Parish Records: Church Registers–Part 1

Originally presented 3 May 2014 by Julia Mosman

Background Information

Parishes were based on areas surrounding a church, a town, or even a castle – or a manorial court – originally. There are more than 15,000 parishes in Britain.

They evolved over the years; many have been through multiple territorial changes, even into the present day.

The term “Parish” may be divided into 2 meanings; a governmental (civil) unit, and a church (ecclesiastical) unit. They are not synonymous! This first part of parish records deals with the church records.

The only church allowed was the Roman Catholic Church until King Henry VIII – circa 1500 – when the Church of England was formed.

No matter what religion people followed, almost all (including Jews and Non-Conformists) were baptised and married in the Church of England (aka Anglican Church)

  • People could not hold certain jobs/positions in counties/towns/villages, or inherit under legal wills, unless they were baptized in the Church.
  • After about 1837, people were offered “free” transportation to settle Australia and New Zealand, with age restrictions; many people immediately were baptised in the C. of E., as that was accepted as proof of age.
  • If a marriage was not performed in the C of E, children were considered legally “illegitimate”.

Everyone had to pay “rates” (or taxes) for church maintenance – originally, 10% of earnings, but later adjusted – regardless of religious preference.

Parish Church registers started to be kept officially in 1535; many of the earliest did not survive.

Vicars, curates, and various vestries had older books recopied – what’s available today might be recopies of copies.

The Bishops received copies of these records – they’re known as Bishop’s transcripts (or BTs). Entries may vary from the “official” registers.

BTs and Church registers were kept (stored) separately; in case of loss, “backup” was then possible.

Non-Conformist Churches (Wesleyan Methodist, Bible Christian, Primitive Methodist, etc.)

Jewish and Quaker churches were allowed to conduct ceremonies in the 1700’s. If other denominations did, the ceremonies were not recognized as legal, so people could have had 2 marriages and baptisms.

“Non-conformist” churches – such as Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational – were not recognized until 1 July, 1837– a date to remember – when Governmental registrars started recording BMDs. Many are online as Registrar Indexes (see FamilySearch, at bottom of article) and/or, which has many Registrar entries (and all of Cornwall, BTW).

Non-conformist records were collected in 1837 and in 1857; they are kept at the National Archives in London. They are available online – ; see for a wonderful free guide to locating and understanding non-conformist records.

Non-conformist records were kept by circuit, not by parish. Some entries were made after the preacher completed his circuit. Circuits might cover several parishes, and even ‘overlap’ Counties, as many circuits were designed for the preacher to cover it once a month, so entries might not be current, and were made from various notes the preacher made.

Clergy were assigned from other counties in some denominations (especially Wesleyan Methodist), while others used “local preachers”. People from other counties might not be conversant with local spellings and pronunciations of names, leading to misspellings, etc.

Extra-Parochial Areas

There were some small areas often noted as “ex.par.”, or extra-parochial. An extra-parochial area was land uninhabited in Anglo-Saxon times, and outside the jurisdiction of any civil or ecclestiastical parish. No poor or church rates were paid, though tithes in theory went to the Crown. A resident could choose the nearest convenient parish for baptisms, etc.  (nunnaries were at times ex. par., for instance).


Normally conducted within 2-3 months of birth BUT you cannot accept a baptism as a birth – see BMDs with Civil Registration below, and these reasons:

  • Many families waited until child was 1 year old, because so many babies died
  • Clergy often waived fees on Parish festival days (once a year)
  • “Special” days when baptismal fees were waived, or when clergy visited villages in the parish
  • Waited until there was a ‘group’ baptism – 3 or 5 children at once
  • Some churches practice adult baptism

Entries were standardized by law in 1813; before that, entries were at the discretion of the vicar/curate


Banns or license –

  • Banns were read (announced in church) 3 weeks in a row, most frequently in the parish of the bride.
  • Licenses allowed immediate marriages, but were significantly more expensive.
  • Banns were recorded separately from marriages in a separate register – not everyone who had banns read were married, but the majority were.
  • Required entries changed over time.
  • Earliest records might give only the groom’s full name; the bride would be shown only by first name, and was sometimes omitted entirely.
  • Witnesses were not recorded until the late 1700s
  • After 1836, fathers names and occupations were shown

Before the 1840s (approximately) most people married within 30 kilometers
of their home (abode); after that, as people moved for work into cities, there
was more intermingling, and determining parishes of birth therefore harder to decipher. However, after 1851 the Census showed parish of birth.

Clandestine marriages and baptisms before 1754 –

  • An irregular or clandestine marriage was a marriage conducted by an ordained clergyman, but without banns or licence. Although they breached canon law, these marriages might still be legally valid, and could be recognised as such in English Common Law.
  • The marriages were normally performed outside the home parishes of the bride and groom.
  • Clandestine venues and ceremonies allowed the couple to avoid the trouble and expense of an ecclesiastical licence and afforded them some degree of privacy.
  • Originally, “Fleet Marriages” in London took place in prison chapels, though they were not necessarily disreputable in any way. (the Fleet prison was for debtors, for instance.)
  • The most notorious of these venues was an area in the vicinity of the Fleet prison in London known as the Liberty of the Fleet, and the registers are collectively referred to as the Fleet Registers.
  • It has been estimated that in the 1740s, nearly 15% of all marriages in England were celebrated in the Fleet. Most of the parties, not surprisingly, came from London and neighbouring counties. Therefore, if a marriage cannot be found in ‘regular’ church registers, be sure to check the Fleet Registers.

