Using UK Parish Registers
Parish registers record baptism, banns, marriage and burial – note the difference compared to Civil Registration.
Your research entry into Parish registers could be from the ‘place of birth’ column in the UK census.
When searching Parish Registers look for an index, this will save a lot of time. However indexes (particularly online) are far from comprehensive and can be highly inaccurate; so be careful. Parish Registers contain less information than civil registration certificates and you can’t always be clear you have found the right person. Use other resources to confirm links between generations; wills or monumental inscriptions for example.
Check out https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for my 5 steps to discovering your ancestors.
For a brief history of Parish Registers click here
Lets look at three examples from my own research to help you with your research…
Example 1: Charles Parker
The Basics of using Parish Baptism Registers
My entry into the Parish Registers for my ancestor Charles Parker (2x Great Grandfather) was through the ‘place of birth’ column in the 1851 UK Census (England & Wales). On the 30 March 1851 the Census enumerator recorded the following:
Name of Street, Place or Road, and Name or No. of House: 80 Violet Hill
Name and Surname of each Person who abode in the House, on the Night of the 30 March, 1851: Charles Parker
Relation to Head of Family: Son
Age of Males: 17
Rank, Profession, or Occupation: Basket Maker
Where born: Suffolk, Finborough 
This information gave me a calculation; Charles Parker was aged 17 in 1851, so was born around 1834 (1851 minus 17 equals 1834). I also assume (and I need to test this assumption) that it is likely Charles was born in ‘Finborough, Suffolk’.
At the time of my research Suffolk Parish Registers were not published online, so a visit to the County Record Office in Ipswich was in order. Starting in Great Finborough, Suffolk (there is no such place as Finborough, Suffolk) I searched the Parish Records 5 years either side of the assumed birth date of Charles. Baptism of a child usually takes place within 6 months of the birth, however it can happen a considerable time after hence my 10 year search parameter. I searched 5 years before my assumed birth in case my assumption of 1834 was incorrect, or the census enumerator recorded the age of Charles incorrectly. At this time searching in the County Record Office in Ipswich I was using microfiche , so had to book a Microfiche reader. Straining my eyesight I diligently read each line of the Parish Registers for Baptism in Great Finborough. The other information to help me confirm any likely discoveries were:
- Charles’s fathers name (in 1851): George Parker
- Charles’s fathers occupation (in 1851): Agricultural Labourer
- Charles’s mothers name: Mary A
This information would help me corroborate what I was seeing in the Parish Registers for Great Finborough or elsewhere (remember it is my assumption Charles was baptised in Great Finborough as the enumerator records his birthplace as Suffolk, Finborough).
No potential baptism was located for Charles (with the correct mother and father) in the Parish Baptism Registers for St Andrew’s, Great Finborough. Now I had to widen my search. Using The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers (3rd Edition) by Cecil R. Humphery-Smith . I located the surrounding Parishes for Great Finborough. One of these was Stowmarket. Noting the other surrounding parishes I started my next search here. After an hour of so I hit gold:
- Charles Son of George Parker and Mary Ann his wife, of the Parish of Finborough in the County of Suffolk (born on the twenty eighth Day of July 1833) was baptized of July 1837. By me William Ward Protestant Dissenting Minister. on the fifth 28/Jul/1833, Great Finborough, Suffolk (parish records, census 1881) .
I added this information, plus the source of the information to my family tree. My next search was to be the marriage of George Parker to Mary Ann (note I have no knowledge of the maiden name of Mary Ann as she is only recorded under her married name in the Registers.
Tip: When searching Parish Registers use the 1851 UK Census as a way into the Parish Registers as I have done.
Tip: Calculate a baptism, marriage or burial date and then search a good 5 years each side as a start. This will hopefully pick up any error in your original calculation. If no potential record turns up in your search widen the years.
Tip: Using the local County Record Office for your ancestor is still the best way to search through Parish Baptism Registers, (also, marriage and burial) as many aren’t online. I have recently located the baptism (and unusually the birth date) for Charles online with bmdregisters.co.uk . Ensure when you search online you have access to a full set of Parish and Non-Conformist registers.
Tip: Use a reference aid such as The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers to understand the county your are searching and its Parishes.
Example 2: Mary Hart
My first encounter with Edward PARKER (my first cousin 3 times removed) was in the 1851 UK Census when I located his father George PARKER . Edward is detailed as the Grandson of the Head of the Household, aged 2; born in Cambridgeshire, Prickwillow. My first Cambridgeshire ancestor.
From the information gleaned from the 1851 Census I was able to track and order a copy of Edwards civil registration birth certificate :
- 28 June 1848 Prickwillow, Ely Trinity
- Edward, Boy
- Father: George Parker, Labourer (the mark of)
- Mother: Mary Parker (nee Hart)
- Registered: 6 August 1848
- George Cole Registrar.
This revealed for the first time his mother; Mary Parker (nee Hart). I calculated that Mary was likely to have been born before 1837 when Civil Registration starts for England & Wales. My calculation was:
- Edward was born in 1848
- Mary Hart would have probably been at the least 15 years of age at his birth
- Therefore a birth date of 1833 at the latest for Mary Hart is calculated (1848 – 15 = 1833)
So, I would need to access Parish Registers to search for her birth.
Through the UK Census I was able to confirm Mary’s stated age, and that she was born in Prickwillow, a small, linear settlement in the Fens, 4 miles east of Ely. So this became my starting point.
