With a little time and patience, family historians should be able to get back to around 1841 using readily available records. This is discussed in some depth in our article on first steps in family history. However, from 1837 backwards the surviving records become less easily accessible, less informative and require greater levels of expertise. This is a guide to suggest resources for family historians which existed long before the introduction of civil registration. Though it makes particular reference to documents within our collection, it can be used as a guide to undertake research in any part of the country.
International Genealogical Index (IGI)
Marriage Licence Bonds and Allegations
Protestation returns, 1641
Poor Law records
Calendars of prisoners
Wiltshire Family History Society
Prior to 1837, the government kept no records of its citizens. The only comparable records are parish registers, journals held at each local Anglican church into which the vicar recorded every baptism, marriage and burial performed each day. The earliest registers date from 1538 though most parishes did not begin substantive record keeping until the seventeeth century.
The vast majority of Wiltshire registers have now been deposited at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. A list showing the enclosing dates for the registers held by us is available here. A few small parishes are still using marriage registers started in 1837. Registers not held by us should be accessible through the church itself; we can provide you with churchwarden's contact details if required. Please note that parish registers over 100 years old are now available to view online via the Ancestry website, which is available free of charge in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and in Wiltshire and Swindon libraries. Transcripts of some parish registers are also available via the Wiltshire Family History Society Website.
When using parish registers you should bear in mind that:-
- They generally record entries of baptism rather than birth, and not all children were baptised or baptised in the parish church;
- Marriages of all people except Jews and Quakers had to be performed in Anglican churches before 1837;
- Where someone is recorded as 'of this parish' or 'of' any other parish, this is not a parish of origin. To be considered 'of' any given parish, one only needed to be working there for six months;
- Before 1813, information given in parish registers tends to be very basic and is usually restricted to a name and date on burial entries and a name, date and parents' names on baptismal entries. It is extremely unusual to find names of the fathers of the bride and groom given in marriage registers before July 1837.
From the late 16th century onwards, curates made yearly copies of the entries in their parish registers and returned them to the diocesan authorities. These Bishop's transcripts (commonly referred to as BTs) are an inferior source of information compared to parish registers as they tend to be abbreviated or incomplete summaries of the registers rather than containing unique information. They are worth checking as they may give variant names, differing spellings or slightly different dates which can help in further research. They are also extremely useful when they predate surviving registers or fill gaps in them.
As the principal depository for the Diocese of Salisbury, series of BTs are kept in the History Centre for parishes in the counties of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset. The series generally begin in the early 17th century, with severe gaps until after 1700 and occasional later gaps. Those for parishes now in Salisbury Diocese continue until 1880, but those for parishes now in Bristol Diocese end in 1836, later ones being kept at the Bristol Record Office. No BTs for parishes in the Archdeaconry of Dorset survive before 1731.
Please note that it is planned that the bishop's transcripts covering gaps in the parish registers will be published online via the Ancestry website. The Ancestry service is available free of charge in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and in Wiltshire and Swindon libraries.
Though Anglican parish registers are the most overwhelming resource for family historians, they are of limited use to people researching ancestors of another denomination. Occasionally they may have a list of local dissenters, though usually the parish registers will not record non-conformist events other than marriages. There was little instruction on record keeping and maintenance within the other churches, hence non-conformist records can be difficult to locate and navigate.
Complete transcripts of the birth, baptismal and burial registers of the 71 nonconformist congregations who surrendered their registers to the Registrar General in 1837 are available in the History Centre together with a surname index, prepared by the Wiltshire Family History Society. Hardly any of these registers begin before 1750, and many cover only the early decades of the 19th century. Many other Nonconformist congregations have deposited their original registers in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives. These include Independents, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Their registers are often more haphazard than parish registers, and entries of baptism and burial are frequently interspersed with minutes of chapel meetings and other material. Registers seem not to have survived at all for many congregations; those which have been deposited with us are listed in the search room subject index under 'Nonconformity'. A list is available of Quaker registers deposited in the Archives; in addition, there are two 'digests' (indexed abstracts of all Quaker birth, marriage and burial entries in Wiltshire) covering the period 1648-1837 (Accession 854/1 and 2).
If you do happen to find a non-conformist line in your family tree, you are well advised to read the appropriate My Family Were... volume published by the Society of Genealogists. Copies are available to view at the History Centre and available to purchase through their website.
