This article first appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, in 2015 and is reproduced here by permission.
Are you searching for people in parish registers online and not finding them? Are some members of a family found in a location while others are just not there, no matter how hard you try? This is a common and frustrating occurrence. The well-read researcher knows that sometimes people are not in parish registers because they or their parents were non-conformists. It is a particular problem for the later 17th century when non-conformism was growing and into the 18th century, before Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. But if you are sure the family were baptised, married and buried in the Church of England, are you equally certain that the records you need are actually complete, or equally importantly covered by the index or website you are using? The failure of an index to cover what you think it covers must be one of the top causes of negative searches in genealogy.
In recent years, more and more indexes to parish register baptisms, marriages and burials have appeared online on a number of different websites, derived from a variety of material. If you have only ever done your research online and particularly if you only have a subscription to one website, and have not trodden the hard path of visiting the record office to pore over the originals, your understanding of these important records and the indexes to them may need broadening. Those who have been researching since before anything was online are better versed in what I am terming ‘gapology’. The genealogist who is a good gapologist finds out about the record gaps before they start a search, whatever they are searching in. After all, there is no point seeking your family in the 1600s in any parish register that doesn’t actually start until 1700.
Genealogical information comes from original records, from transcriptions of original records and from indexes to the original records. Indexes and transcripts are very rarely 100% accurate, there will be things mis-indexed or wrongly transcribed and there will be events that fail to get indexed at all. It is equally important to be able to distinguish whether the indexes you are searching are based on all of the records, or whether they have gaps because the under-lying records themselves also have gaps.
Original parish registers are not perfect either. They have never been consistently kept and safeguarded over all the many different parishes and the 475 years or so they have been in existence. In general, the more modern the register book, the more consistent and gap-free it is likely to be. But I stress likely as there is wide variation across parishes. Gaps in the original registers occur for these main reasons:
- Register books or portions of books lost through civil war; damp, vermin, ignorance, wilful destruction, never deposited in the relevant archives.
- Individual entries lost during the writing up process or in-efficient recording; these little gaps are very hard to spot and may never be noticed. But you should be suspicious if there are years without events or with few events, when surrounding years are busy.
Bishop’s Transcripts can help with some of the gaps, although they have a patchy survival rate themselves, and very rarely cover exactly the missing parish register entries.
There are also gaps in the records used to produce indexes we commonly search. In other words, not all parishes are covered by indexes, and not all registers within a parish are covered, even though the original register may exist.
The biggest country-wide coverage of parish register indexes is within the International Genealogical Index maintained by the Church of the Latter Day Saints on the website Family Search. FamilySearch indexes are organised by batch number and it is possible to find the batch numbers for each parish and work out whether all the possible registers are covered by the FamilySearch indexes. Very often you will find that they are not. More importantly, the date ranges assigned to the batches often conceal missing books, thus Batch No C070001 for christenings in Albourne in Sussex gives a date range of 1550 – 1771 and you would assume that this is what you search. Not so, the far more comprehensive National Index to Parish Registers, Volume 4, Part 2: Sussex, published by the Society of Genealogists provides more detail on individual registers and the original register for Albourne runs 1550 – 1580, there is then a gap until 1601 – 1900. Marriages for Albourne start in 1605 – 1757, then nothing until 1813. Bishops Transcripts make up some of these gaps but certainly not all and have many years missing themselves.
Most of the data websites give the initial impression, (or certainly keep the details well hidden), that they have all the possible available material, and that the registers themselves are complete – they don’t and they are not.
There are several different sorts of material available online, now with duplication on more than one website making the situation very confusing.
- Indexes made by Family History Society volunteers working from the original parish registers. Some societies have placed their indexes with Findmypast.
- The IGI and other collections made by the LDS Church, available on FamilySearch and also now on Ancestry. Some of the IGI is derived from Bishops Transcripts rather than original registers.
- Material directly from an archive, indexed by a data provider such as the London Metroplitan Archives collections on Ancestry with original images.
- Indexes based on transcripts made privately and printed transcripts published in the 19th century, such as those by Phillimore and the Harleian Society, Ancestry has some of this. The Genealogist also base their parish records on printed transcripts, or give no information on the site about the ultimate source.
- Indexes made by the genealogist Boyd, and other indexes such as Pallot’s index. Boyd’s indexes are on Findmypast and Pallot’s on Ancestry. Neither are fully comprehensive.
And of course each and every one of these can have its own problems of error and mis-indexing, as well as never having been complete in the first place. In each case you still need to determine how complete the index is, and whether the date ranges shown are accurate.
One exception to the above because it is an attempt to provide new indexes to the originals is the free website FreeREG. Eventually it hopes to provide online indexes to all the parish register material in England, Wales and Scotland. You must check the coverage before you start because it is very far from complete. There is also no way of recording original gaps in those registers that have been covered as far as I can see, so you could still search a parish register over a range of years and not know that the register itself was incomplete.
The only way to be sure what you are searching and find the gaps is to work out which parishes you need to search, then check the coverage of these parishes online, then check this against the original registers held by the relevant record office.
How can I become a better gapologist?
- Two websites help you make sense of FamilySearch batches: Steve Archer and Hugh Wallis.
The information on these sites needs to be read together. Study them both to deepen your knowledge of how Family Search has been developed, and acquire a deep understanding of the complexities of working with these indexes. Both sites allow you to pick a particular batch and search it for a surname, or return all the entries in a batch, this is an invaluable tool.
- Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, ed Humphrey Smith (Phillimore, latest edition) is a handy reference guide in book form to where originals are held, the IGI coverage and gives starting dates for the registers, but does not show all the gaps within the registers. It also covers copies of registers held at the Society of Genealogists, of which there are many.
- The National Index of Parish Registers: published as county volumes by the Society of Genealogists, gives very detailed lists of available parish registers and non-conformist records across a whole county, showing precise dates, where the originals are held, where copies are held.
- The county record office online catalogue to check the date ranges of the original registers.
Being able to drill down into the online sources and work out what is actually available online is key to success with online searching, particularly with parish registers in England & Wales. In all instances, you must follow up in the original registers or in the images of original registers where they are microfilmed. Usually, this still means a visit to the local record office, or at least to the online catalogue of the record office. Then you will be a gapologist!