I put up an online survey to find out what major brick walls people had in British Isles ancestor research and the largest cry that came back was the following:
Help me with my family tree research, especially back before 1837.
Perhaps this resonates with you? Youâ€™ve traced your forebears back in the census collections as far back as the 1841 census? Then you have used the Births Marriages and Deaths on the web and found that the nice and easy indexes only go back as far as 1837?
It was, you see, that in 1837 the General Register Office was set up for England and Wales and took over the registration of vital records from the Church of England.
In Scotland it was in 1855 that the General Register Office for Scotland took the same powers from the Church of Scotland. So from those years backwards we all have to use the records kept by the state church and these are known as Parish records in both jurisdictions.
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 â€œbase bornâ€ â€œbastardâ€ or â€œnatural bornâ€ 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. 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.
A strong lockable box, known as the parish chest and into which were deposited records were kept. We refer to all those records, that may now be found deposited in the county record office but were once in the keeping of the parish church, as Parish Chest documents. They don’t just include the well known parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of our forebears. You will find there are all sorts of other records that together are sometimes referred to as the parish chest.
In England and Wales you have the vestry meeting minutes while in Scotland you have the Kirk Sessions. There are also odd records such as the report of the parish surveyor! Many of you may not have even heard of such records that may just contain your ancestor’s name and if you are restricting your searching to the online environment then you are more than likely frustrated by the inability to locate them.
In most cases you are going to have to visit the county record office to get to see microfiche copies of these English and Welsh records, as they are not online. For the baptisms, marriages and burials you could go to your local LDS centre and order the films there. Scotland’s old parish registers, however, can be accessed at the ScotlandsPeople website for a fee. Oh that we could do the same south of the border!