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As we follow our roots further and further back into the past we will inevitably reach a point where we lose the support of our safety net and are forced to continue our quest without the familiar, reassuring assistance of birth, marriage and death certificates and census returns.
These two staples of nineteenth century research appeared within four years of each other in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign: first, civil registration of births, marriage and deaths in 1837 closely followed by the first detailed census returns in 1841. Both represent a major socio-political phenomenon of the time; namely the increasing centralisation of government. For the first time parliament was taking an interest in the lives of ordinary people for reasons other than taxation and this is reflected in the content of the records that were created.
For family historians, the benefits of these vast national data sets are clear to see. But our reliance on these records during the early stages of our research does nothing to prepare us for the journey ahead; the key sources that we’ll now be relying on are a whole different ballgame.
The organisation responsible for creating and maintaining many of the records we use for our pre-1837 research was the Church of England. Through its role as official state record keeper, the Church had the task of recording the births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials of the inhabitants of England and Wales. The surviving records form the immense collection of documents known as parish registers.
Parish registers were introduced in 1539 during the reign of King Henry VIII and they’re still in use today. Even the most detailed registers, however, fall short of the standards that we’re used to from the civil registration system and the earliest registers were little more than notebooks, recording very little information of a genuinely genealogical nature.
Baptismal registers rarely show more than the name of the child, the date of baptism and the names of the parents; it is exceptionally rare for the mother’s maiden name to be recorded and, in fact, it’s not at all uncommon for the mother’s name to be omitted altogether, particularly in the early registers. To add to the difficulty, it’s rare before the introduction of pre-printed registers in 1813 for additional information such as the father’s occupation and the family’s place of residence to be shown.
Records of marriages before 1754 frequently record nothing more than the names of the bride and groom. Hardwicke’s Marriage Act introduced a set form for marriage entries but even then, there was no requirement to record any information about the parents of the couple getting married.
Before the late eighteenth century, the entries in most burial registers recorded nothing beyond the name of the deceased and the date of burial. Infant burials were usually indicated as such but ages and other distinguishing details were only rarely shown before 1813.
There is nothing in the records which explicitly links specific individuals and it’s the absence of this crucial linking information which makes using parish registers so problematic. Identifying entries for a particular individual can prove very difficult indeed. But we have to make the most of what we’ve got; parish registers are the best that’s available to us and as long as the name isn’t too common and the people we’re looking for didn’t move too far from home, it’s usually possible to navigate your way through the minefield and follow a line back to the eighteenth century.
Understanding what you’re up against is, however, only part of the battle; you have to identify which parish registers you want to search and then find out where you can view them. And the last part of this equation may have an online and/or an onsite solution. Parish registers will almost certainly be the next big growth area in online family history and vast numbers of them can already be searched on a variety of databases. However, not all of the databases are linked to original images of the registers so in most cases you’ll still need to visit a record office to carry out your search.
Your searches in parish registers will initially be informed by the facts that you’ve uncovered from the later nineteenth century census returns and civil registration records. To carry out an effective search for a particular baptism, for example, you need to know your target’s name, where and approximately when they were born and their parents’ or at least their father’s name. If you’re looking for the pre-1837 marriage of a couple who you’ve found, say, in the 1851 census, you should ideally know when and where their first child was born. A large proportion of marriages took place in the bride’s native parish so knowing where she was born can be very useful.
Of course, not everyone is recorded in the registers. Although the Church of England were supposed to keep records of all births, marriages and deaths, the rise of protestant nonconformity and the growing toleration of Roman Catholicism from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, meant that an ever-increasing percentage of the population worshipped outside the established Church and the almost blanket coverage of earlier years began to disappear. Many, but by no means all of these non-Anglican congregations kept their own registers.
None of this is an exact science: a combination of gaps in the records and the lack of detail mean that we need to turn to other sources to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there’s no shortage of records to choose from. Wills and other probate records are right at the top of the list and you might be surprised to discover how many of our pre-industrial revolution ancestors left wills. In an era when the vast majority of people earned their livelihood directly from the land, ensuring that your property was appropriately divided between your descendants was vital and even those with comparatively little to leave behind often wrote wills.
Uniquely among the records that we use for our research, wills are written by our ancestors themselves. They can open windows into their lives in a way that the official documents created by the church and state can never quite achieve but they can also tell us an enormous amount about their families. And it’s the authoritative first hand descriptions of relationships which make wills so valuable in our research.
But as with parish registers, one of the main challenges facing us as researchers is identifying which of the 100 or so ecclesiastical probate courts was responsible for proving our ancestors’ will. Before 1858, the Church of England was in charge of the process which was organised through a network of ecclesiastical courts, based on the hierarchy of the Church itself. The senior court (the Prerogative Court of Canterbury – or PCC for short) was the closest we had to a national court of probate and more than two million wills were proved there between the late-fourteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. But below the PCC, the Consistory Courts, the Archdeacons’ Courts and a variety of other minor courts were in operation. In most cases, you’ll have to search the records of at least three probate courts to ascertain whether or not your ancestor left a will.
The records of a number of courts (notably the PCC via The National Archives’ website) are now available online and indexes to the records of many more can be searched on a variety of websites but, again, it’s possible that you’ll still have to visit a record office to see the records that you need.
Wills, with their detailed descriptions of relationships, can help us to unravel our families and make sense of the parish register entries. Unfortunately, not everyone left a will but probate records represent just one of many sources that we can use to lead us back in time. The shelves of our County Record Offices are crammed full of such documents: records recording the collection of taxes, the transfer of land, the poor law and legal disputes – the list is endless. Virtually any document which includes names, dates and places can be seen as a source for family history research.
Family history research before 1837 brings with it an entirely different set of challenges. The stroll through the nineteenth century census returns and civil registration records can soon turn into an uphill struggle through a variety of unfamiliar records. Handwriting becomes an increasingly significant stumbling block, not to mention the whole new set of problems presented by documents written in Latin. But for me, this is where family history starts to become really interesting; this is where the family historian’s skills as a detective come to the fore. The journey that you’re about to embark on will not be without its difficulties but I can almost guarantee that it will also keep you amused and entertained for many years to come.