PARISH REGISTERS ONLINE
With millions of church records going online each year, Sarah Williams takes a tour around the UK highlighting the main collections that are on offer as well as uncovering some little-known gems
For as long as the Church has been around it has played a central role in baptisms, marriages and burials, but it was not until 1538 that the need for this to be documented was decreed and parish registers really began.
Since then they’ve evolved, recording more information in a standardised way, but they still present challenges.
Before parish registers started appearing online, family historians had to have an idea of which parish their ancestor’s life event was likely to have been recorded in. This could be very successful and the registers from one parish might take you back hundreds of years. However, missing ancestors were harder to solve. Once your kin left a parish, finding where they had moved to could be virtually impossible.
Scattered over the country in their millions, the task of digitising parish registers is too big for any one organisation, and so this article aims to help you track down the best place to start your search.
First of all, it’s important to recognise that only a small proportion of parish registers have been digitised. Even big regional collections, like Ancestry’s London collection, will not be complete. If you are expecting to find someone in the Dorset collection on Findmypast and they’re not there, that doesn’t mean they weren’t in Dorset. You need to try to ascertain which parish they are most likely to have attended and check the actual holdings of the website. A good website should tell you the names of the parishes and the years that are included.
As well as subscription websites, there are also a few major free collections to be considered. The biggest one is familysearch.org. If you find a potential result here, it is important to note where the information has come from. Some entries are just taken from people’s personal research, so you need to be sure that it has come from a parish register and remember that, apart from a few exceptions where images are included, you are just looking at a transcription. You can often order a copy of the actual microfilm to view at an LDS Family History Centre, or request a photocopy of the page from the relevant local record office to check the original.
It is also important not to assume that the first person you come across with the same name as your ancestor is necessarily your forebear. Check that the place and dates all add up. Even someone with an unusual name can have a namesake (possibly a relative) that can send you on a wild goose chase. If your ancestor has a common name, then this is even more likely.
Some transcriptions are based on the work of Victorian and Edwardian antiquarians who transcribed old parish registers and published them in book form (if you know this happened for a parish you are interested in, see if the book has been uploaded to archive.
org for free), some are based on transcription projects carried out by family history societies or keen volunteers such as the Online Parish Clerks (OPC) and some come from large digitisation projects where images of parish registers are outsourced to transcribers. The indexes you find on a subscription site will not necessarily be more accurate than the ones done by volunteers on free websites, but you may at least see the original page of the register.
Bishop’s Transcriptions (or BTs) are abbreviated copies of parish registers that were sent annually to the local bishop for his records. They are particularly useful where the parish register itself does not exist anymore and can also be found on some sites.
We’ve divided the UK up into regions using modern county boundaries. It is important to remember that boundaries have changed over time and some parish registers in a county collection may relate to a different county now.
The following list of websites is not definitive ( genuki.org.uk is a good site for locating records for the area that you are interested in) and although all the main subscription sites, as well as familysearch.org, have some records for all the regions, we have concentrated on their major collections.
ONLY A SMALL PROPORTION OF THE UK’S PARISH REGISTERS HAVE BEEN DIGITISED