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OFHS Search Services

Hints & Tips from the Search Desk

This page exists to answer some of the questions we are most frequently asked by people exploring their family history. Some of these relate specifically to the OFHS Search Service and will help you to get the most out of the service. Others are of a more general nature and will be of interest to all family historians whether researching ancestors in Oxfordshire, or further afield.

Search Service Indexes Some General Points Baptisms Marriages Burials Civil Registration and Certificates Censuses Some Technical Points


What is the Search Service for?
The Search Service is a finding aid. It is not intended as a complete research tool to provide your entire Oxfordshire family history "on a plate". The search service indexes are computerised indexes, into transcriptions of original documents such as parish registers and censuses. Whilst we strive to make these indexes as accurate as possible, some errors or mis-readings are likely to creep in. Just using the search service is no substitute for studying the complete transcripts which in turn is not a substitute for viewing the original documents.

How do I start?
If you already know in which parish your ancestors lived, the Search Service is probably not the best place to start. You would be better advised to purchase the full transcribed Parish Registers for the parish and get as much detail as you can about the family from these. Almost all the Oxfordshire and North Berkshire have been transcribed and the transcripts are available from OFHS in the form of Microfiche and on CD ROM. The Search Service comes into its own when ancestors suddenly appear in the parish, or disappear from it. Because the Search Service indexes are county-wide, they are ideal for discovering where people came from or went to. The Search Services home page describes the type of searches available. If you are trying to track down a specific ancestor, a search for an "Individual Event", such as his or her baptism, would be appropriate. If you want to get a more general feel for whereabouts in the county family members might be found, a search for a "List of Names" covering all entries for a specific surname in one or more indexes might be the best approach. Do bear in mind that most people dramatically under estimate just how popular their names are. For example, the burial index contains 6500+ entries for SMITH, which you might expect; but also contains 540 entries for SLATTER, which you might think was a relatively unusual name. You will find a list of Popular Oxfordshire Surnames on the Search Service web page, to give you an idea of the relative popularity of surnames.

What date range do the parish indexes cover?
Parish registers started in 1538 but not all records from this date have survived. The indexes cover from the earliest available records for a parish up until 1851, in the case of baptisms, burials, and North Berkshire marriages. (This date was chosen to give an overlap to the 1851 census, which was the first to record places-of-birth.) The older Oxfordshire Marriage Index currently ends in 1837, (chosen to coincide with the start of civil registration). The Parish Data Map on this web site, described below includes detail pages showing the search index coverage graphically. This makes it easy to see where there are gaps in the coverage.

Are the indexes complete?
Both the baptism and burial indexes are still being extended. At the time of writing (2011) around 95% of parishes are included.

How do I tell which parishes are included?
The Parish Data Map on this web site, shows which indexes are available for any parish. Click the Details button to see exactly which years are included for a given parish.

Where do I go from here?
If the search service has found that elusive missing ancestor and shown you where he/she was living, the next step is to get the transcribed parish register for that parish and piece together all the other relatives from the same parish. Then view some original records, hunt for family wills and if possible visit the parish. Above all, have fun!


That's not my ancestor. He spelt his name differently!
Most folk could neither read nor write until the latter part of the 19th century. Before this time the spellings which appear in parish registers were the vicar's or parish clerk's spelling of a name he had been told. So you will often find two branches of the same family in neighbouring parishes apparently using a different spelling. and may find spellings changing in the same parish when a new vicar or clerk is appointed. Unless otherwise requested we will normally try to include all likely spelling variants when carrying out searches.

