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Notes and Queries
What becomes of Parish Registers


Source: Notes and Queries Vol. 1 4th S. (9) Feb 29 1868 Pages 197-200

Rather more than 9 years since I called the attention of readers of "N & Q " (2nd S. vi, 379, 507) to the deplorable condition of parish registers, and urged the necessity for collecting and depositing them in some fire-proof building in London, under proper guardianship, with a view to their future safe custody.

Though the suggestion was approved at the time by several of your correspondents, no action was taken in the matter. Now that the subject has been again mooted I will venture, with your permission to supplement my previous communication by a few further observations.

It may not perhaps be very generally known that the Returns made pursuant to the Act for taking an Account of the Population , in 1831, comprised answers to a question which had been put to every incumbent of a parish as to the number of volumes, dates and state of preservation of the registers, down to the year 1812, then in his possession. An abstract of these Returns was printed by authority of Parliament in 1833; and the full abstract of answers, together with nearly 4,000 original letters from clergymen and others in special explanation, were subsequently deposited in the British Museum in six large folio volumes. From these authoritative sources I extract the following general summary of the condition of parish registers after 300 years of clerical custody:-

Half the registers anterior to AD 1600 have disappeared.

812 registers commence in the year 1538, about 40 of which contain entries (copied probably from memoranda kept in the old monasteries, family Bibles, or on tombstones) anterior to Cromwell's Injunction.

1822 registers commence from 1538 to 1558 (when Queen Elizabeth required a protestation from the clergy, on institution, that they would keep the register-books according to the Injunctions.)

2,448 registers commence from 1558 to 1603 (when canon No 70 authorised by King James directed a copy of all extant parish registers to be made on parchment and preserved).

969 registers commence from 1603 to 1850.

2,757 registers commence from 1650 to 1700.

1,476 registers commence from 1700 to 1750. And the rest (600 or 700) since the later date.

Thus it appears that out of about 10,000 parishes about 2,000 or one-fifth of the whole, have no registers prior to the year 1700, and of these 600 or 700 begin subsequently to 1750 ! Very few registers, moreover, are perfect from the date of their commencement ; gaps of ten, twenty, or thirty years not unfrequently occur (the books having been lost or the leaves torn out), and many entries have been obliterated either designedly or through neglect. In looking through the returns for country only (Devon), I find the following:

Belstone: "There are several registers, the earliest dated 1552, but so irregular and damaged that no correct account can be given; about twenty years ago some of the register-books were burnt."

Honeychurch: Register begins 1728. "No marriage entered."

Salcombe RegisL One old book of bap. Bur. Mar., but so torn and confused as to render it impossible to decide when the entries commence and terminate."

Clist St Lawrence: "The early entries are very defective, and some nearly illegible."

Stokenham: "There is also an old and almost illegible register supposed to belong either to Sherford or Chilverstone."

Aveton Giffard: "All the registers of bap. Ur. Prior to 1678 and mar. prior to 1754 have been accidentally burnt."

Cadbury: "The earlier registers (bap. Bur. Prior to 1762, mar. 1756) have been accidentally burnt."

Clayhidon: "The marriage register 1789-1802 was accidentally destroyed by fire in the glebe-house."

Dunkeswell: Register begins 1749. "One leaf appears to have been cut out."

Tamerton Foliott: Register begins 1794. "All previous registers were accidentally destroyed by fire."

Buckfastleigh: "Mar register 1754 - 1779, lost"

Darlington: "Register mar. bap. 1629-1653, bur. 1617-1652, lost."

Woodleigh: "The register anterior to 1663 was destroyed by fire AD 1662."

High Bickington: "The former registers (bap. Bur. Prior to 1707, mar 1754) are supposed to have been burnt."

Dowland: "Bur. Register lost."

Haccombe: "No register can be found prior to 1813."

Bickleigh: "From 1754 to 1812, no register can be found."

Stoke Damerell: "Mar. register 1719-1735, missing."

To show that there is nothing peculiar in the state of the Devonshire registers, I select a very few from the numerous similar entries under other counties:

Winifred Newburgh, Dorset: "The oldest registers are imperfect, indistinct, illegible and torn."

West Lulworth, Dorset: Register begins 1745; mar. deficient 1753-1780. "Old register destroyed by fire 1780."

Hampreston, Dorset: "No register anterior to 1813, the church having been destroyed."

Botus Fleming, Cornub.: "Certain leaves cut out for fradulent purposes."

