How to use parish registers for local history research


28 June 2022
Parish registers can give local historians many valuable clues
Stuart A. Raymond explains how to use parish registers as a rich source of information when researching the local history of your ancestor's surroundings.

So you have made some progress in constructing a pedigree, and in tracing your family’s history. You have used sources such as the census, civil registers, and probate records to discover relationships, to trace the work that your ancestors did, and to identify the places your ancestors lived. You have discovered that tracing your family has made history come alive for you. And in all likelihood you have become interested in the places and communities where your ancestors lived and worked.

You have become aware that your ancestors shared and helped to shape the human experiences of some rural parish, market town, or great city. The stage has been set for you to develop your interest in local history.

So how can the documents underpinning family history be used to tell us more about the communities our ancestors lived in? Parish registers list vital events - baptisms, marriages and burials - normally giving names and dates, but sometimes much more than that – occupations, places of residence, and a wide range of miscellaneous comments.

The latter are frequently ignored by family historians, but there are so many of them that all those found in Wiltshire parish registers have been edited by Steven Hobbs in his Gleanings from Parish Registers (Wiltshire Record Society, 2010). If you are fortunate enough to find a register which lists the occupations of those named, then you have the opportunity of examining how members of the community earned their living, and how that changed over the years.

The vital events themselves are essential sources for tracing pedigrees, but they are also important for estimating the population of the parish they cover. Counting the numbers of births, marriages and deaths in parish registers provides valuable demographic evidence, and may reveal the episodes of plague and crises of subsistence that most communities suffered from time to time. Such episodes may be remarked upon in the register. For example, the register at Wylye (Wiltshire) tells us that there was an outbreak of plague in 1603 which resulted in the burial register not being kept up.

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Text extracted from an in-depth article on local history by Stuart A. Raymond, published in the August 2022 issue of Family Tree. Download your copy here.

Stuart Raymond is the author of 'Researching Local History: Your Guide to the Sources', recently published by Pen & Sword. Family Tree readers can enjoy a 25% discount on the RRP of £14.99. Simply quote code FAMT25. Offer valid until 31 Dedember 2022.