Tuesday 2 December 2014

Birth to Baptism Intervals – Plympton St. Mary, Devon Parish

In a recent blog post on The Pharos Blog, Helen Osborn commented about the intervals between when children were born and when they were baptized. This is particularly important for the time period before civil registration in Britain when the only records of children coming into the world were in the Church of England parish baptism registers. Most often the local Vicar only recorded the date of a child’s baptism so we need a rule of thumb to determine when the actual birth might have occurred.

We generally assume that children were baptized “shortly” after their birth. Helen pointed out that the “Book of Common Prayer held that a child should be baptised on the next Sunday after birth, or failing that the following Sunday. But did people obey this ‘rule’?” The short answer is, “Not always!”

I actually have a lot of data on both births and baptisms for one of the parishes I look after as an Online Parish Clerk – Plympton St. Mary. I had noticed there were differences in the dates but had not really looked at them all to see what the averages were or if there were any trends evident. Helen’s blog post gave me the impetus to go back and see what the intervals were between births and baptisms.

A few Plympton St. Mary parish Vicars in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were very diligent and recorded both the baptism and birth dates in the registers. They seemed to come in groups, though, with birthdays set out for several years and then no such dates for several years – or even decades. I went back and analyzed the information and got quite a shock. I always assumed baptisms were done within a few days of the children’s births. I found that was not necessarily so!

There are five groups of data in the Plympton St. Mary parish baptism register where we can compare the dates:

Total number of baptisms
Total number of births recorded
Average time between births and baptisms
Largest time interval between birth and baptism
162 (89%)
13.9 days
44 days
232 (74%)
16.6 days
181 Days (1)
118 (49%)
14.7 days
40 days
223 (25%)
204.8 days
2,843 days (2)
114 (98%)
44.5 days
1,665 days (3)

(1)   One entry had 181 days between the birth and the baptism which, when excluded from the calculation, dropped the average to 15.9 days. Without this entry the longest period was 44 days, consistent with the periods before and after.
(2)   There are 29 entries where the child was older than one year: 9 children over 1 year old; 8 over 2 years old; 5 over 3 years old; 5 over 4 years old; and 2 over 5 years old. Without these entries, the average time dropped to 76.7 days. The largest was still close to a year.
(3)   One entry had 1665 days between the birth and the baptism which, when excluded from the calculation, dropped the average to 30.1 days. The larges then was 292 days.

There were scattered entries with birth days recorded in between the larger groups: one in 1637 had 15 days between birth and baptism; one in 1652 was 11 days; and the average for 12 entries between 1661 and 1676 was 11.3 days.

I was very surprised that the intervals were so long, around two weeks throughout the 17th century (ignoring the one very large entry) with the greatest times just over six weeks.

I was even more surprised when the intervals began to climb substantially in the 18th century. A scattering of entries between 1727 and 1796 (25 in total) averaged 65.8 days (over five weeks). Then, as can be seen on the table, the average, from 1798 to 1814, rose to 76.7 days (ten weeks). Those between 1727 and 1814 do not count the many children over one year old who were baptized – 32 that we know of. The older children were mostly in families where more than one child was baptized. During the period from 1815 to 1817 only one older child was baptized and the average went back down to around four weeks.

I am curious now what was going on during the late 1700s when so many parents waited so long to have their children baptized – one nearly eight years old. Was it because they could not afford the baptism fees charged by the church at the time? The results beg for more research into the history of the parish.

I think we can we use these calculations as representative of the periods when births were not recorded, at least in this parish. When looking at birth dates in the past, genealogists should take into account that the baptisms recorded, most often the only indication of the birth date, were probably at least two weeks from the children’s actual birthday, at least for the time before the 18th century, and generally much longer afterward, which is also what Helen suggested in her blog post.

I will be looking at my other parishes now to see if the trends are similar.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.