Parish Records and Illegitimacy, an impossible task?

Recently, I did some work for a client at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham which focussed on illegitimacy. There have been many articles written lately about the ethics of genealogy and issues such as illegitimacy. I have even written one myself (you can find it here). So this time, I wanted to explore the sorts of records you might be able to find, especially when it comes to parish records.

What are Parish Records?

When talking to a genealogist about Parish Records, you may well be asked to clarify whether you mean Parish Registers or other Parish Records. The two are not the same. The term Parish Records may be used as an umbrella term for all of the records that an archive holds for one particular parish, but many different types of record can usually be found. This is in addition to the old baptisms, marriages and burials (i.e. the Parish Registers).

Parish Records and Illegitimacy, an impossible task_Shersca Genealogy_credit FreeImages Chance

So what other records can be found in Parish Records? It can be quite a long list, but generally account books for the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor for a parish can be found. There might be Vestry and/or Parish Council meeting minutes, records for parish charities, apprenticeship indentures for the poor of the parish and tithe records (see my blog post on tithe records). There could also be records relating to the parish priest, records of work done to the church or other religious buildings, account books for the Surveyors of Highways or even records relating to parish constables.

Are they easy to use?

That all sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Such a lot of records, your ancestor should be easy to find, right? Well, yes and no. Parish Records (you may also know them as records from the Parish Chest), can be incredibly helpful and can turn up some really interesting information that baptisms, marriages and burials will never tell you.

During my research into the Rowsell part of my family, I found that there are many people with that surname in the village of Shepton Beauchamp in Somerset. I had a look at the Churchwarden’s accounts for the parish and found that not only did people with the Rowsell surname pay rates for church repair, but it was possible to match some of them with baptism and burial dates. The Churchwarden’s accounts were also helpful in narrowing down a burial date for those who shared a forename, which had otherwise made it difficult to say when they were buried. There were several Rowsells who were also named as having been Churchwardens of the parish. In the same parish, I found apprenticeships of poor Rowsell children from 1787 all the way up to 1903 and payments to poor Rowsells in the 1750s in the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor. These records have given much more of an insight into the sort of people the Rowsells were.

An unfortunate thing about Parish Records is that the holdings differ from parish to parish. I have been lucky that Shepton Beauchamp holds quite a few different records, some extending back into the 1700s. There are certain records that Shepton Beauchamp is missing, which other parishes do have. During my exploration of the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, I found that the parish of Hilmarton, for example, holds settlement examinations and removal orders, along with bastardy bonds and orders. None of these records survive for the neighbouring parish of Bremhill. Another issue when using Parish Records, is that the records that do survive do not all begin at a uniform date. Some may begin early in the 1700s, some may not begin until much later. It differs from parish to parish. You may also have the added difficulty of access arrangements for any newer parish records from the last century.

Other records may be necessary….

When I was researching for my client, the bastardy bonds for my parish of interest in Wiltshire did not survive. This would have been my first port of call in researching an illegitimacy because it would record details of the child, the mother and the alleged father (who may not be recorded in a baptism record). Unfortunately, there were no surviving settlement or removal documents either. These hold names and details of people who were legally allowed to stay in a parish or those that were removed to a different parish, sometimes including those who were removed/settled because of disputes over illegitimacy.

There were specific rules that governed how it was decided which parish was responsible for a person (should they be poor and in need of financial assistance). For instance when a woman married, the parish responsible for her became that of her husband and not the parish in which she was born. Some of the rules changed over time, but sometimes the name of an alleged father may be found if the mother and child were removed/settled in his parish.

Parish Records and Illegitimacy, an impossible task_Shersca Genealogy_credit FreeImages_2 Rehse

Instead of being able to use the above records, I had to use the documents that did exist such as the accounts for the Overseer’s of the Poor. I then had to widen the search to other documents outside of the parish that may have held a clue as to the identity of the child’s father. Some of these were documents collated by the local Family History Society from Quarter Session Court Records. If the courts were involved in cases of illegitimacy, for whatever reason, then there may be a record in the local court records. Local court records can include a very large body of documents, so a separate post would be needed to cover them!

What did I find?

In the end, I did not find what I was hoping to find for my client as the ancestor in question did not appear in the surviving records- if only the bastardy bonds had survived! Instead, I found something else in a different record set! That can be the way of things in genealogy, but you never know for sure until you look. Parish records can be a bit of a pot-luck, but you might just find a real gem in them too. They take a bit of patience and knowing what records there are to search, but I think they can be well worth it in the end.

My thanks goes to the members of the AGRA South-West group (and to one in particular for her amazing timeline!) for reminding me about the complexities and uses of Parish Records!



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