Background

"The Blind Fiddler" from a painting by Sir. D. Wilkie. Illutrated Exhibitor & Magazine of Art 1851

“The Blind Fiddler” from a painting by Sir. D. Wilkie. Illutrated Exhibitor & Magazine of Art 1851

Parish registers, with their old-fashioned handwriting and faded ink, can seem quite daunting at first. It’s also hard to know exactly where to look, but if you want to trace your family back beyond civil registration (which started in the latter part of 1837), then it’s where you need to turn.

Transcriptions on this site

My early transcriptions were all from microfiche, but since I have started this project, the Essex Record Office has digitised all their Anglican registers so that they are available online as digital images. These will usually include the image number, which refers to the one on ERO’s site. Parish registers can cover one or two hundred years of entries, so they are entered by many hands, and the order can be confused.

My transcriptions for Suffolk parishes are still being done from microfiche. As you can imagine, colour, digital images are preferable and easier to transcribe from, rather than microfiche, which require special equipment to access (luckily I work in a library that has a microfilm/fiche reader). Microfiche are in fact copied from other microfiche, so the image is several times removed from the original document. They are also black and white, which can cause problems, and it’s harder to manipulate the image – a digital scan allows you to change the contrast and colour to enabled faded writing to be read more easily.

My transcriptions are mainly for Anglican parish churches, so these source notes relate mainly to those, rather than to non-conformists. In the past, the local Anglican parish church had an administrative function that it no longer has, and in many cases, the vicar was one of the few literate people in the parish.

Origins

Registers of births, marriages and deaths were first kept in England from 1538 (instituted by Thomas Cromwell), and could be written on paper or parchment. From 1598, they were to be kept in books of parchment instead, and surviving paper registers were copied over into the parchment books – this means you might find some records going back to 1538 or 1558 (the year Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne). In some cases, pre-1598 entries were lost or in too poor condition to be copied. Cromwell’s Act demanded that the register be completed each Sunday, to contain the baptisms, marriages and burials performed that week. This means that in many cases, entries were being done from memory, which perhaps explains mistakes and omissions (“Hmm… what did they call that child again? Well, it was a little boy, I’ll just say, ‘A son of John Littlewood’.”).

The rule of using parchment persisted until 1754 for marriages (when, after Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, law was tightened and pre-printed paper registers were to be used), and 1813 for burials and baptisms. Sometimes, marriages post 1754 can be found entered in the parchment books, for instance, Wivenhoe, Essex, entered its first few marriages from 1754 in the parchment register, presumably because their pre-printed book didn’t arrive in time. Other parishes, such as Langenhoe and Rivenhall in Essex, didn’t use pre-printed marriage registers until 1813 – this is probably because they were small parishes who were unable or unwilling to go to the expense of buying a new register. That said, they tried to keep to the same format and included signatures or marks of bride, groom and witnesses. Some parishes, such as Harwich St. Nicholas, used pre-printed paper registers for baptisms and burials before 1813, because of the tax on register entries.

Taxes

At various points, taxes were levied on parish registers, to fund wars with France – births, marriages and burials 1695-1706 (marriages: 2s 6d, births: 2s, burials: 4s. The wealthier were taxed higher), and, on baptisms, marriages and burials from 1783-1794 (3d per entry; paupers exempt). Sometimes you will see a note in the register to indicate this, such as “3d paid”, or “pauper”. This can be confusing if only the letter “P” appears – did the vicar mean this to indicate “paid” or “pauper”? Sometimes “collected” or “coll” will appear, which means that tax was collected on that entry.

The registers for East Bergholt are quite thorough in recording who paid what: it records that William Abbot, whose child was born in 1700, was “not worth £600”, and in other cases while this law was in place, the occupation of the father is given, such as “a poor labourer” or “a poor carpenter not worth £600.” John Cannam, whose daughter was born in 1700, was “not worth in real and personal estate 600.” This is because the tax was on a sliding scale – a burial of someone whose person estate was more than £600 went up from 4 shillings to 20 shillings (and £50 for a duke!).

Sometimes these notes can be useful, although consider that not all those listed as “paupers” actually were – sometimes the vicar would tell a little fib to help a family….

