Why are some church records missing?

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The Jerripedia collection of Jersey church records of baptisms, marriages and burials, and post-1842 records of births, marriages and deaths, is the longest established and recognised as the most user-friendly for researchers.

Until 2017 the collection included records for the 12 parish churches up to 1842, and St Helier baptisms from 1842 to 1909. In addition, our associated Jerripediabmd database, from which the Jerripedia family records indexes are drawn, also includes birth records for the other 11 parishes from 1842 to about 1913 (depending on parish). These birth records from the Public Registry contain less information than the baptism records, but have nevertheless proved valuable to researchers since they were made available in 2015.

The original church registers were made public in January 2017, and this has unabled us to expand our collection of family records. This has now been expanded to include baptisms up to 1915 for most parishes, marriages and burials to 1940, and the records of seven further Church of England churches.

The dates for which records are now available are as follows:

Church Baptisms Marriages Burials
Grouville 1567-1871 1641-1940 1584-1940
St Brelade 1560-1915 1644-1936 1561-1935
St Clement 1623-1915 1612-1940 1622-1940
St Helier 1596-1915 1594-1939 1594-1940
All Saints Church, St Helier 1872-1915 1872-1939 1872-1940
St Andrew’s Church, St Helier 1870-1872 1872-1940 1872-1940
St James Church, St Helier 1870-1915
St Luke’s Church, St Helier 1847-1915 1852-1940
St Mark’s Church, St Helier 1845-1915 1917-1940 1904-1940
St Simon’s Church, St Helier 1843-1872 1872-1938
St John 1592-1904 1600-1940 1582-1940
St Lawrence 1600-1891 1650-1940 1600-1887
St Martin 1594-1892 1547-1940 1593-1933
Gouray Church, St Martin 1875-1915 1900-1940
St Mary 1610-1915 1648-1940 1571-1867
St Ouen 1600-1915 1605-1940 1604-1868
St Peter 1609-1887 1626-1940 1626-1940
St Saviour 1540-1915 1542-1895 1541-1896
Trinity 1546-1889 1612-1940 1602-1940

It will be seen that there is a considerable difference between the starting dates for the registers of the 12 parishes. Some have records going back to the 16th century, others do not start until well into the 17th century. Although the records released to Ancestry are billed as finishing at 1915 for baptisms and 1940 for marriages and burials, it will be seen that some stop at significantly earlier dates.

Henry VIII

In 1534 Henry VIII was recognised as head of the newly created Church of England and all ties with the Pope and the church in Rome were severed. Four years later Thomas Cromwell ordered all parish ministers to keep a record of baptisms, marriages, and burials. This record became known as the "parish register". None of the Jersey registers goes back quite that far. The earliest is the St Saviour marriage register, which starts from 1542.

It was originally thought that different Jersey parishes had started their registers at different times, but now it is believed that they all probably started at roughly the same time in the 16th century. Many early registers were in very poor condition by the 19th century, when copies were made, and it is believed that some had been lost and could not be copied. This is now believed to be the explanation for the 80-year gap between the earliest and latest starting dates.

Those registers which were made public in January 1917 were largely the 19th century copies, although some are originals. They do not all go back as far as the transcriptions from which our early records were drawn, so it is likely that the Jerripedia database still has the most extensive online collection of church records. It also has the most accurate records, because we have put an enormous amount of work into correcting the errors found in the transcriptions made in the 1980s and ‘90s, and the far greater number of errors in the most recent Ancestry transcriptions. There are so many spelling errors in surnames that many researchers stand a slim chance of finding some ancestors through an Ancestry search.

Absent records

We do not claim that our records are error-free, and we welcome any corrections suggested by users and take steps to update the database as quickly as possible. However comprehensive our database can now claim to be, inevitably researchers will find records absent for some ancestors they are convinced should be included. There can be a number of reasons for this.

But before assuming that a record is missing, it is worth extending your search as widely as possible.

Look elsewhere?

Perhaps the records for a particular ancestor do not appear in the parish where you expected to find them, but may be in the registers of another church. Sometimes a family living near the border between two parishes would change which of the two closest parish churches they attended and records of baptisms of some of their children appear in one register, but others were baptised in a different parish. When the time came to give information about their children in the early 19th century censuses, parents may have rightly declared that all their children were born in one parish, whereas they were actually baptised in different churches.