That's not my ancestor. His name is in Latin!
The majority of parish registers were written in English from their introduction in 1538. However a few parishes chose to use Latin. It was not until 1733 that it became a legal requirement that all writen records should be written only in English. Even then a few parishes ignored this and continued using Latin in their parish registers. Chinnor for example continued to use Latin until 1750. For family historians the most noticable consequence is the use of a Latinised form for names. Usually the English and Latin names are sufficiently similar to cause no problem. For example "Elizabeth" becomes "Elizabetha" and "Henry" becomes "Henricus". The least obvious equivalent is that "William" becomes "Gulielmus". Other cases that can cause confusion are where the same Latin form can be used for more than one English name. Thus the Latin "Maria" may be someone known in English as "Mary" or "Maria". Similarly the Latin "Jacobus" may be used for either "James" or "Jacob". In such cases, most transcripts and indexes will reflect the Latin form as it appears in the original register and it is up to the reader to decide from other sources what the intended English name was.

That's not my ancestor. His age is wrong!
An age is not an easy thing to remember. It keeps changing every year! Nowadays we are used to knowing our date of birth, since we so frequently get asked for it on various forms. So calculating our age is a simple matter of subtraction. Our ancestors were not plagued with frequent requests for their date of birth, and even if they knew this, subtracting it from the current year to get an age, would be beyond their powers of arithmetic. So when asked their age, they guessed, based on how old they "felt", and often got it wrong. In such cases you usually find a slowly accumulating error. Another source of "error" can arise when an ancestor marries. Here you can find a sudden step-change in age, where clearly one party has deliberately lied about their age to their prospective partner. Usually this happens when there is a significant age difference between the partners. Each will tend to lie to bring their claimed age nearer to that of their partner.
Ages recorded in burial registers for adults, are particularly unreliable. The person who would have been most likely to know the true age is now deceased, so the age written in the register may be no more than a guess on the part of the parish clerk.

What are Bishop's Transcripts and how do they differ from Parish Registers?
Starting in 1598, the incumbent of each parish was required every year to make a copy of all the baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in his registers for the past year and send this to the Bishop. These records, known as "Bishop's Transcripts" (BT) have often survived and can be used to augment the data from Parish Registers (PR) . Most frequently they can provide data for periods where the Parish Register has now been lost or is unreadable. However they can also be used for cross-checking data from the registers and wherever possible the data in our transcripts and search indexes has been cross-checked in this way. You might think that since the BT was a copy of entries in the PR, any discrpancies between the two must be due to errors made in the BT whilst copying from the PR. Sadly this is not always the case. There is evidence from handwriting and inks used, that in the early registers, incumbents often wrote up their PR entries in one large batch from some "rough notes" possibly at the same time as they wrote up the BTs. So for example you will occasionally find an entry in the BT that is completely absent in the PR. More frequently there are small differences of spelling or of detail between the two documents, suggesting that the original roungh notes may have been very abbreviated and the incument or his parish clerk was relying to some extent on memory when writing out the final versions.

The principle snag with BTs is that for each parish the BT for a single year was on a small slip of paper. This is the form in which they have been kept. So the BTs for a parish consist of lots of slips of paper bundled together. With this sort of arrangement it is all too easy for individual slips, or indeed a whole bundle, to have got lost over the years. So BTs tend to be a resource with rather frequent gaps. However if the original registers have been lost they are certainly better than nothing! For Oxfordshire Parishes, the OFHS book "Oxfordshire Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts" by Colin Harris is the definitive description of what PRs and BTs have survivied and where they are now to be found.

But my ancestors are in IGI (on FamilySearch). Why can't you find them?
(See also the following item)
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is a very useful resource for family historians, created by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) (also known as Mormons) and made freely available via their web site www.familysearch.org. However it must be treated with a certain amount of caution. Records in IGI come from two quite distinct sources. Most are from transcriptions of original documents such as parish registers. These are generally reliable, accurate transcripts. However IGI also contains "Records submitted a member of the LDS Church". These are frequently unreliable. Often, all they tell you is that the submitter has been unable to find any original record of the event and so has made a guess about it!

