English Parish records are a rich genealogical resource. England’s earliest useful census is from 1841, and civil records only go back to 1837. Let us help you trace your English family history before that time. English parish records might hold the key, and we’ve got all the information you need to get started searching them.
This post is the second in a series on finding your English ancestors by Kate Eakman of Legacy Tree Genealogists. Click here for the first installment on the difference between “Great Britain,” United Kingdom,” and “England;” census records and civil birth, marriage, and death records available through the General Register Office, or GRO.
Census and civil records are extremely useful and important for genealogical research in England. But the earliest useful census is from 1841, while the civil records only extend back to 1837. So what do researchers do to trace their English ancestors back to earlier times? How can you find your family if they emigrated in the 1700s or even earlier?
English Parish Records: The Back Story
Genealogists owe a debt of thanks to King Henry VIII’s chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell. After England’s split from the Roman Catholic Church, Cromwell issued an injunction in September of 1538 requiring every church in England to maintain a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials. The law was followed with varying degrees of consistency until Queen Elizabeth I, and the bishops of the Church of England reaffirmed the injunction in 1597. Wars, insects, water, and carelessness have led to the loss and destruction of many of these parish records, but there are still thousands of registers listing these important events available for our use today.
There are some Catholic Church records available for the years prior to 1538, but in general, the bulk of the ecclesiastical records begin with the Church of England or Anglican Church records starting in the mid- to late-1500s and extending into the late 1800s.
So what are you looking for, where do you find them, and what do those records provide? To explain that, we need to review how the church, whether Roman Catholic or Church of England, divided up the country.
At the lowest level, we have parishes. The size of a parish can vary, and not every town or village had a parish church. Some parishes include a chapelry or two (small local churches or chapels which were under the jurisdiction of the parish priest). Within the records of the parish church is the most likely place for you to find information about your ancestors.
Parishes were then grouped together under the jurisdiction of a bishop who was in charge of a diocese. There could be archdeaconries or rural deaneries within a diocese as well. Don’t overlook a record set for the archdeaconry or the rural deanery with the name of your ancestor’s town (Archdeaconry of Richmond or the Deanery of St. John).
You will also see bishop’s transcripts which are just what it sounds like: copies of the parish records which were sent to the bishop of the diocese. These were generally made annually, and were required beginning in 1598, with most extending to the mid-1800s. Bishop’s transcripts were supposed to be exact copies of the parish records, but they may contain either less information (the local parish priest abbreviated the registers) or more information because the local minister had the luxury of time when recopying the registers and so added details not found in the original parish registers. Of course, there is always the possibility of error creeping in, as is true any time that someone is recopying text from one page to the next. It is wise to consult the bishop’s transcripts as well as the parish registers when they are both available so that you are certain that you have every detail available.
Finally, the parish church was not always the closest church to a family’s home. A baptism, marriage, or burial could have taken place in a neighboring parish. If you are unable to find the parish records where you expect to find them, use a map to search for neighboring parishes and try searching for your ancestors there.
Finding Your Ancestors in English Parish Records
It is not uncommon to find that several children from a family were baptized in one church and the others were baptized in a different church, so look around and keep in mind what is a reasonable walking distance for parents with a baby, a bride and groom, or to carry a dead man’s body for burial. Look for places less than three miles from the home of your ancestors.
The same folks who provide us with a free index to civil birth, marriage, and death records also have provided transcripts of ecclesiastical baptismal, marriage, and burial records at FreeReg. Here you can enter the name, a range of dates, the county, and select the type of records. Be sure to click on the “Name Soundex” box in case your ancestor’s name was spelled slightly differently than the modern version. Although these are transcripts with no links to the actual records, this site can help you to narrow down a broad range of choices to the one most likely to belong to your relative.
English Parish Records: Baptismal Entries
Baptismal entries generally include the date of the baptism, the place of the baptism (including the church name), and the names of the parents of the child. The mother’s maiden name is almost never included unless the child was illegitimate. It is also important to remember that baptisms could occur anywhere from the day of birth up to three or more years after the child’s birth. Unless the record specifies the date of birth, assume that it occurred up to three years earlier when continuing your research.
