As you start moving back in time, you will find that you need to consult parish records for baptisms, marriages and burials. Before civil registration began, the only way that these events were recorded were in church registers.
You will usually find parish registers at the local County Record office. So if your ancestors hail from a different part of the country from where you live, you might have to plan some days out to visit the local archives in that area. If you can't make it in person, then you might be able to purchase a CD of scanned pages of the registers or copies of the microfiche. The County Records office should be able to help you or you can visit Genfair.
There are some websites which have transcribed parish records and published them online:
- Family Search (IGI) (Free to access)
- Family History Online
- The Genealogist
- Find my past
- BMD Registers (for non-conformist churches)
- Scotlands People
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) should be your first port of call. Run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints as part of their Family Search, it has a large collection of parish records from around the world.
It is also worth doing a general Internet search before you spend any money on website subscriptions, as some local history societies have transribed and published parish records on their own websites.
It should be noted that will all online records, accuracy cannot be guaranteed as mistakes have sometimes crept in when they were being transribed. So confirming with the real parish records is a good idea. If you can see a copy of the actual church registers, you may occasionally find a little note which has been added by the vicar, but which wasn't transcribed for online publication.
What's in the parish registers?
Usually a child's date of birth is not recorded but children were normally baptised within 2 to 3 months of their birth. Baptism records will usually give the name of the child's parents and sometimes the father's occupation and where they lived. If a child is illegitimate, then the father's name is usually omitted. However a clue to the father's identity may bein the middle name of the child - sometimes the father's surname was given as a middle name!
Marriage records will usually tell you the name of the bride and groom, whether they were batchelor/spinster or widowed and whether they were "of the parish". Unlike civil registration father's names are not usually noted but they may well be one of the marriage witnesses.
Burials records contain just the name and date of burial. Some County Records offices have transcriptions of memorial inscriptions from church yards and cemeteries. These can be more helpful that a burial record as family members might be buried together in one plot.
The end of the line
During the English Civil War and the period thereafter many church registers were destroyed or lost and records were poorly kept. So you might reach the end of the line during the 1600s.
However families did not tend to move around very much, or if they did then they didn't move too far away, so one set of parish records might be able to take you back several more generations.
The calendar changed in 1750 from Julian to Gregorian. Year used to start on 25th of March, so in previous registers, December 31st 1750 is followed by January 1st 1750 and not 1751 as it would today.