Stella Colwell (Author and Family Historian) gives expert video advice on: What are Parish Registers?; Where might I find Parish Registers?; What are indexes? and more...
What are Parish Registers?
In England and Wales, in 1538, each church was obliged to start keeping a register book containing details of all the baptisms, marriages and burials of people in that parish. The baptism registers would contain details of the date and the name of the child, and usually the names of the parents as well. This will enable you to then find details of any brothers and sisters that were born to the same couple, and then to start looking for their marriages and go back in time through baptisms, marriages, baptisms, marriages, hopefully for several generations. In the case of the burial registers, unfortunately it is only after about 1852 when people were buried in the churchyard that the burial registers would record details about them. Otherwise, you'd have to look in the local cemetery registers.
Where might I find Parish Registers?
Most Parish Registers now will be found in the County Record offices, although a number are being uploaded. So, it's always worth using a search engine to see what is available on-line. Also, there have been copies made of these. And these have been fed into something known as the International Genological Index, which is mounted by the Church of the Latter Day Saints otherwise known as the Mormons. You can search the updated version on-line. It's also available on CD-ROMs, something known as British Finder Index, which contains similar information but these only extracted from the Parish Registers rather than other sources. Whereas, the International Genological Index includes other records as well as Parish registers.
What are indexes?
Indexes pull out the names of individuals, listing them by surname and then by forename, so that they enable you to find entries in parish registers, or census returns, or any other sources, much more easily than having to wade your way through, page by page.
Can I obtain copies of Parish Registers?
You can obtain copies of Parish Registers pages because then you can build up a family scrapbook, and if you want to scan in the images to compile a family scrapbook on line you can then share it with other relatives. They go back to the early 16th century in theory, although a lot of them only start in the 17th century. There are huge gaps, particularly in the Commonwealth period between the 1640's and about 1660. You won't find a continuous record in most Parish Registers. Parish Registers are increasingly now being uploaded, but normally you'll only be allowed to have access to them in microfiche form or possibly in microfilm format.
How can Parish Registers help me?
Parish registers will take your family history back to the reigns of the Tudors in the 16th century, but it's extremely rare for a family to have stayed in one parish for perhaps even two generations. You need to probably look at surrounding parishes as well, or take clues from them as to where the family might have come from, and this is why sources such as the British Isles Vital Records Index and the International Genealogical Index are particularly helpful, because they help you to trace people who have moved around. They may not have moved very far, but it will give you clues as to where they came from.
What are non-conformist chapel registers?
In the mid-sixteenth century some worshippers began to be disaffected with the way of worship in the established Church of England and they began to meet privately in each other's houses. This gathered a pace in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1689, The Act of Toleration allowed congregations to erect their own meeting houses and worship separately from the established church and they began to keep their own registries of baptisms, marriages, and burials where they had land set aside for their own inhumations. From the 25th of March 1754 through, until, the first of July 1837, though, everybody, regardless of their creed, had to be married in the established Church of England and the only exceptions were the Quakers and the Jews who were allowed to keep their own records.
Where would I find non-conformist registers?
In 1840 and again in 1857, there was a central government commission to collect in non-conformist chapel registers. So those records of Baptist, Roman Catholics, Methodists and so on, in theory, were supposed to be collected in, and then examined and be authenticated as legal documents, because before this they couldn't be used in a court of law to prove somebody's paternity, or the fact that somebody was over the age of twenty-one. Those that were authenticated are now in the national archives at Que, but many of them weren't deposited and still remain locally held. Those which were authenticated and deposited at Que are now available as part of the international geological index. So you can have a look at extras in the registers in the index.
Can I use both parish and non-conformist registers?
Non-conformist chapel registers can be much more informative than the parish registers, and also the fewer entries in vows about individuals. Most families will have had, possibly, members that were non-conformists at one stage or other, so it's always worthwhile having a look at those as well as the parish church registers, where they didn't have burial grounds of their own. Before the late 18th or early 19th centuries, you'll find that their burials took place in the church yard, and therefore the parish church registers will contain details of their burials, and the marriages between the 25th of March, 1754, and the 1st of July, 1837, were invariably in the Parish church.
Are there registers that cover the rest of the UK and USA?
