Parish records are the cornerstone of researching family history in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
They're the very first place you should look for your family before they immigrated to America. But researching in another country is always a little different, and there is some must-have knowledge you'll need to be successful.
Use this guide as your starting point, and make sure to explore our many resources that will help you get the most out of these valuable record sets.
Table of contents
- Search guide: British & Irish parish records (you are here)
- 15 quick tips for searching parish records
- Understanding parish records webinar and Q&A
- Discovering Welsh roots in the parish records
- 5 must-know tips for searching Irish Catholic parish records
What are parish records?
In the 1530's, a combination of historical events - involving the politicking of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn - led to Henry's excommunication from the Catholic Church and a split with Rome.
In 1538, the new official religious regime – the Church of England – decreed that records of baptisms, marriages and burials must be kept by every parish in the country. These parish records were to be kept up to date on pain of fine, recording in detail the lives of local families.
At first, some parishes neglected to complete the records, ignoring orders and potential punishment. Eventually, however, they were brought into line. Barring the English Civil War, records were consistently kept until 1837, when control was passed to the crown rather than the church, and records began to look more like the ones we recognize today.
The fact that we have consistent records dating back to the 1500's is a rare and exciting fact in the genealogy world today. Not only will families be able to trace their heritage back further than they thought possible, but these beautiful documents are items of historical significance in and of themselves:
These handwritten baptism records from over 350 years ago are valuable beyond the genealogical information they provide.
The parish records were transcribed and indexed mainly by family history societies, although a few dedicated individuals have also contributed data. You can contact the society or group that extracted the information for further details. Some may charge a small fee for research. Details can be found on search results pages.
Searching Parish Records
If you're searching for your family in the parish records, the chances are you're not new to family history research. You've probably built your family tree up to the 18th century, and have dealt with records in America and the British Isles.
However, even the experienced researcher will need to keep a few things in mind when searching parish records.
Search baptisms by father's last name and mother's maiden last name
Search baptisms by father's last name and mother's maiden last name to get all the babies born to that marriage (you can put in a registration district and a range of years, say 10 or 20 years either side, to narrow down if there are too many results with the same surname)
If you can't search, browse!
With some of our parish record collections with images you have the option to browse through the registers (type "browse" in the A-Z and then look for the parish record collections) – handy if you can't find a record by searching – go to the relevant register and thumb through (use the tool at the bottom of the image viewer to jump to the right place in the register) – your record might be mistranscribed or the page might be missing from the register or too faint/damaged to read.
Use your wildcards
When dealing with a record set that's as old as the 16th century, accurate transcription isn't always easy, and spelling wasn't necessarily accurate to begin with. This means that you may have trouble finding people when searching by name. For this reason, wildcards may be your friend.
A wildcard is denoted by a *, and you can use them anywhere in the first, middle or surname fields (but either the first or last name must have at least three initial characters). For example, if you want to search for Michael Addams you could search for Mic* *dams or Mi* Add*. For more details on wildcard searching, click here.
Searching for Mi* Add* will bring back results that include Michael Addams, Mickcill Addames, Millimay Addams and Mis Katharine Adderley (all real results).
*NB* you can't use search variants with wildcard searches.
Julian and Gregorian calendar
It wasn't until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain. Until 1752, the Julian Calendar was still observed, and the year officially started on the 25th of March. While Britain clung on to the Julian Calendar, much of Europe had already made the transition. This means that in some cases you'll see two dates in what is known as double dating, for example you might see 16 January 1746 "OS" (old style) and 1747 "NS" (new style) on the same entry.
Note the 1703/4 to the right of this entry
If you see a date in an index from between January 1st and March 24th and before 1752, ensure that the double dating problem has been taken into account. If you can't find the entry in the year you're expecting it, try a year either side.
The Civil War gap
The English Civil War ran from 1642-1651, and during this period record keeping wasn't necessarily top of everyone's list of priorities. If you're looking around the mid-17th century, this is always worth bearing in mind.