As part of a series examining family history resources for beginners, librarian Antony Ramm takes an in-depth look at one of the most useful resources for beginning your family history research: Parish Registers. You can find more information in our research guide. An earlier article on this site takes a brief look at some of the oddities you can find in parish registers.
The parish register – the list made in a church of the people who have been baptised, married or buried there – is one of the most useful tools for family history, especially for the period prior to the arrival of the civil registration process in 1837. Such registers have been maintained in Anglican churches since the early 16th-century, with several gaps or omissions in the records – during the political and military turbulence of the the mid-17th century, for example.
Original registers are kept either by the Churches themselves or – after the passing of the Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 – with nominated diocesan record offices, usually city or county archives. Copies of these registers are almost always made, in order to protect the condition of the originals; these copies can variously take the form of microform* scans of the original registers, or printed transcripts usually drawn-up and published by local historical societies. Family historians who are confident their ancestors hailed from a particular region can usually find the individuals they are searching for within the register copies held at that area’s central public library.
What happens when the family historian finds that their genealogical tree has branched out of their ancestor’s immediate homeland? In short: they face the serious difficulty of not knowing which region’s parish registers to search through. Sadly (annoyingly, even!), there is no national index to those individuals named in these parish registers – unlike the General Register Office index to the aforementioned civil registration records of births, marriages, and deaths. Consequently, prior to the ‘computer age’, family historians would spend hours, days – weeks, even – laboriously searching through (copies of) parish registers for the places an ancestor might have been born, married, or buried in (usually guided by whatever meagre clues were to hand).
Matters are rather different today, with the emergence of several online, digital tools that help close the gap between the family historian and their quarry. The closest equivalent to a national parish register index is the Family Search website, previously known as the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which offers often quite-rough transcriptions of parish registers across England (free registration is required to access Family Search).
For that reason, Family Search records should only ever be treated as exactly that: an index. Family historians should always try to see the original baptism, marriage or burial entry for themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean visiting the archives to see the handwritten parish register itself – copies will do, so long as they are not transcriptions, but rather images (e.g. microform) of the original register entry itself. As William Dugdale, the great 17th-century antiquarian said:
Lett me be bold to give you this caution: that to depend on any mens collection or transcripts without comparinge them with the originalls will but deceive you…
Even better than Family Search, however, are the digitised parish register entries now available on Ancestry.com – that is, images of the original records; meaning anyone with internet access can browse thousands of entries stretching back 500-years. It’s worth remembering that, while parish registers are particularly useful for family history in the pre-civil registration, pre-census periods, people still got baptised, married and buried in Churches after 1837 and 1841 respectively – so you can continue searching for your ancestors in these records past the mid-19th century. In the case of marriage register entries in particular, a parish record of that event can mean you do not have to purchase the equivalent certificate.
How to access the Ancestry parish register records
So, how do you find and access these records? The easiest way to get to the Parish Register database is to scroll to the bottom of the Ancestry home page and look under Quick Links for the UK Parish Record Collection. The search box that appears allows you to perform a general search across all the digitised UK parish registers, narrowing your search by name, date and ‘event’ (birth, marriage, death).
Hover over the title in your list of results to see more information about any given record. Clicking on ‘see image’ will, in most cases, take you to a digital scan of the original parish register entry. Be aware that the older the entry, the harder it is to read! (generally speaking)
Not all regions of England have had their Church records made available in this way, but Ancestry do seem to be adding more all the time. We are fortunate in Leeds that our regional parish registers have been digitised by Ancestry, however, in partnership with the West Yorkshire Archive Service. To specifically search these records, scroll to the bottom of the general search screen described above; there, you will find a list of the various databases comprising the full UK Parish Record Collection – including six covering ‘West Yorkshire’ (more accurately, the West Riding):
- Marriages and Burials, 1512-1812
- Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910
- Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985
- Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935
- Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985
Note that the records are generally split according to each event type – baptism, marriage and burial – and that non-conformist records (Protestant denominations outside the Church of England) are all to be found in one giant database (making it hard to manually search the records of a specific congregation – handy in cases where you are confident an entry should be there, but suspect Ancestry’s transcription is in error). You can also access microform copies of West Riding non-conformist parish records at Leeds Central Library.
Brief guide to the information you might find in parish registers
Under baptisms, you’ll usually find the name of the child, the parents’ names (unfortunately not always the mother’s), the father’s occupation, and where the family was living. Sometimes you’ll also get the child’s date of birth.
Marriage entries generally give the names of the bride and groom, their addresses, their ‘condition’ (e.g. bachelor, spinster, widow), their ages, the witnesses, the person conducting the ceremony, the signatures/marks of all of these. After 1837, the name and occupation of bride’s and groom’s father is also recorded.
Burial registers usually give the deceased’s name, age, normal place of abode, and the name of a relation.
*A term used to collectively cover microfiche and microfilm records