Because of their irregular nature, the registers and notebooks in the Fleet Registers series need to be used with care. The information in them is not always reliable, with some duplicated entries and others that are known to be forged.” (National Archives website)

In 1754, a law was passed that ALL marriages in England had to be conducted by the Anglican church, ending the Fleet marriages (and at the same time, a standardized form for recording marriages was instituted).

Clandestine marriages and baptisms after 1754 –

  • Since age limits were different in Scotland, (14 being the legal age) many people “eloped” to Gretna Green, and adjacent villages, to be married. There were similar churches in Wales. Not all churches willing conduct ‘clandestine’ marriages and baptisms  outside of England’s borders. Cornish couples crossed the Tamar River to a specific church in Devon, which did not question ages, etc, and that may be true of other Counties. One famous example of an elopement to Gretna Green is the younger sister, Lidia, in “Pride and Prejudice”.


  • Many burial plots do not have a memorial stone.
  • Different cemeteries had unique rules; many remains were removed routinely, so space could be reused.
  • Even bodies buried in the church walls and floors could be and were removed.
  • Fees varied; some people were buried in neighbouring parish churches, because the fees were lower.
  • Records most often did not contain details – just names, and dates, unless the person was a child.

BMD records – Civil Registration

Adopted 1 July 1837, throughout England and Wales

  • 27 regions were established; 618 districts were defined
  • Many (most) districts carry the name of the most prominent parish in that district. This leads to confusion, as people interpret the District as the Parish.
  • There was no penalty for not reporting a marriage until 1875; therefore, approximately 15% of those events were never reported to authorities. So checking parish church records becomes essential to crosscheck.
  • Baptisms were supposed to be recorded within 6 weeks, or a fine would be imposed, so when some parents did report the birth outside the 6 week period, they ‘adjusted’ the age so they didn’t have to pay a fine. Once again, be sure to check the parish register.
  • Burials were not allowed without a burial certificate; if they took place without a certificate, the Vicar was fined. Most burials were reported promptly.

See the FamilySearch section below for ordering copies of certificates.

Finding Parish Records

Verify what records are available, and where they’re kept.

  • First stop should always be GenUKI, as it contains full information on every county; where records have been deposited, years covered, etc., and MUCH more
  • County Record Offices hold most registers, as churches were required to deposit them for safe-keeping circa 1975. All have websites, and catalogues.
  • You can also check the National Archives at A2A, to find other County records – and lots of wonderful items with descriptions. (I found land sales from 1456 made by members of my family. They were also listed as witnesses to various documents.) Be sure to enter the region you’re searching.
  • LDS has filmed approximately 80% of available registers in Britain; not all are accessible on the internet, so check their Catalog for films and books.
  • Transcriptions of registers have been done for many Counties:
    Phillimore’s Transcriptions (in books)    Family History Societies
    Individual’s websites                              Books, many printed in 1800’s
  •  Check Google Books and other free book sites for historical books, and transcriptions of records. This is an under-utilized resource, which may be very, very helpful.
  • Visit websites you find through links or Google searches, and be sure to check quoted resources – you’ll find interesting links to further sites with relevant information.
  • The British Broadcasting Company has helpful guides to genealogy – they’re excellent, and specific to the U.K.

1. Go to the “Search” page, toward the bottom left, below the basic ‘search’ fields on top.

2. Click on “United Kingdom and Ireland”

3. Scroll through the various records available

(These choices reflect the old IGI – be sure to use these entries as
suggestions or clues, not as facts, as they’re known to contain MANY
errors, coming from many sources with little or no documentation.)

  • England Births & Christenings 1538-1975 68,947,926 entries
  • England Deaths & Burials
  • England Marriages

(These choices reflect the Registrar’s Indexes, which are highly accurate)

  • England & Wales Birth Registrations Index
  • England & Wales Marriage Registrations Index
  • England & Wales Death Registrations Index

The government can only provide certificates AFTER 1 July, 1837, because that’s when they started keeping records. You need to email GRO (General Records Office) the volume and page number associated with the name(s) (and the names, of course) to obtain a copy of the certificate. Be sure to verify the certificate, as people have been known to receive incorrect information – human error always can creep in. (It’s my opinion the GRO provides the certificates for the least expense; if you use other services or people, they may add a charge.)

  • Items with a camera on the left have images of the original filmed books – to browse or search. Indexed resources may not be available for browsing.
  • It is not difficult to browse through these; for instance, the Cornish records are divided into parishes, then by type of record & date – although many books contain baptisms, marriages, and burials together, so one has to go back and forth to locate the needed pages/information.
  • The LDS resources are not limited to BMD. They include a wide range of subjects; i.e.

                           Land Tax Records –
Parish Registers –
Poor Law Commissions

Calendar of Marriage Bonds & Allegations                                                                                 School Records 1796-1950
Register of Electors  –
Bishop’s Transcripts Probate Records
Cheshire Non-Conformist Records 1691-1900

PART TWO will cover these, and other, parish records.


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