Family Tree Research Before 1837 in England & Wales | The Nosey Genealogist's: Help Me With My Family Tree
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Family Tree Research Before 1837 in England & Wales

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on August 14th, 2010

St Nicholas', Gloucester Parish Records are at County Record OfficeIn 1837 the General Register Office (GRO) was founded in England and Wales and civil registration took over from the church in this part of the UK. Two acts of Parliament were brought into law by the Whig Government of the time as they wanted to centralise data on the population…

1. The Marriage Act – which amended existing legislation for marriage procedures and brought in the addition of the registry office marriage that now allowed non conformist to marry in a civil ceremony instead of in the Church of England as previously required of all but Quakers and Jews. It is for this reason that sometimes you will see it referred to as the “Dissenters Marriage Bill”

2. An Act for Registering Births Marriages & Deaths in England – which repealed previous legislation that regulated parish and other registers.

The new laws brought with them a change whereby 619 registration districts came into force across the land. Based on old poor law unions that existed they divided up England & Wales into these various districts. A superintendent registrar was appointed for each district, with sub-districts created within the larger unit. And so from the 1 July 1837 all births, civil marriages and deaths had to be reported to local registrars, who in turn then sent the details on to their superintendent. Every three months the superintendent-registrars then sent their returns to the Registrar General at the General Register Office.

In a similar manner for church marriages, the minister was charged with sending his own lists to the GRO where the index of vital events were complied. This system means that many of us are able to simply find our ancestors in indexes and order copies of certificates back as far as the third quarter of 1837.

But if you want to get back before 1837 without the benefits of the centralised government records, then here are some pointers for you.

From the 16th century up until 1837 the parish church carried the responsibility of collecting records of its parishioners. While baptism was more important to the church than actual birth dates and burials were noted as opposed to deaths, the church was essentially an arm of local government collecting information.

Baptismal registers will normally give you the name of the child and that of its father, plus the date of the christening. Occasionally you may also see the mother’s name, most particularly if the child was illegitimate. In this case you could see the terms “base born” “bastard” or “natural born” on the record. Sometimes the godparents or witnesses also appear. This all goes to show how there was no standard format to baptismal registers until in 1812 Rose’s Act became law in England and Wales and standardised the information to be recorded on specially printed registers.

It should be noted, however, that Rose’s Act did not apply to Scotland or Ireland. These new standardised registers asked for more details than before and so now the clergy had to obtain the mother’s Christian name, the father’s occupation and his abode.

Churches kept parish registers locally. They were not collated or sent to any central depository but were retained by the churches themselves. In some cases, now, the registers have now been left to the county record offices and so you would be well advised to take a visit to the relevant record office to further your research and see the records most probably on microfilm or fiche.

The churches had a strong lockable box, known as the parish chest and into which it deposited its records. It was not just the registers that were kept in the parish chests, however, as the church was responsible for other types local government  and so various other interesting documents that may contain your ancestors’ names could have been locked away in these chests.

If you a beginning to trace your family tree before this then prepare your self for some brick walls. I found it frustrating that the Parish Records listed one of my ancestors marrying in Plymouth as a Mariner and gave no Parish from where he came. Presumably he sailed into Plymouth and married the girl, but where did he come form?

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  1. Alistair H G Allcroft permalink

    Agree with your comment about ‘brick walls’ and frustration at getting ancestor information pre-1937.
    I thought we came from a London family but that is only true back to about the 1820’s or so.
    Prior to that I have found from Census information my g.g grandmother Elizabeth Allcroft (?) came from Mapplewell/Darton near Barnsley in Yorkshire.
    Unfortunately her husband John Allcroft died of tuberculosis in Lambeth in 1846, when his details on the 1841 Census don’t show where he came from.
    There is an 1816 record of marriage taking place in Sheffield between John Allcroft and Elizabeth Taylor!
    At present I am ‘digging’ in any Parish Records I can find with the hope of ‘beating’ this barrier.
    Happy hunting.

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