It is important to remember that IGI was created for the purposes of the LDS religion. Mormons believe that dead ancestors should be offered the opportunity of being baptised into the LDS Church. (See http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism for more details.) For this to take place, it is necessary to know when and where the person was born. If no original record can be found, a "best guess" will be made based on such data as is available. So if a person married and died in a particular parish, it will be assumed that they were born there and an estimate of their birth date will be made from their age at death, if this was recorded, or an assumption that they were aged around 21 when they married and started to raise children, if no better basis can be found. As Family Historians it is important not to regard such records as anything more than guesses. They are no more or less likely to be correct than our own guesses and certainly should not be regarded as corroborative evidence. Such records can often by spotted by the date being quoted as "About" or as just a year, with no actual date, but you should also get into the habit of viewing the items under the "Messages:" or "Source Information:" headings at the foot of the record. These will always tell you the origin of the record and you can then make your own assessment of its reliability.

How do I find the source of data on the new FamilySearch web site?
During 2012 the FamilySearch web site www.familysearch.org changed extensively. The preceding topic was written before the change and parts of it relate to the old version of the site. Apart from a total change to the visual appearance, a major benefit of the new site, is that it makes a clear distinction between transcribed source material and submitted records.

The default situation when searching for records, now starts by listing transcribed material, under the heading "Search Results for Historical Records". Submitted material is only displayed at the foot of the page under the heading "Search Results from User Submitted Trees". Unfortunately it has now become far less intuitive to find out details of the actual source used.

On the old site when viewing an individual record the "Source Information" at the foot of the page included clickable links to a "Batch No.", and a "Source Call No.". The "Batch No." when clicked allowed you to redefine a search within just that batch number. (This gives a great way of locating siblings for example and this still works on the new site.) The "Source Call No." when clicked took you straight to a page specifying the source record used. This facility has unfortunately been lost on the new site.

On the new site, the "Batch No." is now called "indexing project (batch) number:" and is still a clickable link that works as on the old site. Below that you may find entries for a "system origin", a "source film number" and a reference number", but as of December 2012, none of these are clickable links.

To discover the source, you must first make a note of the "source film number" Now go back to the opening page of the FamilySearch web site. Immediately below the title for "Discover Your Family History" click the entry for "Catalog". On the screen that appears, select "Film Numbers" from the left hand "Search" drop-down box. and in the right hand "For" box enter the film number you noted down above. Now when you click on "Search" it will reveal the actual source material used. It is rather more tortuous than on the old version of the site but you get there in the end!.

The Calendar: What convention do you use?
The present-day Gregorian calendar, in which the new year starts on 1st January, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1538. Prior to that, the Christian world used the Julian calender in which the new year started on Ladyday, 25th March. Britian, in common with many other protestant countries, was initially unwilling to adopt this "papish change". It was only in 1752, following Lord Chesterfield's Act that Britain officially adopted the Gregorian calendar and this was the first year in which New Year's day fell on 1st January. (In the same year the 11 days from 3rd to 13th September were omitted, to correct for the accumulated errors of the Julian calendar).

Memorial for 1714/15 What does this mean for family historians? After 1752 there is no problem. Prior to this date, the days between 1st January and 24th March would count as one year in the Julian calendar and a different year in the Gregorian calendar, so there is scope for confusion. Although the official changeover happened in 1752, it was already apparent that the new calendar was more sensible, so in some parish registers you will find the new calendar in use before 1752. In some cases just a single year will be given, but it is obvious from the sequence in the register that the year number is being changed on 1st January. In other cases both forms of the date will be shown, most often in the form "1749/50", for dates between 1st January and 24th March. You will also occasionally find such dual dates appearing on tomb stones, as in the example shown here, commemorating William Cottle of Oriel College, who died in his 19th year and was buried at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 5th January 1714/15.