The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormon church) have an ongoing program attempting to locate every birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial record from every potential resource from every part of the world. They index and catalogue their records at their main church in America, but the indexes they produce are distributed through various formats in order to encourage further deposits of materials. Over the past few years, the IGI has been made available online through their FamilySearch website, an invaluable tool for family historians as it is essentially a digitally searchable index of baptisms, marriages and burials from parish registers not only in England but internationally.
But caution! The IGI must always be regarded as a finding aid and not a substitute for first-hand research in parish registers. As the index is largely produced from blurry microfiche copies usually transcribed without knowledge of local abbreviations, spellings and hands, entries found on the index can be wildly inaccurate. If an entry of interest is found on the IGI, the parish register entry should always be checked not only to confirm the data but also in case the register gives any additional information.
The coverage of the IGI is relatively limited in Wiltshire; less than 50% of parish registers were included in the 1992 edition of this index of baptisms and marriages. Coverage is far greater in many other counties and the History Centre has microfiche copies of the index for the whole of the United Kingdom plus United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most former colonies and protectorates.
Marriage licences were issued to couples who did not wish to have their wedding announced on the prior three Sundays. The licences themselves survive only by chance, as they were issued to the groom for presentation to the clergyman conducting the marriage. What usually survive are the administrative series of records leading up to the issue of licences, known as bonds and allegations. These may contain the groom's occupation, the couple's parishes of residence and (sometimes) their ages, particularly if they were minors. Evidence suggests that only around one in ten marriages were performed by licence so the bonds and allegations will not reflect every marriage that occured within a diocese.
Some couples married by virtue of a licence granted by the Faculty Office or the Vicar-General, the records of which are at Lambeth Palace Library.
The Diocese of Salisbury has a virtually complete series of bonds and allegations from 1615 to 1841 except for the Commonwealth period, and these are held at the History Centre in Chippenham. There are typescript abstracts up to 1837 and all have been indexed. There was a separate series for the Peculiar of the Dean of Sarum, covering many parishes in Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset, for which there are abstracts and indexes at the History Centre covering the periods 1638-1645 and 1660-1837. There were a number of other small peculiars with marriage licence records; abstracts and indexes may also be found in the search room at the History Centre.
Wills can be an invaluable (and often overlooked) resource for the family historian. As well as suggesting the names of children, partners and other relatives along with their approximate ages, wills often include an inventory which lists everything the person owned at their time of death. Along with the descriptions within the text of the will, these often tell us more about an individual than a simple date of burial ever could and can often suggest further potential areas of research.
Before 1858, the probate of wills and the granting of administration to next-of-kin of persons who died intestate was the business of church courts. If a person had personal property in more than one diocese the will had to be proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). Generally, wills of the gentry and more substantial people were proved at the PCC; in addition the records of all wills proved between 1653 and 1660 are held with the P.C.C. wills currently at The National Archives. PCC wills can now be accessed online on the National Archives website.
About 105,000 probate records survive in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives, these being the records of the various courts of the Diocese of Salisbury. The diocesan probate records are concerned generally with people of a lower social status than those whose wills were proved in the PCC. They were mostly from the ranks of farmers, yeomen, tradesmen and artisans. The records of the diocesan courts normally span the period from the 16th or 17th century to 1858. The main courts were the Bishop's (Consistory) Court, the two Archdeaconry courts (Archdeacon of Wilts in the north of the county; Archdeacon of Sarum in the south of the county), the Sub-Dean's court covering Salisbury and Stratford-sub-Castle, and the Dean's court. In addition, there were several small jurisdictions covering either a single parish or group of parishes, attached to various lay or clerical dignitaries. As a result, there are records for 28 different jurisdictions in the Archives, covering the whole of Wiltshire, parts of Dorset and Berkshire and the Devon parish of Uffculme. In spite of the transfer of the deaneries of Malmesbury and Cricklade to Bristol Diocese in 1836, wills from these areas continued to be proved in the courts of the Archdeacon of Wiltshire and Bishop of Salisbury. The situation is complicated by the 'inhibition' or taking-over of the jurisdiction of most of the lower level courts every three years by the Bishop's or Dean's courts for a period of about six months.