An almost complete set of Parish Registers is deposited at Shire Hall, Cambridge (at the time the County Record Office for Cambridgeshire) [8.] A number of indexes, produced by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society  are available at the archives, so I started with those for Ely Trinity Parish. Ely Trinity was the birth Parish for Edward Parker and the marriage Parish for George Parker and Mary Hart. Finding no sign of a baptism for my Mary Hart in the Ely Trinity registers I turned my attention to Ely St Mary, and then to non conformist registers.
Tip: a brick wall isn’t a brick wall until you have exhausted every record available.
Mary appears (as Mary Heart) in the Wesleyan Chapel Indexes for 1827:
- Heart, Mary, 5m[onths], Prickwillow, Ely Trin[ity]. d[aughter of] Thomas & Harriot, Ely, Wesleyan C[hapel].
It is interesting to consider that if Ely Trinity registers had been online, I may have been tempted to have given up the research here, looking for records in adjoining parishes, or assuming the baptism didn’t exist. Only through accessing all indexes, for all parishes in Ely plus the non conformist indexes (covering Prickwillow), was I able to confirm Mary’s baptism.
Tip: When searching Parish Registers seek out the non-conformist registers for the Parish, or area you are interested in.
Example 3: George Needs
The research of a family member
I had contacted Jenny Needs (my second Cousin) through a website called genesreunited . This opened up detailed research on the Needs part of my family tree (originating with my Grandmother May Doris Needs ). The research stretched back in time to George Needs, baptised in Minehead in 1769 and beyond. For now we will focus on George Needs. Jenny writes:
According to transcripts of the parish records of Minehead in Somerset, George Needs was baptised on 20th November 1769, the son of Thomas and Catherine Needs.
No index record, transcription or image is given for this information by Jenny in her research notes. However having spoken to Jenny on a number of occasions, in detail, I have no doubt regarding her thoroughness in researching her family tree. When I search for the baptism online with FindMyPast  (arguably the largest transcriber of UK Parish Records) this is the result:
- First name(s): George
- Last name: Needs
- Birth year –
- Baptism year: 1769
- Baptism date: 20 Nov 1769
- Denomination: Anglican
- Place: Minehead
- County: Somerset
- Country: England
- Father’s first name(s): Thomas
- Father’s last name: Needs
- Mother’s first name(s): Catharine
- Event type: Baptisms, marriages & burials
- Archive: Somerset Archives
- Document type: Parish records
- Archive reference: D/P/M ST M 2/1/3
- Year range: 1701-1807
- Record set: Somerset Baptism Index
- Category: Birth, Marriage & Death (Parish Registers)
- Subcategory: Parish Baptisms
- Collections from: England, Great Britain
I have no image of the registers to check this index against. One of my key principles of family history research is ‘Prove links from one generation to the next’. To achieve this I need to check the index against the actual Minehead Baptism register. Reading the ‘Learn about these records’ section I note:
With each record you will be given a transcript of details found in the original records held at the Somerset Archives. The amount of information found in each record depends on the date and legibility of the record .
I need to contact Somerset Archives to gain a copy from the register and so complete my records. As I don’t plan to travel to Somerset anytime soon I can check their website for the research and copying services they offer .
Tip: If receiving information from another researcher ask them questions regarding the thoroughness of their research. Be careful, some people are easily offended!
Tip: Read about the record sets when searching online. This will help you understand the breadth of the records transcribed and should help in tracking down the original registers if these haven’t been scanned by the website.
Tip: Save time and money by consulting the relevant archive on their research services. For archives over 2 hours drive you may actually save money by asking them to research a record or record set for you and email the results.
You may also like
My Talk: Parish Registers
Malster to Mariner (more on Edward Parker’s story)
My Talk: Smuggling: an accursed thing
Photo by Geoffrey A Stemp, freeimages.com
- Source: Census 1851: 80 Violet Hills, HO 107 / 1794
- Microfiche are scaled-down reproductions of documents, typically either films or paper, made for the purposes of transmission, storage, reading, and printing. Microform images are commonly reduced to about one twenty-fifth of the original document size; Source: Wikipedia, accessed June 2020
- A very useful reference book showing the counties of England, Wales and Scotland in map format showing the whereabouts of original registers and copies
- Source: Non conformist and Quaker registers, J419/10, Ipswich Public Record Office, 2004
- Record: RG4_2708_0064_877_43_2136_808; source: bmdRegisters.co.uk; accessed: June 2020
- Source: Census 1851: 80 Violet Hill, HO 107 / 1794
- Source: birth certificate Sept 1848, Parker, Edward, Ely, Vol 14, page 59; freebmd.org.uk
- Cambridgeshire Archives is now located in Ely (2020 onwards)
- CFHS; Now Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Family History Society, https://www.cfhs.org.uk/ (2020)
- Source: https://www.genesreunited.co.uk/ , accessed May 2020
- For more on May Doris Needs see: https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/making-sense-of-the-census/
- Source: Findmypast.co.uk; accessed May 2020
- Source: https://www.findmypast.com/transcript?id=GBPRS%2FSOMERSET%2FBAP%2F002262146 ; accessed May 2020
- Source: https://swheritage.org.uk/somerset-archives/services/research/ ; accessed May 2020
Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
What stories could your ancestors tell?