited should the information on the allegation (especially regarding the parties’ freedom to marry) be found to be incorrect. There were two bondsmen, one of them usually the groom, the other often a relative (perhaps the bride’s father) or a good friend, and provided similar information to the allegation.

Remember that licences were issued to facilitate marriages but are not evidence that a marriage took place: the couple may have had a last-minute change of heart, or one or both may have dropped dead.

Marriage settlements

These were deeds signed before weddings arranging for the future ownership of property. Parents might settle property or income on one of the two parties marrying (often as a dowry); grooms (or their families)would guarantee property or income for their brides. They provide excellent details not only of who was getting married and when, but also names of relatives on both sides, family friends and the location and nature of lands held.

Irregular and clandestine marriages

Before Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753), and despite the Anglican church's disapproval, unions between two parties were regarded as legal under Common Law provided both parties consented and exchanged vows, regardless of whether witnesses, priests or anybody else were present. Sadly, these generated no records for genealogists. Before 1754 there were also clandestine or irregular marriages. Irregular marriages took place by banns or licence, but away from one of the spouses’ home parishes, or in private houses, or at times of the year when marriages were not supposed to take place, such as Lent. Clandestine marriages were those conducted in secret, away from the parties’ home parishes. This happened for many reasons, such as an apprentice wishing to marry without waiting until his seven-year term of apprenticeship had expired; an heir or heiress desirous of marrying without their guardian’s consent; widows wishing to receive income from their deceased husband’s estate yet have a new husband into the bargain; couples in a very great hurry to have sex-and, of course, aspiring bigamists. Both would be conducted by priests on receipt of a backhander, often on the production of a corruptly obtained marriage licence.

These practises were brought to a halt by Hardwicke’sMarriage Act. However, the Act did not apply to Scotland and the Channel Islands, whither many of the English couples who might have tried the Fleet Prison now eloped. Scotland’s Gretna Green was the most popular, although this was only one of many such marriage houses. An Act of 1856, declaring such run-away marriages illegal unless the couple had resided in Scotland for at least three weeks, led to a great decline in the popularity of Gretna Green and its neighbours.


Burial entries can help in seeking wills, but their main use is in providing ages, which in turn indicate a year of birth and thus an indication of when a baptism might have taken place. The records provide the names of the deceased and date of burial. As the 17th century progressed, it became more usual than before to add extra details, such as age, place of residence and occupation. Married women were often described as ‘wife of X’ and widows were described as such, with or without the deceased husband's name. The father’s name was usually provided in cases of deceased children. ‘P’ denoted a pauper.

From 1666 we have burials in wool. To revive the flagging English wool industry, Charles II ordered that all corpses be wrapped in woollen shrouds, hence the notes ‘buried in the wool’, ‘P’ - paupers were exempt-or affidavit’ next to burial entries, the latter denoting an affidavit sworn before a JP that a woollen shroud had indeed been used. Some survive, usually providing a close relative’s name. There was a £5 fine for disobedience and it became a status symbol to pay the fine and use a silk shroud instead. The Act was generally ignored after the 1770s Rose’s Act of 1812 provided forms requiring:

· Date

· Name

· Residence

· Age

This is all useful information, but again we lose the odd extra notes, which could bring colour to earlier entries.


Transcripts of PRs, made at any time from the last century to the present day (but more so before the advent of the Internet), can be found in country record offices. They are often the compilation of the original register and the bishops’ transcripts, so what the transcript says might not be a verbatim quote from either of the original sources and of course, like anything else, errors and omissions can creep in. An advantage is that they are often indexed, enabling speedy searches.



The vast majority of Scottish PRs are at New Register House, with a few others and copies of many local ones at the regional register offices. Maps showing the location of the approximately 900 Scottish PRs are included in the Phillimore Atlas and Index(Phillimore, 2003). One of the great problems of Scottish research is that registers tend to start more recently than English ones and, even when they survive, they are easy as incomplete as their counterparts south of the border. A few survive from the 16th century but most have only survived from the very late 17th century or early-mid-18th century, and one down-side of having no bishops was that there are no bishops’ transcripts.

A plus is that the registers are usually slightly more detailed. Women did not automatically change their names on marriage, so their maiden names tend to appear in the registers. Births were often recorded instead of baptisms, but where baptisms appear, you may well find godparents recorded too. Scots were not obliged to undergo an official marriage ceremony. It was sufficient simply to ‘hamfest’ by making a promise in public. Those who married at home but wanted more official recognition issued a proclamation of their intention to marry, and these were recorded in the marriage registers, For genealogical purposes, these are just as good, as they record the names of the parties just as well, and have the virtue of being recorded in both the bride’s and the groom’s parishes. Some couples married in church nonetheless, and their weddings appear in the marriage registers as well.


