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.


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)

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