Category Archives: Baptisms

Don’t Let Parish Register Indexes and Online Searches Lead You Down the Family History Garden Path

It’s so easy to rely on online parish register searches or transcripts and indexes for family history. But by putting absolute faith in them you could be missing out on so much more. Hopefully this post illustrate why you should also invest time in looking at the register itself, or digitised images, and not simply place all your faith in the easier options.

Family History Society transcripts and indexes include the health warning to check against the original register, and it is sound advice. Even if they are accurate, information in the original register may by omitted due to space constraints or because they do not neatly fit in the templates. The same caveats also apply to search results from online providers of family history records.

I finally decided to write about the issue after recently going through baptisms in the Wakefield All Saints register for the 1750s and 1760s and comparing against online search results.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Here are some of the problems associated with not looking at the original registers, and benefits which may be gained from putting in the effort.

  • Registers can be damaged making entries illegible. It may be just for the odd entry, but it could involve weeks, months or even years. There may be periods where the register does not survive, or was never kept. Whole pages may have been omitted during the digitisation process. This may be the reason why the entry you are seeking does not come up in a search or appear in an index, or why if it does there may be transcription errors. Without checking the actual register, or images, you may never know. And by not knowing you may end up with incorrect family history information or be missing out on work rounds like failing to check Bishop’s Transcripts (BT) copies.
  • If you are relying on searches and indexes to find an entry, do not confine your to check the digitised or original parish register image for the entry concerned. Look at the surrounding ones too to get a feel for the register. These checks should include ensuring the parish or church matches against the one identified on the finding aid. This can be a particular issue if a parish church has associated chapelries. Birstall Parish for example had a Chapel of Ease, White Chapel, which had baptism and, eventually, burial rights. This subtle difference is not necessarily picked up if the register itself is not checked.
  • Mistakes in transcribing and indexing. Recently I’ve seen the surname “Wright” mistakenly indexed as “Might“. Doing an online search for the surname, including any of the usual variants just won’t find it.
  • Similarly Christian names can be totally wrong – James instead of Sam[ue]l is one that springs to mind in one of my family baptism searches. Without checking the register I would be led down the garden path for any future references to the child.
  • On this theme, parish register amendments are not necessarily picked up in any searches. Two examples here. An 1816 baptism at Whitkirk. Ancestry has this indexed in searches as “William Illegitimate Pennington” son of Grace. This is wrong. The child was not illegitimate and the entry should be William Hill. There is a note at the bottom of the page of the baptism register stating it is erroneous and Grace was lawfully married to Francis Hill. Ancestry have not picked this up. And there is a similar theme for Wakefield All Saints when William son of William Jennings was baptised on 8 November 1764. The register has an annotation indicating three competent witnesses testified the child was actually called Thomas. Granted a search for Thomas Jennings on Ancestry.co.uk will fetch “William Jennings” in the results, but you need to drill down to find out the full details.
  • The Wakefield All Saints register which promoted this search had several entries in the early 1760s for the birth of illegitimate children with the register noting the name of the father. Some indicate the child was “basely begot not declaring the father.” Others indicate the father in general terms like “a French Man” or “a French prisoner” (and those entries lead to a whole new set of questions). But others will name the putative father, including some with occupations (plenty soldiers) and some even giving his abode. The father is not shown in online searches, you need to view the entry. And if your ancestor was the father you possibly would not know without going through the register.
  • Burials throw up the issue whereby some online searches give no surname for married women and children. Try Ancestry’s collection of West Yorkshire Church of England Burial Registers 1813-1985. In the early decades of this collection this surname omission is rife. Imagine the problem if your ancestor was an Ann, Mary or Elizabeth!
  • Problems with dates. There are numerous examples of this. The wrong number for the day, month, or even the wrong year given. A particular issue is around the pre and post 1752 calendar change from Julian to Gregorian. Many parishes continued with the old style calendar way beyond 1752 in their registers, with the New Year still starting on 25 March. Without checking the parish register you may end up attributing a birth to the wrong year.
  • Going through the registers yourself improves your transcription skills. You start to get your eye in for reading older documents, which only benefits your wider family history research.
  • And finally by going through the register you start to get a feel for the community of your ancestors, the status of various parishioners, occupations in the locality, indications of disease outbreaks, maybe even weather updates and wider events. The Wakefield register is a perfect example of the snippets you can pick up. Between 1760 and 1764, using baptisms alone, there’s an abandoned child, the three children born to different women by a French man/French prisoner. On 13 August 1763 there is the baptism of Richard Brown, a black man from Carolina. And on 4 October 1764 “John Vernon a Black from Antiga [sic] ab[ou]t 22 y[ea]rs old.

