Churches and family history

Blog Pam Smith08In a guest posting, professional genealogist Pam Smith  writes about the importance of churches for family history.

Discovering your forebears, where they originated from and what they did for a living is a fascination held by many. The popular BBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in which celebrities trace their ancestry, has stimulated many people to research their family history, making it an extremely addictive and popular hobby.

Television programmes such as these give the impression that it is very easy to find your ancestors with a few clicks of the mouse on a computer, and indeed it can be a reasonably straightforward process to trace back to approximately 1770 and more using both free and subscription websites.

However, it is worth reflecting upon the important role churches and chapels have had and continue to play in keeping the information needed by anyone interested in discovering their family history.

Parish chests

The Anglican church kept parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials since 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Vicar General ordered parishes to keep these records in a triple locked parish chest such as this fine specimen currently resident in St John of Beverley at Salton.

Parish chest at St John of Beverly at Salton (c) Pam Smith

Parish chest at St John of Beverly at Salton (c) Pam Smith

The incumbent was responsible for keeping the records secure although these wooden chests were often prone to damp and vermin. Today, any of these registers or parish records such as vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts, in which the earliest entry is over 150 years old, must be deposited in the Diocesan Record Office. North Yorkshire is mostly covered by the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. If you are lucky it is possible to see a sexton’s book of burials which literally marks the spot. You can imagine the scope of name-rich sources contained within these documents, recording all the significant events in a person’s life, which had the parish church at the very core.

After 1837, the state took over responsibility for recording births, marriages and deaths both locally and centrally. However the practice of recording baptisms, marriages and some burials (where the churchyard is still in use) still continues to the present day. Some vicars and church wardens are amenable to these records being viewed and some charge a fee.

Churchyards

The churchyard and the interior of the church contain valuable information in the form of a memorial or monumental inscription. Most people were buried in their local parish and a headstone may be found there. Some graves were filled with unrelated people who could not afford a headstone so the occupants were not commemorated. A higher status ancestor may have a monument inside the church. Both internal and external memorial inscriptions (MIs) offer rich detail of the life of a family member. This MI in the St Andrew’s Church in Rillington (pictured below) gives not only the date of death and age of Laurence Stratford, but also his occupation and details about his father, helping the researcher back a further generation.

Many churches hold a roll of honour commemorating the local people who fought during the Great War and the Second World War. Often you can find a list of incumbents which is an ideal starting point for researching clerical ancestors.

 St Andrew's Church Rillington - MI for Laurence Stratford inside porch  (c) Pam Smith

St Andrew’s Church Rillington – MI for Laurence Stratford inside porch (c) Pam Smith

My main area of research is in North Yorkshire and the former North Riding of Yorkshire. We are very fortunate that most rural churches are left unlocked for visitors during the day. I find them an invaluable source of research. An interior photo can help bring life to a set of genealogical data when one can imagine where an ancestor was christened, married and had their funeral service.

I have a collection of leaflets from different churches which, for a small fee, have produced details of the history of the building and a guide to the churchyard. Parish magazines hold a depth of information about community life including names and significant dates of the inhabitants together with snippets of local life presuming that a churchwarden has kept a copy of each one.

Pam Smith is a professional genealogist and a family history tutor based in Harrogate, North Yorkshire who also manages the Rillington One-Place Study.  For further details please contact Pam Smith on 0790 485 6099 or email pam@pamsmithfamilyhistorian.co.uk

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