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Guides to Our Sources

Nonconformist Records

Nonconformists were those who did not conform - in other words, did not belong to the Church of England.  The Church of England was established when Henry VIII broke with the Pope and the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century.  However, it was not long before groups who disagreed with the beliefs and practices of the Church of England formed their own congregations.  They were referred to as dissenters or non-conformists.  Initially they were persecuted and often had to meet in secret or go into exile.  They might be Protestants (among these were the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Independents, Congregationalists and Quakers) or Roman Catholics.   By 1851, a quarter of the English population were nonconformists.

Presbyterian, Unitarian, Congregationalist and Independent

These churches have their foundations in congregations which formed in the 17th century. Congregations were often fluid; a change in minister could alter the emphasis on different tenets of faith and could cause part of the congregation to split, and join, or found, another meeting elsewhere.  The history of the non-conformist chapels in Exeter illustrates this very well. For example, Castle Lane Meeting began as an Independent meeting in the late 17th century.  It closed in 1730 and the congregation joined the United Dissenters at Bow Meeting. They separated from Bow Meeting in 1795 and moved to Castle Street Chapel; later they became a Congregational church, and are now the United Reformed Church in Southernhay, Exeter.

Baptism registers, (of congregations which practised infant baptism), can cover a wide geographical area around each chapel.  

Separate marriage registers were kept from 1898.  

A few non-conformist chapels had their own burying grounds, but records of these do not always survive.  In London, Dissenters had their own burial ground at Bunhill Fields, which was opened in 1665.  Bunhill Fields Burial Registers date from 1715 and are now at The National Archives.

Burials usually took place in Church of England (Anglican) churchyards until the larger towns had their own cemeteries.  In 1880 the burial of non-conformists by their own ministers in Anglican churchyards was finally permitted by law, and some non-conformist burial grounds were closed at this time.

A number of non-conformist chapels and congregations surrendered their registers to the Registrar General in the nineteenth century, so that they could be authenticated by the Non-Parochial Registers Commissioners as legal proof of birth and descent.  Therefore most surviving pre-1837 registers are now at The National Archives.  Some congregations made copies of these registers before surrendering them, and a few of these have been deposited in Devon’s three record offices.  Thus, these are the only pre-1837 registers we hold.   

Many of the surrendered non-conformist registers have been indexed on the International Genealogical Index (IGI).  Entries from these registers can now be found on-line on a website created in conjunction with The National Archives, and downloaded for a fee.

Devon Family History Society has transcribed entries from several non-conformist baptismal and burial registers which are held in Devon’s record offices, and sell these in booklet form, as well as offering index searches of these registers for a fee, through their website.

The Deanery of Christianity CD-ROM, one of the series of CD-ROMS published by the above society, includes indexes of the following Exeter non-conformist burial registers held at the Devon Record Office, as well as burials recorded in Church of England parish registers:

  • Bow Meeting House 1748-1824
  • Castle Street Independent Chapel 1800-1836
  • Georges Meeting House (English Presbyterian) 1818-1822, 1837
  • Mint Meeting House (English Presbyterian) 1709, 1773-1810
  • South Street Baptist Church   1783-1837

Other non-conformist registries which were founded in the 18th century and the early 19th century in order to record the births and baptisms of non-conformists.  The first of these Registers of Births was established in 1743, at the Protestant Dissenters’ Library (also known as Dr Williams’ Library), in Cripplegate, London.  These registers are also now at The National Archives, where they can be seen on film, and although they are not indexed on the International Genealogical Index (IGI), entries from these registers can now also be found on-line and downloaded for a fee.

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Methodists

This movement began as an evangelical revival in the Church of England (Anglican) church. At first, members attended the parish church on Sundays, and were baptised, married and buried by Anglican clergy, while going to preaching services at the chapel in the week. By the end of the 18th century, Methodists had split away from the Anglican church and Methodist children were baptised in their own chapels.

