Family Events

Where to look before 1837 when the Parish Registers don't help

Old Herts

How To


Often you have good reason to believe that your ancestors lived in a particular parish but either they were non-conformists - whose births/baptisms were not recorded in the parish registers - or the parish registers have been lost. This provides a quick guide to the places you may look for possibly relevant information.

Before the start of Civil Registration in July 1837 there was no widespread method of recording births. Most, but not all, children were baptised. If they were regular members of the Church of England the date of baptism would be recorded in the parish registers usually within a couple of months of the birth although sometimes a family would have a number of children, of various ages, baptised at the same time.

Many nonconformist groups would have kept some kind of records - sometimes a diary of events which could include everything from baptisms and burials to the minutes of chapel meetings and lists of church members. A number were handed in in 1837 but many were not and have been lost. Where they have survived the majority do not go back more than 50 years.

Most of the non-conformist records that have survived are covered by familysearch - so your problem may start with the date of the earliest relevant non-conformist records, rather than in 1837. The census returns may provide means of tracing some members of your ancestral relatives back into the later part of the 18th century. So may parish burial registers as some (but not all) non-conformists were buried in the graveyard by the parish church.

This lack of birth/baptism records means that if your ancestors were non-conformists before 1837 tracing your family tree can become very difficult, particularly if they were in the lower echelons of society. To research further will require a combination of hard work and luck, and you are unlikely to be able to find details of, for example, children who died in infancy. At some stage you will need to refer to documentary sources which are not yet on the internet. The following suggestions are provided to suggest where you should look if your ancestors were in the higher social classes.

Most of the more accessible relevant information will be in HALS and for this reason the key starting point MUST be the book "Tracing Your Family History in Hertfordshire."  This describes, with examples, the types of records they hold and includes some useful appendices relating to their holdings of various classes of documents.

Next I would recommend you to look to see if there are any wills. Where they exist they can be extremely valuable - and may mention a number of people and the relationship between them. Unfortunately most people at the time would not have left them. 

The online index on the National Archives website is another place to try. It covers the vast collection in the National Archives and also collections in a large number of records offices including HALS. Most of the more significant documents are not indexed at the level of personal names but a search for the village  where your ancestor lived can provide details of surviving manuscript material which could mention you ancestor. However in some cases the search may reveal the existence of a document - perhaps a lease on a property which mentions a possible ancestor.

Hertfordshire is lucky to have a large number of surviving militia lists of the second half of the 18th century and these have been indexed by the Hertfordshire Family History Society. These lists provide a partial census of working age men - sometime with additional information such as occupation. This should at least indicate whether there was someone with the right surname in the town or village of interest and provide some possible names.

Books can also be a valuable source but most older histories tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the landed classes - and many of the more recent books on individual towns and villages concentrate on the main events, and few have good indexes. I would suggest the following could prove useful if your ancestors owned property  (most did not) and are likely to be reasonably accessible.

There is a wealth of manuscript material in HALS and other record depositories which can only be seen by visiting the appropriate depository, and I cannot give detailed advice on such holdings, as the types of documents which survive for any particular place is very variable.

One class of manuscript document that exists for many Hertfordshire parishes are large scale maps - often connected with enclosure or tithes - from the first half of the 19th century. Many of these had associated lists of the various properties together with the name of the owner and tenant.

Manorial records are very valuable as they record the changes in property ownership as it is transferred from one generation to the next - and there can be much else of relevance. The names of the manors in a particular parish can be found in the Victoria County History. However they can be difficult to locate as they were private documents belonging to the Lord of the Manor. Some are still in private hands, some are in archive collections - and while many are held at HALS others will be elsewhere. For instance Earl Spencer is Lord of the Manor of Sandridge and the manorial records are in the Northamptonshire Records Office, with other papers from the archives of Althrop House. There is a Manorial Documents Register at the National Archives, but unfortunately the online index does not yet cover Hertfordshire.

Where they survive early rate books provide lists of the people who were well enough off to pay rates - while the overseers of the poor account books will detail payments to the poor. I have used these on a number of occasions - but there was no legal reason to keep them (unlike parish registers) so for most parishes they have been destroyed - perhaps centuries ago. Some such documents have been microfilmed and may be available worldwide (on request) at the Church of the Later Day Saints Family History Centres - the addresses of which are on familysearch.

see also Where is my ancestor's baptism before 1837?

Page created September 2008