by Annalies Nutley
Where would we be without these incredible records? Indeed, one could not trace back through the generations so succinctly if these ever-important registers had not been so thoughtfully preserved, and now made readily available. But woe is to me! or to any amateur or professional who comes to trace a parish where they have not survived! Sadly, quite a few are not around today…their old pages not here for us to peruse, search, and enjoy… many hundreds of years since their inception. Normally when we discover that the parish registers from a certain parish we want to explore are missing, our thoughts don’t really extend to “why” they are missing. Have you ever wondered why there are gaps? Does your mind usually give you an answer like “they haven’t been transcribed yet” or “they are too old and have weathered away“? Or maybe you haven’t really given it much thought.
One of my favourite books in my digital library is an old one from 1898, written by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, called Old English social life as told by the Parish Register. Besides the incredible and undeniably interesting information this book tells us about social life in old English villages during the 16th century and up to the 19th century, it also gives us a little insight into the way that parish registers were kept, and indeed their upkeep! Below is an excerpt from the book which I know you will find fascinating, to say the least.
Indeed, it must ever be a source of deep regret to the historian and antiquary that such a precious document should have been for so many years the objects of careless indifference, their safe-keeping only too frequently having been committed either to an ignorant parish clerk, or to an apathetic person. Hence, we find repeated notices of the mutilation and partial destruction of registers, the result in most cases of neglect. Mr. Bigland, in writing on the subject mentions his having to consult a register and his surprise when directed to the cottage of a poor labouring man, as clerk of the parish, where he found the document in the drawer of an old table, amongst a lot of rubbish. In a Northamptonshire parish, an old parchment register was discovered in a cottage, some of the pages of which were tacked together as a covering for the tester of a bedstead. And in another parish the clerk, being a tailor, in order to supply himself with measures, had cut out more than sixteen leaves of the old register.
In an Essex parish, the clerk not having any ink or paper to make an extract for an applicant, observed, ‘Oh, you may as well have the leaf as it is,’ and, taking out a pocket-knife, he gave the applicant the entire two pages. It is also on record that an enterprising grocer, being clerk of the parish, found the register invaluable for wrapping up his grocery commodities; and it is told how a curate’s wife used the leaves of the parish register for making her husband’s kettle-holders.
A member of the Harleian Society tells a curious story of the Blythburgh registers. It appears that when Suckling wrote his Suffolk History, the Blythburgh Church chest was filled with important deeds, and the registers were nearly perfect. Now only a few leaves remain of the register prior to the year 1700. The report is that a former clerk, in showing this fine old church to visitors, presented those curious in old papers and autographs with a leaf from the register, or some other document, as a memento of the visit.
Amongst some of the further disasters that have befallen these ill-used records, we may allude to their being occasionally sold as waste-paper, their destruction by fire at the parson’s residence, and their complete loss through being stolen. In a curious work by Francis Sadler (1738, p.54), entitled ‘Exactions of Parish Fees discovered’, it is recorded how one Philips, late clerk of Lambeth, ran away with the register-book, whereby the parish became great sufferers, for no person born in the parish could have a transcript of the register to prove himself heir to an estate.
Incredible is it not? And these are just a few of the stories told; others include instances of parish registers being thrown into the fire by an irate spouse, being used as wrapping paper by students in the parish school, and yet another being cut by the parson into labels which he sent to his friends as a game. As genealogists and researchers this information is vital to remember when we are searching through the old parish registers; never think, or shall I say “assume” that because you cannot find an ancestor in the parish you believe him to have lived (or its surrounds) that he did not in fact live there. More often than not he or she probably did, but the record has simply not survived the many traps and pitfalls of the day.
Perhaps it was summed up best by Mr. T P. Taswell-Langmead, in 1878, when he said that:
“fire, tempest, burglary, theft, damp, mildew, careless or malicious injury, criminal erasure and interpolation, loss, and all the other various accidents which have been surely but gradually bringing about the destruction of these registers are still in active operation“.
Let’s be thankful this isn’t so true for the registers of today!
 Thiselton-Dyer, T. F. 1898. Old English Social Life As Told By The Parish Registers. London: E. Stock.