The Wiltshire Wills website is being replaced by the publication of images of all the wills from the Diocese of Salisbury on the Ancestry website, which is available free of charge in WSHC and local libraries. Most are original wills and bonds, that is those actually signed by the testator or administrator, although some wills survive only as copies entered in registers.
Wills vary enormously in content and format but at their best can be unique sources of genealogical information. Administration bonds give only names of next-of-kin and of two or three 'bondsmen' (sureties), who might or might not be relatives. Inventories of the dead person's goods and chattels may also survive, though these are rarely found after about 1750.
More details about the nature of probate records and how to use them can be found on the dedicated wills project section of this website.
After 1858, wills and probate fell under the jurisdiction of the Court Service. Copies of all wills proved in England and Wales from 1858 onwards may be seen in person at the Principal Registry of the First Division, Probate Dept., First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP, and copies obtained by post from the York Probate Sub-Registry, 1st floor, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York, YO1 9RG. Will registers for the Salisbury District Registry (1858-1928) are held at the History Centre, but these volumes are unsuitable for photocopying although private digital photography is possible upon payment of a fee. They do not include copies of administration bonds, although the names appear in the index.
Many of the records which have been deposited in local county archives by various individuals and institutions can help provide you with genealogical information. Some of the records which are most useful to the family historian include:-
- Parish records. Apart from parish registers, deposited collections from parish churches may contain churchwardens' accounts, charity papers, records concerning the relief of the poor, etc., etc. Such records are useful for "putting flesh on the bones" of our ancestors and are described in The Parish Chest by WE Tate (1969).
- Deeds and Leases These may survive from medieval times onwards and often contain material useful to the genealogist, sometimes giving occupations and ages of people mentioned. Title Deeds by AA Dibben (revised 1990) and An Introduction to Reading Old Title Deeds by J Cornwall (1993) are the standard guides to their interpretation.
- Manorial and Estate Records These may also survive from medieval times. Details of admission and surrender of copyhold tenants, lists of tenants, and information contained in estate surveys and rentals - sometimes including ages of 'lives' on leases - can be valuable. The family historian should note, however, that earlier records may well be written in Latin. Manorial Records by D Stuart (1992) gives guidance on reading early documents.
A set of Land Tax Assessments dating from about 1780 to 1832 and covering all Wiltshire parishes is among the Quarter Sessions records in the History Centre (reference A1/345). They may include names of properties and form a useful reference to landowners and occupiers. Lists of Wiltshire taxpayers for the 1576 Subsidy and the 1545 Benevolence have been published by the Wiltshire Record Society as Two Sixteenth Century Taxation Lists 1545 and 1576 (ed. GD Ramsay, 1954). The Wiltshire Tax List of 1332 (ed. DA Crowley, 1989) appeared in the same series.
Apart from these examples, most national taxation records surviving for Wiltshire have to be consulted at The National Archives in Kew. Few Hearth Tax returns survive for Wiltshire; those that do are available at The National Archives and are listed in List and Index Society, vol. IXXV, pp. 168-170, which is available at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. References to the few records held in the Centre may be found in the subject index under 'Taxation'.
These lists of signatories to the protestation in support of the Protestant religion and against ‘Popery’ are kept in the Parliamentary Archives. The signatories were all men of eighteen and upwards in each parish. Wiltshire returns survive for only parts of the south-eastern corner of the county, and were published by Wiltshire Family History Society in 1997. There is a list of the parishes covered, together with a surname index, on the shelves of the History Centre search room.
These fall into three categories:
- Pauper Children Apprenticeship of poor children, usually to husbandry, housewifery or one of the poorer handicrafts, like weaving, was a common feature of parish life from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Records may survive either in the form of original indentures, giving the names of the child, a parent (if any), the master and the trade, or as generally less informative entries in overseers' account books. Records do not survive for every parish.
- Children whose parents paid a premium to the master In such cases, the apprenticeship indentures became the property of the apprenticed person when the term was completed. For this reason very few such records have been deposited in local archives. Between 1710 and 1808 a duty was payable on the premium and registers of the payments exist in The National Archives. All entries concerning Wiltshire masters or apprentices from these registers from 1710 to 1760 (when the registers become less informative) were published in the Wiltshire Record Society volume, Wiltshire apprentices and their masters, 1710-1760 (1961).
