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When George Silvertop of Minster Acres, Northumberland, married Mrs Pearson in 1785 it was her third marriage and each of her husbands had been twice her age. At 16 she married a man of 32; at 30, one of 60; and at 42, a gentleman of 84. Those three husbands were a Quaker, an Anglican and a Roman Catholic.
So what? It has always been like that. In each group only a tiny minority of families has, over the generations, remained firmly attached to any particular belief and married solely within it.
Rejecting State Religion
Following the Reformation the Anglican Church (or Church of England) developed as the official church in England and Wales. The Elizabethan Settlement set out its beliefs in the Book of Common Prayer in 1559. As the state religion, its registers of baptism, marriage and burial kept in the parish churches had official recognition, something denied to the registers of any other congregation until 1837, excepting only the marriage registers of the Quakers and Jews which were recognised from 1754 onwards.
In the first decades of the 17th century, although the early Puritans thought that the Elizabethan Settlement had not gone far enough they did not separate from the Church of England, agitating for reform from within, and only later developing into Presbyterians. However, a few Separatist dissenters (dissenting from the national Church) began to meet independently. They were the spiritual forebears of Independents (like Oliver Cromwell), later to call themselves Congregationalists. With the Baptists, who practised believers’ (adult) baptism, the Independents and Presbyterians formed ‘The Three Denominations’, the distinctions between them being fluid. They had a general disinclination to create records. Quakerism, arising in the late 1640s, spread over the south of England after 1654. It rejected Anglican priests and baptism, held its own meetings, and carefully recorded its adherents’ births, marriages and deaths.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the 1662 Act of Uniformity enforced a revised Anglican Prayer Book and dissenters suffered much persecution. Registers were rarely kept until, following the 1688 Revolution, the 1689 Toleration Act gave freedom of assembly and worship to all except Roman Catholics, though the Test Act of 1673 (which obliged all holders of public office, civil and military, to receive the sacrament according to the forms of the Church of England and to take the oath against transubstantiation) kept them all out of public life. However, most marriages continued to take place in the parish church and burials in the churchyard, with only baptism taking place at home or the occasional chapel. Many meetings were held in licensed houses and when chapels were built only a few were endowed with burial grounds.
The dissenting groups generally declined in the first half of the 18th century but it has been said that the 1662 Act permanently divided the nation into Conformists and Nonconformists. With the evangelical movement in the later 18th century and the great growth of Methodism, the Congregationalist and Baptists also revived. From four per cent of the population in 1676, the Nonconformists formed almost half the church and chapel-going population in 1851.
Concerns about the registration of their births led the three denominations to support the voluntary registry formed at Dr Williams’ Library in 1742 (described below). A few years later, in 1747, a General Registry of Births for people not baptised in the Church of England was established at the College of Arms and recorded events mostly relating to prosperous Jews, Moravians and Roman Catholics, ranging in date from 1734 to 1793. The entries are listed in the National Index of Parish Registers volume 3 (1974) pages 981-8, and the registers remain at the College. In 1818 the Methodists started a similar registration of their own in London (also described below).
Authentication of Registers
With the increase in Nonconformity, particularly in the second quarter of the 19th century, the Anglican parish registers became steadily less complete. They were no longer effective as a national record or as a source of vital statistics. The many Nonconformist registers had no validity in law and could not technically be used as evidence of the events they recorded, though they were occasionally so used. In 1833 a Select Committee of the House of Commons recommended that a system of civil registration be introduced at a ‘General National Office’ and this led to the creation of the General Register Office and the centralised civil registration (in theory) of all births marriages and deaths for England and Wales in 1837.
After 1837 the certificates produced by the General Register Office were admissible as legal evidence and steps were then taken to see whether the pre-1837 registers of the Nonconformist bodies could not be ‘authenticated’ and approved for the same purpose. Great numbers of registers were voluntarily surrendered and examined by the Commission to see whether they were ‘sufficiently accurate and reliable to justify their being received as evidence in courts of law’.
Non-Parochial Registers Acts 1840 and 1857
Registers which were not those of a Church of England parish were called ‘non-parochial’ and by the Non-Parochial Registers Act 1840 the registers that had been received were deposited with the Registrar General and divided into ‘authenticated’ and ‘unauthenticated’ registers. From the former the Registrar General was empowered to issue certificates, but not from the latter. A further batch of registers, voluntarily surrendered in 1857, was treated in the same way in 1858. No Jewish registers were received and only a very few from Roman Catholic congregations, mostly in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire.
Inaccurate lists of the surrendered registers were printed (the consolidated list of 1859 is the best) and the registers were made available to the public in the library on the first floor at Somerset House. You had to be escorted there by a porter and pay a shilling, the fee fixed in 1840, for each register seen. They were little used and almost forgotten, but after some agitation in 1961 they were transferred to The National Archives. In the 1980s the two series were examined and detailed catalogues produced.
