Expert advice - parish records

Parish records are by far the most important source for family historians before 1837. These handwritten records, kept by the church, have survived for several centuries and can often be difficult to find, fragile and, of course, difficult to read! Here, we explain more about them, why they are so useful and how to get the most from them when researching your family tree.

Where to start

Parish baptisms

Parish marriages

•Parish burials

Further help with parish records

An introduction to parish records

Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists explains what they are, and how to get the best from them...

"After working through the civil records of birth, marriage and death and looking at the Victorian censuses, the next step is to use church records. By this we mean the parish registers of the established church recording baptisms, marriages and burials.

These records survive for most parishes and form the basis of family research back (if you are lucky) to the 16th century in England and Wales and to the 17th century in Scotland.

Most of the original copies of registers for nearly 12,000 parishes in the United Kingdom have been deposited in record offices. Since its foundation in 1911 the Society of Genealogists has been collecting copies or transcripts of these records and there are many indexes or finding aids that can be used to help find the information you want within them.

It’s useful to have some idea of the historical context that affects how registers were used. It would be nice to say that all parish registers date back to 1538 when they were introduced in England and Wales, but in fact only about 800 survive from then.

A further enactment decreed that the registers, originally written on loose sheets of paper should be copied up into parchment books but many vicars only recorded the registers from the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1559. From 1598 copies of the registers were to be sent each year to the Bishop. These copies, usually known as bishops’ transcripts (BTs) or sometimes register bills were stored in the Bishop’s registry.

Civil wars can of course be disastrous for the keeping of records and there are often gaps in the registers in the period leading up to and shortly after the Civil War and the Interregnum (especially from about 1645-1660).

Information in earlier registers can differ with some recording baptisms, marriages and burials together on the page, some keeping them separate. Some can be more informative than others, depending almost at whim on what the vicar chose to note down. In 1753 Hardwick"s Marriage Act for the "preventing of Clandestine Marriages" sought to prevent abuses of the marriage system and to regularise the recording of legal marriages.

It introduced the keeping of a separate marriage registers and ensured that marriages occurred only in an authorised Anglican church or chapel, after the calling of banns or the issuing of a licence permitting marriage. Banns were to be recorded either in the register or a separate book, so separate marriage registers begin on 25 March 1754.

As Quakers and Jews were found to be very particular in recording marriages, they were exempt from the act but Catholics and Protestant nonconformists were no longer permitted to marry in their own churches or chapels. Rose"s Act of 1812 “for the better regulating and preserving of parish and other registers of births, baptisms, marriages and burials” established that separate registers should be provided to record baptisms and burials and prescribed the minimum information that should be recorded for the event.

As a consequence, all registers will start again from 1813, usually on pre-printed and numbered forms so as to avoid the possibility of fraudulent alterations. At certain times stamp duties and taxes were levied on entries in registers that undoubtedly caused people to avoid the costs of these important ceremonies. This means that you might not find an entry you are seeking especially during the period 1694-1706 or 1784-94."