Transcripts of parish register on the left and bishop’s transcript on the right for the same person, John Parker. Due to the use of Latin and the different sentence construction, the names appear to be slightly different, but both are translated as John Parker, son of Joshua and Catherine Parker. Images courtesy https://freereg.org.uk.
English Parish Records: Marriages
Marriage records will include the date and location of the marriage, which was usually the parish church of the bride. Both the bride and the groom will be named, but it is rare to find any additional information such as the occupation of the groom or the names of their parents.
The examples of a parish register and the archdeacon’s transcripts provide variant spellings of the groom’s surname: Wasy and Acye or Wacye. The bride’s given and surnames have different spellings as well: Amie and Amye and Cots or Cottes. This is why we encourage researchers to use the “Name Soundex” box, particularly since these records are for the man known as Thomas Wise today.
Note the different spellings of the names although the archdeacon’s transcript was supposedly a copy of the parish register. Images courtesy https://freereg.org.uk.
English Parish Records: Burials
Burial records, which are not the same as death records, provide the name of the deceased, the date and place of his or her burial, and the names of the parents. If the deceased was married, the name of the husband or wife is also included. Most burials occurred between one and three days of death, but unless the record specifies a specific date of death, it is best not to assume a particular day.
The burial record below is an excellent example of additional information which can be included on a bishop’s transcript. The parish records no longer exist for burials from the cathedral church of Durham, but the bishop’s transcript provides very useful additional details. From this record, we learned that William James, who was buried on 3 April 1634, was baptized on 24 June 1632. His father, also named William James, was buried 21 January 1659/60.
The split date for the burial of William James, Sr. (21 January 1659/60) indicates the date differences of the Julian and Gregorian calendars. This type of annotation can be seen during the first three months of each year in English records until 1751 when England officially accepted the Gregorian calendar. Image courtesy https://freereg.org.uk. Click here to learn more about Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Online Parish Clerks Websites
There are also a number of Online Parish Clerks (OPC) websites which allow you to search for transcriptions. Lancashire’s OPC site is one of the most complete sites and is easy to use. If you are fortunate enough to have ancestors from Lancashire, definitely use this site. For other OPC sites, go to UKBMD.org for links to about 20 other projects.
Obtaining Copies of English Parish Records
Once the transcripts of your English ancestor’s baptisms, marriages, and burials have been located, you can turn to several sources to locate the actual copies of the records. There are some digital copies available on FamilySearch.org. (Note that the agreement that the Family History Library has with a number of the repositories requires that you access the records from a local LDS Family History Center and not from your home.) You can also find copies of the documents on the for-fee site FindMyPast.com (and click here for English Catholic parish records at Findmypast.com).
Parish registers and bishop’s transcripts are very useful for tracing English ancestors back to the mid-1500s. The registers include baptismal, marriage, and burial records and although they often contain only the bare minimum of information, that can be used to research and extend your family tree. Because everyone in the parish was included–not just the wealthy and powerful–these records can allow us to trace our English ancestors for many generations.
Get more help finding your ancestors
Legacy Tree guest blogger Kate Eakman grew up hearing Civil War stories at her father’s knee and fell in love with history and genealogy at an early age. With a master’s degree in history and over 20 years experience as a genealogist, Kate has worked her magic on hundreds of family trees and narratives. Let Legacy Tree Genealogists like Kate apply their expertise to your family history brick walls! Click hereto request a free consult–and take this exclusive Genealogy Gems coupon code with you: $100 off a 20-hour+ research project with code GGP100. (Offer subject to change without notice.)
Among the totally free new US genealogy records recently put online are collections from 8 states: CA vital records and photos, GA Reconstruction oaths, IL photos, MA naturalizations, NY passenger lists, and digital newspapers from NJ, NC, NY and OH. Also: the...
