UK Parish Registers Made Easy!

Morris window Knaresborough Parish Church
Knaresborough Parish Church – William Morris window

So you’ve found your ancestors in 19th century UK census records and identified registered births and marriages back to 1837. But how do you cross over into the “wilderness” that is pre-1837?

Church baptisms (not births), marriages and burials (not deaths) have been recorded in parish registers, with one hiatus mid-17th century, since the 1500s.

They still are to this day where these events take place in the Anglican parish church or churchyard. Surviving registers for historical life events have usually been deposited in the County Record Office or History Centre.

You can start your search with any early birth, marriage or death certificate or any census entry from 1851 or later. However, I suggest you…

Start with an 1851 census entry for a married couple and their children…

UK Census Extract for St. Swithin's, Walcot 1851
UK Census Extract for St. Swithin’s, Walcot 1851

Jot down the husband’s name, possible date range for a marriage and up to three possible places of marriage:

  • husband’s place of birth; 

  • wife’s place of birth; and

  • place of birth for the couple’s eldest child.

Westminster Marriage Register 1758
Westminster Marriage Register 1758

NB – If the head of the household  was 40 years of age in 1851, look for a marriage between 1827 and the year after his first child was born. 

Look online first: 

  • Start with Family Search but be careful: some entries on this site  are second-hand!

  • If you live in the UK, search Ancestry or Find My Past for free in your local library: call to book a time slot.

  • If the transcription or image you want is not on Ancestry, search Find My Past and vice-versa. 

  • If you find an image (rather than a transcription) of a likely register entry and the details appear to match the 1851 census, print it out and celebrate! But don’t stop there: look for more evidence at the record office (see advice in this colour below)…

  • Print out all the possibles that show up in results. The most obvious result is not necessarily the correct result!

But you may draw a blank on all of these sites..!

Before contacting the record office:

  • If unsure, use the historical maps page on Family Search to show you a list of parishes for your place name and to locate the place name within a county;

  • Write down the names of parishes for your place name;

  • Google “[County Name] Record Office” e.g. “Worcestershire Record Office” and you will find a link or contact details; e.g. Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service;

  • Call the record office to confirm that they hold the baptism, marriage and/or burial registers relating your ancestor.

Visit the record office: If you live close by, pay them a visit. Parish registers are popular, so you won’t be able to handle the originals. You will be able to view parish registers on microfiche.

  • Phone in advance to book a microfiche reader;

  • Allow at least an hour and a half for your first visit; when you go to a record office again, you will feel more confident and may need less time;

  • Consult the marriage indexes for all parishes within your place name using any marriage results you may have found online;

  • If you have already seen a parish register image online for a likely marriage and one or more of their children was born in the same place (according to the 1851 census), look for their baptisms in the baptism indexes for the same parish! 

  • Ask for help with the microfiche reader and how to take copies.

Or phone a friend: If you cannot get to the record office ask someone to go for you! Or the staff will often help on the telephone and may do a quick index check for you at low or no charge; however, there will usually be a charge if you want them to send you a copy of the actual register entry – the fee is usually between £4 and £15.

Alternatively, Woods for the Trees can search the parish registers for you – for one ancestor or many – at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre or Bath Record Office. We also carry out research into your family or house history in any part of the UK. Contact us for a free estimate or read more blog posts here.

Malmesbury Abbey Parish Chest
Malmesbury Abbey Parish Chest
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