Church (Parish) Registers and Bishops’ Transcripts
The principal source of information will be the records of baptisms, marriages and burials maintained in the past by the various churches and (since 1837) the records of births, marriages and deaths held by the Registrar General.
In 1537, the priests of the Anglican Church were instructed to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages and burials and this led to the introduction of the church, or parish, register. At this time, the Anglican Church was very much the official church of the nation and ruled supreme – carrying out not only its church work but also other duties which today would be part of government. This, without doubt, led to supervision and controls which would not have existed otherwise and probably accounts for the survival of so many records.
From 1598, the priests also had to send these same details to their Bishop on an annual basis. These returns became known as “Bishops’ Transcripts”. Although many registers have been lost with the passage of time, Cornwall has a surprising number prior to 1700, and even 1600, which have survived. Whilst in comparison fewer Bishops’ Transcripts exist today, they can often prove useful in filling gaps in the church registers and as a check on the church register.
The Methodist Church
The Anglican Church was virtually the only source of information through these comprehensive records of baptisms, marriages and burials until the coming of the Methodist Church in the very late 1700s. Many left the Anglican Church to join this new church leading to its tremendous growth in the 1800s. In Cornwall, for example, there were 55 Methodist Churches in 1801 but by the end of the century this figure had risen to over 600. Although they were not legally permitted to carry out such functions as marriages, there is little doubt that some did.
From 1837, Methodists were permitted to perform marriages but only in the presence of the Registrar and it was not until the very end of the century that such churches could be licensed for the independent conduct of marriages. Baptisms were certainly conducted as were burials. Unfortunately, as there was not the same degree of control compared with the Anglican Church, few of the early Methodist registers have survived.
Other denominations, such as the Jews, Quakers and Catholics, have also kept their records but, like those of the Methodists, they are not as freely available as those of the Anglican Church. In most cases, it is necessary to apply to the church to see a register.
Transcriptions are extracts, or even complete copies, which have been made from church registers with most being of marriages. Research centres usually hold transcriptions of one sort or another – some are printed, others being handwritten. Two of the best known, and most extensive, are those by Phillimore and Boyd. Phillimore organised the transcription of the marriage records of many parishes chronologically. Boyd, on the other hand, organised his marriage transcriptions alphabetically in 25 year periods.
Both Phillimore and Boyd provide a good coverage of the Cornish registers but, with few exceptions, stopped at 1812. The Cornwall Family History Society database aims to index all marriages. Please see the Transcription Progress page for our progress so far. An index of burials is almost complete.
The Courtney Library, in the Royal Cornwall Museum, holds copies of the “Ross Marriage Index” on film which, although not as easy to follow as some, is probably the most extensive of them all but only gives the year of marriage not the actual date.
Resources are regularly being updated at the various centres. It is suggested that you check with your local centre before making a journey to a more distant one.
Most Anglican church registers, except those currently in use, are ONLY held at the Cornwall Record Office (CRO) which is also the Diocesan Record Office (DRO). Only a very small number are still held by the churches. Many registers are also on film, up to the late 1950s when the films were made, at the Courtney Library of the Royal Cornwall Museum.
Some registers of other denominations are also held by the CRO although the numbers will be small in comparison to those of the Anglican Church. All Methodist registers up to 1837 had to be forwarded to the Registrar General and are now held at the Public Record Office in London (approx. 871 in number covering the whole country).
With the exception of the Cornwall Family History Society (CFHS), it is always advisable to telephone for an appointment as the facilities are usually in great demand.
Much of the information available is held on “fiche” or film. The CRO now holds most parish registers on fiche with a few exceptions.
The dates of church registers held at the CRO, together with details of Boyd Indexes, are listed on individual parish pages. (NOTE: To help prevent wear and tear, most of the registers at the CRO are only available to the public on “fiche”). New parishes have been introduced from time to time. If a particular register does not go back to 1537, it is worth enquiring whether the early registers have been lost or whether the parish has been created since that date – in which case you will need to know the original parish.