On their website, the U.S. National Archives states their mission is to: “provide public access to Federal Government records in our custody and control. Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.” (Source: https://www.archives.gov/about/history/about/history/history-and-mission)
Shockingly, as of February 2022 the archives has not been fulfilling that mission for nearly two years! (Source: Visit each facility web page listed at https://www.archives.gov/locations)
Please share and help get the word out.
My guests Geoff Gentilini, President of the Archival Researchers Association, and Jessica Taylor president of the international genealogy research firm, Legacy Tree Genealogists explain:
Geoff Gentilini is the president of the Archival Researchers Association. He is a professional researcher specializing in military records, individual veteran searches, unit histories, and family history research. He is the owner and project manager of Golden Arrow Research. In 2011, Geoff devised a unique process to rebuild the service histories of individual WWI, WW2 & Korean War veterans whose personnel records were lost in the 1973 archives fire. His work has enabled thousands of descendants to gain a better understanding of their ancestors’ military service. He is the president of the Archival Researchers Association, an organization that has been instrumental in advocating (to Congress) for an increase in the budget of the National Archives.
Jessica M. Taylor serves as president of international genealogy research firm, Legacy Tree Genealogists, and as a board member for the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Genealogy Business Alliance, and the Association of Genealogy Educators and Schools. With a degree in Family History – Genealogy and over 20 years of experience, Jessica loves contributing to the genealogy community and pushing the industry forward to better help others discover their roots.
The Scope of the Records at the National Archives
Lisa: Can you give our audience a quick overview of the scope of the records that are housed at the National Archives?
Geoff: There are about 46 facilities, including 15, presidential libraries, 14 archives, 17, federal record centers, and these are spread out across the country. They contain more than 13 billion textual records, 20 million photographs, 40 million aerial images, there’s 75,000 miles of film. These records tell our national story. The holdings are massive.
Today, something like 1% of this material is online. Researchers access the other 99% of these records in our nation’s public research rooms, which are scattered across the country.
I think the National Archives has the goal of digitizing somewhere near 3% of these records by the year 2024. But as we all know, just because something is digitized, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be online or usable for research.
Jessica: The first time he said, you know, 99% of the records are digitized, I said “no way, there’s no way that that could be true.” So he sent me information that’s put up by the archives, and I did the math. And I said, “Holy cow, you know, it’s absolutely true.” There are records there that you can’t get any other way, besides going in person to get those records.
Lisa: I did an entire hour show on the National Archives website last year, and it got on my radar as well, that as wonderful as the site is, and it’s got some access to some things, it’s such a tiny fraction! This means there’s a treasure trove remaining, but you have to access it in person.
Jessica, that leads us to the research rooms because that’s where we gain access to the records. What and where are the research rooms? And who uses them?
Jessica: There are 14 National Archives research rooms spread around the country. Washington, DC has a major one. There’s one nearby in College Park, Texas, a few on the West Coast, one in Missouri. So they’re spread out throughout the country.
Each one of these research rooms has different records. So, like we said, they’re all paper still, and in different facilities. If you want a certain type of record, you have to go to that facility to get it.
The people who use these research rooms are obviously genealogists, that’s my primary interest in them, historians, authors, filmmakers, and lots of use for veterans. There are educators, students, I mean, there are so many groups who need these records and have been on hold.
I have a friend who is working on a book that she’s had to put on hold for two years because she needs the information that’s in one of the archives. She can’t complete the book until the archives opens.
The Impact of the Research Rooms Closures
Lisa: Geoff, I know that you work a lot at the National Archives in St. Louis, can you explain to our audience the significance of that particular location, and its closure, and particularly on veterans? How are they affected?
Geoff: The Research Room in St. Louis is really special because it contains the personnel records and military records that tell the story of the men and women who served in the armed forces. These are records from World War I, World War II, the Korean War all the way up through Vietnam, and later.
Many living veterans and veterans’ advocates rely on researchers to work on these more complex research cases. They help to reverse denied benefits claims in many cases. This type of work has been stalled for two years!
From the historical record side of things, this is the work that I used to do primarily in St. Louis. I would rebuild the service histories, the individuals whose records were lost in the 1973 fire, primarily veterans of World War II but also World War I, and the Korean War. Families who really knew nothing about their loved ones service could gain closure by understanding their contribution to the war effort.
