Parish Register Inaccuracies

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. IX, (January 1916 to January 1917), pp. 5-6.


H. Tapley-Soper

Prepared by Michael Steer

The system of parish registration was established in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal to Henry VIII and Chief Secretary to the King. From that date, clergy were given the responsibility of registering baptisms, marriages and burials in a book secured in the parish chest. In 1598 an order was issued for all entries to be entered on parchment and all previous entries to be copied from paper onto parchment. It should be noted that these vital events were seen as religious, so the actual birth date and death date and the mother's name were not considered of any relevance. No formal guidelines were issued for recording parish registers so the information is inconsistent and was left to the vicar's discretion as to how much information was recorded. Many registers were written in Latin up to 1733. George Rose's Act of 1812 required the keeping of separate baptismal and burial registers to record specific details of each event starting in 1813. Before Rose's Act, the recorded information concerning these events remained largely unregulated and subject to the whim of the clergy. All these factors combine to result in parish registration inaccuracies.  Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. The extract, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers..

Note 6. Parish Registers Inaccuracies. — Genealogists are often puzzled and sometimes led astray by their inability to reconcile evidence taken from Parish Registers with data gleaned from other sources. In early days various methods seem to have been adopted by incumbents for entering up their registers. Some entered the particulars immediately after the ceremony had taken place; others seem to have done it periodically from rough notes, and some from memory — a very unsatisfactory procedure. From the fact that some entries have been cancelled we can only conclude that the entry was made before the ceremony. 

At Ottery St. Mary, during part of the 17th century, it was the practice of the Clerk to make the entry in a skeleton form and for the officiating clergyman to fill in the names, &c. This is evident from the fact that a number of entries are, in the main, in the same hand with blanks filled in by another person, but in some instances, unfortunately, the blanks remain.

A case of an apparently postponed entry, filled in from memory, has just come under my notice. By the courtesy of the Rev. R, Jenkins, a transcript was recently made of the Register of Talaton for the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. Under the date 4 ffeb., 1657, in the Marriage section is the following entry : — 

"Phillip Wesscott, gent., of estbudly & Mrs. Mary Cottle." But a certificate of this marriage, on a parchment slip 6 ins. x 2J ins., which has recently come into my possession, reads : — 

"Devon. Upon the certificates of the sworn pish Registers of East Budley & Tallitone of the due publicacon of an intent of marriage betweene Philip Westcot of East Budley aforesd, gent., and Mrs. Mary Cottle of Talliton aforesaid I doe hereby Certifie that they are married by me the eight and twenteth day of January 1657 in the psents of these witnesses. 

And in testimony hereof I have hereunto set my hand & seale the daye and year aforesaid. 

Witnesses : 

Freeman Parr. [Signed] Jo. Serle, John Dunn.

The discrepancy in this instance is not very great, but I think it is worth recording as a warning to those engaged in genealogical research that the records found in parish registers cannot always be relied upon, and that in cases of conflicting evidence allowance should be made for careless and procrastinating parsons. 

It should also be noted that these two documents, both written within a few days of each other, probably by the same person, provide evidence of the irregular spelling of proper names, a matter of no little moment to those collecting genealogical memoranda. 

              H. Tapley-Soper.