Ireland originally consisted of the four provinces of Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. These were divided into 32 counties, 325 baronies, about 2450 parishes and some 64,000 townlands, Townlands were originally family plots, ranging from large tracts of land to virtual rioting. An essential tool is the General Alphabetical Index to the townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland (GPC, 1984). The Anglican Church of Ireland, which was the established church until1869, divided Ireland into some 1600 parishes, divided into 31dioceses Registers were required to be kept in 1634 although few have survived from before the mid-18th century, and more half of them were destroyed when the IRA bombed the Four Courts in 1922.

Most southern Irish people were Catholic. Besides Church of Ireland parishes, there were also Catholic ones, sometimes both using the same names, sometimes not. Catholicism was not fully legalised in Ireland until 1829 and, although many Catholic priests operated in the country, few dared keep registers and, of those that were kept, few survive. From the 1830s onwards, the number of Catholic parishes proliferated and many registers started to be kept, usually just of baptisms and marriages, though the former usually noted mothers maiden names and also the names of godparents, which would usually have been close relations, so in this small respect, they have the edge on standard Anglican PRs.


It is sometimes very hard to distinguish between different people of the same name because PR entries generally contain relatively little information. Clergymen sometimes made an effort (by suffixing ‘senior’ or ‘junior’, or recording different places of abode), but not always. Sometimes a listing of children of John Smith may go on decade after decade, until you realise with a sinking heart that there were two or possibly, even more, John Smiths having children baptised. In such cases. The burial registers can be used to try to eliminate possibilities, but you may need to turn to other sources, such as wills and manorial records,to get a true picture.

Finding what appears to be an ancestor’s baptism is not in itself proof of a pedigree. With infant mortality at roughly 150 deaths for every 1000 live births (now infant deaths are only 1% of all deaths), it is also important to try to establish that the child you have found did not die young. The absence of such burial from the PR is not, of course, proof the chid survived Git could have been buried somewhere else), but it greatly adds to the balance of probability that it survived.

Some events were recorded in registers termed non-parochial registers, because they related to places such as hospitals, workhouse chapels of institutions such as the Greenwich Hospital and Sheerness Dockyard. These are always worth considering if you simply cannot find what you want. They are not listed in the Phillimore Atlas and Index but are in the National Index of Parish Registers and you can also find out about them from the catalogues of the relevant county record office.

Whilst most baptisms took place soon after children were born, this was not always the case. Parents might wait weeks or months to have the child baptised, or even save up several children and have them all baptised at once (cheaper, after all, for the post-christening party). So two people baptised the same day were not necessarily twins. Some people were not baptised until they were grown up. If you cannot find the baptism you want in the year of birth, search forwards.

As well as the Commonwealth Gap (see opposite), a later cause for missing entries was the Stamp Duty Act, which levied a tax on baptism, marriage and burial entries between 1783 and 1794. Only paupers were let off (often denoted by a ‘P’ against entries), so not surprisingly the number of so-called paupers shot up in this period. Marriages tended to happen anyway, and you could not very well avoid having a body buried, but couples certainly could and did put off having their children baptised. If you cannot find your ancestor's baptism in these periods, look in the registers immediately after 1794, when there was a spate of late baptisms. However, the Act had aggravated a general trend towards non-conformity, which left many Anglican churches half empty, and their registers sparsely filled until the first six months of 1837. Before General Registration started that July, many children and adults were baptised, presumably due to a misapprehension that the new system meant the permanent end of the old one, so it is always worth searching this period for the late baptism of an ancestor.

Burials were usually well recorded except in times of plague or similar epidemics when bodies might be buried without ceremony or record. Bear in mind that many were buried not in the parish churchyard, but in the workhouse and hospital graveyards, whose records will be in either the county record office or the NA.


Parish register indexes help genealogists determine which original registers they should search for their ancestors.

The indexing of PRs and their subsequent appearance on the internet of PRs has done more to change genealogy from an exclusive activity to a massively popular pastime than any other single development. Within living memory, someone wishing to trace their ancestry to before 1837, having struggled through the then dusty bundles of unindexed census forms at the old Public Record Office, had no choice but to write polite letters to parish clergy requesting PR searches. A response from a vicar stating he had no time to undertake a search for baptism (or, worse, stating the baptism was not there when in fact it was) might take several weeks or months, after which you would write another polite letter, disguising your frustration, to the incumbent of the next-nearest church, and so on. The expensive alternative was to take a week off work and travel from parish to parish yourself, sitting in vestries for days on end, freezing cold and squinting hard because of the poor light, compiling listings from the original parchment register books taken from the iron-bound parish chests.


The IGI (see box, opposite) is a massive index, but it does not cover all PRs and covers others only partially. It used to be possible to discover exactly what the IGI covered, but no longer. The Phillimore Atlas and index (Phillimore, 2003) has a column providing details of the broad coverage for each parish as it stood in 1994, and this is still a good general guide. This column also shows you whether a particular county is well covered or not: Kent and Norfolk, for example, are very poorly covered, while County Durham is (dare one say it) almost complete.