Published indexes and online family history database providers are fabulous finding aids and have opened up family history to a much wider audience. But they should be treated as that – finding aids. Using different sources may help overcome the issue. For example a Family History Society booklet may give different information to an Ancestry, FamilySearch or FindMyPast search, some of which may use the BT rather than the parish register. And that is another issue. What is the source used by the online provider or Family History Society? Is it the parish register or is it a BT? It might seem a minor detail, but this too can impact on search results.

So if at all possible check the original register, or digitised images, for yourself. It may surprise you – and could save you a lot of time in the long run.

Triplets and Two Sets of Twins – Combining Newspapers and Parish Registers

In 1834 Susan Gibson (née Rylah) made the news across England. The Leeds Times of 20 October 1834 typified reporting when it wrote:

RARE NEWS FOR MALTHUS!! – A woman named Susan Gibson, of Earlsheaton, was brought to bed of three children on Wednesday last, who with mother are all doing well – she has born twins twice before.

The children, Joseph, Rachel and Leah, arrived in the world on 17 September 1834. Their father was clothier Thomas Gibson. Soothill was the family abode given in the parish register, though Susan (sometimes referred to as Susy or Susannah) was born in Earlsheaton and the family did eventually move there.

The infant newsmakers were baptised at All Saints Dewsbury Parish Church on 12 October 1834, along with December 1831-born sister, Elizabeth. This was the same church in which their parents married on 22 July 1821.

‘Triplets, shown in the uterus: illustration showing the position of the foetuses in a plural position. Colour lithograph, 1850/1910?’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The headline’s Malthus referred to the influential, but controversial, English economist Thomas Malthus. His population growth theories centred round the argument that increases in population would diminish the ability of the world to feed itself and there would be insufficient land for crops. Citing Malthus was a recurring theme in reporting unusual birth stories during this period.

Interestingly, at the same time as the press reported the birth of the Gibson trio, they were also reporting the birth of Bridlington’s Thompson triplets. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the sons of Bridlington Quay stone mason Robert Thompson and his wife Ann. They were described as being ‘all well and likely to live’. The Bridlington St Mary (Priory) parish register recorded the baptism of Robert Thompson’s ‘thrine sons‘ on 22 September 1834, all under the same entry (No 649) in the baptism register, rather than under their own individual entries.

Neither set of triplets added to the population pressure though. Despite the hopeful press outlook at the time of their birth they all failed to thrive. The Thompson trio lingered longest. Jacob was buried on 16 November 1834; Abraham 22 January 1835; and finally Isaac on 17 March 1835.

The demise of the Gibson babies was far swifter. Less than three weeks after their baptism all were dead. A 12-day period in late October/early November 1834 saw a series of Gibson funerals at the parish church. Rachael (as her name was recorded in the burial register) was buried first, on 26 October. Before the month was out Leah died too, her burial taking place on 31 October. The final triplet, Joseph, was interred on 6 November.

As it is pre-July 1837, there is no civil registration. We’re relying on parish registers, and it is not possible from these entries to identify the earlier sets of twins born to Susan. Birth dates are an exception in the baptism register. It’s usually just a baptism date which is given. And, as indicated when the triplets were baptised alongside their almost three-year-old sister, the family were not always prompt in initiating their offspring into the church. It appears some of the Gibson children died before baptism. But burials are inconclusive too. These give father’s name – but there are three clothiers named Thomas Gibson in the Soothill area to muddy the burial entries. And some of the entries simply indicate S.B.C. (abbreviation for stillborn child) or an unbaptized [sic] child with the name of a parent (father, unless illegitimate). So without the newspaper reports we may never have known about Susan’s tendency towards multiple births.

