What You Need to Know:
• With some exceptions (noted in this guide), what applied to England also applied to Wales after 1536.
What You Need to Know:
• Parish baptism records are not the same as birth records. Churches did not issue birth certificates. Birth certificates were done by civil (government) registration and did not begin in England and Wales until 1837.
• Not all parents bothered to have their children baptized because so many infants died at a young age. As well, the payment required by parish priests for a baptism was often beyond the means of the working poor. However, virtually all marriages and deaths performed by the Anglican Church were almost always recorded in parish records because payment for the ceremony included registration in the parish records.
• The date of baptism is not a reliable indicator of the age of a person. Parents sometimes waited several years before baptizing their children. It was also a practise in some families to baptize several of their children at the same time. Some regions in England even baptized all the children in the parish on the date given for the patron saint of the local church. Baptists (a faith that originated in the 1600s) baptized people when they were adults. The only thing that is known for certain for an ancestor with a baptism date is that the birth date precedes the baptism date.
• Catholics and other non-Anglicans (such as Presbyterians, Calvinists, etc. - collectively referred to by the Anglican Church as non-conformists) of financial means had an incentive to record their vital records in Anglican parish records. It was necessary to have Anglican parish records to hold certain civic positions and to carry out certain societal functions. This would include such activities as holding public office and the ability to prove a right to an inheritance. Thus, it is worth looking through Anglican parish records even if your ancestors were not Anglican.
• Citizens requiring welfare (known as poor relief) payments were also recorded in Anglican parish records regardless of religious background. The parish priest needed to record each individual to justify the welfare payment.
• Prior to 1597 parish records were usually kept on loose sheets and the sheets were often kept in the parish strong box. Back in those days, churches often used hollowed out logs as strong boxes. This did not provide ideal storage conditions. As a result, many older parish records either rotted or were eaten by the local parish mice. As well, some parishes were overzealous in their housekeeping and many old parish records stored on single sheets were simply thrown out. Thus, finding historic parish records in England prior to about 1600 is not a common occurrence.
• If the church of your ancestors no longer exists, do not assume the parish records were destroyed. Typically, when a church was ‘decommissioned’, the records were transferred to either a neighbouring church or to regional church offices. The best place to start looking is to contact the local diocese (bishop’s) office.
• A group known as the Online Parish Clerks has put online free historic parish records from several English counties. [Online Parish Clerks] Online parish records can also be searched using the free Genealogy Search Engine. There are also several subscription websites that offer English parish records. As well, several regional governments in England offer online parish records. Check the local government websites in the region of your ancestors.