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Parish Registers


  • Parish Registers

    Parish registers were started in England in 1538. A law was passed ordering the clergy to record baptisms, marriages and burials, and that they should be written down in a book after the service on Sundays, and in the presence of the Churchwardens.

    Before this date there were no records, except for a few created by monks who recorded the events for prominent families. Odiham.jpgMany churches, however, did not begin keeping records until a further notice was sent out in 1558, and even then, many did not comply.

    In 1597, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that all existing records should be copied into "fair parchment books, at least from the beginning of this reign". There was considerable opposition. Many churches complained that they could not afford parchment books, others began the task, some started with the 1558 records, some omitted large sections as the task was too large, and some did not start at all.

    Some of the early 1538 records (re-written in 1597) still exist, but it is not at all unusual for the registers not to have been preserved. Many were lost, and it is quite common to find no preserved records for a parish until a much later date.

    Over time, more information was recorded in the parish registers.

    Baptism Records

    How much information you will find in a baptism record will vary. Sometimes, you will only find the name of the child, especially in early records. Generally, you will find the forename of the child, the date of baptism and the forename and surname of one parent, usually the father. Some registers will also contain the mother's forename and if you are very, very lucky, her maiden name.

    Some registers will also give you the place where the parent lived, which could be another parish or the name of a farm or other location in the parish. If you are lucky, the register will also give the date of birth.

    Although babies were often christened soon after birth, some families had several members of one family baptised together. This could be some years after their birth, so care should be taken in assuming that the date of baptism will give an accurate age or that two children baptised on the same day will be twins.

    If a baby is sickly when born, they may well be privately baptised at home and then later received into the church.

    Not all baptisms took place in the parish where the family lived, often they would travel home for baptisms, especially for the first child of a family or for several children.

    If at all possible, you should try to see the original registers. Indexes give the bare minimum of information, yet some registers will give you far more, where whoever completed the register may have speculated as to the father of an illegitimate baby for example.

    Non-conformist registers often contain more detail than Anglican registers.

    Marriage Records

    A marriage record usually gave the parish of origin of both parties, name, status (i.e. bachelor, spinster, widow etc.), ages, signatures or marks and those of two witnesses. It will also say whether the marriages was by banns or by licence. Banns are found in the parish register, the couple's intention to marry being read on three occasions in the parish churches of both the bride and groom.

    The actual licences will generally not have survived, although its bond or allegation may be available e.g. on London Signatures. These will give the names of those who stood surety, as well as the names of bride and groom and place of marriage, and sometimes the occupations of the sureties and groom. You can sometimes ascertain the father's name(s) from these, especially if the bride or groom were under age.

    For more information, see The Legal Aspects of Marriage, Marriage Licences: Bonds and Allegations and The Law of Marriage.

    Burial Records

    What do they contain?

    Unfortunately, different burial registers during different periods of time differ in their format and the amount of information they contain.

    In early parish registers we encounter a simple written statement such as “John son of John Cowl and Mary his wife, was buried 10 January 1782. In later parish registers, we find a pre-printed page with columns of information, including entry number, “Name”, “Abode”, “When Buried”, “Age”, and a final column “By whom the ceremony was performed”. In addition, it is not uncommon for the vicar to add other notes.

    Essentially, the later registers contain the most information, and so these must be the ones on which our “standard” is based. Sometimes, earlier registers have more information, and even the later ones occasionally have additional information written in the margins.

    Generally, you could expect to find the following:

    No (The register entry number) Pre-printed in later style registers, none in early registers.

    Burial Date Format: dd mon yyyy/y e.g. 17 May 1804 or 17 May 1804/5

    First name This is simply the Forename of the person.

    Relationship This is quite often found as: “wife of George”, “son of John & Elizabeth” etc. In most earlier burial registers this information is stated, although it may not be noted in later registers when the pre-printed forms are used.

    Surname This is the Family Surname.

