Commonly considered the domain of genealogists and family historians researching their own family history, popularised by such programmes as Who Do You Think You Are?, parish registers can seem something of a historic juxtaposition. On the one hand it would appear that, taken in isolation, they are generally deficient in detail and therefore unsatisfactory as qualitative evidence of the lives of individuals, even more so the further back in time you travel. However, historians attempting to glean biographical details, endeavouring to work out relationships or merely looking for some thoughts on historic events, then, with a little help from a diligent notary, parish registers can sometimes provide a lot of helpful gossip.
Although these registers can be vexing documents they are well worth spending time with, by reading against the grain it is possible to gather much information regarding early modern life. The characters and partialities of the clergy are revealed by often snide observations penned malevolently in the registers’ margins. These men preached week-in-week-out and in doing so inevitably imparted their own prejudices that manipulated and influenced the lives of their parishioners. These marginal comments can often contain nuggets of extra evidence that can reveal a whole range of preciously undisclosed demographic information, as well as divulge the wider attitudes of society at that time.

For centuries, all across Britain, parishes were fundamental to the government because each church acted like a modern day council, whereby it managed and recorded all the people within its boundaries.  One of the church’s more vital (and sometimes onerous) tasks was the keeping of a register of all the baptisms, marriages and burials which took place in its parish. In 1538, via the exertions of Thomas Cromwell, a directive was issued that ordered every parish minister, priest, vicar or curate to record weekly in a special book, every wedding, christening or burial that had occurred in the previous seven days, a penalty being levied for failure to comply. Furthermore, Cromwell expected all parishes to provide a secure coffer or chest for the safe storage of these registers; this Parish Chest became the collective name for the records and accounts of the parish.

 

 

Parish registers, being legal documents, were deliberately formulaic but these records are also notoriously inconsistent and disorganised. With no real administrative need to record anything more than what was required, what was actually chronicled was very much at the mercy of the notary wielding the quill. While most never bothered adding anything more than necessary others recorded details of an individual’s life story in glorious detail including all manner of information such as the supposed father of an illegitimate child and his thoughts regarding the mother’s status within the parish, the word whore, adulteress or harlot can frequently be found spitefully scratched in the margin. Further notes on a happy couple’s wedding plans or judgement on a recently deceased parishioner are also often to be found. Some clerics carried out impromptu censuses, observed national and international events, recounted freak weather conditions or noted market values of crops and livestock. It is with some of these extra-curricular jottings that the rest of this article will concentrate, thereby illustrating the hidden histories that can be discovered when researching biographical histories.

The registers from a parish in Norfolk are full of details, especially in the burial records. …from the very odd…

 

 

 

…to the last dual in Norfolk…

…to the gruesome…

 

 

… so perhaps the suggestion here it that it served him right? These three examples expose a wealth of extra material for instance by stating Francis’s age then a birth date can be established, how Sir Henry died and what sort man John Rowland was, although if he were an ancestor you might not be so pleased with those facts.

 

​In Essex a very sad and rather mysterious story dating from 1592 when Prudence Lambert hanged herself the morning after her wedding to Clement Fenn, the vicar, in a more than vexed manner noted…

…Prudence’s burial is recorded two days later in the same register…
 

 

 

Those like Prudence, who commit suicide, along with unbaptised children, so called lunatics and the excommunicated had long been treated with suspicion by the Church, all being buried either outside churchyards, on the north side of churchyards or even in public spaces away from churches, such as at a crossroads. In 1656 an example of this can be seen in Chester when…

Being homeless was not easily tolerated, with such people relying on the parish for funds they were often sent back to their parish of birth. However the fate dealt out to poor Anne Evans in 1662 does seem particularly harsh and recorded in its shocking detail by the cleric…

 

‘Toy-boys’ are not just a modern phenomenon as exemplified from this Cheshire register of 1780 when a “peculiar marriage” took place between 23-year-old Daniel Broadbent and his 83-year-old bride Martha Cheetham. It can be seen from this entry that although Daniel could write, or at least sign his name, Martha couldn’t and left her mark, a cross, beside her name, a very common occurrence throughout parish registers across the centuries and can give the researcher added information about the education, or lack of it, of their subject.

