Nonconformist Registers

Nonconformist Registers
Nonconformist Registers
download Nonconformist Registers

of 2

  • date post

  • Category


  • view

  • download


Embed Size (px)


Struggling to find your ancestors in parish registers? Dave Annal explains how to track down nonconformists using the vast array of non-parochial registers.

Transcript of Nonconformist Registers

  • C H R I S T M A S S P E C I A L 2 0 1 0 C H R I S T M A S S P E C I A L 2 0 1 0YO U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY14 YO U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY 15

    England and Wales. The implications of thisstatement for family historians are immense as itmeans that a significant proportion of ourancestors were not members of the establishedchurch and therefore that the details of theirbirths and deaths are unlikely to be recorded inthe official records maintained by the Churchof England.

    From the late 17th century onwards, protestantdenominations began to keep records of thebirths/baptisms and deaths/burials of members oftheir own religious communities. These registershad no legal status but they were, in many cases,more detailed than their Anglican equivalents.

    Non-Parochial RegistersCommission As part of the establishment of the GeneralRegister Office in 1837, a Non-Parochial RegistersCommission was set up. One of the first tasks ofthe Commission was to send a circular to theexisting nonconformist churches, chapels andmeeting houses asking them to submit theirregisters for authentication. By 1840, almost 4,000volumes had been authenticated and depositedwith the GRO. Certified extracts that could beused as evidence in a Court of Law could now beissued from the registers. For the first time, therecords of the countrys nonconformistcongregations had the same legal standing as theChurch of Englands parish registers.

    This vast collection of registers eventuallyfound its way into the Public Record Office,along with the other records created or inheritedby the General Register Office. The records arenow held by The National Archives in recordseries RG 4.

    The standard of record keeping is generallygood but the amount of detail recorded in theregisters varies greatly. As a rule, you wouldexpect to find as much information as theequivalent Church of England registers wouldrecord and in many cases much more. It is notuncommon for dates of birth as well as baptismto be recorded and mothers maiden namesfrequently appear.

    There are very few marriages recorded after1753. Hardwickes Marriage Act required thatmarriages had to take place in a parish church sononconformists were forced to marry within theChurch of England in order to ensure that theirmarriages were legally valid and that theirchildren were legitimate.

    Not all nonconformist congregations werewilling to surrender their registers to the 1837Commission so in 1857 an attempt was made togather in those registers that had been missedearlier. The second Non-Parochial RegistersCommission collected a further 300 or so registersand these are now held in record series RG 8.

    Unfortunately, even after two quite thoroughattempts at collecting non-parochial registers,

    many remained in the hands of the congregations.Roman Catholics in particular were, perhapsunderstandably considering the long history oftheir persecution, somewhat reluctant to part withtheir registers. Its also worth noting that RomanCatholic registers were used not just as records ofpast events but as proof, for example, that a personwanting to get married in the Catholic faith wasalso baptized a Catholic. So there was good reasonfor the Roman Catholic churches to want to holdon to their registers. As a result, there are fewerthan 200 Roman Catholic registers amongst therecords held by The National Archives.

    The vast majority of the registers are from thefour major protestant nonconformistcongregations: Presbyterians, Independents (alsoknown as Congregationalists), Baptists andWesleyan Methodists. But a whole host of smallergroups are also represented in the recordsincluding Unitarians, Moravians, Inghamites, BibleChristians, Swedenborgians and the wonderfullynamed Muggletonians.

    The earliest entries in these registers date fromthe period of the English Civil War. The registers ofthe Presbyterian Chapel at Hindley near Wigan inLancashire commence in 1642, while the register ofthe Bull Lane Independent Chapel in Stepney, EastLondon opens with the baptism of John the son ofCaptain John Robinson of Shorditch who wasbaptized on the 15th Day of the 10th month 1644.

    The history of nonconformity in Englandand Wales is long and complex. Strictlyspeaking, a nonconformist can be definedas anyone whose religious beliefs do notconform with those of the official established statechurch which, in this country, since the time ofKing Henry VIII, has been the Church of England.