The census provides no clues. In 1841 the family lived at Town Green, Soothill and in addition to Thomas and Susan the household includes Sarah (20), Martha (15), Elizabeth (9), Jane (5), William (3) and Ann (1) – but bear in mind the age of those over 15 was supposed to be rounded down to the nearest multiple of five, and relationship details are absent in this census. However it is clear there are no common ages.

Similarly the 1851 census has no indication of multiple births either. In terms of the couple’s children, Jane (15), William (incorrectly entered as 18 – he was born in 1837) and Ellen (9) are recorded. However, it appears from the GRO Birth Indexes that Ellen was a twin too. Her birth is registered in the same quarter at Dewsbury as an Eliza Gibson, mother’s maiden name Rylah.

Eliza Gibson’s burial is recorded on 21 February 1842 at Dewsbury All Saints, father Thomas.

And Susan Gibson comes nowhere near earning the accolade of most prolific mother ever. That dubious honour goes to the wife of a Russian peasant, as detailed by Guinness World Records:

The greatest officially recorded number of children born to one mother is 69, to the wife of Feodor Vassilyev (b. 1707–c.1782), a peasant from Shuya, Russia. In 27 confinements she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets

Sources:

  • Leeds Times. 20 October 1834 via FindMyPast
  • John Bull. 13 October 1834 via FindMyPast
  • Dewsbury All Saints Baptism Register. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP9/11, via Ancestry.co.uk
  • Dewsbury All Saints Burial Register. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP9/50, via Ancestry.co.uk
  • Ibid, Reference WDP9/51
  • Dewsbury All Saints Marriage Register. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP9/21, via Ancestry.co.uk
  • Bridlington St Mary (Priory), Parish Register of Baptisms 1830-1847. East Riding Archives and Local Studies Service, Reference PE153/11
  • Bridlington St Mary (Priory), Parish Register of Baptisms 1813-1838. East Riding Archives and Local Studies Service, Reference PE153/38
  • 1841 Census. TNA, Reference HO107/1268/14/7/7, via Ancestry.co.uk
  • 1851 Census. TNA. Reference HO107/2325/133/11, via Ancestry.co.uk
  • GRO Birth Indexes, William Gibson. December Quarter 1837, Dewsbury, Vol 22, Page 52 via the General Register Office website, https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/
  • GRO Birth Indexes, Ellen and Eliza Gibson. March Quarter 1842, Dewsbury, Vol 22, Page 55 via the General Register Office Website, https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/
  • Most Prolific Mother Ever. Guinness World Records. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-prolific-mother-ever

All websites accessed 26 September 2018

Churching, Mortuaries and Baptism Fees: A Woodkirk Terrier

A series of five terriers dating between July 1770 and 1825 for the Parish of Woodkirk in West Ardsley provided a fascinating peek into the the the fees charged for various parish services. Terriers were a form of inventory drawn up for Bishop’s visitations. They provide detail about the funding of the benefice ranging from church-owned lands, fabric and furnishings (in Woodkirk’s case invariably described as handsome) to tithes, fees and customary payments. I was particularly interested in the latter two as I wanted to know what my Woodkirk parish ancestors paid to get married, baptised and buried.

St Mary’s Church, Woodkirk – by Jane Roberts

Surplice fees payable to the incumbent for various services and ceremonies performed were as follows:

  • A Marriage by Publication: Two shillings;
  • A Marriage by Licence: Ten shillings;
  • A Certificate of Publication of Banns: Six pence if the man lives in the Parish, but if the woman lives in the Parish two shillings and six pence;
  • A Churching: Eight pence;
  • A Funeral: Eight pence;
  • A Certificate from the Register: One shilling; and
  • A Mortuary: Ten shillings when a person is worth 40 pounds, when a person is worth 30 pounds six shillings and Eight pence, when a person dies worth 10 pounds three shillings and four pence

These fees were constant throughout. The only change was an increase from six pence to one shilling in the 22 June 1825 terrier for certificate of publication of banns if the man lived in the parish.