In transcripts it is normally easy to tell what convention a particular register is using from the context. In our search indexes that context is lost. Moreover it is not easy to display a dual year within the results. The year field is expected to contain exactly four digits. Moreover attempts to select and sort by date do not understand dual years and are apt to treat 1749/50 as a division sum and show the result as 34.98 which is not at all what was intended! In preparing the indexes we generally use the first four digits of the date as written in the original register. So if the parish is working on Julian dates, it will be the Julian year that appears in the index. If the parish has already adopted Gregorian dates before 1752, the index will show the Gregorian date. If the parish is using dual dates, just the first four digits will appear in the index, which is effectively the Julian date. This is what you will see in an index listing. So there will occasionaly be scope for a one year error, in cases where a parish has adopted the Gregorian calendar in advance of the official start date. The important thing to remember is the point made in the very first paragraph of these "Hints & Tips", that the Search Service is intended as a finding aid, not a complete source of all data. Of course, if you have requested a specific search for a single person, the problem does not arise, since we then supply the full details from the transcript, including dual year dates where appropriate.

The Effects of the Stamp Duty Act of 1783
In 1783 the British government passed a stamp duty act to help pay for the American War of Independence. In particular a tax of 3d was to be paid on every entry in a parish register. The incumbent was empowered to collect this tax and entitled to keep a small proportion for his trouble. However paupers were exempt from paying the tax. The tax was deeply unpopular and was finally repealed in 1794.

There was little people could do about burial entries. The dead had still to be buried. It is possible that the act led to an increased number of so-called "common law marriages" (see below). However it is in baptisms that the consequences of the act are most visible to the family historian. Some couples simply did not bother to baptise their children, so you are more likely to encounter "missing baptisms" whilst the act was in force. Some of these children may be found being baptised "in a batch" after 1794 but in other cases baptisms are never recorded for them. (My personal suspicion is that religious beliefs were satisfied by a surreptitious splash of Holy water, but no register entry was ever made.

Another effect, seen in some parishes where the incumbent was clearly on the side of his parishioners rather than the government at Westminster, is that whilst the act was in force, a large number of entries in the burial register may be recorded as being "paupers", whilst entries in the baptism register are recorded as being the children of "paupers". (At Leafield for example between April 1787 and November 1790, of 59 baptisms, all but 8 were for "paupers". The practice stops suddenly at this point. Presumably the government noticed!) So if you find your ancestor baptised or buried as a pauper during this period, do not shed too many tears for the family's plight. They were probably not in penury, they just had an obliging vicar!


Why were infants baptised?
Infant baptism is an established practice in the Anglican church. The prevailing view up to the end of the 19th century was that a person who died unbaptised, could not gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus it was important to be baptised as early in life as possible. Most commonly you will find a baptism occurring during the first month of life.

Why are some baptisms recorded as "privately"?
If a new-born infant was sickly and thought unlikely to survive, its fate in Heaven required it to be baptised urgently. So any available clergyman was persuaded to attend the family home and baptise the child there, and hence the baptism was done "privately" and recorded as such. If the child recovered it would often be baptised publicly later and you may sometimes find "brought to church" with a date, added beside the original entry, or as a separate entry in the register. However this was not always done, nor recorded. So you should not automatically assume the absence of a "brought to church" entry indicates that the child died. Another aspect of private baptisms was that it was not always possible to locate the local incumbent at short notice, so a clergyman from a neighbouring parish might be called upon. In which case he would quite often record the baptism in his own register, rather than the one for the parish where the parents lived.

Was everyone baptised as a baby?
Not necessarily. If the parents were not firm believers in infant baptism, a child might go unbaptised, or be baptised later in life. Often there will be a note in the parish register indicating the age for such non-infant baptisms but this is not always the case, so you should not automatically assume the baptismal date is close to the birth bate. You will sometimes find cases where several siblings were all baptised at the same time "in a batch". Often this can be the result of pressure being applied to the parents and you will occasionally find cases where several such batch baptisms take place in a parish over a period of a few months. This usually indicates that a new, keen incumbent has taken over the parish and is busy rounding up his stray sheep! Missing baptisms are particularly prevalent between 1783 and 1794, whilst stamp duty was levied on register entries, for reasons explained above.

