Tristram Shandy's baptism, by Hogarth
Tristram Shandy’s baptism, by Hogarth

As nearly all the transcriptions on this site are from Anglican churches, this piece on baptisms reflects Anglican practice.[1]Immediately we run into a terminology issue: “christening” can be used too. This sometimes is used only to refer to infant baptisms. Someone’s first name, or given name, is … Continue reading Anglicans perform infant baptism (although children and adults can be baptised too). This is in contrast to Baptists (who perform adult baptism, and therefore their records only give the child’s birth date) and Quakers (who do not perform baptism at all, and again, their records provide the child’s birth date). The Baptist adult baptism in some ways is like the Anglican confirmation – both are performed on people considered old enough to make a considered, public attestation of their faith, and in fact, a lot of imagery in the Anglican confirmation ceremony reflects that of baptism. There are some examples, such as in Fingringhoe, where confirmations are included on empty leaves at the back of baptism registers.

Baptism date isn’t a date of birth

Most of the time baptism registers contain the date of baptism only, and not the birth date. By all means assume that a child baptised on 4th March 1830 was born about 1830, but please don’t add 4th March to your tree as the actual date of birth. Sometimes a child might be baptised on their day of birth, but see the section on private baptisms below.

Dates of birth appear in registers during the Commonwealth Period, and then sometimes appear depending on how thorough a particular vicar or parish clerk might choose to be, or because of an edict from the bishop or higher authority (various laws pertaining to records have been passed over the years).

Whilst Anglicans practise infant baptism, don’t be surprised if someone is a toddler at baptism (when you cross-reference with other sources if the date of birth isn’t included). This is another reason why it’s important not to conflate baptism date with birth date.

Adults being baptised is not unusual, and there is almost always a note either saying just “adult baptism” or giving the age or date of birth. It is not particularly usual to see parents’ names provided in the entry for an adult baptism. An example of an adult baptism is that of 23 year old Mary Bundock in Great Bromley on 4th July 1756. She is presumably from the Quaker Bundock family that lived in the area, hence she had not been baptised as an infant. She was married in Great Bromley’s parish church on 15th July, eleven days later. Although these days, Quakers may marry in an Anglican church if they wish to, in the 18th century things were different. Mary Bundock was, essentially, “marrying out” – and taking an Anglican for her husband may well have meant that she was ostracised by the Quaker community. This may be why she was baptised as an Anglican, because she would perhaps have been unwelcome at Quaker meetings and would therefore have had to convert.[2]I spoke to a Quaker friend of mine who has studied Quaker history.

Pre-1813 baptisms

The content of pre-1813 baptisms varies greatly. Early baptisms often omit the mother’s first name, or will include her first name and her maiden name (Wivenhoe‘s register leaves out the mother’s first name throughout the 1500s, and by the 1600s starts to include it, then goes further for a while by providing her maiden name). Some early baptisms are just the child’s names and doesn’t include any parents at all (not very helpful for genealogical purposes!).

Often, no residence is given, so one assumes the family lived in that parish. Sometimes a woman, who has moved to a different parish on her marriage, will return to her home parish for the birth of her first, or even subsequent children (perhaps to be with her mother or other relatives and friends). This can mean that someone who lived their whole lives in one parish was in fact baptised in another. So always take the opportunity to search in nearby parishes if you can’t find a baptism in the parish someone lived in (and also consider that moving further than the parish next door, and across county borders wasn’t unknown, even for agricultural labourers – one of my “ag lab” ancestors was born in Mendlesham, Suffolk in 1779 and moved to Great Bromley in Essex, a distance of over thirty miles).

Baptisms from 1813 onwards

The pre-printed paper registers require the following information: first name, parents’ first names, surname, abode and occupation, as well as baptism date. These baptisms tend to be more thorough, as if the printed register imposes more order on the process. Be aware that baptisms aren’t necessarily recorded on the day of the event, which can lead to errors.

When a woman appears on her own as the parent (because the child is illegitimate), and an occupation is listed, it isn’t clear if it is hers or the child’s father’s (if any occupation has been entered at all – I have found that mostly, a single mother’s occupation isn’t mentioned in the register, and a note in the “occupation” box says “single woman” or “spinster”). Sometimes you might see “servant” or “agricultural labourer” and while it could be the occupation of the child’s father (as it would be by default if the parents had been married), it could equally be that of the mother (I direct your attention to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Women did work, even if their occupations rarely appear in baptism registers, but their contribution to the economy was not valued as much as that of men (men earning considerably more than women for doing the same tasks). In fact, children worked too – even very small children, who could be cheaply employed to run across the fields, chasing off the birds.

