The information recorded in Parish Registers was changed by law several times.
Important dates for changes are:
1538: Thomas Cromwell ordered that registers of baptisms,
burials and marriages be kept from September 1538. You will find that most registers begin
sometime between 1538 and 1570.
1667: The requirement to be buried in wool was passed by an
Act of Parliament. If you can find a 'Woollen' burial register, it usually has more information than
the normal one (based on what I've found for Buxhall, Suffolk). The requirement was dropped in the 18th. century.
1752: The Gregorian calendar was fully adopted. Before this
date (and increasingly so the further back you go), the year ran from 25th. March (Lady Day) to 24th. March.
From Parish Registers that I've searched (in 3 figures), some Parish clerks adopted 1st. January as
the start of the new year earlier than 1752. This was probably similar to the situation in Britain
today with metrication - the younger generation learns the metric system, the older generation
learned the imperial system and people like me learned both.
1754: Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was introduced in England
and Wales. It required that a marriage could only be performed after Banns had been read or after the issue
of a licence, and that it must be solemnised in a (Church of England) chapel or church. Jews and Quakers
were exempt from the provisions of the Act; and it didn't apply to Scotland - which is why Gretna Green
became so popular as a destination for people to get married in a hurry. Before 1754, there were quite a
few clandestine marriages. See the series of books compiled by Mark Herber, "Clandestine Marriages
in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison 1680 - 1754", published by Francis Boutle, for examples.
1813: Instead of blank pages in which the Parish clerk chose
what to record (subject to the minimum requirements given by previous laws), pre-printed forms in
books were introduced and the amount of detail increased. Baptisms, for example, now recorded the
place of abode and occupation of (usually) the father. Burials recorded the age at death.
1837: The level of detail was changed again.
Marriages now recorded the fathers of the bride and groom, etc.
Notes on the above (from what I've observed):
Before 1813, the level of detail recorded was at the discretion of the Parish clerk. Exceptional or
unusual events have extreme detail, the normal day-to-day stuff quite often has the absolute minimum.
The comment 'Mice?' added above the missing corner of a register.
Details of the near riot outside Isleham Church, Cambridgeshire, when the groom
claimed he didn't consent to the marriage and had been coerced into it by relatives of the
bride (who gave birth to a child significantly less than 9 months after the wedding);
The story in a Burial register of a man who fell from his pony and trap whilst
going home (you guessed it) from the pub. (Stowmarket area, Suffolk.)
Details of the reminiscences of an old lady (whom the vicar estimated as being
aged 120) who could remember the coronation of Elizabeth I. The burial was about 1660, I think.
The (normal) minimum age for marriage was 18 with the consent of parents, 21 without. For the majority
of marriages I've checked (say 99%), the bride and groom were in their twenties or thirties. The prevalent
idea that people married very young is simply not borne out by what I've seen. So if someone got married
in 1760, you should consider 1715 to 1743 as the minimum date range to be checked for the person's
baptism. [Many of the family history entries loaded into the IGI assume that people married at the age of 18 or 25.]
Before Victorian times (1837), children were frequently named after their parents or other important
members of the family. Names such as Henry, John, Thomas, William or Anne, Elizabeth, Mary were extremely
common. From 1800 onwards, there was an explosion in the choice of forenames.
Spelling: English isn't phonetic and even as late as Victorian times, the spelling of forenames and
surnames would vary for the same individual (even in the same church). Add in the different local accents,
and it's no wonder that you see all sorts of strange places recorded in the 'where born' column of a census.
Movement: Be prepared to look over a wide area, especially to find marriages. It's again not generally
true that people always stayed in their local parish. Some people did, but just as many have events
recorded in other churches. (See the example in the non-conformity section below.)
Why can't I find an entry in the Burial Register?
The Burial register does not record the death of a person, it records their interment. So, any or
more of the following could happen:
Older people could move to live with their children, and so the burial could be recorded in that parish.
A Monumental inscription can record a person that wasn't actually buried in the
churchyard. It's exactly what it says it is - a tribute to recognise the person who lived. The simplest
modern example is a 'Roll of Honour' for people who died in one of the World Wars.
A person could die in place A but the body could be returned to his or her home
(place B). The richer the person, the further a body could be moved.
From 1830 or so, with the large population growth in towns and cities, cemeteries
were opened which keep/kept their own registers.
Baptisms: A child was normally baptised a few days or weeks after birth. If the person was older,
this is frequently noted in the registers.
