Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are one of the main staples of the family historian. Anyone tracing their family tree back further than civil registration and the census in England will almost certainly look at these sources.
Indeed, many of you will have spent hours scrolling through microfilms of registers in the pursuit of that elusive link to a past generation. As such, they are invaluable, but parish registers shouldn’t be underestimated; dig a little further and there are many stories to be found.
From September 2019, the parish registers held at Bristol Archives will become available on Ancestry for researchers to search online from anywhere in the world. Over 2000 volumes have been scanned, covering 140 Anglican parishes and chaplaincies. This mammoth undertaking has uncovered stories that might even divert you from your own family history for a moment!
Bristol Parish Registers:
Who’s who in the Bristol Parish Registers
Bristol has a number of famous sons and daughters who can be found in the city’s parish registers. Perhaps the most celebrated is the Queen of Crime herself: Agatha Christie. Although Christie was born in Devon, her first marriage took place in Clifton on 24 December 1914. Hers had been a whirlwind war romance and she married her dashing Royal Flying Corps captain while he was on leave at his parents’ home in Bristol.
Another pair of famous marriages can be found in the Saint Mary Redcliffe registers. The romantic poets and friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Southey, married Sara and Edith Fricker, who were sisters, six weeks apart in 1795. Lord Byron was supposedly unimpressed with the match and disparaged the women as “milliners from Bath”.
Celebrities to have been born in Bristol and whose baptisms appear in the registers include WG Grace, the famous cricketer (1842); Archibald Leach, otherwise known as Cary Grant (1904); and the infamous poet and “forger” Thomas Chatterton (1753) who died by his own hand at the age of 17.
Finding historical details and helpful context
As well as recording the baptisms, marriages and burials of their parishioners, some priests used the registers to record extraordinary events. The registers of Saint Nicolas in March 1645* contain a note stating that many names are missing because the parish had been “visited by plague”. The death toll was 146 for that month, with 24 dying in one week. The dead included the parish’s clerk, John Turman, and sexton, Philip Slade. As these two men would have been responsible for the recording of burials and the burying of the dead, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a gap in the record.
This is part of the “memoranda” to be found in the registers of Saint Mary the Virgin Henbury. It describes a great storm that hit Bristol and the surrounding area in 1703. The register states that a five-foot-high tide swept away houses, cattle, sheep and people and that the chimneys of the Bishop’s Palace at Wells fell onto the Bishop and his wife, killing them both.
This is a taste of the stories that the Bristol Archives team have found in the parish registers of the city. We hope that you enjoy uncovering your own!
*1646 according to modern reckoning. The year began on 25 March until 1752.
For more about Bristol Archives, including opening hours, visitor information and online catalogues, visit Bristol Archives
Further information about Agatha Christie, visit Agatha Christie
More on the poet Thomas Chatterton