Tuesday 19 April 2016

Historical Trends in Parish BMD Register Entries

In a blog post of 14 January 2014 I commented on how certain events can be observed in an analysis of birth, marriage or burial records, particularly from entries in parish registers. That post dealt with a short term peak in marriages that occurred during the Interregnum (1649-1660) when marriages were decreed to be performed by Justices of the Peace in certain centres.

There are also long-terms trends evident in the parish records if one has such data summarized adequately. As an example, following are some observations of data from Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes in southwest Devon (Figure 1).

Entries in the registers of Plympton St. Mary parish are continuous from 1603 to 1982, so we have a great long-term view of births, marriage and deaths in the area. When combined with the 1616-1957 data from Plympton St. Maurice Parish we can see the statistical trends that cover the rural and urban areas around Plympton town. One should note that the numbers are only from Church of England records.
Figure 1 – index map to parishes in Southwest Devon
The more complete data for Plympton St. Mary parish (Figure 2) shows an early peak in baptism numbers around 1620 after which the number of baptisms dropped, with minor fluctuations, until about 1702 when the decline was arrested. From about 1668, and for many years through to the early 1720s, burials outnumbered baptisms, by almost 2,000 for the period, indicating a decline in overall population. Marriages declined in annual number slightly between 1603 and 1720. Numbers of baptisms rose after 1740 to a peak in 1862. They fell off again until the 1930s when rates climbed again. Following the Second World War there was an explosion in numbers, the beginning of the Baby Boom. Baptisms mostly exceeded burials in Plympton St. Mary parish throughout 19th Century, indicating population growth. With few exceptions, marriages were fairly constant throughout the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s and did not begin to rise significantly until the 1920s.
Figure 2 – annual baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded in the Church of England registers of Plympton St. Mary Parish – 1603 to 1972
The trends are slightly less pronounced for Plympton St. Maurice (Figure 3), mainly because it is a much smaller parish. It is almost wholly urban in character and probably experienced much inflow and outflow of individuals and families. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, baptism and burial numbers were almost in lock-step indicating a stable town population with little or no growth. The steady drop in numbers of baptisms, however, shows that overall population was probably in decline. The last peak in baptisms happened in the latter part of the 19th century. A decline in the number of baptisms continued into the early 20th century. Burials also increased in the early 1800s, peaking earlier than for baptisms, but then dropped as the 19th Century closed. Burials once again steadily rose during the 1900s. Interestingly, marriage numbers increased from the late 1880s even while baptisms declined.
Figure 3 – annual baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded in the Church of England registers of Plympton St. Maurice Parish – 1616 to 1957
The trends for both Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice parishes, when combining rural and urban areas around Plympton Town (Figure 4), are somewhat clearer. Baptisms peaked sharply in 1865 and burials in 1883. In the previous two centuries, baptisms had steadily declined from a peak in 1629. The trend was not reversed until the 1740s. Burial numbers lagged baptisms until the 1640s. Thereafter they generally matched each other in number, until the late 1700s. Marriages were fairly steady throughout the 18th century, grew steadily during the 1800s and then rapidly increased beginning in the early 1900s.
Figure 4 – annual baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded in the Church of England registers of Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice Parishes – 1603 to 1957
In contrast to the observed major decline in baptisms in these two parish during the latter part of the 19th Century, the population of the region actually increased (Figure 5); so what was the reason the Church of England events dropped in number? One explanation may be that, after the introduction of mandated civil registration in 1837, the importance of the Church as the repository of vital statistics data waned. Perhaps society developed along more secular lines, reducing the influence and meaning of religious services and, in particular, the Church of England. It may also be that non-conformist institutions assumed a more important role in baptisms, marriages and burials as regulations and laws affecting them were relaxed and larger numbers of people moved toward these churches.

Or, perhaps, other influences were in play, some of which we might surmise and some we have yet to determine.
Figure 5 – population of combined Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice Parishes, 1801 to 2001 (Data is from Online Historical Population Reports and the UK Office of National Statistics. No census was taken in 1941.)
When the annual numbers for baptisms, marriages and burials are plotted over long periods of time, as seen here, many trends are apparent, with numbers increasing or decreasing in regular patterns. Individual anomalies also stand out, in the form of sharp spikes or troughs. Both are an indication of change in population and a reflection of specific events that unfolded in the communities. Recognizing these trends may give us better ideas about how changes were playing out in local communities which, of course, affected any ancestors who may have lived there at the time.

In my next post I will offer some comments on the contrast between church and civil records and what conclusions might be derived from the statistical analyses.

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 the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.