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Prior to 1837, when civil registration started, parish records are the main source of genealogical information for births, marriages and deaths.

There are in general three levels of record:

  1. The ministers notes taken at the time of the ceremony. These were often taken and used later to fill in the register and may contain more information than the register requires. But unfortunately very few of these survive and none have been transcribed.
  2. The register, introduced in 1598 on instructions of the Provincial Constitution of Canterbury. Prior to this date records were kept on loose sheets of paper. The instruction required them to keep entries in a fixed format in a bound ledger made from parchment. It also required them to transcribe all entries from 1538 into the new registers, but unfortunately the instruction was not understood by all as it told them to pay particular attention to the entries from 1558, the year of accession of Queen Elizabeth I, as a result many ministers simply copied the entries from 1558 onwards and the earlier paper copies were lost. So the records in the volumes for 1538-1598 are in fact transcriptions from another record and therefore subject to the usual transcription errors. Even though the instruction in 1598 laid down a format for recording events, many ministers fortunately continued to record more than the minimum required. Some ministers, possibly those in the larger parishes would use separate ledgers for each activity, some would have all activities in the same register. The marriage act of 1753 required marriages to be kept in a separate volume and the Parochial Registers Act of 1812 required Baptisms and Burials to be in separate registers. From 1823 it was required to keep Banns in a separate register, prior to this they will often be in the Marriages Register.
  3. Bishops Transcripts. This was the annual return sent in to the Bishop by each parish. This instruction went out to them in 1598 and they responded in different ways, some providing more information than others. It was not until 1813 that a standard form was supplied and from then the information is consistent. Although some of these returns continue well into the 19th century, they started to phase out after the introduction of Civil Registration.

Bishops Transcripts are available from the various records centres, those for the Diocese of Carlisle are held at Carlisle and details can be viewed in CASCAT at Bishops Transcripts for Cumberland Those for Westmorland are at Bishops Transcripts Westmorland

Those for the Furness Area are held at Barrow Bishops Transcripts Lancs (Furness)

Those for Alston are held at Durham and for Sedbergh at Leeds. Some other records offices may hold copies of this information, but you should check directly with them to find out what they hold, you can get contact information from the Cumbria Archive Website

These links take you to parts of CASCAT that list Bishops Transcripts, however they may not show all records available and you may have to search the catalogue using more details of the location you want to find.

CASCAT also has a list of parishes and what records are available for each parish, this includes registers and other parish documents, at Parish Records

The full listing of what records are available, including Bishops Transcripts and the years available and where the record is kept, is located at Parish Registers List. These details are also available in the parish register pages on this website.

The practice of keeping registers started in the Church of England in 1538, though few registers from this date survive today. In Cumbria there are only four Parishes with records dating back to the start of record keeping, these are Kirkby Lonsdale, Lazonby, Morland and St. Bees.

A few other parishes have records dating from around 1558 and later, but the large majority of the parish records still available today start in the 1600's.

Non-Conformists. If you can not find your ancestors in Parish Records it is worth considering that they could have been non-conformists. Prior to Henry VIII establishing the Protestant Church in 1534 the Catholic Church was the established church in England and Wales. After 1534 non-conformists were those Christians who did not follow the Church of England, which includes such groups as Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Hugenots and Mormons. Jews are sometimes considered in the same group, though in fact they are not Christans and after thier expulsion from England in around 1290 there were very few until they started to return in the late 1600's. Non-conformism was much more prevelant in Cumbria than in southern counties.

FamilySearch has a good summary of non-conformist references.

Some points to be careful of:


These may not take place in the year of birth and can be several years later. You may from time to time find baptisms of more than one child in a family at the same time. This does not mean they were born at the same time, as sometimes families would wait to baptise several children together.
In the Carlisle Diocese from 1786 until 1812 the baptism record would normally also include the mothers maiden name.

From 1742, non-conformists were able to register baptisms in the General Register of Births of Children of Protestant Dissenters at Dr Williams's library in London. It has about 50,000 births.

Methodists kept records from 1779.


From 1754 (sometimes earlier) the parish of residence was recorded, note that this is the parish of residence at the time of the marriage and it is not necessarily the birth parish.
Banns were recorded whether a marriage took place or not, these may be recorded in the same register as the marriages or in some cases a separate register. From 1823 banns should be in separate registers. The existence of banns does not necessarily mean a marriage took place.

The 1753 Marriage Act gave Quakers and Jews the right to hold thier own ceremonies. Prior to that 'clandestine' marriages were tolerated but perhaps not recorded.


From 1853 many churches, particularly urban ones, stopped churchyard graves and burials transferred to the local authority cemeteries. At this time church burial registers stopped. The local authority cemeteries in Cumbria are at Alston, Appleby, Barrow-in-Furness, Beckermet, Bewcastle, Bowness, Brampton, Carlisle, Cockermouth, Crosscanonby, Dalton-in-Furness, Garrigill, Grange, Grasmere, Holme Eden, Ireleth, Kendal, Maryport, Millom, Nenthead, Nether Wasdale, Penrith, Sedbergh, Silloth, Ulverston, Whitehaven, Wigton, Windermere, Workington.


Because of persecution Catholic Records from around 1559 to 1778 are incomplete.

There are some transcribed Parish Record on Freereg

Time line

  • 1538 - Introduction of parish records by Thomas Cromwell
  • 1598 - Introduction of bound volumes for records
  • 1662 - Act of Uniformism (All priests must adhere to Church of England Doctrines)
  • 1689 - The Toleration Act(Gives more freedom to non-conformists)
  • 1754 - Marriage act of 1753 required all marriages to be in a separate ledger and for the first time introduced standard printed form. This required the recording of the parish of residence, names of two witnesses and whether the marriage was by licence or by banns.
  • 1778 - Catholic Relief Act.
  • 1786 - Carlisle diocese introduced the recording of the mother's maiden name on each baptismal entry, this was discontinues following the Parochial Registers Act of 1812
  • 1813 - From 1813 baptisms and burials must be in separate registers, as marriages had been separated since 1754 all events were now in separate registers with the exception that banns in some cases were still in the marriage registers.
  • 1823 - The Marriage Act of 1823 now required banns to be in a separate register.
  • 1837 - The introduction of the Marriage Act of 1836 and the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 which established civil registration in England and Wales on 1 July 1837. Scotland introduced registration from 1st January 1855 and in general their registration contains more information than the England and Wales one.
  • 1853 - Closing of urban churchyards started and burials transferred to the local authority cemeteries.

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