Why was first child baptised away from home?
You will often find cases where the first child of a marriage is baptised in a different parish from the later children. The explanation is that a young bride often went home to her mother for the birth of her first child, with mother acting as midwife. So the child's baptism can be a pointer to the parish where the bride came from (and can also imply that the maternal grandmother was still alive at the time of the birth).

Why is only the father's name given?
Before 1600 it is very rare to find any mention of the mother's name in a baptism record. Mothers gradually began to be named over the next hundred years and by 1700 they were named in around 50% of baptisms. By 1750 it was becoming rare to find only a father named.

Why is only the mother's name given?
This almost invariably indicates that the child concerned was born out of wedlock, Sometimes this will be specifically stated in the register, using phrases such as "bastard" , "illegitimate" or "natural child" In other cases no such phrase will appear and the situation can only be inferred from the absence of a father's name.

The mothers name is "wrong".
There can be several reasons for a baptism where the mother's name appears to be incorrect. Often the vicar or parish clerk just got it wrong. Before the 20th century, a married woman would only be known by her forename to her close friends. To most of her acquaintances she would be known more formally, as "Mrs. Xxxxx" where "Xxxxx" is her husbands surname. So in entering her forename in the register, the incumbent or the parish clerk was relying on distant mamory, and quite often got it wrong. On the other hand if you find a situation where several baptisms name one wife's name, followed by several with a different wife's name, it is likely that the first wife died and the husband re-married. The confirmation here is to search for a burial for the first wife and a re-marriage for the husband. A final situation is one where two different wife's names will be interspersed. Here the probability is that there are two different husbands, both with the same forname and surname, living in the parish and raising children. Again a marriage search will probably prove helpful. Often in situations like this the fathers are themselves likely to be related (usually cousins) and working out which father is which can be challenging!


Where did a marriage take place?
Most commonly in the parish where the bride's family lived at the time of the wedding, but sometimes in the parish where the bride and/or groom was living, if they were no longer living at home or the bride's parents were dead. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are a special case discussed below.)

Does "of the parish of ..." tell you where they were born?
No. This is a common mis-conception. This column in a marriage register entry specifically indicates the parish where the person was living for the 3 weeks prior to the marriage and hence where his or her banns were read. The abbreviation "o.t.p." meaning "of this parish" is used when the person was living in the parish where the marriage took place. Since this is the default situation, many transcripts will leave this column blank for this situation rather than entering "o.t.p." every time. This same convention is used in the OFHS marriage indexes. Note however that an o.t.p. entry is not always to be trusted. If the bride and groom lived in different parishes, the law required that banns were read at both churches. Since a fee was charged for reading banns, this doubled the cost. So many prospective grooms would notionally be lodging in the bride's parish, (e.g. by leaving a suitcase of clothes at a friendly neighbour's house) for the period prior to the wedding. Hence the groom would be o.t.p. and only one set of banns would be read. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are also a special case discussed below.)

Why can't I find their marriage?
They may have married outside the county, or a record may have been lost, but by far the most likely explanation is simply that they never formally married! Such informal marriages, often (but inaccurately) called "common-law marriages" were quite common and carried no stigma. Church weddings were expensive and unlike the situation for baptisms described above, there was no strong theological reason for a church wedding. So you will find many instances of families with firm religious beliefs, who conscientiously baptised their children but never married in church.

Surely everyone married in church after Lord Hardwicke's marriage act of 1753?
It is a common fallacy that Lord Hardwicke's act was about protecting the morality of the nation and ensuring that everyone was "properly married". This is not true. The act was not about morality, it was mostly about money! The act was precipitated by a case finally resolved in the House of Lords in 1753, which had been under way since 1746, following the death of Captain John Campbell, of Carrick, who was killed at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. Captain Campbell had been irregularly married in 1724 and 1725 to two different women, who were subsequently disputing rights to his property and a widow's pension. (You can read all about it at http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/744190
In rural Oxfordshire such property disputes were of no great significance and irregular marriages continued until the advent of "Victorian morality" towards the end of the 19th century. Such marriages were not legally valid, but if you were an impoverished Ag. Lab. the legal status of your marriage was of no great consequence.

