Tuesday 14 January 2014

Historical Trends as Recorded in Parish Registers

An analysis of long or short term trends in the annual numbers of births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials (BMDs) is a great way to add to the understanding of the history of ancestors’ lives and the areas in which they lived. The effects of major events such as wars, famines, industrial developments and migration can be seen in BMD summaries. As an Online Parish Clerk, I have collected and transcribed the data from the registers of the parishes I administer in Southwest Devon: Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – index map to parishes in Southwest Devon

Important local historical events can be observed on the graphs as spikes and troughs and represent rapid changes from year-to-year. Some of those which can be noted on the diagrams are supported by comments recorded in the parish registers.

There was a very prominent increase in the number of marriages in Plympton St. Maurice parish between 1653 and 1658 (Figure 2). This was, of course, during the Interregnum (1649-1660), after Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government had seized power. In 1653, Parliament enacted a law regarding the registration of birth, marriages and burials – An Act touching Marriages and the Registring thereof. The whole act can be read on the British History Online website.

Figure 2 – total marriages, by year, between 1648 and 1665, for Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes, Devon

Beginning on September 29, 1853, those wishing to be married were to provide information as to their names, places of residence and parents or guardians to a Register, an individual appointed to keep a registration book. A contract between the parties was then published in advance of the marriage, in much the manner as banns had been published by the church in prior years.

Marriages were to be performed by a Justice of the Peace “in the publique Meetingplace commonly called the Church or Chappel; or (if the parties so to be married shall desire it) in the Market-place next to the said Church or Chappel” three weeks following posting of the information about the couple. The Church was restricted from baptizing or marrying individuals. Birth dates, rather than baptism dates were recorded by the Register and those wishing to get married generally had to travel to the nearest market town for a ceremony. In some cases, the register books of the Church continued to be used by the new Register. Many of these reverted back to the Vicars at the end of the Interregnum. In other cases, new books were produced. In many areas these new books were destroyed when the Monarchy was re-established in 1660.

Plympton is the central market town for both Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes. The ecclesiastical registers were used before, during and after the Interregnum period which allows a unique comparison of entries. Figure 3 shows the first two pages of the Plympton Register with contracts published on the left side and marriages records on the right.

Figure 3 – marriage register for Plympton St. Maurice parish, 1653; marriage contracts published on left side, marriages recorded on right side

An examination of the rapid increase in marriages in Plympton St. Maurice shows that most of the couples came from nearby parishes (Figure 4), almost all within about 5 miles from Plympton Town. Total marriages peaked at 53 in 1654 from the normal annual numbers of two or three in prior years. The number of marriages in Plympton St. Mary parish stayed relatively constant during the period, except for a slight drop in 1656-57. The number of couples from Plympton St. Maurice more than doubled from the normal three per year. The very large numbers of marriage were mostly for couples who came from many nearby parishes. All of them lived within five miles of Plympton Town.

Figure 4 – total marriages, by year, between 1648 and 1665, for Plympton St. Maurice parish, Devon, showing breakdown of place of origin of grooms

The policies of the Cromwell Government were not universally popular as shown by a comment written into the first page of the new registers for both marriages and burials, probably by the parish Vicar of Clerk who took over at the end of the Interregnum period (Figures 3 & 5). The writer noted that “This is ye hour & power of Darkness” likely referring to the beginning of the Cromwell period.

Figure 5 – top portion of burial register showing note written in different hand

Family historians looking for birth, marriage or death information for this period in English history may well find the data in the records of the nearest town rather than in church registers of the parishes in which the individuals lived.

Marriage images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (PWDRO),  Images were downloaded from FindMyPast , or copied from my own files or microfiche.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He serves as the Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.