    In the family history world, the termnonconformist is usually understood to refer to

    members of one of the many dissenting protestantnonconformist communities that sprang up in the17th century. Religious toleration is a relativelymodern concept and, after the restoration of themonarchy in 1660, a number of Acts of Parliamentwere passed that attempted to suppress religiousdissent by criminalizing and/or marginalizing theactivities of those who practised it. But the statewas always fighting a losing battle and in 1689 theAct of Toleration was passed, which gave basicfreedom of worship to protestant nonconformists,and this was followed much later by the CatholicEmancipation Act of 1829, which did the same forRoman Catholics.

    By the start of the 19th century, nonconformistsmade up almost a quarter of the population of

    BEGINNERS GUIDE... Nonconformists

    Details of their births anddeaths are unlikely to berecorded in official records

    RegistersDave Annal explains how to track down yournonconformist ancestors using the vast array ofnon-parochial registers

    THE BULL LANEIndependentChapels registeropens with thebaptism of CaptainJohn Robinsonsson in 1644. The Genealogist /BMDRegisters / TNA, RG4/4414

    GEORGE WHITEFIELD PREACHING byJohn Collet (c17251780)Private Collection/ The Bridgeman Art Library

  • But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.Many registers dont start until the late 18th centuryand some run for just a few years up to 1837.

    Along with the registers of individualcongregations, the records in RG 4 and RG 8include the registers of a number of nonconformistburial grounds, most notably those of BunhillFields in London. Dating back to 1713, the burialregisters of Bunhill Fields contain the names ofmany prominent nonconformists, includingWilliam Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan.

    The act of retrospectively granting legal statusto the registers of thousands of nonconformistcongregations represents the culmination of acampaign that lasted for well over 100 years. Infact, the origins of the campaign can be tracedback to the 17th century and the passing of theTest and Corporation Acts. The legislation behindthese Acts effectively debarred nonconformistsfrom taking up positions of political influence,both locally and nationally. They did this byensuring that only those who were willing toreceive the sacrament of the Lords Supperaccording to the rites of the Church of Englandwere eligible to sit on public bodies.

    The Acts also prevented nonconformists fromattending universities and from becomingMembers of Parliament or commissioned officers

    in the Royal Navy or the British Army. The aimwas to crush all forms of protestantnonconformity, but in fact the legislation merelyserved to galvanize resistance.

    Dr Williams LibraryDr Daniel Williams, a Presbyterian minister, wasone of the most prominent and influentialnonconformists of his time and when he died in1716 (he was buried at Bunhill Fields) a Trust wasset up under the terms of his will which, amongother things, enabled a library to be set updedicated to the study of protestantnonconformism. The library, which bears hisname, is still in existence today and is a primeresource for anyone researching the history ofprotestant nonconformism in England and Wales.

    Dr Williams had also been involved inestablishing a pressure group known as theGeneral Body of the Three Denominations, whichaimed to represent the collective interests of thePresbyterians, Independents and Baptists. Afterhis death, the groups influence continued togrow, lobbying parliament and gaining friends inhigh places.

    One of the most significant acts of the groupwas to establish a birth registry. In 1742 it wasannounced that a registry had been opened, at DrWilliams Library, which would allow protestantdissenters the opportunity to register the births oftheir children. The amount of detail recorded wasremarkable for the time. In addition to the nameof the child, the date and place of his or her birthand the parents names, most of the records alsoshow the mothers maiden name and in manycases her parents names as well a rare example

    C H R I S T M A S S P E C I A L 2 0 1 0 C H R I S T M A S S P E C I A L 2 0 1 0YO U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY16 YO U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY 17

    of a family history source recording threegenerations. The fathers occupation and theprecise place of birth are also usually given.

    The Registry maintained two sets of records. Twocopies of the birth certificate were produced, one ofwhich was given to the family and the otherretained at the Library. The details were then copiedinto a register, which was also kept at Dr WilliamsLibrary, however all records were surrendered tothe Registrar General, and are among the registersnow held at The National Archives. In essence thiswas a prototype for the system that was ultimatelyadopted by the General Register Office when civilregistration was introduced in 1837.

    Over the 95 years that the registry (formallyknown as the General Register of ProtestantDissenters) was in existence almost 50,000 birthswere recorded. Retrospective registrations wereencouraged so that although the registry wasopened in 1742, an entry for a birth occurring asearly as 1716 appears in the records and severalregistrations of people aged 50 or more have beenfound. In 1818 the Wesleyan Methodists openedtheir own r