Posted by Kristen Hyde on April 29, 2020 in United Kingdom

Parish registers are a valuable resource for finding key information about our ancestors in the 1800s. To help us understand this fascinating period and how parish registers can be interpreted, we’ve invited Andrew Lott, Senior Information Officer at London Metropolitan Archives, to share his expertise.

Understanding 18th Century Parish Registers

At the start of the 18th Century, parish registers will most likely be found in a composite register format, where all three events (baptisms, marriage and burials) are interspersed in the same register. This doesn’t change until 1754, following Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act the previous year which saw Marriages recorded in separate registers. Baptism and Burials were often (though not always) recorded in joint registers up until 1813.

Composite registers can be difficult to follow. Sometimes you will get more than one event on the same page. Alternatively, you might get a run of baptisms and then it switches to burials and then to marriages. There is also the possibility that one event will start at the front of the register and the other will start at the back of the register and they will meet somewhere in the middle.

So, why are these records valuable to family historians? In terms of the information recorded, this is likely to be in the form of a single line entry. However it was very much up to the individual filling in the register as to what information was recorded. For many vicars it would be the bare minimum, but if you are lucky enough, you might get a little more than just a name and a date!

For baptisms, you can expect to see the date the baptism took place, the Christian name of the child, son (‘s’) or daughter (‘d’) of the names of the mother and father. You will only get the married name of the couple or the maiden name of the mother in the cases of illegitimate children. In some of the earlier registers it is quite possible that the mother’s Christian name will not even get a mention.

Towards the end of the century you might also get the profession of the father, the street or at least the part of the parish where they lived. You may also see an alleged date of birth recorded, although this was more commonly found in the margins of post 1813 printed registers.

Prior to 25th March 1754, marriage entries will be found amongst composite registers. This practice should have ended following Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, but some churches were not particularly quick on the uptake and continued to record marriages in the old style. It is therefore worth checking both datasets just in case, particularly if the marriage you are looking for took place around that time or in the following few years.

Early information would be limited to the names of the couple getting married, the date of marriage and usually the name of the parish from which each party was from. Anything beyond this depended on the vicar. If you are lucky you might also get information as to their condition e.g. bachelor, spinster or widow, and whether the couple were married by banns or licence. If you were really lucky and your ancestors lived in St Paul, Shadwell at the turn of the 18th century, you would even get the profession of the groom and the road or area of the parish where they were living, but this would have been the exception to the norm.

Post-1754, things were more standardised, using pre-printed registers with the following information recorded:

  • The names of the bride and groom
  • Their condition as to marriage and the parishes that they were from
  • The date of marriage
  • Whether this was done by banns or licence
  • The name of the vicar
  • The signatures or marks of the bride and groom
  • The signatures of at least two witnesses.

Unfortunately, it would not be until the beginning of official registration in 1837 that the marriage certificates that we are familiar with would start to be used. So, at this point in time, we are not going to get the really useful information such as ages, professions, addresses and names and professions of the father of the bride and groom.

Early burial information may well be limited to just a name and a date. Occasionally you might get information as to where the burial took place, e.g. was it in the churchyard, a vault, or elsewhere. The later you go, the more chance you have of finding extra information such as an age. This wasn’t always recorded until post-1813 when burials were recorded in their own registers on pre-printed pages. If an age isn’t recorded then there might be some clues such as the notation of the individual being an infant. If the individual is noted as the son or daughter of, then this might give an indication that you are dealing with the burial of a child. As before, it really does all depend on the vicar and how much they choose to record.

General tips for searching digitised parish records.

  • Spelling errors could have been made by the vicar at the time, or later during the transcription process. Try searching with wildcards. An example of this was when I was looking for the brother and sister-in-law of one of my great grandparents and couldn’t find them on a census. Their names were Joseph and Rebecca Lott and I knew roughly where they should be, but the name search just couldn’t find them. Eventually I searched for Joseph and Rebecca *ott and found them. The enumerator’s ‘L’ was very curvy and looked more like an ‘S’ so the surname had been transcribed as Sott.
  • Check that all the parishes in your particular area of interest have deposited their records with the County Record Office. In London for example, most ancient parishes have deposited their records at LMA but there are exceptions. St Mary Abbots, Kensington has kept its own records, so if your ancestors were in that area, there may be a reason why you can’t find the event that you are looking for. Ancestry can only digitise the records that they have access to.
  • Similarly, churches in the ancient City of Westminster have their own archive (Westminster City Archives). You might find some records from this area in the shape of Bishops Transcripts that are held at LMA, but not all dates will be covered. It is unlikely that there will be anything prior to 1800 for these parishes.
  • Browse the records by individual parish, this will allow you to check to see if there are any gaps in the sequence of registers. There may be many reasons for gaps, such as damage during WWII bombing. You should check with the record office to see whether a full run of registers survives for the parish that you are interested in.
  • Get to know the area where your ancestors were living. Find out which parishes bordered each other.
    Remember that in the past, movement of individuals was more common than you might think. This occurred usually in one of two ways. Certainly, as the country began to industrialise, you might see a large move from rural areas to urban areas in search of employment. Once they were in an urban area, they would probably be renting. This tends to lead to more regular short distance moves; however, this might include a move from one parish to another. A good knowledge of the local area it will help you to work out if it is the same family in two different areas. It is much less likely that you will find a family arriving in a parish in East London and then moving to the other side of the City, but short hops from one East End parish to another is much more plausible.
  • When searching for baptisms, make use of a ‘parent search’. Put in the surname of the family, but leave the first name blank, then add in the Christian name of both the father and the mother. This will then search for any baptism that matches on those criteria and is often a good way of finding baptism of whole families in one go. An example of this is on my nan’s side of the family. Searching for the Surname Nicholson, with the fathers’ name as John and the mother as Susanna. Susanna was in fact Susanna Priscilla, which is fairly unusual. From the results you can see that the five obvious baptisms of this couple took place in three different parishes that were all quite close to each other in the East End between 1885-1898

Andrew Lott is a Senior Information Officer at London Metropolitan Archives. His role involves answering some of the thousands of enquiries that LMA receive from the public each year, as well as working in the public rooms to help readers get the most out of their visit. Andrew is also a part time local history enthusiast focusing on South East London and has spent over 25 years tracing his own family tree.