Saturday 17 August 2013

How I Became an OPC

I had no knowledge of the Online Parish Clerk (OPC) program when I first started my genealogical investigation of British records. It started off innocently enough when I went to find out more about my direct-line, paternal ancestors.

From a few bits of information I had about my Shepheard line, including two birth certificates inherited from my father, I knew my grandfather had been born in a place called Torquay in Devon, England, and his father had been born in “Dennaton, Cornwood” (wherever that was), in the “Sub-District of Plympton in the Counties of Devon and Cornwall.” The birth certificate issued by the General Record Office for my great-grandfather is shown below.

These documents gave me a couple of starting points for what would become a very long and still-not-ended journey. The reference to Cornwood, though, clued me in on where my initial searches should be concentrated.

I was feeling flush and adventurous when I finally got seriously involved in genealogy. One of the first things I did was purchase all of the Cornwood parish birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial registers which were available on microfiche. I thought that might be the best way to discover information about my family – go through all the registers myself and find the actual entries pertaining to the individuals. I had my own microfiche reader/printer so it was no problem to order and use the films at home.

At the time, I did not realize how lucky I was going to get. It turned out that my ancestors had lived in the Cornwood area as far back as the early 1600s so I was about to discover hundreds of them, over eight generations, hidden in the registers.

Interestingly, when I found my great-grandfather’s baptism entry, there was very little information shown. Without the birth certificate I would only have been able to identify him at the time from census data. The Vicar appears to have lost his notes when it came time to fill in the page in the baptism register, as can be seen in the image below! Information for one other child baptized the same day was also missing.


1865 September 5 – baptism entry for [James} Shepherd [sic], in Cornwood parish baptism register #823/4, page 42; image accessed from FindMyPast March 5, 2010, copyright Plymouth West Devon Record Office

This is one of those curious situations that can be encountered occasionally with old parish records. One has to work around them, using other sources, in order to find the full information about some individuals. James did appear on the England census for the first time in 1871, at the age of five. His family were then living in Ermington Parish, very near that place called Dennaton, Cornwood. In any case, all other Shepheard children born around this time were identified in the register leaving me to conclude that the incomplete record had to be for James.


Portion of 1871 England Census enumerator’s sheet, page 2, folio 53, piece 2107, class RG10;
showing John Shepheard family living in Ermington Parish, Devon;
 image accessed from Ancestry November 3, 2006, copyright The National Archives

I did finally put together almost everything I have learned about my Shepheard line in Devon, in a book that was distributed to many family members last month. The early reactions from some of them are amazement of what all I have found out and delight in seeing the history of the family laid out. It inspires me to keep going with my other lines.

As many people have found in their research in England, indeed, Great Britain, parish registers are among the more important sources of information about people. They contain the basic data on individuals – births, marriages and deaths – over long periods of time. Not all registers are complete, or have been preserved for every parish, and not all individuals who were born in the various parishes were baptized, married or buried there. But the registers do provide an excellent initial source to search for ancestors.

I always like to get my data in an organized form; so, from the beginning, I started transcribing all the register entries and putting the information on spreadsheets. Shortly after receiving the fiche, I decided I could probably help others find their ancestors, since I now had the data in hand. That’s when I volunteered to become the OPC for Cornwood. Before long I had also purchased the fiche for the registers of the adjoining parishes of Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice (I said I was feeling flush in those days) and took on those parishes as well.

Over time, and with the help of many other volunteers, we have transcribed almost all of the BMD registers from my four parishes – now over 70,000 individual entries from over 7,400 register pages. We have also done most of the censuses in the area, another 31,000 entries from over 2,300 pages. From that work, I have a searchable database that speeds up answering questions from other researchers. Having the information on a spreadsheet also allows me to sort the data and recombine it to show individual family summaries, over many generations in some cases.

I have had hundreds of queries, from people all over the world, looking for information about their families who lived in my parishes or somewhere in Southwest Devon. Most I have been able to help by providing BMD, census and other data that filled in missing pieces of their family history and even broke down a few brick walls. It is always gratifying to be able to assist people in discovering their ancestors and give them more avenues in which to search.

Some of the queries have resulted in some very interesting and surprising stories, many of which I will discuss in later posts.

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