Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Online Parish Clerk (OPC) Program

As I related previously, a lot of what I have learned about family history in general and my family members in particular come from my experiences as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC). I became the OPC for Cornwood Parish, in Devon, England, in 2003. The program was very new then and I had no idea what it meant or how it might end up consuming me. I also would never have believed how much I could learn as an Online Parish Clerk.

In future posts I will comment on how I got involved and also offer some examples of the interesting and often surprising stories I have come across in reviewing data in parish records and answering queries from other family researchers.

Much of the following is from my article, The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks, published in Crossroads, the quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association, in their Summer 2012 issue. Another paper about the OPC program called, simply, Online Parish Clerks, was written by Roy Stockdill and appeared in the April 2012 issue of Family Tree. Both offer good summaries of what the OPC scheme is all about. They can also both be read on my Cornwood-OPC website.

England is divided into 40 administrative counties which traditionally were each comprised of various numbers of ecclesiastical parishes. Each parish had its own church that administered to both the spiritual and the secular needs of the community.

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII, issued The Second Henrician Injunctions that mandated every parish to maintain registers in which to record all baptisms, marriages and burials. These documents are central to ancestral research in England but it is not always practical for researchers to inspect or study the original registers or the many additional documents that originated in the parishes. Some of the people offering assistance in sourcing and reviewing the parish information are those involved in the OPC program.

There is no formal structure to this unique program. Each county that participates organizes its own network of OPCs. Interested individuals volunteer to oversee a parish. A coordinator assists them in setting up their areas and organizing their data in whatever way suits them best. A major stipulation is that OPCs will share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email contact.

The tasks of OPCs are primarily to compile reference material for their adopted parish or parishes in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed.

Although OPCs are not officially associated with parish councils, ministers or congregations, these groups are often helpful in sourcing information about past residents and constructing histories of the various parishes. Close contact with incumbents, parish clerks and churchwardens is always desirable.

The OPC concept originated in 2000 with three genealogists who had been researching their families in the southwestern County of Cornwall. After discussions about organizational matters, they began their project in 2001. A comprehensive description of the OPC program, and the objectives envisioned and drafted by those early volunteers, can be found on the Cornwall OPC website.
Over the past decade the scheme has spread to a number of other counties in England, as shown in the following table. The table summarizes the OPCs active as of March 2012.

Total Parishes
Parishes with an OPC
Number of OPCs
% of Parishes with OPCs

In most counties individual OPCs take care of parishes. In a few counties, a coordinator collects transcriptions and other material for the entire county from many volunteers (individually referred to as OPCs). Among these are Kent, Lancashire and Hampshire.

It is not uncommon for an OPC to handle more than one parish. Families often crossed parish boundaries for work or other reasons; so, naturally, researchers may need to study material in adjacent parishes for information about their ancestors. Many OPCs, like this writer, live outside of the UK while researching their British roots.

OPCs must consider copyright restrictions, data protection and privacy issues in disseminating information and, to the best of their ability, avoid any misuse of data such as publishing private information or providing data about living people.

Because OPCs have generally spent a great deal of time examining and transcribing records, we will usually have a broad view of the community and of the individuals and families that lived in the parishes. We are thus able to pass along very helpful advice to people trying to build their own family trees or learn about the areas in which their ancestors lived.

While we are moving rapidly into an era that utilizes the Internet and a vast array of technical assistance in collecting, organizing and storing information, future research and the construction of family trees is still primarily based on information from the past. Volunteers like OPCs can and will be sources for much of that data.

If anyone has an interest in helping, there are still lots of areas that could use more volunteers. Contact the coordinator in the county in which you have knowledge, expertise or just a general interest and become an OPC!

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