Tag Archives: Parish Registers

The Poignancy of Parish Registers

Now that so many English parish registers have been digitised, it has never been easier to access these precious records, which provide a window into everyday life in England from the sixteenth century onwards.

Relying on indexes and transcripts for parish register searches is never ideal, because these will always contain errors and omissions. However, there are other reasons for plunging into a line-by-line search of an old parish register. Before long, you will almost certainly come upon something that leaps out at you for its poignancy or oddity. You might find a mysterious doodle in the margin or an empty page. More often it will be a record of a baptism or burial that goes beyond the bare facts.

Doodle from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, parish register
Doodle from Trowbridge parish register (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre/Ancestry)

This is particularly true of baptisms and burials recorded before 1813 and marriages before 1754. After those dates, it was a legal requirement to make entries in a set format in standardised register books. This legislation certainly benefited future historians and genealogists. In the cases of baptisms, learning the occupation of the child’s parent and the ‘abode’ of each family is more than welcome. Even more valuable in burial registers is an age at death, however approximate. However, in earlier times, when clergymen had more freedom to record events as they chose, some chose to include details about their parishioners that would otherwise have been lost for ever. Thus the hazards and hardships faced by our ancestors are fleetingly lit up; but the picture illuminated is rarely a happy one.

Some distinctive hatches and dispatches

The early parish registers of Horsham, Sussex, are notably full of such details. For example, we learn that in May 1592 John Rowe al[ia]s Sparrowe was killed wth ye fall of a May pole as it was a setting up.

In the same parish, in 1596 the register records the burial of a premature illegitimate child:

A man Child unbaptized & not full growen w[hi]ch cam from the body of Alce Herrot begotten by Edw. Wilson a butcher of Bansted.

In January 1581 (according to the modern calendar) the Horsham parish registers recorded a rare triplet birth. Sadly, none of the three babies survived. The author omitted to name the unfortunate mother:

The 4 day bapt & buried Mathew John & Mary the three twynes of Willm Slater at one burden

Extract from Horsham parish register (West Sussex Record Office/Ancestry)

The registers of St Peter, Wolverhampton, strike a more hopeful note when the parish takes in an abandoned child. In September 1612 Fortune a child whom her mother unnaturally left in a Barne in Wolverhampton and ranne awaye from ytt was baptized.

The parish gave Fortune no surname and her life was probably short. In May 1632 the same register records the burial of Fortune a maidservant of Issabel Chartwright .

These are not our ancestors: but we can spare them a few moments of compassion as we pass them by.

Sources

Digitised Parish Registers of St Peter, Wolverhampton (Staffordshire Archives/Findmypast)

Digitised Parish Registers of St James, Trowbridge (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre/Ancestry)

Digitised Parish Registers of St Mary, Horsham (West Sussex Record Office/Ancestry)

The Northamptonshire Earthquake of 1750

English parish registers were sometimes used to record momentous events as well as baptisms, marriages and burials.  In 1750 the Reverend Thomas Barnett, Vicar of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, wrote a dramatic account of the earthquake which struck his church just as he was in the act of administering Holy Communion:

On Sunday Septr 30th 1750. We were terribly alarmed with a violent Shock of an Earthquake.  It was felt at this Town about half an hour past twelve at Noon.  I was at that time administering the Holy Sacrament, and was with the whole Congregation in the greatest Surprize.  Its first Approach was heard like a mighty Wind or rather the driving of many Coaches.  The Motion was from S.W. to N.E.  Its Continuance was as near as I could judge about half a Minute, and was very dreadful and awful. 

The Earth was sensibly perceived to heave under our Feet.  The Church totter’d from its Foundation, and the East Window shook most violently, as if all was coming down, and from the Roof, which we thought was falling on us, we heard dreadful Crackings three or four Times, as if great prodigious Weights were flung upon it.  In Fear and Trembling we expected instant Death, either by being crush’d under the Ruins of the Church or else that we should have been swallowed up alive; but as Almighty God directed, no Harm happen’d unto us.  They who were in the Churches or Houses were more sensibly affected and felt it most, than those who were walking.  It was felt in all the Neighbouring Towns of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

Rothwell, Northamptonshire

A more phlegmatic and secular account of the same event was provided by the steward to the Earl of Cardigan (whose seat was Deene Park, Northamptonshire). Like the Vicar of Rothwell, the steward compared the sound to the rumble of a heavy coach:

… The Noise that preceded the Earthquake was, for a few Seconds, like the rumbling of a Coach upon a Bridge … The Force of the Shock was chiefly, if not entirely lateral; and so considerable, as that several People, who were sitting in Chairs, catched at the Walls, Tables, and such things as stood next them, expecting they should be thrown down: Buildings of all Kinds were shaken greatly; and the Beds, Chairs, and such things as stood above-stairs were displaced, and rocked about very much: Windows were shaken as if they would have been broken; and in several Places Pewter upon Shelves in Kitchens thrown upon the Floor…. I have not heard of any Damage being done by it more than some Chimnies thrown down, but nobody hurt by them.