The registers surrendered in 1840 are in class RG4. Continuations received in 1857 were added to this class but the bulk was kept separately in class RG8 to which registers received at later dates have also been added. There are thus two lists of registers (RG4 and RG8) and both must always be checked. Quaker registers were kept separate and form Class RG6.
As many people went some distance to attend the chapel of their choice, an ‘Index of Places’ in the RG4 series was compiled at The National Archives which lists many of the hamlets and farms mentioned in the registers but this is said not to be complete. There is also a computerised list of the chapels in RG4 arranged by denomination which quickly shows what is available, for example, on the Catholics. Also at The National Archives are typescript copies of all the registers in RG4 for Surrey and Sussex, for Middlesex outside London, and for Devon parishes A-D, and a number of other individual transcripts arranged by county. The fact that they have been copied is not, however, mentioned in the Class Lists.
The registers vary greatly in the amount of information they provide. Some were not authenticated because they were not contemporary with the events recorded; some had even been put together in 1840 solely in order to get the entries authenticated by the Acts of Parliament. All should be searched over wide periods and the burial registers should not be neglected. One burial register in London even shows places of birth; the Quaker burial registers contain some people who were not Quakers.
Hospitals and Cemeteries
Most of the registers in RG8 came from Nonconformist chapels but the series also includes baptismal registers from the British Lying-In Hospital, Endell Street, London, 1749-1868, and from the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, 1720-1855, as well as a number of registers of burial grounds and cemeteries, including Bunhill Fields (the chief Nonconformist burial place for the Metropolitan area), 1713-1854 (partly in RG4); Victoria Park Cemetery, Hackney, 1853-76 (popular with people in the East End of London); the New Burial Ground, Southwark, 1821-54; and the Gibraltar Row Dissenters Burial Ground, Bethnal Green, 1793-1837 (there is an alphabetical transcript of the latter in three volumes on the shelves at The National Archives).
Also surrendered in 1840 were the registers of the majority of the foreign churches in England. Protestant refugees coming into England had always had a certain amount of toleration and, usually until they were absorbed into the wider Protestant community, kept their own registers. They are listed at the front of the RG4 Class List and include the many registers of the Huguenot congregations (the earliest being that of the Walloons at Southampton from 1567), of the German Lutherans (from 1699), the Dutch (from 1689) and the Swiss (from 1762) as well as of the Scottish churches in London (from 1741). There is a typescript indexed copy of the registers of the German church at The National Archives. To the RG8 series has been added the archives of the Russian Orthodox Church in London, 1721-1927, mostly in Russian and including passport applications, 1835-1927.
The unauthenticated registers from which certificate could not be produced, were placed in Class RG7 at The National Archives and include those of the many clandestine marriages, usually without banns or licence, that took place prior to 1754 in the Mayfair Chapel, the King’s Bench Prison in the Mint, Southwark, and most importantly in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison 1680-1754, which had all been in the Bishop of London’s registry since 1821. Modern extracts of Fleet marriages relating to people from Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, with complete copies of some of the registers by Mark Herber, are on the shelves of The National Archives.
Copies and Indexes
There are microfilms of the registers at The National Archives, although the quality of some is poor, and many county record offices have microfilms of the registers relating to their counties. Most textbooks state that all the baptismal entries in Class RG4 are indexed in the International Genealogical Index (now FamilySearch), but some complete registers were omitted and others were not fully covered. In the circumstances it may be best to search the appropriate registers and not to rely on FamilySearch. However, the new consolidated index created by http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$) indexes all the registers in classes RG4-8.
Ecclesiastical Census 1851
At the time of the 1851 Census a survey was made of the accommodation and attendance at every church and chapel in England and Wales. This ‘Ecclesiastical Census 1851’ provides a useful listing of the local chapels and the relative size of their congregations and is at The National Archives (in HO 129). It has been printed for a number of counties, including Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Sussex and Wales.
Registration of Chapels
Under the Toleration Act 1689 the meeting places of Protestant dissenters had to be registered either with the Clerk of the Peace of the county (in Quarter Sessions) or with the appropriate Bishop or Archdeacon, and this requirement was extended to Roman Catholics by an Act in 1791.
In 1852 this registration of places of religious worship was taken over by the Registrar General and details of all the earlier registrations were collected together on printed forms which are now at The National Archives (in RG31). Those without easy access to Kew will find that the descriptions of parishes in most of the older county directories include details of the main chapels. Those founded before 1831 appear in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England (1831) and Wales (1833).
Although the majority of registers were surrendered, nothing was done to safeguard those registers which remained in the chapels or those created after 1857. Some have since been deposited in county record offices but others remain in the chapels themselves. Apart from post-1898 marriage registers, these registers have a doubtful legal status. There is no provision in law for their preservation (an Act of 1864 required chapels to keep burial registers and send copies to the diocesan registry but that seems very rarely to have been done) and there is no right of access to them. As a result there has been little inducement to good record keeping and, with the closure of chapels, it is often difficult to know whether registers were kept or whether they have disappeared.