How these taxes etc. were rolled out seems to vary between jurisdictions: Suffolk parishes come under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Norwich, which, when implementing the 1783 tax seems to have also implemented a rule whereby the child’s date of birth was included along with the baptism date, as well as the mother’s maiden name. For burials, both parents’ names and the mother’s maiden name were included, even for adults, and ages often appear. It was recorded whether or not a man was married when he was buried, and also included the maiden names of widows. This provides the genealogist with an extra fund of information, missing from the Essex registers.

Bishop’s Transcripts

Bishop’s Transcripts were supposed to be made from the registers, submitted annually. These can help fill up the gaps when the original register has subsequently gone missing. If Bishop’s Transcripts are used for transcriptions on this site, rather than the original, you will see this noted, although I am yet to transcribe from them.

Civil War and Commonwealth

Registers for the mid-1600s, thanks to the Civil War and the Commonwealth period that followed it, can be patchy or non-existent: hence, the “Commonwealth gap”. An Act was passed in 1653 which meant that the Church was no longer responsible for recording life events, so that births were to be recorded, instead of baptisms, and the wording for marriage entries changes, which demonstrates that it was considered a civil contract (a precursor to civil registration). It seems that in some parishes, either the individual church was later given these records and copied them into the register or recorded them in the parish register at the time they occurred (Wivenhoe is an example of this – there doesn’t appear to be a gap for this period). Of course, this is a problem in some respects, because it means that, as with entries from the 16th century, what we’re looking at are transcriptions, the original unobtainable. However, at least it means that we have something from that period: unfortunately, not all churches did this, which means there are frustrating gaps and patchy coverage for many parishes during the Commonwealth period, such as in Great Oakley, where the registers are poor from 1640-1663. Sometimes, registers were destroyed in an act of egalitarianism, or vicars threw the Commonwealth records onto the fire, glad to see the back of Cromwell and his chums. Of course, the general upheaval of civil war also affected the recording of the events in ordinary people’s lives.

Where registers for this period do survive, the child’s date of birth is more likely to have been recorded than its baptism (I suspect there is a crossover in some parishes, where the vicar still recorded a baptism, but was unable to for families which resisted Presbyterianism and boycotted the church. Therefore, we find a mix, where some entries only have birth dates, and others include baptisms). An interesting note beside the entry for the baptism of Frances Sherman in Moze, 1650, reads: “Daughter of Mr Thomas Sherman, Phisitian. Baptised by me Mat. Duerden Rector of Mose by ye booke of Common Prayer at Mr Shermans house in Harwich.” During the Commonwealth, the Anglican church was Presbyterian and the Book of Common Prayer was replaced by the Directory of Public Worship. This was not an entirely popular move, and it meant many people stayed away from church. This inevitably impacts on who appears in the parish registers during this time.

Non-Conformists

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act meant that everyone had to marry at a parish church (theirs or that of their intended), apart from Quakers and Jews. This means that, until Civil Registration began in 1837, marriages of Independents, Baptists, etc. appear in the registers of Anglican churches.

Baptisms of Independents took place in their own chapels, and it is the births of Baptist infants that are recorded (infant baptisms not being a feature of Baptist practice). Many non-conformists had their own burial grounds, separate from the parish churchyard – for instance, in Great Bentley, the 1763 will of Samuel Heckford ratified his father’s will, which provided for a burial ground for Quakers in Great Bentley.1)ERO ref: D/DC 7/3 Various Acts have been passed allowing non-Anglicans to be buried in Anglican churchyards, so we see Methodists being buried in the large churchyard at All Saints in Brightlingsea.

The focus of this site is on Anglican parish registers (although I was raised Congregational myself), but I would like to include more non-conformist records when possible. I am hopeful that the Essex Record Office will include their non-conformist registers in their digitisation project. Note that county archives hold post-1837 non-conformist registers, and that pre-1837 registers were sent to the National Archives at about the time that Civil Registration was implemented. Ancestry and BMD Records have digitised and transcribed the pre-1837 registers, and this also includes the records of Quakers (as with Baptists, the child’s birth is recorded, as they don’t perform baptisms).

Who completed the registers?