The Northamptonshire Earthquake followed the London Earthquakes of 8 February and 8 March 1750. These similarly caused little damage and no fatalities, but many people thought they were a sign of divine wrath.  

‘Like the sound of heavy carriages’

Five years later, English parish registers show parishioners donating money to the survivors of the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, which struck on All Saints Day 1755 and led to more than 10,000 deaths, destroying a third of the city.  According to a British merchant who survived it, the Lisbon earthquake too began with ‘a rushing noise, like the Sound of heavy Carriages, driving hard at some Distance’.


Sources

Parish Registers of Rothwell, Northamptonshire: frontispiece to ‘Rothwell Register 1708–96’ (Northamptonshire Archives, digitised by Ancestry).

Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Lisbon 1755: The First ‘Modern’ Disaster (but if modern, how is it so?); University of Oxford, https://public.mml.ox.ac.uk/files/windsor/5_maxwell.pdf.

‘Roads, and those in Tring’, Tringlocalhistory.org.uk.

‘An Account of the Earthquake Which Happen’d about a quarter before One O’Clock, on Sunday, September 30, 1750, by Mr. – Steward to the Earl of Cardigan’, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 46, pages 721–23. JSTOR. Accessed 6 May 2024.

Bishop Shute Barrington and the English Parish Register

We have previously hailed Thomas Cromwell, father of the English parish register, and the 18th century priest and antiquary, William Dade (1741-1790), who strove to make the register a more detailed genealogical record.   Contemporary with Dade, and more widely known, was a fellow priest of a very different order, Bishop Shute Barrington of Durham.

Shute Barrington was born in 1734, son of John Shute Barrington (1678–1734), barrister, MP and ardent Protestant, educated at the University of Utrecht and a friend of John Locke.  He was instrumental in reconciling the Scottish Presbyterian church to the union of Scotland and England:  Jonathan Swift wrote in 1708 that he was ‘reckoned the shrewdest head in England’.[1]  He was elevated to the peerage in 1720 as Baron Barrington of Newcastle, Co Limerick, and Viscount Barrington of Ardglass, Co Down.

Lord Barrington was born a Shute, but changed the family surname to Barrington when he inherited an estate in Essex from the husband of a cousin.  His wife was Anne Daines, whose father, Sir William Daines, was MP for Bristol and a prominent local Whig.

Bishop Shute Barrington (1786) via Wikimedia Commons

Shute Barrington was thus born into the Whig intelligentsia as well as the aristocracy; but he was the sixth of six sons (and three daughters).  He was six months old when his father was flung from a carriage and died and so his eldest brother, William Wildman Barrington, 2nd Viscount, assumed a parental role.   Educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, he followed the traditional path of younger sons and was ordained in 1756.  He gained the favour of George III and became his chaplain soon after ordination and thence began a rapid climb up the ecclesiastical career ladder, becoming Bishop of Llandaff at the age of 35.

A man known for his sincere piety, Barrington was no passive acceptor of the privilege and wealth that fell in his path.  He caused a stir in 1772 in the debate surrounding the 39 Articles in which he went against his father’s principles and opposed the abolitionists.  After losing his first wife in childbirth at a young age, he followed the inclinations of his second wife, the heiress Jane Guise, by standing down from a lucrative post at St Paul’s because Jane disliked living in the residence there.  After becoming Bishop of Salisbury in 1782, he was renowned for his generosity and concern to be ‘the general friend of all’, while retaining friends in the highest places: the story goes that ‘gentleman from Berkshire’ inspected the Bishop’s ambitious restoration works at the Cathedral, paid for by public subscription, and added a contribution of £1,000 to the fund – the anonymous gentleman being George III.  Barrington was an important patron of William Wilberforce and supported the abolition of slavery.