Tresmere, Corn.L Register anterior to 1625 "appears to have been produced at Launceston Assizes, but now lost."

Brampton, Suffolk: "The early registers were lost in 1797, when the church was repaired".

Little Thornham, Suff.: "The earlier registers were burnt in a fire which consumed the parsonage-house of a neighbouring parish."

Shelland, Suffolk: "An early register is supposed to be in the possession of the patron, Charles Tyrell, Esq."

Chederton, Suff.: "Register supposed to be in the court at Norwich."

Huish Champflower, Northum [Umm ! this should read Somerset] "The early registers are mutilated and illegible, occasioned by a storm unroofing the church and wetting the contents of the parish chest."

Kirknewton, Northumb.L "The early registers were destroyed at the house of the parish clerk 1769."

Heeze ?, Middx: "Church broken open and books destroyed."

Pinner, Middx.: "The church was broken open about seven years ago and part of the registers destroyed."

Wroxham, Norf.: "Church broken open and part of registers destroyed."

Harlow, Essex: "The register was stolen."

Wix, Essex: "There are some earlier registers, but they are in the hands of a solicitor with reference to some legal proceedings."

Whenbury, Cheshire: "A Volume of registers, anterior to 1684, was sent to the House of Lords on the question of the Leigh Peerage."

Berwick, Suff: "A register of baptisms taken to Peasmarch by the former minister, which has never been recovered."

Althorp, Lincolnshire: There are two register books of earlier date, which were taken away by the archdeacon in 1824."

Otterford, Salop: "About 20 years ago the church warden, who was a shopkeeper, used some of the registers for waste-paper to enfold his goods."

Renhold, Bedfordshire: "Several leaves are very deficient, parts of the leaves being cut out from the year 1668 to 1685. They appear to have been cut out by children who have evidently been scribbling and drawing figures."

The incumbent of Chickerell, Dorset writes: "I have minutely examined the registers of this parish, and hope there are no others in the kingdom in which so little confidence should be placed. There are only two old books - one of parchment, the other of paper ; the former sadly mutilated and interpolated, the latter so defective that during my incumbency of one year many certificates have been requested to no purpose, for want of entries. The omissions, I suspect, may be attributed to carelessness; the abuses, to frauds which have been committed on the lord of the manor in favour of the copyholders; but to particularise all of them would be a very unprofitable work. No. 1 commences with six christenings in 1720, followed by one in 1715, one in 1718, two in 1717, one in 1714, one in 1718, and then none till 1724. . N.B. The father-in-law of my immediate predecessor had been the incumbent of Wyke Regis and Portland as well as of this parish previous to his resignation of this to his relative, which circumstance will account for my have been enabled to restore last week to the rector of Wyke the register of his parish containing the burials from Aug 1678 to April 1711.

Although many registers have been destroyed owing to causes over which their custodians had no control, and which were - and under the present system will continue to be - inevitable, yet it is also apparent that culpable negligence and indifference have had a large share in bringing about the present lamentable result. Instances of this have been already adduced in these pages. I will only add the following, taken from "Coventry on Evidence" (ed 1832), p. 49:-

"In a case just laid before the writer, it is stated that the parson's greyhound had made her nest in the chest containing the parish registers, and that, as the reverend gentleman had a greater affection for the progeny of his companion than the offspring of his parishioners, the requisite registers of baptisms etc. had become obliterated and partially destroyed."

It is somewhat surprising, when we consider the nature of the facts disclosed by the Returns in 1831, that the "Act for registering Births, Deaths and Marriages in England "(6 & 7 Will. IV, c. 86), passed Aug 17 1836, while providing an efficient system of civil registration for the future, should have made no provision for the safe custody of the old registers. The Act, however, was not passed without strong opposition, and the government may possibly have hesitated to provoke additional hostility by proposing to deprive the parochial clergy of the custody of the old registers, or the idea of collecting these registers into a central depository in London may not then have presented itself. Subsequently, when a similar system of civil registration was introduced into Scotland by the 17 & 18 Vict c. 60 "An Act to provide for the better Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Scotland." Passed Aug 7, 1854, care was taken to secure the future safe custody of the old parochial registers, which, by Sect. 18, were ordered to be transmitted to the Registrar-General for preservation in the General Registry Office at Edinburgh. On Sept 13, 1936, commissioners were appointed by letters patent "to inquire into the safe custody and authenticity of non-parochial registers," which had been kept by the various dissenting communities. In consequence of the report of the commissioners was passed "An Act to enable Courts of Justice to admit non-parochial Registers as evidence of Births, Baptisms, Deaths, or Burials and Marriages " (3 & 4 Vict. C. 92), under the provisions of which many thousand volumes of these registers were collected and deposited with the Registrar-General in London, by whose direction they have been properly arranged and indexed. A fresh commission was appointed in 1857 in order to make similar provisions which had not been sent to the Registrar-General under the former commission, and by their exertions nearly three hundred more volumes have been collected and deposited with the others.

