It will be necessary to learn something about English culture and history in order to use the sources effectively. There are two main types of records that are useful for Family History research: Religious records and government records. While there are many other types of information, they will not be considered here.
During the reign of Henry VIII, there was a disagreement between Henry and the Catholic Church in Rome. This led to a separation of the Church in England from the Church in Rome. The result was the establishment of the Church of England.
Henry VIII appointed Thomas Cromwell to be the Vicar-general who, in 1538, ordered that each parish priest would keep records of baptisms, marriages and burials conducted within the parish. These records, called parish registers, have been kept since that year—except for a brief period, during the civil war.
The British civil war began when King Charles I dissolved parliament and ruled alone from 1629-1640. This precipitated a war that lasted from 1640 to 1660. The scope of the war great and its impact reached virtually everyone—wealthy or poor. This was because almost everyone was forced to take sides in the conflict.
During this time, some of the parishes suffered losses of records. Also, some of the parish registers contain many entries of burials of soldiers killed in the war--many of them with unknown names. In some cases, parish priests ceased recording all or part of the information during those turbulent times.
The war ended in 1660 when Charles II was declared by parliament to be king when he agreed to consult with parliament on important issues. This ended the civil wars and established a monarchy with a powerful parliament.
Do not expect the parish registers to be complete, especially during the first 100 years. Some of the priests simply did not keep the records. Also, some records were destroyed by water, fire, etc. Nevertheless, even these early parish registers can provide us with important family links.
Prior to 1813, parish registers were simply entered into a ledger book (some without lines to guide the writer). After 1813, the church adopted forms to be filled out. An example of a baptismal form is given below.
The use of forms has made it much easier to red the information. You will have greater difficulty reading the parish registers before 1813. Yet, they are often quite clear. The pre-1813 parish registers are essentially the same as the example of a bishops' transcript which is presented in the next section.
In summary, most parish registers have survived since the late 1500s, but there may be significant gaps in the records. Today, microfilm or microfiche copies of most parish records are available in County Records offices in each English county. Microfilm copies of many, but not all, parish registers are also available in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. These same microfilms can also be ordered and viewed at any Family History Center operated by the LDS Church.
Key Year 1598
Beginning in 1598, each parish priest was expected to make a copy of his parish registers and send it to the bishop. The copies are known as bishops’ transcripts. They should contain the same information as the parish register itself, but may be less accurate because they have gone through an additional step where errors could be made. Nevertheless, for many cases, we only have access to the bishops’ transcripts, not the parish register itself. It you have a choice, use the parish register.
The following example of a bishops' transcript illustrates how it is a simple list of basic information.
While most of the facts are present in the bishops' transcript, there is no room for the priest's comments. Sometimes a simple comment in the parish register clears up a family mystery. For that reason, if you have a choice, use the parish register.
Caring for the Poor: A Brief Timeline
For about 300 years, the parishes were responsible for the poor. Records kept in the parishes often contain information on specific individuals and families who received aid of various types. Details for the care of the poor were determined by a parish council called the Vestry and the Justices of the Peace.
There were two types of Vestry:
(1) The Open Vestry
which consisted of all male poor-rate payers (householders for the most
The Vestries would meet periodically and determine who would receive help, what kind of help they would be given and how much help the poor would receive. They kept minutes of the Vestry meetings and some of those minutes have survived. They contain detailed information about recipients and their families. These minutes sometimes gave the name of a child born out of wedlock, which is something that in not given in the parish registers.
Later, Overseers were appointed by either the Vestry or the parish priest. These overseers had to maintain an account ledger which, at times, contained detailed information about the poor. These records are called Overseers' Accounts.
Poor Law Union Records
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 brought a dramatic change in relief for the poor. The able-bodied poor were no longer allowed to live in their own dwellings and be given work outside the home. The infamous workhouses were put in place and the poor were required to work—and live—in the workhouses. This system remained until the twentieth century. Note: There were exceptions, but they were few.
Poor Law unions were established and each consisted of several parishes. Each Poor Law union had a Board of Guardians that was elected by those who paid poor rates. Their job was to administer relief to the poor. Overseers were appointed to conduct the daily work of relief. Those applying relief were required to administer what was called the "workhouse test" to anyone applying for relief. This test meant that an applicant for relief, who was able-bodied, were admitted to a workhouse. They lived and worked in the workhouse, but did not receive relief to live on the outside. This was different from the time before the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
Conditions in the workhouses varied. Some were clean and the poor were treated better than those who chose to remain outside and live as paupers. Other workhouses were not much better than prison.
Under the Poor Law Union, those who were not able-bodied could still receive relief outside of the workhouse.
The Poor Law Unions, kept records. These records contained information about those who were residents of the workhouses and those who received outside aid. Very interesting family information can be obtained from these records.
Beginning on 1 Jul 1837, all births, marriages and deaths were required to be registered with the government. All of England was divided into registration districts. Every location in England was assigned to one of those districts.
A single district can include several towns. A single, larger town can contain more than one registration district. This means that different areas of a town can be in different registration districts.
For births, marriages and deaths occurring after 1 Jul 1837, You should find the event registered. However, some people—especially soon after the 1837 start of registration—failed to register the events. Nevertheless, these records are remarkably complete.
There is a complete index of registrations. This index lists the registrations in three-month periods (quarters). The registration may be recorded in a quarter after the event occurred. For example, a birth on February 26th might not be registered until after March 30th. It would then be listed under the second quarter of the year which would be the June quarter. For this reason, it is useful to search for an event in the quarter in which you think it occurred and also in the following quarter.
The four quarters of the year are:
In the index, you can only find the quarter in which the birth, marriage or death occurred. The civil registration index will provide only the following information:
(1) The name of the person whose birth, marriage or
death was registered
If you order a registration certificate from the Public Record Office (PRO) of the British government, it will provide much more information.
Birth Certificate (Red):
Marriage Certificate (Green):
Death Certificate (Black or Dark Grey):
There may be more than one entry for the same name and the same quarter. It may be difficult to determine which of several entries is the one you are looking for. For example, there may be several John Smiths whose births were registered in the same registration district and the same quarter. It can be difficult to determine the correct one.
The advent of civil registration in 1837 makes this an important date for choosing where to look for information on your family members. Because many of the births, marriages and deaths were no longer recorded in the churches after 1837, civil registration is the major remaining source for this information. However, some families continued to have baptisms, marriages and burials in the churches. Their records will also be found in the parish registers.
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