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Problems tracing ancestors

9 problems with parish records and how to overcome them

The Findmypast team
31 January 2020

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't find a parish record you know must've existed. So why can't you find them and what else can you try?

Else Churchill is no stranger to a parish record, having researched her own family back to the 1670s and worked extensively with 17th-century records. However, even someone with over 30 years' experience in family history can get stumped while researching that far back.

Search parish records

"Though I'd like to tell you that you can all trace your ancestors back to the beginnings of parish registers in 1538, I'm sure most of you have found that there are problems along the way," Else said.

Unfortunately, there are some cases where there may be no record available for a particular event. Else notes that this doesn't make you any less of a genealogist, your family research can only be as good as the resources available. Make sure to bear these points in mind if your search is proving fruitless...

Damaged or missing records

Many records are damaged or missing. Indeed only about 800 or so parishes have registers that survive back to that early date (1538).

Civil War "Commonwealth Gap"

Civil wars aren't conducive to the keeping of registers, so expect to find gaps or deficient records around the time of the mid-1600s. This is known as the Commonwealth Gap.


The improvement of transport, as well as the changes in agriculture and industry in the 18th century, could prompt a family to move between country parishes and into towns.


Not everyone attended the Anglican church. There is some argument amongst historians as to the extent of cohabitation and non-marriage before 1837. If your family were non-conformists you could find their records here.


Quite simply, your ancestors may not have attended their local parish church for various reasons.

Cohabitation and Illegitimacy?

It's possible that your ancestors lived together without ever getting married, or a child was born illegitimately and never baptised.


At certain times, taxes and other expenses discouraged people from baptism and marriage.

Sloppy bureaucracy, or, "bad clerks"

We always have to consider that the original records may not have been kept as well as they should have, and deciphering inconsistent and illegible records has unique challenges.


This is one problem that can be sidestepped by using wildcards when you search, however, bear in mind that your ancestor's details may also have been fudged by a bad clerk many years ago.

What to do when you can't find a parish record

Keep searching for other sources. You'll find a list of what's available in our A-Z of records. Double-check and cross-reference any information you have. You may discover that you're actually searching with incorrect details. To make sure you have all your bases covered add the person in question and any details you have to the Findmypast family tree builder. If their records are out there, our clever hints could automatically find them for you.