The non-parochial registers have thus been carefully preserved from the chance of loss or mutilation for the future.

"We have personally inspected," say the commissioners of 1857, " the place of deposit in Somerset House, which the Registrar-General has provided for [them], . And find it to be admirably adapted for the purpose of preserving them, consisting of spacious fire-proof rooms well warmed with hot-water pipes."

The result is worthy of all praise ; but it has produced this anomaly. The descendant of a non-conformist, wishing to prove the birth or burial of his ancestor, has no difficulty now in doing so, while the descendant of a member of the Established Church, wishing to prove similar facts concerning his own ancestor, will certainly have greater difficulty, and not improbably may fail entirely in his object, through the want of proper provision for the custody of parish registers. This is manifestly unfair, not on any grounds of the difference in the religious beliefs of their respective ancestors, but for this reason - the birth or death of the one individual was registered at the time in the proper legal manner with a view to preserve a record of the event for the behoof of posterity, while in the other case the event was knowingly registered in such a manner as not to be legal evidence at the time, and consequently afforded no reasonable expectation that it would be evidence thereafter. Yet the latter registration is now in a more favourable position than the former.

In considering what ought to be done under existing circumstances, we must remember that it has not been from any lack of regulations by the authorities that the present deplorable state of affairs has been brought about. With the exception of Queen Mary, James II, and George I, the reign of every sovereign from Henry VIII, inclusive, down to the present time has been signalised by some injunction, canon, ordinance, or act of parliament, providing with the most minute carefulness for the authenticity and safe custody of these important documents. Comparing these regulations with the result disclosed by the Returns in 1831, and with the knowledge obtained from other quarters of the state of the registers, I think the inference is irresistible that so long as they continue in the hands of their present custodians, their preservation can only be a question of degree, and cannot possibly be rendered certain. Scattered all over the kingdom in 10,000 different depositories under the care - or want of care - of as many different keepers, they are at all times liable to be mislaid, lost, burnt, mutilated, or falsified; and periodically, on the death of each incumbent (when a kind of interregnum ensues until the advent of his successor), they are peculiarly subject to danger. Cases of erasure and interpolation are of frequent occurrence, and often cause the defeat of justice. In Hubback on Evidence (ed. 1844, p. 486) we are told:

"Some of the registers produced in support of the claim to the barony of Chandos presented very suspicious appearances. In the register of St Michael's Harbledown ?, a large blot appeared upon the entry of the baptism of the second son of John Bridges and Maria his wife in 1606, but enough was left to show it had been Edward the son of John. The case of the claimant turned upon this Edward. There appeared to be recent mutilations of the registers, and interpolations were suspected to have been made in the archbishop's duplicates."

The same author refers to a case recently tried in the Court of Common Please between parties of the name of Oldham, in which it appeared that in the "register sent to the bishop's registry two persons were stated to have been married on a particular day, but in the parish register there appeared to have been an erasure in the exact place corresponding with the entry of the marriage in the copy."

Again, very many clergymen allow the registers to remain in the custody of the parish clerks. The difficulties which may ensue from this practice are shown in the case of Doe d. Arundell v. Fowler (19 Law.. J. Rep. N.S.B.Q.):

"A witness on the trial stated that he went to K. for the purpose of comparing a certificate of burial with the parish register, and was directed to the clerk's house, and there saw a person who said he was parish clerk, and who produced to him a book containing entries of burials with which he compared the certificate: Held that as stat. 52, Geo. III c. 150, directs the parish registers to be kept by the clergyman, and as no explanation was give of the book being in the possession of the clerk, it had not been produced from the proper custody, and the the evidence was inadmissible."