Couples often chose to marry, not in the church of the parish in which one or both of them was living, but in a different parish. People who were staying with relatives or friends in a parish other than their home parish when they died might have been buried in the parish where they were staying.

There are many reasons why a record may appear in a register other than the one you were expecting. You can avoid the need to check through all 12 parish indexes by searching our database, which allows you to look for a particular record in a single parish, or across the whole island. Access to this database could not be easier easier. You can click on any of the links which will be found throughout Jerripedia and start searching immediately, without the need to register.

Different spellings

The database also comes into its own if the spelling of your ancestor's surname is uncertain. For example, looking for Heaume, du Heaume or Duheaume in the index might involve a difficult search, but in the searchable database a search for Heaume will find all variations. The same is true for two very common surnames, Gruchy and de Gruchy, and other difficult searches such as Issau and Esau.

The registers have been transcribed twice before arriving at the indexes which are available today at Jersey Archive and the library of La Société Jersiaise. As stated above, the first transcription took place in either the late 18th or early 19th century, when registers then in existence were copied. Some records inevitably were lost in this process, either because of transcription errors or because the entries in early registers could simply not be deciphered.

The second transcription process in the 1980s and ‘90s involved the creation of full indexes for all the surviving registers by members of the Channel Islands Family History Society. This process is not believed to have resulted in the loss of many more records - indeed, some of the transcribers looked elsewhere than in the parish church registers for missing records and added them to the indexes they produced.

But some records may have been overlooked in this process and it is only now with the publication of images of the original register entries that new searches can be made for missing records.

Further checks planned

Initially we have concentrated on adding records to our database from the church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in the years after 1842. We will begin the process of checking for records missing from earlier registers once this process is complete.

Our main effort will then be directed to records from the parish of St John, because those available at Jersey Archive and the library of La Société Jersiaise have been far from complete, the original transcriptions having been lost in suspicious circumstances. The records in our database have covered only a limited number of families and some date ranges have been missing even for those families. We are working hard to fill the gaps and provide as comprehensive a record set for St John as for the other parishes.

There are also a number of smaller gaps in the records of other parishes and we have to check whether these are covered in the published registers. We know that some single pages of transcriptions were taken from folders and not replaced and we hope to complete the record sets from the registers. As if all this is not enough to cause researchers, looking in vain for a record of an ancestor, to despair, there are some records of baptisms, marriages and burials which never made it into the parish registers in the first place.

Today at a baptism or marriage the parish register entry is made in the presence of those involved in the ceremony and burial records are also witnessed by family members. But in days gone by the Rector would make a note (sometimes in very poor handwriting) of the requisite information at the time of the ceremony, and these would be collected in batches for later addition to the register by either the Rector or a churchwarden. Sometimes the notes were lost.

Also, some Rectors, although happy to draw the salary to which their appointment in Jersey entitled them, were absent from the parishes for long periods, and in a small number of cases never actually took up the appointment. The work of conducting church services, including those for baptisms, marriages and burials, was entrusted to a Curate or the Rector of another church. Although they accepted their responsibility for conducting the services, some did not feel obliged to make the necessary entries in the parish registers afterwards.

Other records were deliberately withheld from church registers as an act of rebellion during the period in the 17th century when Jersey was under Parliamentary control during the English Civil War.

No baptisms

Another point worth bearing in mind is that not all children were baptised. The proportion of parents who have chosen not to put their children through the church ceremony was very small in the early years - it was virtually compulsory to do so. But as the 19th century progressed more parents had no contact with the church and children were not baptised. The proportion of unbaptised children grew further into the 20th century.

Although in recent years it has been possible to marry in a Registry Office ceremony and people have chosen to be cremated rather than buried, for the period covered by our records, it can be assumed that all marriages took place in church and burials were in parish cemeteries.

But, in addition to the licensing of a number of new Church of England churches to carry out baptisms, marriages and burial services in the second half of the 19th century, churches of other denominations, including Roman Catholic and Methodist, also have records of family events, which do not form part of the release of records in 2017.

Summary

So, although given all the above, it is perhaps remarkable that so many records of the baptisms, marriages and burials of islanders both rich and poor have survived over nearly 500 years, this article has offered an explanation of why a proportion have not.

When we are advised that there is information available from other sources which can confirm the identity of those missing from church records we will do our best to add that information accurately, and in the right place, to the Jerripedia indexes. That is something which once required an order from the Ecclesiastical Court, if a family sought to have a missing record entered in the church register after the event.

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