Our old parochial registers of the established church of Scotland which commenced in 1553 can be searched online, and these are indexed. Those for non-conformist congregations in Scotland are kept in the national archives and elsewhere, so you would need to find out from the online guide as to the whereabouts of those. As far as Ireland is concerned, the registers start in 1634 which is much later than those in England, and many of them, well over a thousand were destroyed by fire in 1921 because they had been collected in and kept in the castle in Dublin. The Roman Catholic church registers in Ireland though, always remained locally and so your chances there are much better. The problem there is that the records were very poorly kept and so there is going to be lots of gaps in them. As far as the Welsh ones go, their registers start later than the English ones, possibly as late as 1730, early 18th century. The American parish church registers, because there is no established church in America, are likely to still be kept in the local church, or possibly by the local historical society of the county or state concerned.
What other records are available?
There are other records from the Parish chest that you can consult, but they will give you incidental biographical information about people and may help to identify people's movements, as well, for instance. Other local records that you might find would be occupational records, for example. You might find family papers deposited in the County Record Office. Maps can be quite useful, as well, for tracing individuals and their movements. So, there are all sorts of things that you can go into the County Record Office and just browse around. It might turn out to be extremely useful. Family deeds, manorial records are another useful source. Because until 1922, at least, everybody would have been residents on a manor that was owned by a Lord, and he kept his own records of payments of rent. And when there were changes of tenure on the property that was recorded as well, because he would extract a fine every time a property changed hands: whether it was by sale, exchange or by death of the tenant.
What is a death Duty Record?
A death duty register records a tax that was collected on somebody's estate when they died. It began to be collected in 1796. Inheritance tax is it's successor today. Records of the death duty registers only go as far as 1903 and nothing is known to survive after that, that people can actually search. But they can be extremely useful and the extracts from peoples wills and administration grants where they died without making a will.
What can a death duty register tell me?
The state duty registers can tell you who the actual beneficiaries were at the time of the person died. Because the will might have been made some years before and the beneficiaries might not be alive at the time to receive the benefit. There might be some beneficiaries who weren't born at the time at the will was made but who will provide it for in it. They will also tell you the value of somebody's estate when they died. It will give you the date of death if that individual is well. And if there is a succession of interest in particular piece of property for example if the wife is left a piece of property for her life time or until she remarries and then the will provides for it's disposal afterwards it will tell you when she's died or when she remarried and then what became of the estate at that point and how much it was worth.
Where can I obtain a copy of a death duty register?
Indexes to the death duty registers which are in the national archives at Kew are available online. You can order digital images or copies of the death duty registers directly from Kew, from the national archives.
Can a Will help me in tracing my Family History?
A will is an extremely useful chronological source, because they would take you back to the middle ages, if you are very lucky. The earliest wills date in England and Wales from the middle of the thirteenth century, although the most regular series in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury only dates since the 1384. A will is particularly useful, because it provides instructions on what is to become of a person's estate when they die, so you know when the will was made and you know when the will was proved. The will is only approved by the relevant probate court when that person is dead. So you can pin point approximately when death took place. It will name relatives, friends, acquaintances, apprentices, tenants maybe, and people who lived in the same neighbourhood, and how they were to benefit from that person's wishes.
What are Probate Records?
Probate records include not only wills themselves, but grants about letters of administration where a will hasn't been made, and the next of kin or the chief creditors felt it necessary to apply to the appropriate court to have a grant of administration made so that mistake can be distributed. Other probate records include, probate inventories, which is a complete listing of all the articles in a person's house, that would include furniture, it would include cash and it would also include debts owing to that individual because they are part of his assets. And also, it will tell you sometimes, named, room-by-room what the actual contents of each room are.
What do I do if I can find documents or are nonexistent like a Will?
Not everybody made a will, unfortunately, and in some cases wills themselves, although they were made, no longer survive. But there may be registered office copies which were made by the courts themselves to help you, but it's been reckoned that before the early nineteenth century, probably only one in ten people who died actually did make a will, or for whom letters of administration were taken out. So you are going to have to have a look at other sources. Burial registers would obviously fix the date when somebody died. Manorial records again if somebody was actually a tenant, they would record the date of death and when the transfer of the property passed to the next heir according to the custom of the manor.