“Privately baptised” and “Received into the Church/Congregation”

You will often see a note that a child was privately baptised, either the words “private baptism” will appear, or just the initials: “P. B.”, and perhaps followed by a later date and the word “received” following it. Sometimes it will include a note, for instance, the 1642 of Alice Lyne at Moze: “Baptised at home being sicke.” The main reason for private baptism seems to have been because the child was ill and it was feared it would not survive until the next Sunday church service. The home baptism could be done by a midwife, not necessarily by the vicar, and in fact Anglican custom allows baptism to be carried out in an emergency by anyone who has themselves been baptised.[3]See my blog about Lawshall‘s 16th century entries.

It was important to ensure a child was baptised, because there were theological problems with unbaptised children being buried in consecrated ground. Sometimes you see notes in burials where an unnamed “unbaptised child” is interred (also see above re: ‘Christian names’).

It’s not unusual to see a child appear twice amongst the baptisms – once when it was privately baptised, and again when it has been received. However, you only need to be baptised once, so this is more a note for the vicar that the “receiving into the church” has been done. This can lead to confusion, of course, especially when naming conventions mean that a family might name their first daughter Sarah, and if Sarah dies, the next daughter will also be called Sarah. But as infant burials are sometimes patchy, you might never be able to know if there were two children called Sarah in the family, or only one, who appears twice in the register because she was privately baptised and then received.

The point of being “received into the church” or “received into the congregation” is that baptism is supposed to symbolise the child being made part of the Christian community. A private baptism, either performed at home, sometimes at the rectory, or at the church if it is opened especially to perform it, is only done with immediate family and clergy present, so it isn’t a “full” baptism as such. There were, apparently, bishops trying to encourage a reduction in private baptisms, especially ones performed when the child’s life wasn’t in danger.

If the child died before being received, there might be a note to indicate this, or perhaps shortened just to say “P. D.” – privately, died.


Sometimes the baptism entry for a child born out of wedlock will have only the child’s name and the fact that they are illegitimate, but most of the time it will include the mother’s name, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, it will include the father’s name as well.

There are all sorts of terms that are used to indicate illegitimacy – such as “base child” and “base born”, as well as “chance child”. You might just see the initials “BB”, to indicate base born. Lawshall’s 16th baptisms sometimes uses the expression “born in bastardy” (the root of the word “bastard” is “base”). Sometimes unusual terms are used: in Wivenhoe’s register, around 1600, the term ‘meretricis’ is used. This is the Latin root for “meritricious”, the old meaning being “relating to or characteristic of a prostitute”. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the mother was a working prostitute, but having a child out of wedlock meant she endured moral censure.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, up until the Restoration, morals were fairly strict, but at the Restoration and into the Georgian period, in reaction to the strictures of the Puritans, morals became somewhat lax for more people. You see the number of illegitimate children increasing in registers at this point (see Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800[4]Stone makes some excellent points, but I find myself disagreeing in some cases. His assertion that children were given the same names as siblings who died before them because they weren’t … Continue reading). It wasn’t unusual for a couple to have a child before their marriage, or for the bride to be pregnant at the wedding – it wasn’t necessarily a shotgun wedding, but was known as a “walking-out child”. In some communities, an engaged couple were considered to be as good as married (as long as the marriage was imminent).

Obviously, class plays a large part in this, and people with money and wealth were aware of the problems illegitimacy caused to the passing on of their property (see Wilkie Collins’ No Name). This means you rarely see a woman from a wealthy family having an illegitimate child – money and morals combine (though she may be packed off to a distant relative for the birth and baptism). Of course, quite often, wealthy men were more than happy to father illegitimate children on women lower down the social scale than them, often because women of their own class were sexually unavailable until marriage. It is, at this distance, impossible to know whether these were mutually affectionate relationships, or exploitative, where a man of means would take advantage of his servant.

Extra information

The glory, fun and fascination of parish registers are all the unexpected bits of information they include. Sometimes a vicar might decide to record all birth dates as well as baptisms, other times he might include comments in the margins – “the register says this child was called Robert but 30 years later someone has told me it should be Thomas, and Mary Taylor who was present at his birth hereby swore this to be the case.” There may be doubt thrown on the child’s paternity – “The mother is married to Nathaniel Dunton who has been absent these five years past, and she lives with William Brown as his wife.” Or, in the case of the child of my great-grandma’s cousin: “The child’s father perished on board the wreck of the R. M. S. Titanic.” Wherever extra information appears, I include it in the notes field.


1 Immediately we run into a terminology issue: “christening” can be used too. This sometimes is used only to refer to infant baptisms. Someone’s first name, or given name, is sometimes referred to as their ‘Christian name’ because it was given at baptism when they were a baby. This is, I assume, why unbaptised infants do not have names when they appear in early burial registers.
2 I spoke to a Quaker friend of mine who has studied Quaker history.
3 See my blog about Lawshall‘s 16th century entries.
4 Stone makes some excellent points, but I find myself disagreeing in some cases. His assertion that children were given the same names as siblings who died before them because they weren’t considered to be individuals, I think ignores the naming conventions of the time. If it was important to a family that their son be called William, because it was a family name, then if the first child they name William dies, it makes sense that the next son born to them would also be called William. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t love their children!