Fees payable to the Parish Clerk were:

  • Easter: Each house two pence, each plough four pence;
  • A Marriage by Publication: one shilling;
  • A Marriage by Licence: Five shillings;
  • A Churching: Four pence;
  • A Publication by Banns: One shilling;
  • A Funeral: Eight pence;
  • Searching the Register: Four pence; and
  • The Churchwardens for the time being annually pay one pound to the Parish Clerk.

Mortuaries were a hang-over from feudal times. The Lord of the Manor had the right to chose the best beast of a deceased tenant. This payment was known as a heriot. The vicar was able to choose the second best beast (or comparable possession) to compensate for any personal tithes the deceased failed to pay when alive. This payment was called a mortuary. Payment of mortuaries were very unpopular and in 1529 a Statute restricted their use with the value fixed, based on the wealth of the deceased, as set out in the Woodkirk terriers. Parishes which did not have this custom could not introduce the fee. It all had the effect of reducing opposition to them because the poor were exempt and, with the passage of time, the set value of them meant their real terms worth declined.

No fee for baptism is mentioned in the Woodkirk terrier. However other parishes did seem to have them. But such fees were a controversial issue. Although slightly later than the Woodkirk terrier, an 1841 extract from The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Religious and Ecclesiastical Information Vol 19 discussing baptisms in London illustrates the concerns:

…..Of it’s illegality there can be no doubt. No fee, it is well understood, is payable for the administration of a sacrament, and the flimsy pretext that it is due for registering the baptism, is at once destroyed by the words of an act of parliament, which do not leave the clergyman who administers the sacrament of baptism an option in the matter, as he is bound to register the names of all whom he baptises.

I would therefore most respectfully call the attention of the incumbents of London parishes, and of those in the immediate neighbourhood, to the fact they are, by demanding a fee for baptism, guilty of an illegal act, and an act highly injurious to the spiritual welfare of their parishioners…….

Your correspondent, “A Curate,” states the fee to be 1s. 6d. In many city parishes it is 2s. 6d., and I have even heard, still more.

And it is clear the controversial charges applied beyond London. As the Leeds Times of 5 October 1844 reported:

THE BAPTISMAL FEE – The Bishop of Ripon, in his charge to the clergy of his dioceses a few days since, declared that demanding of a fee on baptism was illegal. His lordship added, “The practice, perhaps, originated in the performance of the office for Churching of the woman at the period of the admission of the child into the Church of Christ; and the fee lawfully due for the former. And at first clearly miscalled the baptismal fee, has afterwards been demanded where the parent did not present herself to return thanks for her safe delivery.”

Ripon Diocese, formed in 1836, from Yorkshire part of Archdeaconry of Richmond (formerly Diocese of Chester) and part of Diocese of York, covered Woodkirk. Churching, which did appear in the earlier Woodkirk terriers, was a purification ritual for a women after childbirth, giving thanks for her recovery, cleansing her from the stain of childbirth and marking her re-entry to the church. Although a distinct ceremony it is easy to see how it could be conflated with a baptism fee.

Baptisms did at one point incur a state charge though, and the period covered by the Woodkirk terriers coincided with it. This was the highly unpopular Stamp Duty Act of 1783 which remained in force until 1794. Paupers were exempt, but for all others a duty of 3d was levied on each baptism, marriage and burial recorded in the parish register. I have not undertaken a comparative check on the Woodkirk register, but countrywide the number of pauper entries in registers increased and, in the case of baptisms, some parents waited until the tax ended before having children baptised. There was also an earlier Marriage Duty Act of 1695, repealed in 1706, which similarly imposed a sliding scale tax on on births (using parish register baptisms as a proxy), marriages and burials.

But as for church imposed fees, the controversy of baptisms continued to rumble in the 19th century until the Baptismal Fees Abolition Act of 1872. This Act made it unlawful to demand any

Fee or Reward for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, or the Registry thereof.

It stated:

That from and after the passing of this Act, it shall not be lawful for the minister, clerk in orders, parish clerk, vestry clerk, warden, or any other person to demand any fee or reward for the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, or for the registry thereof: Provided always, that this Act shall not apply to the present holder of any office who may at the present time be entitled by any Act of Parliament to demand such fees.