This research in St. Louis also helps to do things like correct grave markers for veterans and locate the remains of fallen soldiers who were lost on the battlefield.
At this point, there hasn’t even been a minimal reopening in St. Louis, the way that there was at some other research locations.
Lisa: You’re talking about veteran records. I imagine that people are trying to verify benefits. Don’t you guys work with people who volunteer to help veterans get the records they need so that they can apply for their benefits or is that stalled?
Geoff: Yeah. There is a massive backlog right now of requests that come in from veterans and their families for DD 214 records. These are like the military discharges that you can use to when you’re seeking benefits to get a home loan and things like that. What has happened is that the historical research portion of the archives there has not been reopened, because of that enormous backlog. But at this point, it’s been two years, and they’ve sort of locked the doors. But that that backlog is still growing. The St. Louis Research Room is also a smaller Research Room, and we believe it can be reopened by leaving a smaller footprint.
Lisa: Jessica, can you give us a sense of the financial impact of these closings on the people who rely on access to the research rooms for their work?
Jessica: When when COVID first hit in 2020, and they were closed, that’s the time period when I got in contact with Geoff. What drew me to trying to help his organization initially was people like Geoff who are completely out of work. Their businesses revolve around access to archives, to the National Archives, to specific facilities in specific regions. And so, I thought, wow, I’ve got to help them be able to work again, right?
So we’ve tried and now two years have gone by, and I just can’t imagine how these people are faring. Because they’ve been out of work for two years. I just talked with somebody on LinkedIn who reached out about this petition, and he was so thankful that we have this petition and said, “Well, I’ve been so frustrated. I was actually told, you know, shame on me for building my business model around relying on the National Archives.” And I thought wow, how sad that we can’t rely on the National Archives to open. It just hurts my heart. I mean, beyond that, there is this author I mentioned who is trying to finish her book can’t finish it. It’s been two years!
And of course, we have many clients who have ordered genealogical research that we can’t finish. Many have asked for refunds, because two years is a long time to wait for something like this. So unfortunately, it definitely has had an impact in the genealogy industry and other industries as well.
Geoff: The work that we do is important work. It’s specialized skills, too. And after two years, we’re starting to see our colleagues quit and move on to other things, because how long can you sustain yourself without being able to access these records that enable you to do your job? So that that’s something else too. It’s a loss for the public. We’re losing the expertise and the people that help to tell these stories by accessing these records.
Will the National Archives Reopen?
Lisa: Let’s talk about the reopening because right now, we’ve looked at two full years of closure and lack of access. I was doing some research in anticipation of getting together and talking today and I was looking at what the National Archives is saying about their policy and what they call high, medium and low risk. Even if the risk is considered low, they’re not saying full reopening. They’re talking about appointments and screenings and things.
I know that David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, put out a letter, the most recent one I could find was November 8 of 2021. He says “at low transmission level staff will be on site to complete all types of work, and research rooms are expected to remain open by appointment only.”
Geoff, does that sound like an organization that’s planning on and anxious to get back to full time access?
Geoff: Yes, well, it certainly sounds like a difficult system for someone who would need to be able to do their job five days a week and get in there and really access these records in the way that we need to, to do our jobs. We really are trying to look past that. The restrictions, until we can get back to a level of normalcy, at least in the level of access to records, the sliding scale system with the case rates, and how they open and close. This appears to be how the federal government has structured things for the agencies that fall underneath of the executive branch, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration. Some of this is out of the hands of the archives management.
Other things we think they might be able to do when they do open to kind of prioritize the research rooms and get them back to functioning at pre pandemic levels. That’s really what we’re seeking. We kind of feel like where there’s a will there’s a way. And when 99% of the records that you work with are physical, it really demands that you have the staff and be open to meet that public demand.
Lisa: I noticed on the petition website, which we are going to talk about, there is a way that our viewers can help try to get the message forward to those in power to make a different decision and maybe open this up.