The county sections of the National Index of Parish Registers include listings of the Nonconformist chapels in each county, their dates of foundation and details of surviving registers and copies. The My ancestors were … volumes mentioned below have lists of the surviving registers for each denomination. It may be best to check both lists. There are copies at The National Archives together with lists of the Nonconformist registers to be found at the London Metropolitan Archives (1991), the Westminster Archives (1986) and at the record offices for Bristol, Cleveland, Devon, Essex, Humberside and Sussex.
Register books of births, marriages and burials (usually with the date of death) began to be kept at Quaker (Society of Friends) monthly meetings in the late 1650s, but include some retrospective births dating back to 1578. The monthly meetings reported these events to the county-based quarterly meetings, the registers of which are usually indexed by name. When these registers were surrendered in 1840 and 1857, digests of the entries were made in chronological order and retained by the Society of Friends. These digests are now at Friends House Library, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ (where post-1857 digests are also available). The digests have been filmed and are available in some major libraries including the Society of Genealogists. The monthly and quarterly meeting register books are at The National Archives where microfilm copies are available (RG 7). The birth and marriage entries are included in the database http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$). The registers and other surviving records are described in E.H. Milligan and M.J. Thomas, My ancestors were Quakers (London: Society of Genealogists, 1999).
The Three Denominations and Dr Williams’ Library
As mentioned above, the dissenters long felt that some more centralised and regular form of registration of the births of their children was needed and in 1742 a registry was started in London at the library founded under the will of the Presbyterian Dr Daniel Williams (1644-1716) in Red Cross Street, Cripplegate, births being registered on receipt of declarations made by witnesses and a fee of 6d (later increased to 1s). The registers include most but not all the information in the declarations. Although originally limited to births within twelve miles of London, the register includes entries from all the British Isles as well as some from overseas and at sea. After 1769 the number of entries greatly increased and the register was much used by all three denominations, particularly by those for whom no provision was made elsewhere. Retrospective entries are frequent: some date back to 1713. In the final year, 1837, large numbers were recorded, some going back forty years.
The declarations and registers from ‘Dr. Williams' Library’ were authenticated in 1840 and are now in The National Archives, the indexes and registers in RG4, the certificates in RG5. There are photocopies of the indexes in eleven tall thin volumes on the shelves (labelled RG4/4666-4676). The 48,975 entries are indexed into http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$) and many will be found in the IGI (now FamilySearch).
Most known registers of the older dissenting bodies are listed in Alan Ruston, My ancestors were English Presbyterians or Unitarian (Society of Genealogists, 2001) and David J.H. Clifford, My ancestors were Congregationalists (Society of Genealogists, 1997). Geoffrey R. Breed’s My ancestors were Baptists (Society of Genealogists, 1995) lists only the surrendered registers and the copies at the Society of Genealogists, together with those deposited at the Gospel Standard Baptist Library at Hove and at the Strict Baptist Historical Society’s Library at Dunstable. Other registers held by other Baptist bodies and deposited locally are not included.
In 1818 a central Wesleyan Metropolitan Registry was established near St Paul’s Cathedral in Paternoster Row and recorded 10,291 baptisms from all over the country as well as a few from abroad, with retrospective entries dating back to 1773. The very full registration includes both parents of the mother in each case. The registry closed and the registers were surrendered in 1840. They are now at The National Archives (split between RG4 and RG5) and the entries are fully indexed in http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$).
The lists of registers in William Leary, My ancestors were Methodists (Society of Genealogists, 1999), cover only the surrendered registers (which with only a few exceptions commence in the 1790s and practically all cease in 1837) and the copies at the Society of Genealogists. No registers are deposited at the Methodist Connexional Archives and the book makes no attempt to survey locally deposited registers.
The surrendered Roman Catholic registers for the northeast of England at The National Archives are apparently indexed in the IGI (now FamilySearch) and are certainly indexed in http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk (£/$). The great majority of registers were not, however, deposited and those which survive locally and in other repositories are listed in Michael J. Gandy, Catholic Missions and Registers 1700-1880 (6 parts; London, 1993).
For background information about the development of all the groups see the introductory volumes of the National Index of Parish Registers: for the Nonconformists, volume 2 (1973), and for the Roman Catholics and Jews, volume 3 (1974).
This article has been adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; http://www.family-tree.co.uk) from Anthony Camp’s article, ‘The history and value of genealogical records: non-parochial registers’ in Practical Family History, no 54 (June 2002) pages 22-24.
- ↑ 'Boyd's Marriage Index - Parish details by county,' Origins.net (WayBack Machine), accessed 27 March 2012.