English Parish Registers

Primary Source Records: The Parish Registers

Parish Registers were first enacted in 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General to Henry VIII, established the system whereby all clergy were required to keep a register of christenings, marriages and burials.  Fortunately for us the parishes in southeast Cornwall followed suit by the 1550’s.  “Parish Registers” refers to the books of christenings, marriages and burials kept by the Church of England.  They were formerly kept in the parish chest in the church, along with a number of other written materials.  In 1558, at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, some clergy began to send an annual copy of their records to their bishop or archdeacon.  As a result two copies were created and have survived; the original kept in the parish chest in the church and a Bishops Transcript kept at Head Office.

A typical Parish Chest

Today the parish registers are mostly held at the County Record Offices where the ancient collection receives proper archival care. Fortunately the LDS church has microfilmed these records for each parish in Cornwall.  These copies are available for public viewing and photocopying at the Family History Centres throughout the world and at the Cornwall Records Office in Truro.

Most, though not all, of the Sambell/s were members of the Church of England and as a result are well documented in the parish registers dating back to the mid 1500’s.   The commencement dates for the registers of the parishes of southeast Cornwall seem to be about the mid 1560’s with the first record of a Samble marriage in 1566.  Most significantly I have found that it was quite possible to construct my family pedigree using the parish registers as the basis of data prior to the census records of 1841.

There are several reasons why I have been so successful in this task.  First of all the parish records survived the ravages of time over the past 500 years.  Secondly our ancestors were rural dwellers who had been faithful churchgoers.  Even if a particular individual or family was in attendance only occasionally it was the duty of the parish church to properly record the BMD information for all folk within the parish who traditionally were members.  As agrarian tenant farmers and market gardeners involved in animal husbandry there was little opportunity or reason for most of our ancestors to travel afar.  Of course marriages often show a change of geographic location but usually among neighbouring parishes.  Another reason for success is the unusual surname that we carry.  All spelling variations since the 1560’s show variation only in the last part of the name.  It quickly became apparent to me that it was imperative to develop a reference list of our surname spellings so that each search could be conducted thoroughly.

The parish register index for England is included in the International genealogical Index created by the church of the LDS.  See Viewing Record Indexes for further explanation in accessing and using this online searchable index.

Accessing Online Record Indexes: English Parish Register

The single most significant searchable index for birth, marriage and death records is the International Genealogical Index (IGI). This index was created by the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a result of one of their founding temple ordinances.  The IGI is the largest and most important collection of genealogical records in the world.  Their main library is located in Salt Lake City, Utah and has over 3,500 Family History Centers worldwide.

The recording and microfilming of birth, marriage and death records by the Mormons began in the 1930’s and continues today.  Their interest in genealogy is directly related to their faith. They believe that families are sacred units linked together for eternity.  This family link is not just between mothers and fathers and their children, but extends to their ancestors and descendants as well.  Each Mormon is bound by their faith to keep a complete and accurate record of their immediate family and to trace their direct pedigree lines back as far a possible.

The English parish records have been included in the IGI.  The entries are based upon the extraction of data exactly as it appeared in the original parish registers.  The last microfiche version (1992) listed over 800 family surnames in Cornwall with a wide variety of spellings for Sambell/s.  As new data has been added from other sources the updated version may be accessed on the Internet at

Upon first discovering these microfiche files at the FHC in 1994 I photocopied  about 20 pages of the microfiche files.  Placed in plastic page protectors these records have proved an invaluable aid to my research efforts and are something that I make constant use of.  The advantage of the printed version is that I can quickly search by parish name which is a feature not available on the internet search.  I have found the 1992 IGI version was sufficient for me to identify my own branch of the family tree back to 1566.

In order to use the microfiche photocopies of the IGI effectively it is essential to understand how it is constructed.  The groupings for Sambell/s surname is based on the chronological order of first names.  For example all persons with the first name Ann appear in chronological order of their birth and marriage with their surname as it appears in the original record. Hence the spelling of their surname varies ie. Samble, Sambell, Sambles.   For this reason it is important to record the surname as represented in the original record.  I have developed the practice of recording the original surname on the family record chart in a method that quickly tells me how it was recorded in the original record.  For example my entry for Ann may appear as Ann Samble/Sambel to indicate the variation of spellings in the birth / marriage registers.  As a rule I tend to identify the name based upon the spelling used in the christening/baptism record.  It is not acceptable practice to convert the spelling of the surname to all one form on a family tree.


Leave a Reply