'Infant' and 'child':
The term infant seems to have been used to describe people, say, 0 to 3 years old, whereas child
was used for 3 to 10. I'm not exactly sure on this point.
During the 1800s, the population of England increased very quickly. The Church of England built and
opened a large number of churches, especially in the Greater London and other metropolitan areas.
There are several publications which identify the churches in a particular area:
The 'National Index of Parish Registers' series published by The Society of
Genealogists and covers the Church of England on a county-by-county basis and non-conformist
churches on a national basis. There are about 12 volumes in the set.
'Atlas and Index of Parish Registers' published by Phillimore. It contains an
atlas of the Great Britain, a county-by-county map showing (only) each Church of England parish
and an index to each parish. It's a very nice but very expensive book (GBP 50.00). It doesn't
include the churches built during the 1800s.
'West Kent Sources' published by the North West Kent Family History Society. It's
a comprehensive guide to the records relating to western Kent and south-east London. It covers
all church records, censuses, unpublished indices, etc. If you are tracing your family in the
Northfleet/Dartford/Woolwich/Lewisham/Sevenoaks area you really should buy this book. Some of
the information is available online in the
NWKFHS West Kent Parish Gazetteer.
'East Kent Parishes' written and published by David Wright. This is similar to
'West Kent Sources' and covers the eastern part of the county.
'Kent: Hand list of Parish Registers and Transcripts' published by the Kent Record
Offices. It only covers the Church of England, but does identify what is held by which record office.
This is now available in electronic format - scroll down the page
https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/collections/parish-registers/ until you get to the
section "Using parish registers" and click on the "guide to parish registers" link.
The 'Guide to Genealogical Sources' series published by Suffolk Record Office.
'Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England - Volume 1 Southern England',
written by F.A. Youngs, published by the Royal Historical Society in 1979. This is probably
the definitive guide to the Church of England, Parliamentary and Local Government organisation
in England. It's almost certainly not worth trying to buy a copy (unless you suffer from insomnia),
but there's a good chance there will be a copy in your local record office or large library.
It's especially useful for identifying the date of consecration for the churches built during
the 1800s and how the old parishes were broken up.
'London Parish Map, 1903' published by the London Topographical Society in 1999 and
sadly no longer available
is a very detailed map of all of the (Church of England) parishes in the County of London.
For parishes in Essex, I can provide a spreadsheet which lists all of the parishes
in the county with the approximate start date of the registers.
Dave and Chris Bennett provide and support the freeware
program which was originally developed by Gerald Lawson.
GENUKI's online Church Database is useful for finding neighbouring churches.
There are broadly two types of non-conformity - (a) religions or churches with a strict sense of
membership; and (b) those where membership was not/might not have been a requirement to attend services
or have baptisms recorded there.
Examples of (a) are Quakers, Jewish, Methodists, and examples of (b) are Congregational churches.
Especially for Congregational and Baptist churches, quite often more people would attend services than were
members. Membership lists, if they have survived, will also record people moving between churches so this
can help you to find out where families moved from or to.
Taking Isleham Independent Church (1690-1805) as an example, membership was strictly recorded and
observed, but the church also allowed non-members to participate. So
Thomas Moore of Isleham
was a member and quite a lot of detail about him is recorded in the (still extant) membership records, but his
son-in-law and step-son [yes, that's the relationship and not a typo], John Fuller of Isleham, only attended
the church (and donated a pew to it). The church's congregation travelled up to 50 miles to attend. (For
those of you who are interested in the history of the Baptist church, Isleham became a Baptist church in
1806 and contributed some of the leading members of, and beliefs to, the faith.)
Did people swap between non-conformist and Church of England churches?
The answer is YES, because:
As described above, marriages had to take place in Church of England churches from 1754 onwards.
Very few non-conformist churches had burial grounds (although a minority did).
The people who tended to swap were the people who weren't members.
Members could be suspended or expelled for periods of time. One person I know of
was banned from Isleham church for 'coveting his brother's land' and was only re-admitted
12 years later. Other suspensions could be temporary, resulting from poor attendance,
being drunk and disorderly, or for 'blaspheming'.
Some people seem to have 'hedged their bets' and baptised their children in a Church of
England church as well as a local non-conformist one.
This was officially illegal until 1791. There was, however, a loyal following in England and registers
or records do exist from before this date (including marriages). Michael Gandy has published a series of books
detailing the history of the missions [parishes]. The Catholic Family History Society has also published some of its
records. Go to the Catholic Family History
Society part of the GenFair site or to the
Catholic Family History Society web-sites for details.