…sadly, but not perhaps unexpectedly Daniel and Martha’s wedded bliss was not destined to last long. What is possibly surprising though is the name of the deceased in the entry below found in the burial records the following year…

A note alongside the 1699 marriage of John Williamson and Mary Parson at a Cheshire parish stated that John was “worth 600 pounds if he come the age of 21“, thus giving the researcher a vital clue to John’s age at the time, they being married “by licence” as John was under 21 and therefore I expect Mary was underage to – thus needing their parents’ permission for the wedding to take place.

Prior to 1837 death certificates as we know them today, stating the cause of death, did not exist so when a rector obligingly minutes the reason for a death it can add extra colour to a biographical time-line, as here in 1812..

 

..while in Cheshire in 1772..

…and in 1776 the master dyer William Hewitt was buried in the January, with the note…

 

Meanwhile in Norfolk on 10th March 1810 …

This adds something to local history by revealing the presence of a windmill in the area in 1810 and while there is no occupation given for Bryan, the fact that it states it was “his very own” windmill would suggest he was a Miller. It is sad however that he reaches the grand old age of 79 and forgets the prevalent danger of windmill sails and although this might sound a slightly amusing to us today, it could well have meant the workhouse for the rest of the Dawson family, which was definitely not so funny.

A lot can be surmised from the 1728 burial of Thomas Bowers in Oxfordshire…

 

…telling us not only the reason for his death, but his age and the identity of his parents.

 

Weather and historical events were quite frequently noted. Here at Staffordshire in February of 1795, the curate writes about the conditions…

…and indeed there is such a description to be found, but far to long for this particular article unfortunately.

National and international events are also chronicled, giving perhaps an idea that the incumbent of some parishes liked not only to keep themselves abreast of the news but also ensure that their parishioners were likwwise well informed. Often parishes raised collections to send to various “disaster funds”, in Derbyshire in 1667, 7s 10d was raised for a particularly well-known disaster …

 

The curate of a Staffordshire parish notes an “Attack on King George the 3rd in 1795…

Here in a Derbyshire parish during 1665 the minister notes an astronomical phenomenon…

What is really nice about this is the little doodle alongside the entry. At first glance it perhaps looks like an inkblot in the left-hand margin, but it’s actually the minister’s attempt at an illustration of a comet. In common with many of his contemporaries, the cleric looks back on the arrival of the comet as an omen and a subsequent note later that same year says…

Curates were also resourceful creatures as a Cheshire village minister demonstrates with his note in the margin of this marriage record of 1791…

 

..and were they were not above a bit of moaning, with this one recording his thoughts in 1798…

…and so say all of us!!!

 

Two of my particular favourites are, firstly this Staffordshire curate who demonstrated his love or knowledge of biblical history by regularly penning a kind of “on this day” fact at the bottom of each page of his register. The example below comes from 1577…

 

Secondly, the inside covers of many parish registers were frequently used as a kind of rough note taking page and often included simple ‘sums’ the minister did in order to work out the age of a person at death or add up donations etc. The page of etchings below, from a Northamptonshire parish, dating back to circa 1780, is an excellent example.

 

Over the years the parish records became increasingly standardised with names of parents, addresses and occupations required to be noted. Civil Registration was made compulsory on 1st July 1837 with the passing of the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836. This single tier registration system, based on the 1834 administrative poor law unions, gave us the registration districts we are so familiar with today. Births, not baptisms, and Deaths, not burials, were recorded by registrars. Parish baptism and burial registers were, and are, still carried out in tandem with the new civil registration system. This Act also permitted marriages to be performed in Register Offices as well as outside the confines of the Anglican Church with many non-conformist chapels authorised to perform such ceremonies. While contemporary birth, marriage and death indexes make it so much easier to find people they do make me pander for the stories and intrigue of the registers of times past and the very fact that extra commentaries were not essential renders them of great interest, inevitably however, such entries sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

Article © Margaret Roberts 

Hidden Histories Part 3 coming soon – Census Returns – Consensus or Censorship, how useful are they to the historian?