One of the things that’s interesting is that the museum in the Washington DC area is open. It’s in the same building as the research rooms, and those are closed.
Geoff, have they told you anything about ‘here’s the mark, here’s the goalpost? When this happens, we will welcome you all back.’ Do you have any sense of what that place is?
Geoff: I think that the pandemic has been so unpredictable that no one is willing to make any type of you know, there’s no clarity. Everyone is sort of seeking cover. And in this hyper partisan environment that we live in today, nobody’s willing to kind of stick their neck out and say, ‘Well, this is what we’re going to do to take initiative, be imaginative.’ And that’s really what we need so that we can function in a type of new normal when it comes to research.
We know that we’ve got vaccines – 95% of the federal workforce is vaccinated. I believe that you have to either show proof of vaccination status to get inside of the archives or show that you’ve had a negative test. And then of course, you’re required to wear a mask. So, there are things in place to make sure that we have a safe environment when we’re researching. So, the public is safe, and the staff are safe. We just need to figure out how to get back to pre-pandemic levels of access, even if we do have some new restrictions in place, like masks or vaccines or things like that.
Jessica: Geoff mentioned to access the archives, showing that you’re vaccinated, using a mask. So that was in place during the couple of weeks that two of the archives were actually opened in November. We had two archives opened for a couple of weeks, in November. And we did follow all of those protocols. However, they were closed, and the other facilities around the country have never opened since March 2020.
Lisa: And of course, since then, with the coming up Omicron, we know that the vaccinated get ill just like the unvaccinated. So, you’re right, it keeps changing and keeps moving. And that’s where the lack of the goalpost is kind of a challenge.
Let’s talk about some of the ways you’re trying to communicate with the National Archives to see what could be resolved so that everybody feels good about what’s happening and can participate and get what they need.
How You Can Make a Difference in the Reopening
Jessica, you’ve put a petition together. This is what first came to my attention. Tell us about what that is and what your goals are.
Jessica: Absolutely. A main goal that I have with this petition is I just thought ‘I can’t let over two years go by with these important archives being closed, and the leaders of the archives not receive a united strong message from our communities that we care about this, and that it affects us.’ So a major goal is I just want to be able to show them how many people care that they’re closed, especially because it affects us not only now, but genealogists and historians have a long history of having to fight for public access to records.
I don’t want those leaders to look back on this event, years into the future and think ‘well, nobody really seemed to mind that they couldn’t access those records.’ I want them to know that many, many thousands of people cared that they couldn’t access the records.
The ask of this petition is that they reopen by sometime in March 2022. That will be a full two years that many of these facilities have been closed. We’ve seen many other events and businesses and groups have been able to safely reopen, I think that the National Archives is capable of doing the same. I think that it’s important that we ask for that strongly and in the united fashion.
The petition is at https://change.org/reopen archives. We want thousands of signatures. We have about 3000. We’d like to at least double that. We want them to know that these archives matter to the citizens of the United States and the world.
Lisa: I wholeheartedly agree. And I know you’ve just had it up a couple of days, and that’s an amazing start right out of the gate.
As you said, there’s a lot of different players involved who make the decisions, but it’s so important that we make our voice known and our needs known because how else would they incorporate that into the decision-making?
Anything else Geoff that you want to mention about this and things that you would encourage people to do?
Geoff: Something else folks might think about doing is reaching out to your house representative to your senators and just letting them know that you care about this issue that you want to see the archives open all the research rooms back open again. Citizens need and deserve access to government records. That’s the archives mission.
Lisa: it certainly is, and I really appreciate and respect that the two of you have taken some action and made your voices known and hopefully we will ask everybody here watching to help do the same.
Jessica: And please share, you share it, sign it and also share!
Lisa: Yes, That’s the best way to get the word out. Everybody knows another genealogist!
The Genealogy Gems Podcast is the leading genealogy and family history show. Launched in 2007, the show is hosted by genealogy author, keynote presenter, and video producer Lisa Louise Cooke. The podcast can be found in all major podcasting directories, or download the exclusive Genealogy Gems Podcast app to listen to all the episodes and receive bonus content.
