Parish registers are one of the four main sources used by family historians researching families in England and Wales. They are also an essential source for parish history and demography. Post-1754 marriage registers can also provide useful information on the extent of literacy at particular times.
Parish registers are simply records of baptisms, marriages and burials as recorded by the minister [rector, vicar or curate] in charge of a specific Church of England parish. They can date from 1538 to the present day, and a good series of registers survive for most, but not all, Devon parishes.
Before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced in July 1837, parish registers (or in some cases, registers kept by non-conformist congregations) are usually the only official documents which record these events in our ancestors’ lives.
Baptismal registers, which in most cases were the only record of a child's coming into the world before civil registration began in July 1837, are especially useful as they almost always record the names of the child’s parents.
Early marriage registers are very brief, but from 1754 onwards they should give the signatures of witnesses, who may be relatives of the married couple. From July 1837, marriage registers are also expected to record the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom. The family connections which can be made from such evidence make parish registers especially useful.
Where are the original Devon parish registers held?
Original parish registers are rarely held in parish churches any longer. The vast majority of Devon parish churches have now deposited their oldest original parish registers in one of the three archive repositories in Devon which are authorised to hold them, under current legislation. This legislation is the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, passed in 1978 by the General Synod of the Church of England to ensure the long-term care and preservation of parish registers and other ecclesiastical records, and to make them accessible to the public. This legislation was introduced in response to the increasing importance of parish records in historical research, and recognized the fact that church officers did not necessarily have the skills – and even more importantly, the appropriate storage conditions - to care for parish records. The development of archival services in Devon and other counties and cities, meant that there were centralised repositories available where these parish registers and other records could be looked after and made accessible.
This means that the majority of the original Devon parish registers already deposited, are at the Devon Heritage Centre. However, those for North Devon parishes are held at the North Devon Record Office, and those for Plymouth and most west Devon and south-west Devon parishes are at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office. Very few parishes still hold their oldest parish registers. Some parishes have even deposited completed registers which cover dates up to the second half of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century.
The Guide to the Parish and Non-Parochial Registers of Devon and Cornwall, 1538-1837, by Hugh Peskett (published by Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 1979, revised 1983) is a valuable information source on Devon parishes and their registers. Copies of this book are kept for reference in the Devon Heritage Centre, and the other two record offices in Devon, as well as at family history society libraries within and outside Devon. However, please note that many of the registers which are listed as being in the possession of the incumbent are now deposited with one of the three archive offices.
Filmed copies of parish registers
Most pre-1837, and a substantial number of post-1837 registers which have been deposited at the three archive offices, were originally filmed and made available on 35 mm film or as microfiche.
Church of England parish registers for the whole of Devon, including those held at North Devon and Plymouth record offices, which have been filmed, are available on sets of microfiche or rolls of film at all three archive repositories in Devon. This means that even if the original registers are held in North Devon, for example, you can still access the registers on film or fiche at Devon Heritage Centre. Of course if a register was never filmed, you have to visit the office where the original register is held, in order to see it.
We have also supplied sets of microfiche and film of the parish registers for their own area, to our service points in Devon. To find out about these service points, their addresses and contact details and a list of the parishes covered by each service point, see our Service Points webpages.
Where registers have been filmed, it is expected that researchers will use the film or microfiche versions when they visit the archive offices.
Parish registers still held in parish churches
Because more recent parish registers – those with entries less than 150 years old recorded in them – do not have to be deposited under the abovementioned legislation, some parishes still have 19th century baptism, marriage and burial registers in their own care. Many Church of England benefices are now grouped together or combined with other parishes under the care of one incumbent, so these undeposited parish registers may be held in the parish church, or at another church within the same team ministry
The staff at all three offices will help you to find details of the present custodians of a parish's registers.
Parish registers online
Most of the Church of England parish registers held at the Devon Heritage Centre and North Devon Record Office have been digitised and are now searchable online on the genealogical subscription website, Find My Past.
The collection was released online on 30 May 2014.
Most of Plymouth and West Devon Record Office’s parish registers, and Devon Family History Society’s indexes to baptisms, marriages and burials were already available on Find My Past. Most of the surviving parish registers which have been deposited in Devon archives are therefore now searchable online.