How to track down elu­sive fore­bears who fol­lowed a faith out­side the Church of Eng­land

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While some peo­ple would not risk keep­ing lists of mem­bers, oth­ers would go to great lengths to track them down

Not ev­ery­one’s an­ces­tors be­longed to or in­ter­acted vol­un­tar­ily with the Angli­can Church. Many fol­lowed non­con­formist faiths – Methodists, Bap­tists, Quak­ers, Huguenots and Mo­ra­vians among them. In fact, the 1851 Census of Religious Wor­ship showed that more peo­ple at­tended non­con­formist chapels than the es­tab­lished church, caus­ing great con­ster­na­tion.

The growth of al­ter­na­tive forms of wor­ship was of­ten a re­ac­tion against the es­tab­lished or­der for some rea­son. Henry VIII’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to take a new wife is a well-known ex­am­ple.

The ebb and flow of cul­tural ac­cept­abil­ity for be­ing non­con­formist has re­sulted in patchy record sur­vival – many were not kept for fear of reprisals.

How­ever, while some break­away re­li­gions would not risk keep­ing lists of mem­bers or de­tails of their ac­tiv­i­ties, other peo­ple would go to great lengths to track down the per­ceived wrong-do­ers, cre­at­ing de­tailed records in or­der to per­se­cute and pun­ish them.

The com­mu­nity-based na­ture of some non­con­formists re­sulted in records be­ing kept in mem­bers’ homes, and, in the case of a group’s clo­sure, th­ese may have been re­tained by the last care­taker.

Such was the case for Stan­ning­ley Con­gre­ga­tional Church, Pud­sey, West York­shire, where ar­chi­tects’ plans, deeds, mem­ber­ship books and church mag­a­zines have now been de­posited with a lo­cal ar­chive.

Be­sides the ex­ter­nal forces that af­fected the lives of non­con­formists, there could also be in­ter­nal con­flicts that threat­ened the sur­vival of the de­nom­i­na­tion. Th­ese fric­tions of­ten gen­er­ated fur­ther divi­sions, which, in turn, re­sulted in an even greater di­ver­sity of religious groups.

For ex­am­ple, a quick look in any county ar­chive’s guide to non­con­formists will not only in­clude use­ful in­for­ma­tion on Methodists, but also Methodist New Con­nex­ion mem­bers, Prim­i­tive Methodists, United Methodists, the United Methodist Free Church, Wes­leyan Methodists and maybe more.

Re­united groups

With re­duced num­bers of com­mu­ni­cants, in­come and,

in some cases, min­is­ters, many in smaller break­away groups were re­united in the orig­i­nal fold or com­bined with sim­i­lar groups to al­low their sur­vival.

Some col­lec­tion guides, such as the one pro­vided by West York­shire Ar­chive Ser­vice at

bitly/1f8axW3, in­clude a pot­ted de­nom­i­na­tional his­tory and a list of rel­e­vant dates, as well as in­for­ma­tion on the ar­chive’s hold­ings, which may in­clude de­tails of the churches or cir­cuits (a group of lo­cal churches un­der the care of one or more min­is­ters); records of bap­tisms, mar­riages and buri­als; and some­times other re­lated records such as grave reg­is­ters and pew rents.

A guide on the Cheshire Ar­chives & Lo­cal Stud­ies web­site ( ar­ fam­ily-his­tory/non­con­formist­srecords.aspx) pro­vides in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing its col­lec­tions of Quaker and Ro­man Catholic reg­is­ters, which have been digi­tised and made avail­able on Find­my­past at Sev­eral key dates had an im­pact on non­con­formist records. In par­tic­u­lar, the 1689 Tol­er­a­tion Act gave non­con­formists the right to have their own places of wor­ship, sub­ject to the swear­ing of oaths and dec­la­ra­tions.

Catholics were ex­cluded from this and were un­able to reg­is­ter their own chapels and schools with the lo­cal Clerk of the Peace un­til the Catholic Re­lief Act of 1791. Such ap­pli­ca­tions would go to the Quar­ter Ses­sions, which many county record of­fices in­clude within their search­able on­line cat­a­logues.

Le­gal re­quire­ments

All mar­riages, other than for Quak­ers and Jews, had to be in the Church of Eng­land un­der the terms of Hard­wicke’s Mar­riage Act, which be­came ef­fec­tive on 25 March 1754.

This was a tight­en­ing up of le­gal re­quire­ments be­yond cel­e­bra­tion by an Angli­can cler­gy­man, and also en­sured that ei­ther banns were called or a li­cence ob­tained. Li­cences were pop­u­lar with non­con­formists as they avoided hav­ing to be present for the read­ing of the banns. In both cases, the mar­riage may not have taken place, yet the dec­la­ra­tion of in­tent should sur­vive, pro­vid­ing a record for re­searchers.

Sub­stan­tial col­lec­tions of Mar­riage Bonds and Al­le­ga­tions have been in­dexed, such as those is­sued by the Arch­bish­ops of York from 1613 to 1839. This dataset is avail­able on­line at

An­other im­por­tant date is 1836, which saw the pass­ing of the Mar­riage Act. This meant that a mar­riage could take place in any reg­is­tered place of wor­ship. Reg­is­tra­tion for sol­em­niz­ing of mar­riages would be an­nounced in the Lon­don Gazette ( www.

The District Reg­is­trar had to travel from chapel to chapel to record th­ese events – some­thing that of­ten causes con­fu­sion for re­searchers when match­ing civil reg­is­tra­tion in­dexes to parish reg­is­ter en­tries. How­ever, con­sult­ing a lo­cal Reg­is­trar’s in­dexes may con­firm an early reg­is­ter of­fice wed­ding, sug­gest­ing that the cou­ple were non­con­formists. To check, see­cal_bmd.

Fi­nally, from 1898, a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion could be au­tho­rised by the Reg­is­trar Gen­eral to act as Reg­is­trar of Mar­riages, mak­ing re­turns to the Lo­cal Su­per­in­ten­dent Reg­is­trar. Methodists, for ex­am­ple, quickly sought this in­de­pen­dence.

You might come across non­con­formists in your fam­ily tree through church records, on­line searches, fam­ily his­tory

so­ci­ety tran­scrip­tions or by the fact that they are buried in a de­nom­i­na­tional grave­yard.

Seek­ing al­ter­na­tives

How­ever, the pos­si­bil­ity of non­con­for­mity may also arise by an in­abil­ity to find an­ces­tors recorded in the Church of Eng­land parish reg­is­ters, which means you must search for other likely al­ter­na­tives.

Non­con­formist churches were ini­tially in­vited to de­posit their own bap­tism, mar­riage and burial reg­is­ters by a Royal Com­mis­sion shortly af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of civil reg­is­tra­tion in 1837, and

An il­lus­tra­tion of Sur­rey Chapel, an in­de­pen­dent Methodist and Con­gre­ga­tional church that stood in South­wark, Lon­don

The wed­ding of early Quaker Wil­liam Penn and Han­nah Cal­lowhill, in Bris­tol, 1696

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