Why did they marry in the City of Oxford when they lived in the country?
It is quite common to find a couple, often both from the same parish, who marry in an Oxford City parish, then apparently return home to live and raise and baptise a family. Were they temporarily living in Oxford? Almost always the answer is no. Did they marry in Oxford to be "posh". Again the answer is usually no. Most often they were Ag. Labs. with no such illusions of grandeur. The real answer is more prosaic and peculiar to Oxford, where many of the academics were clerics, who would supplement their finances with an incumbency of one of the surrounding rural parishes. This required them to be present in their parish on Sundays to conduct services but they spent the rest of the week in the city. So some were reluctant to "traipse all the way out into the sticks", on other days of the week to marry a couple. How much easier to use a college chapel or to "borrow" a city church and persuade the couple to come into town? After Lord Hardwicke's marriage act of 1753 college chapels were not licensed for marriages so the result is a wedding in one of the city parishes, of which St Mary Magdalen seems to have been the most popular. Sometimes the register will record both partners as being "sojourners" in the parish but quite often they are recorded as being o.t.p. The rationale seems to be that as far as the person conducting the service was concerned, they were his parishioners and he had personally read their banns (in their own local church), on the preceding Sundays.

What is marriage by banns?
A forthcoming marriage had to be announced in the parish churches of both bride and groom by the reading of Banns as part of the main Sunday Service on three Sundays preceding the marriage. This gave anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. A fee was charged for the reading of banns, so there was some incentive for both parties to a marriage claiming to be from the same parish, so one set of banns would suffice, even if this was not strictly the case. The reading of banns was usually recorded in a book, separately from the main marriage register and some of these Banns Books have survived. They can be a useful aid to finding a "missing" marriage. OFHS parish register transcripts usually incorporate details from any surviving banns books, for cases where the marriage took place in a different parish. However there are no search indexes into these banns transcripts and you will need to view the actual transcript to see if they exist.

How long were banns valid?
The marriage act of 1949 required that the marriage must take place within 3 months of the banns being read. Before that there was no legal requirement on the length of the delay between the banns being read and the marriage taking place. Normally it took place within a few weeks of the last reading of the banns, but you may very occasionally come across an instance of a much longer delay, even of a year or more. Of course the reason for such a delay is likely to be of great interest to the family historian but it had no adverse effect on the validity of the marriage.

What is marriage by licence?
As an alternative to the reading of banns, it was possible to marry by licence. This offered a quicker route, with no need to wait three Sundays for the reading of banns. It also permitted a marriage in a parish in which neither bride nor groom were resident. Finally, because it required access to a source of money, it conferred social status. A marriage by licence involved three documents: The actual licence was given to the officiating minister and it was his authority to proceed with the wedding. They were rarely kept after the wedding, so few have survived. The allegation was a signed statement usually by the groom, that the proposed marriage was legal. The bond was a signed promise by someone that if the marriage was subsequently found to be illegal, he would forfeit a specified sum of money (most often "One hundred pounds of good English money"). This meant that the person signing the bond had to be someone deemed worthy of fulfilling this obligation should the need arise. The allegations and bonds were normally kept and many have now found their way to local record offices, in our case the Oxfordshire Record Office. (You will often find them colloquially referred to as a "marriage licence") Transcribed marriage registers will normally indicate when a marriage was by licence, so when providing details for a specific marriage as part of the Search Service, we will include that information. You will need to contact the record office directly to confirm whether the bond or allegation have survived and if so to obtain details of these. You may find this web site helpful for determining id a bond has survivied: www.whipple.org/oxford/ though the absence of an entry from these lists does not mean that the bond has definitely not survived and it is still worth checking at the record office (now renamed as "Oxfordshire History Centre").