This is a difficult one. You assume it was the vicar, but it could’ve been the curate, and it could’ve been the parish clerk.2)Beware: ‘clergy’ is from the same root as ‘clerk’. Often, you see the vicar being called a ‘clerk’, however, this isn’t the same as the role of the ‘parish clerk’, who, after the Reformation, “became more obviously a layman.” See the The Parish Clerks Company. And during the Commonwealth period, it was taken out of the hands of the clergy altogether. In the 18th century, there were a lot of issues with some vicars collecting up “livings” (being the nominated vicar of a parish for life, and living off either a wage or from land attached to the church for the purpose of providing an income to the vicar), with two or three or sometimes more parishes.

Obviously in the case of very small parishes, it’s actually sensible to have a vicar be responsible for more than one parish, assisted by a curate (usually the first job a vicar-to-be has on leaving Oxbridge at this period). However, the burden placed on curates was sometimes wholly unfair – the incumbent would be living it up at a resort, or at the country houses of relatives (vicars from wealthy backgrounds having the influence and connections to get lucrative livings), whilst the poor curate was travelling on foot through snow, sleet and fog to visit sick parishioners and bear the responsibility for running the parish himself. The curates were often paid very badly (their wage being often what the incumbent was willing to spare from his own income) and overworked. This has an impact on registers – a worn-out curate looking after three parishes is, understandably, going to slip up when it comes to religiously completing the register. Whilst we find it frustrating, let’s spare a thought for the curates.

Condition and survival of parish registers

This varies a great deal. There are various problems that I have come across in my own transcribing, and each time I come up against them, I have included them in the “Notes” section, before the transcription spreadsheets for each parish. Please do take a moment to read through them.

  • The register has been nibbled by rodents: Weeley St. Andrew‘s early register has a note to say it has been “eaten with myse.”
  • The register has been affected by damp: This is not uncommon, as you can imagine, with a register that has spent several hundred years in a Mediaeval church. Damp damages the register in several ways: it warps the pages, so they end up creased, which means words become only partially visible (“Is this ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’?”), the pages become spotted, which obscures parts or all of the words, and it can make the ink too faint to read.
  • Ink and pens: Sometimes ink fades, so words have vanished. And bear in mind that sometimes what you’re reading in a register was written with a quill pen, rather than with a metal nib. You will sometimes find yourself on a register page where you grind your teeth, saying “For goodness’ sake, why didn’t you get a new pen?!” When brides, grooms and witnesses were required to sign or mark in the marriage register from 1754 onwards, it may have been the only time in someone’s life that they had been presented with a pen: a big, splotchy X is quite understandable.
  • Page-trimming: For reasons best known only to the people who have done this, sometimes the edges of pages have been lost (and therefore the valuable information on them) because at some point, it was decided that it was best to make the edges neat and trim, rather than try to preserve them. I assume this was done when, over time, the pages became dog-eared, and the register was rebound. This has happened to the registers for Great Oakley (1673-1766), and for Wivenhoe (1566-1689). Preservation techniques today allow for pages to be reset so that nothing is lost.
  • Loss: If a register has survived being trimmed, subjected to poor preservation conditions, eaten by mice, and written in with cheap ink, it still has to survive: sheer bad luck (it is destroyed by fire, such as Layer-de-la-Haye’s, or lost in a flood, such as East Mersea’s); people selfishly helping themselves to a page, removing it from the register because it has their ancestor on it (completely disregarding the fact that other people’s ancestors were on that page too); theft (registers being kept in safes and strong boxes, a thief hoping for money and church plate to be inside would run off with the safe and everything it contained); loss (a lawyer takes a parish register to London for a Chancery suit, needing the register to prove someone’s family connections, and then the register never makes its way back to the church and disappears forever3)As has happened to Elmstead‘s register, covering 1660-1729.); a tired curate (see above); or being kept by a vicar who had gone mad or was intentionally banjaxing it (such as may be the case with one of the incumbents of White Colne during the 17th century, which perhaps accounts for the register being a few sheets of tatty parchment held together with string).

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. ERO ref: D/DC 7/3
2. Beware: ‘clergy’ is from the same root as ‘clerk’. Often, you see the vicar being called a ‘clerk’, however, this isn’t the same as the role of the ‘parish clerk’, who, after the Reformation, “became more obviously a layman.” See the The Parish Clerks Company.
3. As has happened to Elmstead‘s register, covering 1660-1729.