The Phillimore Atlas coverage column does not, however, alert you to gaps in coverage: it may tell you a parish is covered from 1610 to 1850, but what it will not tell you is that there are gaps from 1645 to 1662, five illegible years in the 1760s, and the coverage of marriages stops entirely in 1801. More detail is given in the volumes of the NationalIndex of Parish Registers.

However, do not waste too much time worrying about what the IGI does and does not cover. If there is an entry in the index that you believe is relevant, check it in the original registers. If the entry you want is not there, search the original registers of the parishes where you think it is most likely to have been, regardless of whether those parishes are theoretically covered by the IGI or not if you base any decisions or any aspects of your family tree solely on the presence or absence of entries in the IGI, you are almost certainly to come a cropper.

The IGI is helpful in grouping variant spellings of surnames together, but be aware that the groupings are ultimately random and the variant under which your ancestor was recorded might not have been picked up by the indexers, so will appear on its own under its own individual spelling. Be creative when entering possible variants: scribble the name down and then think of ways it could be misread. Or mumble it to someone and ask them to say what they thought you said. The surname Coldbreath, for example, exists in Sussex and puzzled me for ages, so I started going around mumbling it to people in various different accents and then asking them what they thought I had said. Finally, someone said ‘Galbraith?’ I looked up the Scottish surname Galbraith and to my delight, found that Coldbreathwas indeed listed as a recognised variant.

As with all indexes, the entries are only as good as the people who copied them, and there are many omissions and mistranscriptions (such as John Thomas baptised at Hexham being indexed as John ThomasHexham, and so on).To make matters worse, in a somewhat misguided move in 1992, the Mormons allowed private researchers to submit their own information, some based on accurate sources, such as family bibles, and some derived from pure fantasy.

Until recently, Wales was like many Scandinavian, Eastern European and non-European countries for its continued use of patronymics that changed with each generation. The IGI on CD enables you to search a region and time frame for the birth of anyone with a particular forename. Say your Welsh ancestor was Evan Jones, born about 1850. His father might have been called Jones as well, or Evan could literally have been ‘gon of lohn. So his father would have had a different patronymic surname, according to his father’s name, such as John Thomas, resulting in Evan’s baptism being entered as ‘Evan son of John Thomas’.Without knowing in advance who John’s father was, you would not know that you had to look under Thomas, not Jones. With the IGI’s help, though, you can see a list of possible baptisms for boys called Evan, which you can then explore in the original records.


Here some other indexes to help you search for original entries in PRs.


This index was compiled by Percival Boyd and his clerks in the 19thcentury. It gives brief details of spouses’ names, parish and year, indexed by bride and groom, usually divided into 25-year batches arranged by English county, with two series of miscellaneous indexes with entries from all over the country.

Boyd’s sources were mainly PRs but bishops’ transcripts, marriage licences and banns registers were also used. Not all counties are covered by any means, and some parishes are only partially covered, but with coverage of about 15% of all English marriages from 1837back to 1538, it is always worth a search if the entry you want is not in the IGI. Some indexing was phonetic, so surnames starting Kn .., are indexed under N, and so on.


Many counties have marriage indexes-see Where to Search, opposite.


Held at the IHGS, the index covers the period 1780-1837. It focuses on London marriages, including some such as at Christchurch, Southwark, that was later destroyed in the Blitz, and many from Kent, Surrey, Essex and Middlesex. There are also entries from further afield, mainly from the published Phillimore marriage series. Sadly, all but 100,000 entries in the baptism index were also destroyed in wartime bombing.


Bishops transcripts are contemporaneous copies of PRs, which help genealogists bridge gaps in the original registers and which may sometimes provide extra information. In 1598, in law entirely beneficial to later generations of genealogists, most parishes were told to send in copies of each year’s registers to their local bishop. In some areas, these are called register bills or in counties such as Suffolk, where the annual returns were sent to the local archdeacon, archdeacons’ transcripts.

If you encounter a gap or illegible patch in the PR you are using, you may be able to turn to the BTs instead. Generally, they contain only bare details minus the extra notes and comments clergymen sometimes inserted into original registers. However, sometimes the clergyman or parish clerk might add a comment to the transcript, or even insert an entry he had forgotten to put in the original register. Therefore, it will sometimes repay you to examine the transcripts as well as the PRs, even if the latter seems complete. Sometimes looking at both a PR and BT will give you two different pieces of information, in which case you will have to use your judgement or look further to establish which is correct. In some cases, the transcripts from each parish in a deanery were bound into annual volumes. These make for easy searching for a given year across a spread of adjoining parishes.

Navin Kumar Jaggi

Gurmeet Singh Jaggi

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