In 1791 Barrington became Prince Bishop of Durham and here he continued energetically in charitable and educational projects, supported by his wife, who once presented every villager in a Durham village with a hive of bees.  He was an influential church reformer, with fingers in many ecclesiastical pies, across a wide political and theological spectrum, from the evangelicals to the Catholic French exiles who settled near Durham during the French Revolution.

For the genealogist, demographer and historian, however, the memorable gift of Bishop Shute Barrington was his introduction of a detailed format for parish registers, along the lines of the pioneer work of William Dade in the neighbouring diocese of York, but in a more manageable format.  From 1798 until the national introduction of printed register books in 1812, baptism registers in the diocese of Durham were required to include the child’s date of birth, the mother’s maiden name and the parishes in which both parents were born as well, as the number of the child in the family.  Details of fathers of illegitimate children were recorded with similar zeal. Imagine the genealogist’s joy to discover a ‘stray’ entry such as this from the Bishop’s Transcripts of St Nicholas, Durham City:

Sarah Parkin, born 28 March 1812, baptised 12 May, daughter of William Parkin, Private Soldier in the 1 Regt of Lancashire Militia & Sarah his wife late Weeks of Surrey

St Nicholas, Durham: Bishop's Transcript (image from FamilySearch)

St Nicholas, Durham: Bishop’s Transcript (image from FamilySearch)

Bishop Shute Barrington lived into his nineties, finally suffering a fatal stroke in 1826.  Wilberforce had described him in his prime as ‘a very sun, the centre of an entire system’.  That system has long since fallen away; what remains, for those of us who care, is the legacy of those meticulous and generous records of the very humblest members of his flock.

 

 

Principal Source: E. A. Varley, ‘Barrington, Shute (1734–1826)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009.



[1] Swift, Works, 1824, 15.318, cited in Arthur H. Grant, ‘Barrington, John Shute, first Viscount Barrington (1678–1734)’, rev. Philip Carter,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

William Dade and the English Parish Register

In a previous blog (July 2013) we lauded Thomas Cromwell, the formidable father of the English parish register.  We turn now to a lesser known pioneer, the 18th century priest and antiquary, William Dade.

Before Rose’s Act of 1812, there was no standardised form in which parish records were to be kept.  Pre-1813 registers manifest a wide variety of skills and enthusiasm in record-keeping, from the barely literate to the garrulous.

Anyone who works in 18th century Yorkshire records will at some point come upon a ‘Dade Register’, in which an unexpected wealth of genealogical information is embedded in a single record.

William Dade, whose own baptism was recorded in the registers of Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 26 January 1741, came from a clerical family.  His father was vicar of Burton Agnes; his grandfather had also been a priest.  Dade was a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1759 to 1762, although there is no record of him having obtained a degree.  From university he went into the priesthood, serving as curate in a series of York churches before securing his own parish of St Olave, Marygate, York, in 1771. Like many eighteenth century clerics he was a pluralist, being also the incumbent of St Mary, Castlegate, and St Michael, Spurriergate; and by the end of the decade he had also acquired the livings of Barmston and Ulrome in Holderness (East Riding of Yorkshire).

Unlike the modern hard-pressed clergyman who rushes from one church to another on a Sunday morning, the 18th century pluralist was not over-burdened by parish affairs, which would largely be delegated to curates.  Dade found time to develop the skills of the antiquary, that wonderfully dated term which the Oxford English Dictionary defined (in 1885: the entry has not been fully updated since):

A student (usually a professed student), or collector, of antiquities. (Formerly used, in a wide sense, of a student of early history; now tending to be restricted to one who investigates the relics and monuments of the more recent past.)

Dade’s close involvement with parish registers made him see their potential as a precious source of historical data.  He instituted a form of record-keeping in his parishes which asked for additional information to be added to register entries for the benefit of ‘the researches of posterity’.  Each record of baptism, for example, was to include not only the father’s profession and ‘abode’ but also those of the father’s parents; the entry was also to state where the infant was placed in the family (whether first or second son, etc).  Burial entries were to include the cause of death, the age of the deceased, and family details which made them superior to the Victorian death certificate that was to be introduced in 1837.

Dade’s scheme was approved by Archbishop William Markham and introduced in the whole diocese from 1777.  However, the concept of obedient and copious form-filling had yet to be imprinted in the national psyche.  The extra work that it generated meant that it was short-lived and not all incumbents complied; those in densely-populated industrial parishes found it particularly arduous.  It was discontinued after 1812 when the new standardised parish register books came in.