    Age The age at death. The following examples of abbreviations are used:
    • 16 years ( a whole number used alone)
    • 1y3m years & months
    • 2y8m6d years, months & days
    • 2m 2 months
    • 1w 1 week
    • 5d 5 days
    • 7h 7 hours

    Abode In later registers, and sometimes earlier ones too, the town, or even full address of the family are entered. Sometimes addresses may be quite long, e.g. “8 Waddington View, Bakewell, Nottinghamshire” especially where the address is not in the same parish as the baptism.

    See also: Searching for the Deceased

    Important Dates

    1538 Start of official registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, usually recorded on paper.

    1558 Many registers actually start from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth 1's reign, recorded in vellum

    1598 Requirement that the records be kept on vellum and old registers be copied at least back to the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign. Where both sets of registers survive, the paper ones are often more detailed.

    1598 Bishops' Transcripts - annual copies of the registers, sent to the bishops (or occasionally the archdeacons) begin to be kept

    1649 - 1660 The Commonwealth period. This almost always causes a hiatus in record keeping, usually for a generation.

    1754 Introduction of Hardwicke's Marriage Act.

    Marriages are kept in a separate, usually printed, volume. Entries are numbered to ensure that none are falsified.

    They should show:
    • Bride and groom's names, marital status and the parish where they are currently living
    • Date of marriage, whether by licence or banns and by whom the service was performed
    • Signatures (or marks) of both parties and two witnesses

    Banns books also start from this date.

    These will show:

    • Bride and groom's names
    • Marital status and the parish where they are currently living, being the parishes where the banns are called
    • The Sundays on which the banns were actually called.

    They were not regarded by all the clergy as official parish registers and do not always survive.

    1812 Rose's Act

    This required printed volumes for baptisms and burials. These showed:

    • Number of the entry
    • Date
    • Christian name of the child (or adult!) Baptised
    • Parents' christian names
    • Surname
    • Address
    • Father's occupation
    • Name of minister performing the service

    • Number of the entry
    • Date of the burial
    • Name of the deceased
    • Age
    • Address
    • Name of minister performing the service


    Modern style marriage registers introduced, which additionally showed for each party:
    • Age
    • Address
    • Occupation
    • Father's name and father's occupation.

    Before the nationwide introduction of printed registers, the format of the entries varied amazingly from county to county and even from parish to parish. Even if you have found an entry on the IGI, it is always worth checking against the original, not only to see whether it is correct, but also to find out whether the original provides any additional information.

    Also worth remembering

    From 1783 to 1794 a Stamp Duty Act meant duty of 3d was levied on baptism, marriage and burial entries in parish registers. It was waived for paupers so sometimes you'll find P next to an entry in that period to show no duty was payable (I have come across subversive vicars who didn't like collecting taxes and designated most of their parish paupers).

    If you can't find an expected baptism during this period, it is worth looking at registers post 1794 to see if the parents delayed, and then took older children to be baptised after the tax was withdrawn.

    Dade Registers

    Very detailed registers that contain far more information than the standard baptism and burial entries.

    1770 Rev Dade (a Yorkshire vicar) wrote "This scheme if properly put in execution will afford much clearer intelligence to the researches of posterity than the imperfect method hitherto generally pursued."

    The baptismal registers were to include child's name, seniority (eg. first son), father's name, profession, place of abode and descent (ie names, professions and places of abode of the father's parents), similar information about the mother, the infant's date of birth and baptism.
    This form of entry ended when Rose’s Act was implemented in 1812
    180 English parishes have Dade registers.
    • Yorkshire Ainsty (14)
    • York (23)
    • Yorkshire East Riding (46)
    • Yorkshire North Riding (33)
    • Yorkshire West Riding (42)

    Barrington Registers

    These are not so well known, but contain similar information, including age and cause of death on burials.

    A similar practice was followed in some Norfolk parishes, although they did not use printed volumes. Between about 1780 and 1812, baptisms would usually include date of birth, whether privately or publicly baptised and mother's maiden name. Burials would show age (slightly suspect, as you can also see the marginal notes where the calculations have been done!). For men and children, both parents' names would be given, including mother's maiden name. For married women, their previous surnames were given.

    Baptism and burial registers in theory showed much less information after 1812, but it remains worth checking the originals as some vicars continued to note down as much information as before.

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