We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Genealogy Gems app. We blazed a new trail back in 2010 when we launched the app – apps were still really new back then. I loved the idea of having a way to deliver exclusive bonus content to you as well as the audio, the show notes and best of all an easy way for you to contact me and the show.
It’s more popular than ever, and as far as I know we are still the only genealogy podcast app available. If you haven’t already downloaded it just search for Genealogy Gems in Google Play or Apple’s App Store, or get the right app for your phone or tablet here.
In this episode I have two interviews for you on very different subjects. First up will be a follow up to last month’s episode where we focused specifically on the New York Public Library Photographers’ Identities Catalog.
Well, in this episode we’re going to talk to the genealogy reference librarian at the New York Public Library, Andy McCarthy. And as you’ll hear, there are a massive amount of resource available there for genealogists everywhere.
Then we’ll switch gears to Scandinavian genealogy with David Fryxell, author of the new book The Family Tree Scandinavian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Click here to visit the New York Public Library’s Online Catalog.
While they subscribe to many genealogy databases, they don’t host many. Use the catalog to determine what’s available, and what to ask for. See if what you’re looking for exists. Pay close attention to subject headings to identify resources.
#3 The Digital Collections
Click here to visit the Digital Collections at the New York Public Library.
City Directory Collection up to 1933.
Manhattan is the largest and is coming soon. This collection was only available previously on microfilm. It is a browse-only collection (not keyword searchable)
The 1940 Phone Directory is online.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map collection is digitized and online.
The Map Wharper which is a crowd-sourcing project providing for historic map overlays, and super zooming in views.
They also have a massive collection available in house of books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc. There are research and photo copying services available.
#4 Research Guides online
Click here to view the New York Public Library’s research guides.
Before you go:
Definitely reach out before you go.
Provide them with specific questions and they can help you identify what to focus on while you’re there.
Visit the Milstein home page. They also have many public classes. Check to see what will be available during your visit.
One of Andy’s Favorites Collections
The Photographic Views of NYC Collection. Arranged by cross streets
David is an award-winning author, editor, speaker and publishing consultant. He founded Family Tree Magazine, the nation’s leading genealogy publication. As a writing expert, he wrote the Nonfiction column for Writer’s Digest magazine for more than a decade and served as director of the famous Maui Writer’s Retreat. He has authored countless articles for Family Tree Magazine, and is also the author of additional books including Good Old Days, My Ass and MicroHistory: Ideas and inventions that made the modern world.
Author David Fryxell
Here’s a brief outline of my Q&A with David Fryxell on his new book and Scandinavian genealogy research:
To understand the ties between the Scandinavian countries, and why countries like Finland and Iceland aren’t included, we have to learn about the cultures and languages, right?
Scandinavian countries are really tied by language. And at one point all the countries were united. Borders change. The records reflect these various changes.
What’s the timeline of Scandinavian immigration?
The First Wave, 1825–1860
The Second Wave, 1865–1880
The Third Wave, 1880–1924
What value do you think DNA testing provides, and what should we keep in mind if we do test?
DNA results are most helpful to find other relatives who may be able to assist in your research.
Let’s say we know we’ve identified the ancestor who immigrated. What else do we need to know before we can jump the pond and start digging into Scandinavian records?
In the case of Scandinavian ancestors, you may not have to find the U.S. passenger records. They have excellent passenger departure records.
Tell us about the census in Scandinavia. Is it consistent among all three countries?
Norway and Denmark have good census records. You can find them at:
Monday, January 13th. Today is the anniversary of the first radio broadcast to the public. It took place 110 years ago in New York City, engineered by Lee deForest, a radio pioneer and inventor of the electron tube.
The 1910 broadcast wasn’t made from a purpose-built radio studio, but from the Metropolitan Opera house. DeForest broadcast the voices of Enrico Caruso and other opera singers. A small but impressed audience throughout the city gathered around special receivers to listen with headphones.
Today, 95 percent of American households have at least one radio.
One-hundred ten years after deForest’s lonely effort, some 5,400 radio stations employ about 92,000 people.