How to find your UK ancestor in the parish registers


07 January 2021
By using parish registers it's possible to trace your UK ancestors back as far as the 1600s, as Helen Tovey explains in this guide to accessing parish registers online.

Parish registers are unique in that no other collection recorded the entire population over such a long period – including the baptisms, marriages and burials of men, women and children from all walks of life, century after century.

As to be expected, not all the records have survived the passage of time. In addition, over the years the nature of the parish registers has evolved, becoming more detailed and comprehensive too.

The introduction of parish registers

The requirement for parish registers to be kept in parishes in England and Wales was introduced on 5 September 1538, when Vicar General Thomas Cromwell introduced legislation requiring each parish priest to record the baptisms, marriages and burials of their parishioners, noting the details down once a week after church on Sunday.

Scant details were recorded, for instance just the father’s name at a baptism, or just the deceased’s name at a burial. There was no format or required level of detail – so it was at the priest’s discretion what to record.

Parish registers for Scotland (earliest record 1553) also date from the 16th century; and for Ireland John Grenham cites the earliest surviving documents as being from the 1680s. 

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How do I find parish registers online?

For England, Wales and Scotland, the go-to resource for working out when the parish registers for your parish of interest began has long been The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (available as a book and on some subscription websites). Similarly, the FamilySearch map resource is useful for England and Wales.

While these resources show the starting date, of course damage may have occurred to the records resulting in missing pages or faded handwriting, for instance. So for each parish you search, check whether there are any such segments of the registers that haven’t survived the passage of time. This will both reassure you that you are doing nothing wrong if you can’t find your ancestor in the register. More importantly it will also stop you assuming that a person is your ancestor, simply because they have the correct name, whereas your ancestor’s entry may no longer exist.

Ireland and Scotland

For Ireland the majority of our Irish ancestors weren’t members of the Church of Ireland, they were Roman Catholic, so a key resource for tracing Irish RC parish records is NLI.

All the main genealogy sites have large and still growing parish register collections (Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast, MyHeritage and TheGenealogist). Many family history societies provide online databases for their area via the members-only areas of their websites; while the Family History Federation’s National Burial Index covers much of England and Wales (and is available via Findmypast).

Work-in-progress volunteer site supplies free transcriptions for parishes in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Specifically for Ireland free sites NLI and are useful, as is paid-for site For Scotland the Old Parochial Register collection at ScotlandsPeople is key. In 1872 a ‘Detailed list of the Old Parochial Registers’ that had been deposited for safe-keeping (following the introduction of civil registration in 1855) was created. You can download the list.

The parish register records you find online may be:

• high quality scanned copies of originals;

• greyscale copies of digitised microfilm;

• scanned pages of typed indexes, often created in the 1800s and 1900s;

• transcriptions.

For records that are not yet available online, see the relevant local archive.

Extracted from parish registers guide in the February 2021 issue of Family Tree magazine.

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