If the parochial registers were all collected and deposited in London in a fire-proof building (either with the Registrar General at Somerset House or at the Public Record Office) two benefits would result which I think it is quite clear cannot be obtained under the present system, and various incidental advantages would also accrue:

  1. The registers would be preserved from future destruction, with as much certainty as human affairs are capable of;
  2. Erasures and interpolations would become next to impossible

The incidental advantages are - the registers would never get out of the hands of the legal custodians: they would more easily and with less danger to themselves be producible in courts of justice. A general alphabetical index could be made (on the same plan as that now in use at the Registrar General's of all births, deaths and marriages since July, 1, 1836, (sic) and of the non-parochial registers), and the facility of reference thus afforded would be an inestimable boon to all.

It would be requisite that a commissioner or commissioners should be appointed for each diocese (or whatever other territorial division might be adopted) personally to receive the registers from the respective incumbents, both for the purpose of seeing that no registers were inadvertently left behind and to prevent loss in transmission. In my former communications to inquire into the state of parish registers and the feasibility of the plan proposed for their preservation, but this I now think would be unnecessary. The evidence disclosed in the Returns of 1831, and the fact that the same plan has already been carried ou in Scotland and that non-parochial registers have been similarly treated in England, afford sufficient grounds for immediate legislation.

It is scarcely necessary to speak of the importance of parish registers; but I may remark that, while their preservation affects not any one class of citizens only, but the whole mass, rich and poor, aristocracy and commonality alike, it is a matter of special interest to the poor man, constituting, as these registers do, almost the only record of his existence. In moving fro leave to introduce the Bill, which afterwards became the Act 17 & 18 Vict. C 80 above referred to, Lord Elcho very truly said:

"While the rich had their title-deed, their parchments, and their sculptured monuments, there was literally no record of the poor man's birth or death except the parish registers, which might not inaptly be called the Charter of the Poor Man." - Hansard, cxxxii, p 578.

He added:

"Those persons who might not have had their attention particularly directed to this subject could form but little idea of the enormous sums which were annually dependent, and the succession to which entirely depended upon the accuracy of the parish registers. He had lately been in communication with a gentleman who was for some years rector of Sandon, in the county of Stafford, and who stated that during his period of incumbency, extending only over 15 years, sums exceeding 40,000 (the parish containing only about 600 inhabitants) were dependent upon the accuracy of the parish registers, and many persons who had succeeded to these large sums of money were persons in the humblest sphere of life."

In the Oldham case before referred to, the possession of a fortune of 100,000 depended on the genuineness of a parish register. To the statistician these registers afford much valuable information as to the numbers and longevity of the people of past ages ; and a large mass of memoranda on public and local affairs jotted down at the time by parochial incumbents, presents a mine of original facts for the historian, topographer, and biographer, which has been as yet but very slightly worked.

In conclusion, I would remark that the plan proposed would probably be self paying to a great extent. If we only reckon five shillings annually as the amount received in search-fees by each parochial incumbent, we get an annual income of 2,500 to pay for the proper custody of the registers in London. But the increased facility of reference would undoubtedly largely increase the number of searchers, and at the same time the annual income. I think an effort should now be made to obtain some legislation on the subject without further delay. Many difficulties beset the successful prosecution of such an object by an individual, but if a few persons were energetically to co-operate in pressing the matter upon the attention of the government and the public, I feel somewhat sanguine of a satisfactory result.
T.P. TASWELL-LANMEAD
2 Tanfield Court, Temple

Source: Notes and Queries Vol. 1 4th S. (9) Feb 29 1868 Pages 197-200

The following paragraph copied from the appeal issued last year by the churchwardens of Spitalfields for contributions in aid of the voluntary church-rate in that parish, is an account of the danger to which the registers of that parish were for a long series of years subjected, I must be explained that the register-chest referred to was probably put up during the erection of the church, and was entirely covered with oak framing corresponding with the oak partitioning in the building. It stood in such a position what when opened its contents could not be seen and advantage was taken of the restoration of the church to move it so that the darkness might be enlightened and the result as stated below:

"By one of the canons governing ecclesiastical affairs the churchwardens are bound to provide an iron chest in which to preserve the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, and until last summer it was on all hands believed that Spitalfields church was supplied with a chest of proper character. During the recent restoration it was discovered that the supposed iron register chest was a large stone box with iron doors, and if it had ever been subjected to the action of fire there is no doubt that the extremely valuable and interesting registers of this parish from its creation in 1728 would have inevitably been destroyed. The erection of a fire-proof repository for these important documents has occasioned the unavoidable expenditure of above 70."

The box was of York stone grooved together, and fitted in cement. The doors were of solid iron an inch and a quarter in thickness. SUMMERSET J. HYAM

Notes and Queries Vol. 1 4th S. (9) Feb 29 1868 Page 200

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