P is for Parish registers and Parish chests

PMy A2Z 2016 theme is how to pursue an interest in family history/genealogy – I’d love you to join me on the journey.

P is for Parish Registers

 Parish registers are generally regarded as the registers of baptisms, banns and sometimes burials that the churches recorded in the years before civil registration commenced in your family’s country of origin. They continue beyond that date as well as a rule, giving you another option for learning more about the family. Brick walls? Don’t forget to check them out.

Many registers are comprehensively documented though you may find anomalies in spelling of names, or the use of nicknames instead of their formal baptismal name. You need to keep your mind open to the possibilities.

One thing I’ve found is that people fail to take account of the burials which the minister has documented. This can lead to a family member being attributed with a particular baptism date, when a look at the burials reveals that child died as an infant. In some cases the minister obligingly gives us locational details especially where it’s a common name. This plus ages, combined with census details, can help “kill your ancestors off” so you know you’re on the right trail – or the wrong one.

Not all parishes documented burials – in particular it’s a bonus to find them included in Catholic registers because burial is not a sacrament and so it’s not essential. And in Ireland, the sheer volume of deaths during the Famine made it impractical to document each person’s death and burial.


Church register baptism Mary Gavin_edited-1
Extract from the St Catherine’s registers which show Mary Gavin’s baptism from the IrishGenealogy site.

In Scotland, you may need to look in the kirk session records which may reveal the cost of renting mort cloths, the discontinuance of poor support, or even a comment in a neighbour’s witness statement about a different matter entirely.

Do registers belong only in the past? 

In my experience, it’s also useful, and sometimes critical, to locate the same details in your family’s more recent past, especially if they were strongly affiliated with a particular religion. This may or may not have been the religion which was the formally declared faith of the country. For example, in England, this is the Church of England. In times past, marriages were not valid unless performed in the relevant Anglican Church.

Ages ago I wrote a post about how using a parish register entry for a marriage revealed full details of my Kunkel ancestor’s place of birth – literally the only place I’ve ever found it documented. This led me back to his Bavarian village where I was ultimately able to confirm his baptism.

Where to look?

Think about Church Archives for your town/state/diocese. Some will be helpful, others less so. Don’t forget your research is not their core business and be prepared to wait, and to pay a fee just as you would for government records.

You should also use the Family Search research wiki, or read relevant books, to learn more about how these records worked in your ancestor’s country of origin. For example, German registers (and some other European countries) have family books which include essentially a pedigree chart listing all the couple’s children then cross-referring them to their own marriages and families.

Don’t forget that not every microfilm prepared by the LDS church has yet been filmed. Check out the catalogue on Family Search to see if there’s more information available by ordering in a microfilm – use the keyword or place search, check the church records and see if they’ve been digitised or not, and indexed or not.

However for other events you may have to look in the Non-Conformist, Roman Catholic, Quaker or Jewish records to find more information. Some families may even have vacillated in their allegiance to different churches. In short, as with so many things in researching your family, the net has to be thrown as widely as possible to pick up all sorts of information – some of it contradictory.

P is for Parish Chests and records

 In earlier centuries the parish documents were kept under lock and key in huge chests like the image shown, hence the name parish chest. The documents included all matters pertaining to the church’s operation, from the registers discussed above, to the day-to-day operation of maintaining the roads, collecting taxes and tithes and supporting the poor.


The parish chest in the Hook Norton church, Oxfordshire. P Cass 2006

Not everything survives but you can find fascinatingly diverse documents. In one Northumberland parish I found what was essentially a partial census when the tithe collectors went from door to door. In another case, the minister listed all the people in the parish, their religious affiliations and a commentary on the family and their living conditions – genea-gold if your family is living in that parish – unless he was particularly rude about them.

Once again it’s worth checking out the regional archives to see if they perhaps have relevant documents in their holdings.

How can they help?

Let me give you an example from my own family history of the usefulness of the parish records.

In Australia my Kent ancestors from Sandon, Hertfordshire were variously Anglican, Baptist, and Methodist in different events. This led me to think that they were possibly non-conformist while in England, and only using the Anglican Church as required, under sufferance. However, this proved not to be the case.

Year after year, generations of my Kent ancestors had responsibility in the roles of poor law, road supervision and the like. I don’t imagine this would have happened if they’d been on the periphery of the church.

Also among those documents were all the details of the enclosures proposed for the parish and the meetings held about the enclosures. Where were they held? In my ancestor’s pub.

Do yourself a favour head on over to the Family Search catalogue to see if you’ve missed out on hiring in one of the films. It might be the best $8 or so you’ve spent on your research. You might even find an ancestor’s signature from centuries ago…what a thrill!


Erle Victor Weiss KIA
Erle Victor Weiss

P is also for photos but you probably don’t need me to tell you just how important they are to your research. Ask around the relatives – in my view, someone, somewhere is likely to have what you’re looking for. But will they have names on them?

You might be lucky like my genie-mate, Prue, who got a photo of a relative, thanks to a postcard which I was given by my fourth cousin from her suitcases of photos. Serendipity might strike!

Thank you for visiting me on this journey. I love comments <smile>

 There’s a plethora of reading choices on this year’s A to Z Challenge, so my challenge to you is to visit the sign-up page and select one (or more) blogs to read between the numbers 1700-1824.


16 thoughts on “P is for Parish registers and Parish chests

      1. Glad it might come in handy. Unfortunately the Catholic records often didn’t start until much later (or didn’t survive). Was your ancestor RC or Church of Ireland?


  1. Wow! Such detailed and interesting information. I’m sure you’re helping many people who are interested in finding out more about their ancestry!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the reminder to pursue parish records. I tend to focus on civil records, but have filled gaps in some families with church records. This post prompts me to keep church records at the top of my research list going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

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