The Methodist movement itself split into various factions, following the lead of different preachers. The Bible Christian movement was particularly strong in the West Country. It was started by William O’Bryan, a preacher from Luxulyan, Cornwall, and from its foundation in Shebbear, quickly spread throughout North Devon and Cornwall. The various Methodist churches combined into fewer groups in the 20th century. In 1907 the Methodist New Connection and the Bible Christians combined with the United Methodist Free Church to form the United Methodist Church, and in 1932 this combined with the Wesleyan Methodists and the Primitive Methodists to become the Methodist Church.

Methodist chapels are organised into circuits. While each chapel will keep its own marriage register, baptisms are entered into one register for the whole circuit as well as into chapel registers. Therefore, for some chapels, two records of a child’s baptism will still survive.   

Baptism registers date from the 1790’s, and marriage registers from 1898.

Burial registers are rare because Methodists did not usually have their own burial grounds.  However, the Deanery of Christianity CD-ROM, one of the series of CD-ROMS published by the Devon Family History Society, includes indexes to various Exeter non-conformist burial registers held at the Devon Record Office, including

  • Mint Methodist Chapel  1818-1829

Before civil registration, Methodists had their own Metropolitan Registry of Births and Baptisms in London, similar to the Dissenters’ Registry at Dr Williams’ Library.  This was opened in 1818.  Between 1818 and 1841, 10,000 births were registered.  These records are now in The National Archives, where they can be seen on film, and entries from these registers can now also be found on-line and downloaded for a fee.  

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Quakers (Society of Friends)

The Quakers were founded by George Fox in the 17th century.  They did not believe in an ordained ministry, sacraments, formal church services or church buildings, and refused to take oaths or pay tithes.  However, they were always good at keeping records, especially records of "Sufferings", the persecutions inflicted because of their beliefs.  In 1656 George Fox asked the Friends in each meeting to buy books for registering births, marriages and deaths.  The registration system was improved in 1776 when printed registers were introduced.  The Friends submitted all their registers in 1840 and 1857, but collected them all first in London and copied and indexed them in 85 volumes. One copy remains in Friends House, and a second copy was sent to the relevant Quarterly Meeting.  In 1860, it was decided that a digest of all births, marriages and deaths be preserved in London for the years 1837 to 1859, and from then on, an annual digest was made.  The digest of births was discontinued in 1959 when it was decided not to have birthright membership any longer.

Births

Women were responsible for registering their children’s births.  Two copies of the birth note were written out and both were signed by the registrar at the Monthly Meeting and copied into the register.  One copy was then given back to the parents and the second sent to the Quarterly Meeting for filing.  After 1837, when civil registration was introduced, this form of birth registration ended.  Parents of children entitled to membership completed a birth note which was produced at the Monthly Meeting, a minute made, and the note passed to the Friend in charge of the list of members.  Parents often put birth announcements in "The Friend", and the list of births in this magazine is more complete than the annual digests.

Marriages

Marriage in a church was not approved, and a Friend who married there was disowned.  Friends were more strict about observing degrees of kinship than Anglicans, and until 1883 marriage between first cousins was not allowed.  Marriage by Quaker usage of a Friend to a non-Friend was not permitted until 1859.

Two people wishing to marry had to appear both at the women’s meeting and at the men’s meeting with parents, grandparents, guardians and friends to give their consent.  At the next Monthly Meeting, two enquirers testified that the couple were free to marry and were Friends of the Truth.  At the next Meeting, the couple were given permission to marry.  The wedding took place at a mid-week meeting for worship.  Both parties made a declaration of their intentions, which was written on the certificate and this was signed by the people present at the Meeting.  The certificate was copied into the register at the Monthly Meeting. After 1794, however, books of abstracts of certificates were kept by both the Monthly and the Quarterly Meetings.  From 1837 onwards, Friends adopted the civil marriage registers and one person in each Meeting was made responsible for their upkeep.

Burials

The first Quakers were buried in the parish churchyard or in their own gardens or orchards, but by the end of the 17th century, most meeting-houses had their own graveyard.  When a Friend died, a burial note was issued to the grave-maker, and after burial the note was returned to the Monthly Meeting and entered in the register.  It was then passed on to the Monthly Meeting to which the deceased belonged, if it was different.  Every year, the notes were sent to the Quarterly Meeting and registered there.  After 1837, this burial system ended, but burial notes were still issued and a minute recording name and date of death recorded at the Monthly Meeting.