Dade made Barmston his home and there embarked upon a history of Holderness which, like many a similar project, was never published, although it reached proof stage in 1784 and some fragments survive in the British Library.  The author’s health had already begun to deteriorate and he died in 1790 at the age of 50.

An informative discussion of Dade registers by Roger Bellingham, published in 2004 in Local Population Studies, emphasises the value of these records, not only for genealogists but for those with wider interests whom we might describe as local or social historians, or demographers: to William Dade, without a doubt, they would be antiquaries.

References:

William Joseph Sheils, ‘Dade, William (bap. 1741, d. 1790)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 .

http://www.localpopulationstudies.org.uk/PDF/LPS73/Article_3_Bellingham_pp51-60.pdf

 

English Parish Registers

The recording of what the Americans call ‘vital statistics’ – the bare events of birth, marriage and death or, in the case of parish registers, baptism, marriage and burial – is something we now take for granted. We fret if our ancestors – through negligence, non-conformity, or being in the wrong parish at the wrong time –evaded that official with the quill pen. We might sometimes spare a thought for the men who invented, designed and developed these crucial records, which in themselves are an expression of the close and sometimes bitter relationship between church and state in English history.

Those of us with English ancestry – or whose livelihoods depend upon the discovery of it – have the formidable Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell (ca 1485 to 1540) to thank for the establishment of parish record-keeping so early in our history.

Cromwell’s own family history was startling; he rose to high office from inauspicious origins. His father Walter Cromwell, a clothier and blacksmith of Putney, was a heavy drinker who owned his own brewery and inn. Walter was frequently summoned to the manorial court for misdemeanours and he was eventually evicted from his property after being convicted of fraudulently altering tenancy documents.

By the 1530s, self-educated, well-travelled and full of religious zeal, his son Thomas Cromwell had established himself first as right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey and then to King Henry VIII himself. The story of his extraordinary career has enjoyed a recent revival through the award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the trilogy will be completed by the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light) and he is soon to take the stage in a double Royal Shakespeare production based on Mantel’s novels, which will run concurrently with a BBC drama series in which Mark Rylance plays the great statesman.

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1535, having engineered the King’s position as supreme head of the English church, of which he was now Vicar-General, Cromwell turned upon the church his unique combination of religious and administrative zeal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, a national census of church lands and wealth, was completed within a year, a bureaucratic masterpiece. At the same time he was determined that every parish church in the land should have a copy of the Bible in English, and this was for the good of the soul, not the royal powerhouse or coffers. Indeed, Cromwell contributed handsomely from his own purse towards the publication of Coverdale’s English Bible.

Those on the receiving end of Cromwell’s enthusiasm found it difficult to separate the religious from the bureaucratic. When his order went out, in September 1538, that every parish priest should keep a weekly record of ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’, many parishes ignored it, risking the fine of 3s 4d; they suspected, with traditional English cynicism, that something more sinister than historical record-keeping was afoot. Anger at the suppression of the monasteries was mingled with fear that the state might have similar designs on parish churches. At the very least, it seemed more than likely that this amassing of personal data was the prelude for some new tax.

The original order, which was to create for England an unprecedented wealth of information about families from the humblest to the highest, was to:

‘Keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening, and burying, made within your parish for your time.’

The book was to be kept secure in the parish chest with keys held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.

geograph-550586-by-Bob-Embleton parish chest

16th century parish chest at St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire: © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Such was the lack of clerical enthusiasm that a second decree had to be passed in 1547, this time adding the stipulation that the fine should benefit the poor, for Cromwell was also concerned with social reform, and his Poor Relief legislation of 1536 was the first attempt of the state to address poverty on a parochial basis.

On 18 April 1540 Cromwell, who had already been elevated to the peerage, was created Earl of Essex; but his fortunes were already on a grim and downward path.  His reforming zeal had far overtaken that of his King; his involvement in the fiasco of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves had lost him the monarch’s trust; and in Tudor politics there were few exits from such high public office that were not bloody and brutal.  On 28 July 1540 the newly created Earl walked to the scaffold, charged with heresy and treason, and suffered a particularly gruelling execution.[1]  He left his King and country many legacies; but for the genealogist, those yellowing register books in the parish chest were among the most precious.



[1] Howard Leithead, ‘Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.