Parish Registers of Burials

Early burial registers again often just stated the name of the deceased. This was especially the case in small towns and villages or remote settlement where the clergyman may have known all his parishioners and did not feel the need to include any other detail to distinguish between those with the same name.

Burial register showimg just names and dates c.1700 Baptism; Marriage and Burial Register; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1697-1764; Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

Sometimes in parish registers, clergymen may have written personal comments about parishioners, particularly if the deceased was a prominent parishioner; had reached a grand old age; had died in unusual circumstances; or possibly if the deceased was a person the clergyman particularly liked or disliked! There may be comments as to what happened to the deceased and would often comment if the deceased was a baby/child.

There may be details in the parish register of the time of day of burial, particularly if the burial was at night. Burials by torch light were reserved for distinguished members of society and/or a family tradition. However non-conformists were also often buried at night without any formal ceremony or torch light). If the deceased had been excommunicated (for reason of religion, moral offences, none payment of tithes, or other ecclesiastical offences) they are likely to have been buried without formal ceremony and there may be details of this in the parish register.

Example of entries for burials in woollen 1730’s; Baptism, Marriage and Burial Register; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1697-1764; Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

The first big change to appear in burial registers however occured after the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666 and 1678. During this period there was a surplus of wool in Britain and these acts ordered that all deceased had to be buried in a shroud made from wool, in order to help reduce this surplus.

There was need for a second act in 1678 in order to strengthen the regulations, now requiring an affidavit signed by a magistrate (or in some circumstances the minister) confirming these regulations had been complied with. 

There was a £5 fine for those failing to produce an affidavit, the proceeds of which, half went to the poor and half to the informer. The informer was usually a member of the family and there sometimes collusive agreements to essentially reduce the fine. The burial registers would, during this period, annotated with “aff” or “A” to indicate whether an affidavit had been produced, or the clergy may had written “buried in woollen” or described how the deceased was buried.

Whilst those too poor to afford the woollen shroud could be exempted this requirement, wealthy people who could afford to pay the fine and wanted to show their prosperity, would often ignore the regulation.

The practice of burial in woollen lasted over 100 years, dying out in the late 1700’s, rarely being enforced after 1770, although the Acts were themselves not repealed until 1814.

The main persons omitted from the burial registers, particularly in the early years, were the unbaptised, sailors, soldiers and others who died abroad, papists and dissenters who were buried privately.

A further change which was “attempted” in this period was the imposition of a duty of 3d on each entry in a register, baptism, marriage and death under the Stamp Act 1783 and was extended to non-conformist registers in 1785.

This act was extremely unpopular.

The flat rate was seen as very unfair, with the rich paying the same amount as the poor although those in receipt of poor relief were exempt as were burials in workhouses. The act was repealed in 1794.

The ‘effect’ on the parish registers of the imposition of this duty was similar to under the earlier Tax on Marriages, Births and Burials of 1694:

  • registers would record the fact the sum had been paid (or not);
  • fewer baptisms (in particular) save for amongst the poor followed by an increase in adult and older children being baptised after the act was repealed.

It must also be remembered that in 1752 dates in parish registers were affected by the change from the Julian calendar (when the year ran from the 25th March to the 24th March) to the Gregorian calendar which is still in use today (with a year running from 1st January to the 31st December). This must be remembered when looking at parish registers prior to 1752.

There were no universal changes to baptism or burial registers during this period however from about 1765 Dade Registers, as they became known, began to be used in some parishes in the northern counties of East Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Durham. These were the result of a growing recognition that parish register entries were inadequate and William Dade began more comprehensive parish registers for baptisms and burials.

Burial registers included:

  • Age
  • Cause of death
  • Occupation
  • Details of the parents if the deceased was a child
  • For married women, the name of their husband

In 1777 the Archbishop of York ordered that Dade-style registers should be used across his diocese, however with no penalty imposed for failing to us such registers, not all parishes adopted the such registers, others did adopt the format but with less detail whilst others adopted the format but did not persevere.

The next significant change to parish registers came in 1812 when Rose’s Act was introduced. From 1813 separate parish registers where to be printed and bound in a standard form for baptisms, marriages and burials. Of course separate marriage registers were already in existence and the Act concentrated on baptism and burial registers.

Bishops’ transcripts continued, with the Act ordering that copies of the entries be sent to the registrars of each diocese each year with existing ‘old style’ parish registers to be sent to the Bishop of each diocese.

Rose’s original proposals were more detailed than the final Act which was ‘watered down’ by “the more conservative elements of Parliament”. Rose had included allowing non-conformists to send their registers to clergymen.

The Act was badly drafted, particularly in relation to penalties for those making false entries or altering or damaging or destroying registers. The Act states that anyone who informed of such acts should receive half of the fine or penalty imposed (with the poor of the parish or other charitable purpose as the Bishop chose, receiving the other half), yet the Act did not provide for any fine being imposed, the only penalty was fourteen years transportation!

Burial register exampled from 1840’s; Knottingley, St Botolph, Yorkshire, England; West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; New Reference Number: WDP134/1/4/2

Because the registers were now in standard form providing sections for the information required, there was little or no space for extra information which may previously have been found in parish registers (as discussed earlier). However the standard form has the advantage that in many parishes more information (particularly that which is of use to the genealogist) had to be provided than had previously been the case.

Burial registers now required the following information:

  • Name of the deceased
  • Age of the deceased (as accurately as was known)
  • Where the deceased lived (again, usually only the village in rural areas whereas the street name may be provided in a town)
  • Name of the officiating clergy

Parish registers did not ‘die out’ with the introduction of civil registration in 1836, and Rose-style registers are still used today for baptism and burial registers although are no longer the “official” records of a person’s existence, those now being the birth and death records introduced by the General Registration Act 1836 and maintained by the Registrar General. Bburial records have therefore largely remained unchanged since 1812.

As a consequence of this, Bishops Transcripts ceased with the introduction of civil registration, in that clergy were no longer required to send copies of parish records to the bishop of the diocese, although some did continue until into the 20th century.

Where are parish registers now? Under the Parochial Register and Records Act 1978 (which came into force in 1979) clergy were encouraged to transfer their parish registers to the county records office for safe storage. Where clergy did not wish to do so, strict conditions were set for their safe storage.

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