- Children whose premiums were paid by charitable bodies Records may survive among the charity's records. Records of the county-wide Broad Town apprenticing charity 1714-1909, are in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives, ref. 700/61-68 and 765/2,3, with a slip index of apprentices in the search room. Records of the Duke of Somerset's Charity (Salisbury), ref. G23/1/198, covering the period 1686 to 1774, have also been indexed. The Archives also has a register of apprenticeships made by the Wiltshire Society, ref. 1475/3. This Society existed to assist and apprentice the children of poor persons from Wiltshire, resident in London or in Wiltshire. The Apprentice Registers of the Wiltshire Society, 1817-1922 were published as a Wiltshire Record Society volume in 1997.
Between 1601 and 1834 responsibility for care of the poor was placed in the hands of the Overseers of the Poor in each parish. When their records survive, they may include poor rate lists; detailed accounts of sums of money, food and clothing allocated to the poor; examinations of the mothers of illegitimate children and bastardy bonds requiring fathers to support illegitimate children. In addition, there may be records of the binding of poor children as apprentices, as well as a variety of documents concerning settlement.
Since a legal right to poor relief depended upon a person's place of settlement, the determination of settlement was a crucial part of the overseers' duties. Two of the most useful types of document which may survive are removal orders and settlement examinations. A settlement examination may include details of a person's birthplace and working career as well as (sometimes) the names and ages of dependent children. Removal orders sending paupers back to their legal place of settlement may provide helpful clues for family historians who have lost track of an ancestor. The survival of poor law records is very patchy. Some parishes, like Longbridge Deverill, have superb collections, but in other cases nothing at all survives. The History Centre staff will be pleased to advise searchers on surviving poor law material for a particular parish.
A large number of settlement, bastardy and apprenticeship records have been listed in some detail and indexed on a parish basis. These lists are available at the Centre. The booklet Annals of the Poor by E Mc Laighlin (4th ed. 1990) provides a brief introduction to the working of the poor law, and the Wiltshire Record Society volume Calendar of Bradford-on-Avon Settlement Examinations and Removal Orders 1725-98 (ed. P Hembry, 1990) shows the type of information that may be found.
No records survive from the various prisons in Wiltshire at all. There existed three levels of judicial enquiry: petty sessions for small crimes, quarter sessions for more substantial crimes and assizes sessions for the most severe of crimes. In tandem with the quarter sessions court (held four times a year), a calendar was produced comprised of two sections. The first half notes every individual due to be heard at court that day giving a brief summation of their crime and usually noting the level of literacy; and the second half is an audit of every person held within the county's prisons on that date.
These calendars occur among the quarter sessions records (ref. A1/125). Some calendars have marginal annotations of the sentences passed at quarter sessions. The prisoner's age and crime, and sometimes parish, may be mentioned but physical descriptions are not given. The separate series of calendars covers the period 1728 to 1882, with some gaps. Before and after they may be found with the quarter sessions rolls (A1/100) though these are extremely cumbersome to navigate. Local newspapers often give the fullest accounts of trials, especially in the nineteenth century.
In the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre search room are the 'Baddy' and 'Goody' Indexes of names extracted from the calendars of prisoners between 1728 and 1849. The Baddy Index lists all prisoners and the Goody Index victims and witnesses of crime. They both give names and places of abode and refer the searcher to the date of the sessions at which the person was mentioned. This index is produced by the Wiltshire Family History Society and has since been uploaded to a number of pay per view sites. Contact the society for further details.
For prisoners tried at County Assizes, assize records are kept at The National Archives in Kew and may give further information.
The Wiltshire Family History Society has completed a survey of all burial grounds, churchyards and cemeteries in the county. It also gathered references to memorials noted by Sir Thomas Phillipps and the Rev. T.H. Baker in the 19th century, many of which are no longer legible. Microfiche copies of the Society's Monumental Inscriptions Index are available for consultation at the History Centre arranged by parish. Copies are also available at the Family History Society’s Resource Centre in Devizes.
The Society aims to encourage and support the activities of family historians with interests in Wiltshire families. Regular meetings are held at the five branches within the county. It also publishes a quarterly journal and a range of other publications. A transcription group transcribes, indexes and publishes parish registers, and other records, and the Society offers various services to members, including searches in its Strays and Monumental Inscriptions Indexes. Further information is given on their website.