Everything You Need To Know About British Parish Records | Genealogy

A big hello every one and welcome back to the channel, in todays video we are going to take a look at British Parish records and find out how they can help you learn more about your ancestors.

This is the ninth video in this origin series and follows on from several How to videos for the genealogist and a deep dive into a few DNA Haplogroup videos. Today, DNA is an important tool for genealogical research just as important as the paper trail you will slowly put together. As genetic DNA will help tie together your hard work and research together with science of genetic DNA.

As part of todays video we will also take a look at the history of the parish record and learn lots about what you might discover buried in their dusty pages.

Before the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837, the only records to the key events in people’s lives were recorded in the registers of parish churches and some non-conformist places of worship.

In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General to King Henry VIII, declared that all marriages, baptisms and burials should be recorded; normally these are kept at the Parish Church, and are known as ‘Parish Records’.  In 1598 an Act was also passed that meant these records should be copied and sent to the bishop, these are known as Bishop’s Transcripts.

Although most parish registers usually date to around the mid-16th Century, when Elizabeth I declared that accurate registers should be maintained, some are also available from 1538.  Elizabeth I had instructed that they should be preserved in bound books and not on any old scrap of writing material. Even after her efforts, many registers have been lost over the years and those surviving today are now usually safely deposited in the local record office, not the church they are associated with.

Parish registers can contain large gaps, such as for the Commonwealth period, which can leave the mid-1600s looking sparse. You also get volumes which have gone missing over the years leaving frustratingly large gaps. Small gaps are not as bad unless they happen to coincide with the event you are looking for. These are usually due to negligence, often occurring where the clerk didn’t enter them at the time and forgot to do it later. If you are lucky, some of the larger gaps in Parish Records caused by lost volumes may be covered by the Bishop’s or Archdeacon’s Transcripts. These are copies of the events copied from the Parish registers which were sent to the Diocese each year. BT’s may themselves be incomplete, especially at the beginning or end of the periods.

Unlike the Census or the Civil registration material, Parish Records are scattered all across the country, so it will be well into the future, if ever, that we will be able to search them online in the same way. Most churches have deposited records over 100 years old at their local record office, but some still retain burial registers for example, that were started in the last century and still are not full yet. Chapel records are not as well preserved, some are in private hands and many have been lost. However, there are many parish register transcripts published by various parish record societies, historical groups and individuals and these lend themselves to being made accessible online.

Using the Parish Registers:

Most people are tracing a surname line, but the tradition of marrying in the bride’s parish can make marriages before 1837 difficult to trace. When a man marries out of the parish there are often no clues as to where he went, thus requiring extensive searching of an ever widening circle of surrounding parishes in the hope of finding him.

You may strike it lucky if they were married by Banns and the Banns register still exists, though not many do. Early genealogists, for whom record access was more difficult than today, recognised the difficulties of tracing marriages and this led to several of them creating manuscript indexes. The best known are Boyd’s and Pallot’s, however Phillimore set about it in a different way, transcribing and publishing marriages from many churches. 

The website – The genealogist has a great selection of marriages recorded in the Phillimore series of transcripts

What information do Parish Records hold?

  • Baptism records – forenames and surname, date of baptism and fathers name.  They might also list the place of birth, fathers occupation, birthdate and mothers name.
  • Burial records –  forenames and surname, abode, age at time of death, date and place of burial and occupation.
  • Marriage records  –  date of the marriage, brides forenames and surname, grooms forenames and surname and parish. Occupations, previous marital status and witnesses were sometimes included.

The following information will give you a more precise understanding of what can be found in the parish record including key dates when certain changes were made – 


From 1754, the marriage register should contain: name of man and parish of residence; name of woman and parish of residence; date married; names of two witnesses; name of officiating minister.


From 1813 baptism registers can contain: date baptised; child’s christian name; parents’ name and surname; abode; quality, trade or profession; by whom the ceremony was performed.


From 1813 can contain: name; abode; when buried; age; by whom the ceremony was performed.

Problems with Parish Registers

Lack of detailed information such a full address, marriage information on baptism, or dates of birth, makes definite identification of individuals extremely difficult. The baptism provides the parents’ names which then can be used to find their marriage in the marriage register, however, as the marriage date is unknown, then many years’ worth of marriage registers may have to be searched, not only in the parish where the baptism occurred, but in surrounding parishes and beyond depending on how mobile the parents were.

The baptism registers will rarely provide the date of the birth, but in the time of high mortality rates in children, most children will have been baptised within several days or a few weeks. There is, however, a possibility that may not have been baptised for several years after their birth.

Before 1733, the register may be written in Latin; the handwriting and its style will often be difficult to read, and the spelling will vary tremendously. Sometimes the poor quality of the microfilm or image creates an additional barrier.

Transcriptions are not always reliable, but they do save time. However, if possible check the information against the original register.


Researching Parish registers can be very time consuming and challenging. However, you may be lucky and find that your ancestors stayed in the same area for two or three hundred years and you may be able to identify several generations of your family tree.

Where to look for parish records?

Some records offices have placed digital images of parish records on their websites, others have partnered with companies like ancestry and placed the images there – so which ever county you are searching in, definitely do your homework to discover the best archive that has preserved the records you need.

Do not be put off, however, by the thought that you may have to travel to view some Parish Registers, many County Record Offices have copied images of the registers onto microfilm/microfiche and these may be purchased; while many organisations and individuals have transcribed many Parish Registers and these are available in print, CD, or online (payment or free). The difficulty comes in identifying which of these hold the transcribed information you are seeking.

These are just some of the possible sources:

Subscription sites like FindMyPast.co.uk and Ancestry now have several databases of parish registers.

The local county family history society may also operate a ‘look-up’ service to save you traveling to the Country Record Office.

Note: the online records compiled by Family History Societies and originally held on Family History Online is now to be found on FindMyPast.co.uk website.

Free Reg. This project seeks to provide transcriptions of registers – free. There are several on there for Essex parishes.

Indexes on familysearch.org. Transcription of many registers which have been microfilmed by the Mormons. These may also be available at Mormon genealogical libraries.

Boyd’s Marriage Index. Registers from over 4,300 parishes have been indexed, a total of over 7 million names. A full index is available from the Society of Genealogists, but local indexes are often found in County Record Offices and libraries.

Ancestry has Pallot’s Marriage Index and Pallot’s Baptism Index. Payment required.

Non-Conformist Records are held in the National Archives but they can now be found on Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk.

Request ‘look-ups’ on various Forums.

Often it is necessary to widen your search from just one parish. A useful resource for finding out contiguous parishes (those parishes that immediately surround a parish or location) is England Jurisdictions 1851 on familysearch.org.

Well a big thank you for joining me, next week will be the 10th video in this series and we are going to be taking a look at the Y-DNA Haplogroup is17250, so hopefully if you get a chance please join me with that video, until next time, stay safe, keep well and bye for now.

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