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Parish Register


Parish registers are arguably the best source for English genealogy research.  They cover a very long period of time and are often readily available on microfilm.  Most parish registers are at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  The others have to be searched in England.  Many parish registers date back to the early 1500s.  The registers were kept by the Church of England (C of E).  They contain three primary record types: christenings, marriages, and burials.


The first step in searching parish registers is to determine what parish your ancestors came from.  The 1881 census is a good place to find the name of the parish where your ancestors came from.  If you know the name of the place where your ancestors lived but do not know the parish you can use a gazetteer to find that information.  The England Topographical Dictionary by Samuel Lewis, published in 1831, is an excellent choice.  This is only available online to subscribers.  It is available in many major libraries and on microfilm at the Family History Library.


The second step is to find a map of the parish registers.  I think the The Atlas and Index of Parish Registers by Cecil Humphery-Smith is a vital resource for English genealogy.  This tool contains maps of each county with the parish boundaries.  It also gives the years that parish registers exist for each parish, indicates where the original records are located, and indicates if the parish has been extracted into the International Genealogical Index (IGI).  For those who do not have access to this book, also has maps of parish boundaries for many counties.


The third step is to find out where the parish registers are located.  The most convent location for internet genealogists is the IGI.  This is located on  The Atlas and Index of Parish Registers will tell you what parishes and time period are included in the IGI.  It varies from county to county.  If the parish registers are not in the IGI you will probably have to search them on microfilm.  Check the Family History Library Catalogue on to find out what microfilms are available on microfilm from that library. 


When searching for parish registers you will often see the term “Bishop’s Transcripts.”  From 1598 every year the parish priest was required to make a copy of the entries in the parish register and send it to the bishop.  Where bishop’s transcripts have survived they serve as a good backup to the parish registers.


In the parish records you will see three types of records christening, marriage, and burials.  The christening usually took place about six weeks after the birth so they are a good estimate of the date of birth.  The information included in a christening record is usually the name of the child and the names of the parents along with the date of christening.  Burrial records are good estimates of the date of death.


The way you trace your family tree is first find a christening record of your ancestor.  Then look in the parish registers for all of the siblings of your ancestor.  In the early days there were very few lonely children.  Then search for a marriage record for your ancestor’s parents.  They were probably married about a year before their first child was born.  Once you find a marriage record for the parents you are ready to find the parents’ christenings.  In England the male was usually married at the age of 25 and the female at the age of 21 unless it is a second marriage for either one of them.  Look in the parish registers for someone born 21 or 25 years earlier. 


If you cannot find your ancestor in the expected parish you should try a radius search.  This involves searching the local parish within a five mile radius for your ancestor.  A good tool for determining parishes within a 5 mile radius is the Parish Locator program.  Before searching all parish registers check to see which parish records have been extracted into the IGI.


When searching parish registers it is important to remember that the calendar has changed over the years.  We sometimes take the modern Gregorian calendar for granted.  Prior to 1752 the first day of the year was the 25 March.  Back then the 7th month of the year was September, the 8th month of the year was October, etc.  In September 1752 England switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian calendar.  To deal with this change genealogists record both the old style of the date and the new style of the date.  For example if you find the date “17 January 1645” you would record it at “17 January 1645/1646.”  This is called double dating. 


Next:  Civil Registration


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© 2002 Jeffrey Wilde