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Parish Registers

Once our research takes us further back than the beginning of civil registration, we are reliant on parish registers for evidence of births marriages and deaths. These were maintained by the Church from the mid sixteenth century until 1837. A key point to keep in mind is that the level of illiteracy during this period was very high. There are accordingly numerous variations in the spellings of both surnames and given names. Most people did not know how to spell their names so the parish clerk recorded what he thought he heard. The Case Study at the foot of this pages illustrates some of the problems encountered in researching events recorded in parish registers.

In the majority of cases, the original parish registers have been deposited with the local County Archives Office for safe keeping. The same applies to the Bishop's or Archdeacon's Transcripts which each parish was required to provide on an annual basis. These may not, however, be held in the same repository. In Staffordshire, for example, parish registers are kept in Stafford and the Bishop's Transcripts in Lichfield. In view of the fragility of these documents, access is often restricted or prohibited with researchers being obliged to use images stored on microfiche or microfilm. There are some cases where registers are still held in the parish church and it is necessary to apply to the church for access.

The extraction of information from original registers can be a challenging process depending on the age and condition of the pages and the handwriting of the parish clerk.

Free Sources

Access to records held by County Archives Offices is generally free of charge. GENUKI is usually a good source for discovering where original registers and transcriptions can be accessed, but not all counties have individual pages for every parish.

FreeReg (from the same stable as FreeBMD and FreeCEN) has started the process of transcribing UK parish registers, but the process is very far from complete. Click here to see current FreeREG coverage.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (otherwise known as the LDS Church or the Mormon Church) practices "baptism for the dead" under which a living person receives the ordinance of baptism on behalf of a deceased relative. It is on account of this doctrine that the LDS Church has made a major contribution to the collection, indexing and digitization of family history records from around the world. In common with most other family historians, we have made extensive use of the International Genealogical Index (IGI). This index of baptisms and marriages from around the world used to be available as a standalone website, but has now been subsumed into the FamilySearch site.

We have learned through experience that the quality of data in the IGI varies enormously. Whilst a degree of reliance can be placed on records which come from a "controlled extraction" batch (i.e. those extracted from parish registers in a controlled fashion), those which do not have to be treated with a degree of caution. The LDS Church now makes a clear distinction between the "Community Indexed IGI" which includes only records transcribed from original sources and the "Community Contributed IGI" which includes records submitted by individual church members. See the IGI page on FamilySearch for full details. (This page does not seem to work with some browsers.) For further information about how to get the best out of the IGI, see FamilySearch: A guide to the British batches created by Archer Software.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki now includes an increasing volume of information related to individual parishes. You can drill down to the county and parish of interest. In many cases, there is a useful summary of online sources for transcriptions of parish registers. In Lancashire, for example, the Lancashire OnLine Parish Clerks Project has contributed tables showing online sources - both free and chargeable - where indexes of parish register entries may be accessed.

The FamilySearch website now has a useful Site Map which assists in the exploration of the resources available on their site.

Chargeable Sources

The subscription and PPV sites such as Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast each include parish register transcriptions, but the geographical coverage varies considerably. It is not always easy to ascertain precisely which records are available. A negative search result may simply mean that the dataset contains no relevant records.

The Society of Genealogists has an extensive library of genealogical material including many transcriptions of parish registers. The Society has an On-Line Catalogue listing the documents available. The Search Page can be found here. In October 2017, the SOG launched a new Associate Membership for those who do most of their research online. It costs thirty percent less than full memberhip.

The Joiner Marriage Index is as PAYG site giving access to nearly three million marriages in nearly five thousand parishes in England and Wales. Some counties are better represented than others.

Many transcriptions have been produced and published on CD-ROM by local family history societies. The Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) has an online shop at Genfair.co.uk where these can be purchased. A particularly useful product from the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) is the National Burial Index which is now in its Third Edition. It is widely available, but the cheapest source we could find is BMSGH. Much of the data is available on findmypast.co.uk through their partnership with FFHS.

Case Study

The following case study illustrates the kind of problems encountered in finding evidence of births and marriages which took place before 1837 and the importance of searching original parish registers or images of the relevant pages.

Thomas and Deborah Wright are recorded on the 1851 census as born in Norton-in-the-Moors, Staffordshire abt 1794 and abt 1801 respectively. On being asked to find records of their baptisms and marriage, our first thought was to see if Community Indexed IGI batches exist for this parish for the relevant dates. The new Archer Software site and Hugh Wallis' site show Batches c010172 and m010172 including baptisms and marriages respectively for 1752-1812.

Looking on FamilySearch using the batch number c010172, we quickly found the baptism of Deborah Cope on 27 Feb 1800 showing her parents as John and Elizabeth Cope, but there is no entry for Thomas Wright in 1794. The nearest is 23 Jan 1774. This raises a question as to whether there were two baptisms for Thomas Wright or whether the IGI entry for 1774 is a transcription error and should read 1794. This can only be resolved by reference to the actual parish register.

A search under batch number m010172 revealed no entry for the marriage of Thomas Wright and Deborah. Using our Ancestry.co.uk Premium subscription, however, we were able to find a record of the marriage of Thomas Wright and Deborah Cope in Norton-in-the-Moors on 24 Dec 1821. This entry is reportedly extracted from Staffordshire Parish Registers. Once again, it can only be verified by reference to the actual register.

The original parish registers for Norton-in-the-Moors are held in the Staffordshire Archives Office in Stafford, but a copy is available on microfilm or microfiche in the Stoke-on-Trent Central Library in Hanley. Not being resident in Staffordshire, we looked for transcriptions of these registers online. The Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry (BMSGH) only has Norton available on microfiche. This, of course, requires access to a reader. The Staffordshire Parish Register Society website confirms that printed transcripts for Norton are out of print and only available on fiche.

We must conclude that, despite the plethora of information now available online, the only way to progress in this case and many others is to visit the local Archives Office holding the original parish registers.

Page last modified: 9 February 2022