Starting your search
Old parish records provide vital evidence of your ancestors' baptisms, marriages and burials. Detailed indexes and guides can help you to track them down
The Phillimore Parish Marriage registers are fully transcribed although the images are not available.
Parish registers - the Church's records of baptisms, marriages and burials-date from the 16th century and are key to finding out about your family's past before the introduction of civil records. If your ancestors stayed in one place for centuries you may be able to find generations of your family among the records of just one church.
Although many of the records have been put on microfilm or microfiche, occasionally you may experience the thrill of handling an original register that recorded an event in your ancestor's life.
The ancient parishes
Since medieval times, the ecclesiastical parish has been an area with a church authorised for baptisms, marriages and burials, and whose residents are under the spiritual care of a clergyman of the established Church. The area covered by a parish varied widely. In a city it might include only a few streets, but in a rural area it could extend over hundreds of square miles.
In 1821, when there were about 11,000 parishes in England and Wales, the city of Norwich had 37 parishes while the county of Lancashire had 66. The number of parishes, and therefore churches, increased rapidly in the 19th century, particularly in the expanding industrial towns.
Maps identifying the ancient parishes can help you to decide which registers to search. County and city record offices often have parish maps for their local areas. The Phillimore Atlas and Index of f Parish Registers (ed. C. R. Humphery-Smith, Phillimore, 1995) contains a complete set of maps for each pre-1974 county of England and Wales, together with ten maps for the Scottish counties, showing the boundaries of parishes up to about 1832. It also includes the dates of the earliest surviving registers.
How much material survives
Parish records, which are still kept today, first became mandatory in England and Wales in 1538. In that year an injunction was issued requiring every church to keep a book or register to record the date of each wedding, baptism and burial, together with the names of those married, baptised or buried.
Few Welsh but several hundred English registers survive from the 16th century, including a few complete sets of registers from 1538 to the present day.
Older parish registers for England are usually held in county or city record offices - though some remain at the parish church. Welsh registers can be found either in the National Library of Wales or in county record offices. Current and recent registers throughout Britain will, in most cases, still be kept by the parish.
As the registers are scattered, always contact a record office in advance to make sure it holds those you require. In England and Wales, if a register has been lost you may find missing information in copies called bishops' transcripts.
Narrowing down your search
You may have some idea of the parish in which your ancestors are recorded, but to find out where the records are held it is helpful to consult published indexes or other reference works. The best starting points are:
The National Index of Parish Registers (NIPR) a continuing county series that the Society of Genealogists began publishing in 1966. For the society's own holdings, see the web site http://www.sog.org.uk/prc
Local record offices for catalogues listing the parish records they hold.
Local family history societies, which may have indexes and will know where copies, originals or transcripts are held.
Family History Centres, which hold copies of the International Genealogical Index, a huge work, containing abbreviated entries of baptisms and marriages for many parishes.
Exploring the registers
For England and Wales, the records are generally better organised and thus easier to use after 1813, when the law decreed that baptisms, marriages and burials should be entered in greater detail in separate registers. Before this, registers often contained a mixture of the three events, although marriages had a separate register from 1754. Parish registers deposited in an English or Welsh record office can usually be examined free of charge. To view the Scottish old parish (or parochial) registers at the General Register Office for Scotland, there is a daily charge (which also covers any searches of Scotland's civil registration records and census returns, which are held in the same building).There is also a charge for using its http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/ web site.
Searching in the parish
In certain cases you may discover that a parish church retains its old registers or you may wish to investigate a recent event. If you are searching in person, the minister or parochial church council will usually let you see a register but will not necessarily allow you to photograph or photocopy entries. For English and Welsh churches, there is a set scale of fees for searching and you should first make an appointment.
Some parishes appoint a local archivist to handle enquiries about their records or to be present while the researcher is looking at them, again on payment of a fee. If the church authorities carry out research in response to a postal enquiry, they are also entitled to charge for time taken.
Crockford's Clerical Directory, available in most libraries, provides a list of the established Church parishes in all parts of the British Isles, together with the names and addresses of their ministers.
Reproduced by kind permission of The Reader's Digest Association Limited, Explore Your Family's Past © 2000.
For further information please visit the Reader's Digest website www.readersdigest.co.uk
Familyrelatives.com Phillimore Marriages Parish Records now online - Login to search the records
Parish Record Index
Berkshire (2 vols)
Buckinghamshire (9 vols)
Cambridgeshire (9 vols)
Cornwall (26 Volumes)
Cumberland (2 vols)
Derbyshire (15 Vols)
Devon (2 Vols)
Dorset (7 Vols)
Essex (4 vols)
Gloucestershire (17 Vols)
Hampshire (16 vols)
Huntingdonshire (1 vol)
Kent (2 vols)
Leicestershire (12 vols)
Lincolnshire (11 vols)
Middlesex (9 vols)
Norfolk (12 vols)
Northamptonshire (2 vols)
Nottinghamshire (22 vols)
Oxfordshire (2 vols)
Somersetshire (15 vols)
Suffolk (4 vols)
Warwickshire (3 vols)
Wiltshire (14 vols)
Worcestershire (2 vols)
Yorkshire (4 vols)
Access new Parish Records Collection