By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist
On the 23rd of May, the county’s baptism, burial and marriage registers were scanned and uploaded to the family history website, opening up many doors for local and family historians wanting to learn more about West Sussex. With baptisms from 1538 to 1920, burials from 1538 to 1995, and marriages from 1538 to 1936, there is so much to explore. Access to Ancestry is FREE by visiting either your local library or WSRO.
Following the establishment of the Church of England, it became required for the baptisms, burials and marriages of the parish church or chapelry to be recorded. Although the first law was passed in 1538 not all the registers survive for this period. Birdham’s, for example, does begin in 1538, whilst others date from the act passed by Elizabeth I in 1558, and some have not survived before the end of the 16th century. For example, Wiggonholt begins in the 1590s. This may be partly due to the quick turnover from the Protestant Henry VIII and Edward VI, to the Catholic Mary I, back to the Protestant Elizabeth I. These disruptions to the status quo regarding the Church in England would have affected both record keeping and the survival of the records themselves.
There is little cohesion at this time in terms of the formatting these pages could and would take. Larger parishes would have pages individually dedicated to baptisms, burials and marriages. Smaller parishes, where the year’s events could all be listed in one page, would appear together. The information recorded would also vary according to the vicar – some giving no more than the date and names, others giving ages, parishes of origin, or even occupations.
The Civil War brought about a gap in many parish records. Some were destroyed, some were taken and never returned, and some upon return had retroactively made entries, where reliability can be called into question. For example, at Boxgrove, the vicar was sure to voice his malcontent at his register being taken by a local politician. He notes how even his own child’s baptism had to be entered retroactively into the register!
“Imediately after the 10th of Apr. 1648 the Register-booke was unjustly taken from mee by Mr Cawley the regicide (as I was sequestred by him fro my living before,) and justly restored to mee again the 25th of Jan 1660 by Mr Farington a Loyall Justice of peace. In the meane time (being almost 13 yeares) it may appeare how confusedly, impertinently and perposterously things have beene set downe therein and that many were omitted; yea my owne daughter next following was unregistered til now”WSRO Par 27/1/1/1
However, by the 1700s, steady entries of records were maintained in the parishes of West Sussex. After 1812, the entries were standardised using pre-printed books, though some vicars continued to go above and beyond in the margins, for example noting the date of birth as well as date of baptism.
Sometimes, vicars and curates provide more information in parish registers than one would expect! Below, I’ve picked out some interesting entries from West Sussex’s 250+ parishes. These cases range from the interesting, the sad, the famous, and the anonymous – so many stories are waiting to be found.
Beginning with baptisms, it seems necessary to start with one of West Sussex’s most famous children: Percy Bysshe Shelley, baptised in Warnham.
This famous Romantic poet spent much of his short life travelling around Europe, however his family were prominent Sussex landowners, and as such the Shelleys frequently appear in local records.
It is worth pointing out however, that it is not just the famous and wealthy who merit attention. In 1811, in East Lavant, a baby was baptised. She had no known mother, no known father, and no known origin. The entry reads:
This child not more than 2 days old was found in Valdoe Coppice on the 3rd of August, a short distance from Mr Dickens’s. This poor little foundling had on a calico dress and was placed in a hamper, with only a check apron thrown over it.WSRO Par 120/1/1/3
What happened to this young girl, I haven’t been yet able to determine, but she was given the name Mary Valdoe, after the woods where she was found.
Also worth mentioning are the men and woman of colour who lived and died in Sussex. They too have had their stories under-represented, and my colleagues have been making efforts to find out more about their lives. To read three such examples, head to read about Maria Sophia Rose at https://westsussexrecordofficeblog.com/2021/11/25/stories-from-the-parish-registers-maria-sophia-rose-from-bengal-to-ifield/, and Ann Glanville and Charles Douglass Herring at https://westsussexrecordofficeblog.com/2021/10/01/stories-from-the-parish-registers-black-residents-of-west-sussex/.
Marriages could be complicated. From 1754, marriage banns registers were kept, though they contain much of the same information as the main marriage registers. Of course, if couples were in a bit more of a hurry, they could get married via licence instead. This was the case for George Porter and Henrietta Grosvenor, who married at Old Shoreham on the 15th of September 1802. George, a Whig MP for Stockbridge in Hampshire, had been a long-time companion of Henrietta. She was herself the centre of a scandal involving the brother of King George III and her estranged husband Baron Richard Grosvenor. One month after her husband died, Henrietta and George were married. They had been living together for some time, and perhaps a wedding at Old Shoreham was chosen as potential neutral ground, though this is only speculation.
Finally, we have burials. Performed within a week or so of the person’s passing, they too can tell more than one might suspect. An attentive or studious vicar would note date of deaths, as well as the required date of burials. In Billingshurst’s case, the vicar throughout the 1830s and 1840s made sure to note how the parishioners died. We can therefore see when an outbreak of Whooping Cough occurred, as well as more personal entries, such as in Mary Fuller’s case – where a broken heart is cited.
Now, it must be emphasised that these sorts of entries are the exception, and not the norm when it comes to parish registers. However, the types of information they hold are nothing less than crucial for putting your family history together, especially before the 19th century and the uptick of public record keeping. What interesting stories will you find? We hope the parish registers of Sussex help you uncover your own tales to tell!