The Friends were very law-abiding, and complied with the Burial in Woollens Act; parish burial registers may contain a note that Quakers have made an affidavit, even though the deceased person was not buried in the churchyard.  The use of head-stones in Friends’ burial grounds was denounced by the Yearly Meeting in 1717, which meant that Friends' graves should be unmarked, although in practice this was often not the case.  After the 1864 Act, Friends began to keep a separate burial register for each burial ground.   

Non-conformist Registers at The National Archives

Registers surrendered to the Registrar - General

Entries from these registers can now be found on-line on the BMD registers webpage, and downloaded for a fee.  They have been made available online by a commercial firm called Genealogy Supplies, as part of The National Archives Licensed Internet Associates (LIA) programme of digitisation of its records.

However, microfilm copies of these, covering the overall period 1567-1970, can still be seen at The National Archives.  The register series/film numbers are RG4 and RG8.  

The International Genealogical Index includes entries indexed from the registers in series RG4, but NOT RG8.

Those registers in series RG4 are arranged according to county (with English counties followed by Welsh counties), and within counties are arranged alphabetically by place.  All registers of foreign churches have been removed from their county and placed in a separate section.  Very few registers extend beyond 1837, and they are mainly those of Protestant non-conformist chapels and congregations, though some north-country Roman Catholic records, and registers of Foreign Protestant congregations in England and Wales (the Huguenot and Walloon churches for example) are included.

Copies of these microfilms are held at other libraries and record repositories, and can also be ordered for viewing through the Mormon Family History Centres in England and around the world.   In Devon, the microfilms for Devon and Cornwall registers are among the Devon and Cornwall Record Society's holdings at the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter.  They can also be ordered for a fee, through the Mormon Family History Centres in Exeter and Plymouth, for use at these centres.

Some of these registers have been indexed or edited for publication by local family history societies.

The Huguenot Society has published transcripts of the foreign registers.  

Dr Williams's Library registers

As already mentioned, The National Archives hold records of birth registrations in the Protestant Dissenters' Registry (Dr Williams's Library). This registry was set up in 1743 for Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians.  It was, however, not just used by Londoners and eventually became open to anyone, regardless of distance or denomination, provided a fee was paid.  Parents paid 6d to register a birth.  The child’s name, parents’ names, place and date of birth and name of maternal grandfather were all recorded.

The records are indexed, and cover dates up to the commencement of civil registration of births in 1837.  They include a record of births of some people born before the official start dates, in this country, as well as others born overseas.  

Entries from these registers can now be found on-line on the BMD registers webpage, and downloaded for a fee.  The original records are found in series RG4 and RG5 at The National Archives, and are available there on microfilm. They are NOT INCLUDED in the International Genealogical Index.

Series RG4 contains registers from other sources as well, all of which were originally authenticated by the Non-Parochial Registers Commissioners, and included records of births, baptisms, deaths, burials and marriages. They cover dates from 1567 to 1858 overall.

Methodist Metropolitan Registry records

Entries from these registers can now be found on-line on the BMD registers webpage, and downloaded for a fee.  

The original records of this Metropolitan Registry which was established for Wesleyan Methodists in 1818, are also found in series RG4 and RG5.  The records are indexed, and contain births which occurred before the official start dates, and the names of people born countrywide as well as overseas.  The birth registrations cover dates up to 1837.  They are NOT INCLUDED in the International Genealogical Index.

Society of Friends (Quakers) records

Records of births, marriages, deaths and burials of members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) 1578-1841, are held at The National Archives, in series RG6.  They include some records for the Channel Islands and Isle of Man.  

Entries from these registers can now be found on-line on the BMD registers webpage, and downloaded for a fee.  

County digests of the entries, arranged by initial index, can be searched for a fee at the Society of Friends Library, Friends' House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ, tel: +44 (0)20 7387 3601.