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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
There are five series of records at the PRO which do, or may, contain Nonconformist records. Most have been microfilmed by the GSU.

Series RG 4 contains:

4,680 volumes of Nonconformist registers authenticated during 1837 and 1858 as a result of the Commission’s work. Most of the deposited registers were Methodist and date from 1780 or later. Of the other denominations the greater number date from after 1750. For film numbers consult FHLC under geographical location. The majority of the births or baptisms are on the IGI, and individual checks of the extraction status of any film can be made in the usual way. The burials almost always start at a later date than the baptisms, and often much later.

  • Indexes to registers of Dr. Williams’ Library. These, together with the RG5 registrations comprise 11 films starting at 1,482,452.
  • Indexes to the registers of the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry. These, together with the RG5 registrations comprise 25 films starting at 0,596,987.
  • Bunhill Fields [Nonconformist] Burial Ground registers 1713-1854. On 13 films starting at 0,595,439.

Series RG 5 comprises the original certificates from Dr.Williams' Library and the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry. Most of these are on the 2nd </sup

Series RG 6 contains Quaker registers. For film numbers consult FHLC under geographical location. They are not on the IGI.

Series RG 7 comprises Anglican registers not relating to parishes, for example:

  • Ÿ Fleet Marriage Registers 1680-1754 which are clandestine or irregular ones involving anyone who did not wish to abide by Anglican rules for whatever reason, including Nonconformity. Only a few of these seem to be microfilmed so far.
  • Greenwich Hospital Registers 1705-1864 which contain mainly deaths, and are of all religions. On films 0,596,909-911; 0,917,002; 0,288,432-433.

Series RG 8 contains:

  • 314 volumes of Non-Anglican registers that were handed in too late for authentication, or refused authentication, in the mid-19th century, but are otherwise similar. For film numbers consult FHLC under geographical location.
  • Birth & Baptism registers of the Lying-In Hospital, Endell Street, Holborn, London (all denominations). Indexed on printout 6903920(6), registers on 0,916,632-633 and 0,917,447.
  • Victoria Park [non-denominational] Cemetery burial registers 1853-1876. On seven films starting at 0,917,005.

It is wise to remember that the registers deposited at the PRO were catalogued under the name of the congregation that handed them in. Congregations, buildings and ministers had frequently changed their affiliations, and the handiest register book was the one already in use. An example might be a register started by the Calvinist Methodists, continued by the Wesleyans and later by the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, by whom it was surrendered and under which it is listed. Some background reading on the history of that particular chapel and ministers would not come amiss.

Many Nonconformists chose to make a transcript before depositing their records, and the wise researcher checks whether this was the one retained by the congregation or the one now at the PRO, as errors can always occur upon transcription. Congregations whose early church books contained all church business interspersed with birth, marriage and death entries as they happened were understandably reluctant to part with them, and were likely to have made transcripts of just these entries for deposit. Another factor to consider is that of authenticity, recognizable by a sequential run of dates and different handwriting. Transcripts can be recognized by a higgledy-piggledy date sequence, or by a long run of identical handwriting indicative of compilation at one sitting, and/or the register being with the ‘rejected’ ones in RG8. Those congregations which had not been keeping records, or only sporadic ones, often collected data from memory or whatever other sources they could in order to be able to deposit a record with the Registrar General. The accuracy of these registers leave much to be desired. The non-parochial registers noted above are the only archives of individual congregations held at the PRO. During the 20th century individual chapels have been encouraged to deposit any historical records in their local record office or archives and naturally much of this material has already been filmed. In addition, Family History Societies have transcribed and published further Non-Anglican records. If the records you need are not available through a FamilySearch Centre then enquiries should always be made first to local archives, and then to thePRO for any deposits not yet filmed.

Ecclesiastical Census 1851 Since there was vigorous opposition in the English House of Lords to an individual census of religious beliefs as had been carried out in Ireland in 1834, a compromise resulted in a census of places of worship. Three types of forms were designed respectively for Anglicans, Quakers, and Others and the main kinds of information requested were:

  • Amount of accommodation that was appropriated and that which was free.
  • Attendance at each service on 30th March, either actual numbers or estimated average.
  • Number of Sunday scholars.
  • Date of consecration or erection of building and its financing, and whether it was used solely as a place of worship.

Not all ministers co-operated, particularly Catholics, and perhaps 7% of the smaller chapels were missed. The original returns mostly survive at the PRO in HO 129, and returns for a number of counties have been published. Repeated proposals, followed by repeated protests, did not enable any subsequent religious surveys to be conducted thus the 1851 is unique.

The results showed that when numbers had been adjusted for legitimate absentees (small children, sick, and elderly) less than 58% of the population attended a place of worship. From a 21st century perspective this is impressive but it was appalling to mid-19th century churchmen. The lowest attendance was amongst the urban working classes.

The denominational shares caused much concern amongst Anglicans, for whilst the Catholics comprised only 4% of all churchgoers, the Nonconformists were equal to the Established Church at 47% each. Vickers notes that ‘all denominations redoubled their efforts to convert, or at the very least recruit, the pagans in their midst’.

However there is little evidence to suggest that the trend towards dissension was reversed. By 1851, in a population where 40% were apathetic, 27% were Nonconformist. Further details on the interpretation of this census can be found in Vickers (The 1851 Religious Census. No 45 in MUNBY, Lionel. l Short Guides to Records. Historical Association. Film 0,990,062) and Shorney (Protestant Nonconformity and Roman Catholicism. A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office. PRO Publications).

Universities Test Act 1871

Prior to 1871 there were only four universities in England & Wales: the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as "Oxbridge") with their ancient stone buildings, and the newer "redbrick" universities of London (founded 1826) and Durham (founded 1832). Only London was a secular establishment, admitting students regardless of religion and gender; the others required subscription to the 39 Articles etc., effectively disbarring Non-Anglicans. The Universities Tests Act 1871 abolished the religious requirement for all universities thus opening up higher education and the professions to those of any or no faith. There was a proliferation of new redbrick university foundations after 1871.

The Victorians remained deeply religious, although this was expressed in a multitude of denominations, many of which responded with huge building programmes, especially in the burgeoning cities. The Anglican system of parishes still reflected the population distribution in the Middle Ages; they had a huge number of ancient buildings to maintain and had not kept up with the immense growth of the towns and cities.

Nonconformists, however, were able to capitalize on this situation by building their chapels in the areas where they were most needed and this explains much of their success, since many of the poorer, uneducated classes did not mind which church they went to as long as it was respectable and close by.

During the 19th century the major Non-Anglican groups were Baptists, Congregationalists, Catholics and Methodists, with smaller groups of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Presbyterians and Quakers. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that changing social patterns and scientific doubt made inroads into church and chapel attendance.

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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.