Parish records

So far we’ve talked a lot about Civil BMDs – Birth, Marriages and Deaths – the registration system that came into operation in 1837.  But this wasn’t the first system for keeping track of the population.  A different system had been in operation since as early as 1538.

In that year, during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell ordered that every baptism, marriage and burial in the land was to be recorded.  Although the order wasn’t immediately universally implemented, certainly by the end of the century all parishes would have been keeping records.  The focus, as you can see, was slightly different to the post-1837 civil system.  What was recorded were the religious rites rather than the biological events, so we have baptisms rather than births, and burials rather than deaths.  Or to put it another way, BMBs rather than BMDs.

The information recorded in early records was often minimal in the extreme.  Examples might be a burial of ‘Widow Smith’, with the date recorded; or perhaps a baptism of ‘John, son of Joseph Brown’.  No other identifying facts.  These are the types of records that tend to bring our research to a full stop, particularly if there are several John Browns being baptised in the same parish in a likely time period.  Others, however, are more helpful, perhaps including the mother’s name, or the ‘abode’ (road, area or outlying village) of the family.  (And don’t forget my hero, the wonderful vicar of Tadcaster mentioned in my last post!)

Of course, not all these early records have survived.  Inevitably, some were lost, some became so fragile or damaged as to be illegible, yet more will have been destroyed.  However, from 1598 a second copy of the records had to be made, for the information of the Bishop.  These are known as ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’.  Their use for us as genealogists is twofold.  Firstly, even if the parish records have been lost / damaged / destroyed, there’s a good chance that the Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs) will have survived (or vice versa).  Secondly, if the handwriting on one copy is illegible (or at least difficult to our modern eyes) we have the possibility of a second copy to compare it with.

It’s worth getting to know which of the subscription websites include parish registers or BTs (with images of the original documents) for areas of interest to your research.  For example, I know that Ancestry provide West Yorkshire parish registers, whereas FindMyPast provide the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire.  For my Norfolk ancestors, both of these sites include both parish registers and some BTs.  Of course, the originals will be found (plus micro-fiches of them) at the relevant county records office.

There are some important points to come out of all this:
First, unless you find you’re connected to a noble line, you’re unlikely to get your tree back any further than the commencement of parish recording of BMBs in 1538.  (And often, you won’t manage to get it even as far back as that.)

Second, the significant unit is the parish, which may not be the same as the town/village, etc.  Remember, too, that parishes could change as populations changed over time.

Third, this record-keeping role for the parishes points to an important fact.  Prior to the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, the parish’s role was both spiritual and secular; it was the local administrative unit.  In addition to parish registers for BMBs, you’ll also find vestry minutes, parish accounts and records relating to administration of the Poor Law, settlement rights, apprenticeships and a whole range of other secular responsibilities.  Without the regular decennial census, which was not introduced until 1841, these are the types of records we need to draw upon as we start to research pre-1837/1841.  What happened in 1837 was the separation of the spiritual and the secular.  Of course people continued to marry, to baptise their children, and to be buried at the church, but the recording of these rites assumed less importance in daily life as the state assumed responsibility for keeping track of its population.