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About Parish Registers

We all think we understand what parish registers are and when they began but do we really know the truth about them?

Are parish registers primary sources or are they, like many other sources secondary or even tertiary sources?

It is commonly known that Parish Registers were instituted in England and Wales following an order issued by Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General, on 29 September 1538 though a number of registers recording events prior to 1538 do exist.
It should also be noted that churches recorded marriages and burials prior to the 16th century in Missals and Psalters rather than in registers and monastries and other religious houses kept records in books such as the Chartulary, Lieger Book, Necrology or Obituary, Register, and Chronicle etc.

During the reformation these were sold to the highest bidder and occasionally shiploads were sent abroad to book-binders.

Many also know that an order was given in 1597 that the early paper registers (from 1558) were to be transcribed into parchment register books. A similar mandate was issued in 1603 requiring parchment copies of paper registers to be made.
This in itself caused an additional copy of these early registers to be made but thought must also be given to how entries were made in baptism and burial registers in the first place.
Thomas Cromwell’s order required that

Which book you shall every Sunday take fourth and in the presence of the said wardens or one of them write and record in the same all the weddings christenings and burials made the whole week before.

“Whiche boke ye shall every sonday take furthe and in the psence of the said wardens or one of them write and recorde in the same all the weddinges christenynges and buryenges made the hole weke before.”

This means that rather than the register being the original source of the information it is simply a transcript of a “waste book” (or day book) kept by the incumbent.
This, assuming the correct details were recorded in the day book, allows for the first instance of transcription error.
The 1597 order allows for a further chance of transcription errors and in many cases gave rise to omission of many details given in the original paper registers.

J. Charles Cox LL.D., F.S.A. in his Parish Registers of England gives the following example (among others) from the paper register of St. Dunstan’s West –
“ 1560-1. February 17, Mr Rithe a bencher of Lyncolnes Yne, buryed out of the newe brycke byldyngs, beigne in oure parishe, the nether side of Lyncolnes Yne.”

In the parchment transcript it simple reads-
“1560-1. February 17, Mr Rithe buried”

This copying in most parishes was done by the incumbent but in some towns and larger parishes a paid lay copist was employed.

John Southerden Burn in his History of Parish Registers in England states on page 57-
“Staplehurst. The earliest Register of this parish is an original document, commencing the 29th September, 1538, in excellent preservation, and containing many curious entries. The cover to it is of vellum, and appears to be a portion of a very ancient manuscript, very neatly written. The parish also has a transcript of a part of the original Register, commencing in the year 1558, but it is by no means correct, as a great many entries are omitted.”

However it was not just this early change of media that produced copies of parish registers incumbents throughout history have made copies of registers or sections of registers, I have heard of parishes with three copies of registers plus the Bishops’ Transcripts making four sources to work from with each source having some differences from another.

It should also be noted that in many cases Bishops’ Transcripts are not exact copies of the parish registers.. Many Bishops’ Transcripts contain additional entries or omit entries and even when the entry is included it may differ from the entry in the parish register.

The Digest of the Parish Registers within the Diocese of Worcester previous to 1812 together with a Table of the Bishops’ Transcipts now in existence in Edgar Tower, Worcester previous to 1700 gives entries showing duplicated and transcribed registers.

For example the Ipsley Baptism & Burial Registers for the years 1808 to 1812 have been copied from the Diocesan Registry as has the Hindlip Register for the years 1612 to 1737 ;
Volume 9 of the Bromsgrove Register contains duplicates of parts of Volumes 5 and 8 ;
Wolvery has an additional private register for the years 1678 to 1712 ;
Volume 4 of the Birmingham St. Martins contains marriage entries for the years 1753 to 1766 which are really an index of the marriages in volumes 9, 10 and part of 11.
A similar state of affairs occurs in parishes up and down the country.

The family historian must therefore not only be aware of these transcripts and duplicated registers and the errors and omissions they may contain but should in order to ascertain the true picture endeavour to search all available registers.

It is often claimed that there was no legal requirement to record Births before 1837 and no fine imposed on parents before 1879. That claim is false.

There were many Acts of Parliament which required the registering of births, marriages and deaths before 1837.

One such Act which came into force on 24 June 1696 require parents or one of them, within five days after such birth to give notice to the respective Rector, Vicar, Curate, or Clerk of the Parish or Place where such Child was born, of the Day of the Birth of every such Child. There was a fine of 40 shillings for not doing so and a fine of 40 shillings on any Rector etc. who did not refused or neglected to keep a true register of such births.

Other similar Acts were passed in 1644, 1653, 1695 and 1783 some of which were in the form of taxes on births, marriages and deaths.