What is marriage by registrar's certificate?
Occasionally a marriage register may show that a marriage after 1837 was by "Registrar's Certificate" rather than by banns or by licence. In effect this is the secular equivalent of banns. A notice is posted on a public notice board in the bride's and groom's registration district(s) for three weeks prior to the wedding showing their intention to marry. Like banns, this is intended to give anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. It was no quicker or cheaper than banns, so to the family historian it is most often a pointer that one or both parties was non-conformist and so did not want banns read out as part of an Anglican church service. The marriage had still to take place in premises licensed for the purpose, so before the days of established register office weddings, it may still take place in the local parish church, and so appear in the parish marriage register.

Who are the witnesses?
Following the implementation of Hardwicke's marriage act in 1754, all marriage register entries should include the signature of two witnesses to the marriage. We have no search service index into witness names but when providing full details of a marriage as the result of a search, we will include the witness names. Sometimes these will be other family members and so can provide useful extra evidence for the family historian. Quite often one finds one witness name being repeated for many marriages around the same time. This will normally imply that this person is the parish clerk. Where this is apparent, we will normally mention it when providing details for the marriage. If you have purchased parish register transcripts, it is worth while to look at all the other marriages in the parish for a few years either side of the marriage you are interested in. You will quite often find one or both of "your" couple acting as witnesses for their friends or relatives who married about the same time.

Why do some names have an "x" beside them?
In the marriage register, the bride and groom and the two witnesses were all required to sign their names. If they were unable to write, they marked a cross and the clerk noted the name alongside this. When transcribing registers we conventionally mark this with an "x" in brackets beside the name.

They left it a bit late didn't they?
There is a tendency nowadays to regard the "permissive society" as a modern invention and to assume that the strict urban Victorian morality of "no sex before marriage" was the norm for all time before that. This was certainly not the case for rural communities such as most of Oxfordshire, up to the end of the 19th century. If anything, the motto was "try before you buy!". The ability to produce children was crucial to a rural family. They were the people who you hoped would look after you in your old age. So if a couple planning marriage were unable to conceive a child, the marriage would probably not take place. Hence it is quite common to find the first child being born appreciably less than 9 months after the marriage.

At what age was it legal to marry?
In the UK, the Age of Marriage Act of 1929, specified a minimum age of 16 for a person to marry (with the consent of their parents). Prior to that a girl could marry at age 12 and a boy at age 14. However that does not mean that marriage at such a young age was common. It was in fact extrememly rare. For example in 1871, in the whole of England and Wales there were only 35 marriages in which the bride was under 16. (i.e. less than 0.02% of all marriages). (Source is from ONS web site.)

It is commonly believed that following Harwicke's marriage act of 1753, a minor (a person under the age of 21) could not legally marry, without the active consent of their parents. This is not strictly true in the case of marriage by banns. When the banns were read (as described above), a parent of a minor could object and so prevent the marriage taking place. However if the banns were read without any parental objection, the subsequent marriage was legally binding. Only in the case of a marriage by licence was the formal active consent of a parent or guardian of a minor required.

Do marriage records include details of occupation and parents?
After 1837 the record will include occupations for the bride and groom, together with the names of their fathers, and the fathers' occupations. Often the record will also indicate if the father is deceased. Before 1837 none of this information is recorded. Our search index entries do not include this information for any marriages, but if a detailed search for a specific marriage is requested we will automatically provide this information where it is available.

Marriage to the sibling of a deceased spouse
When one marriage partner died it might seem logical for the surviving partner to marry a previously unmarried sibling of the deceased partner. If the wife died her sister might be the ideal person to care for the children. If the husband died his brother might be the ideal breadwinner to support the family. However the prevailing church view was that the original marriage endowed kinship between the husband and wife. Hence the deceased partner's sibling was the kin of the surviving partner, in which case the rules of consanguinity as specified in the book of Leviticus, would make such a marriage forbidden by God. This view was incorporated in the civil law governing marriage. It was not until the the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907 that men were legally allowed to marry their deceased wife's sister, whilst widows had to wait even longer until the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act of 1921 before they could legally marry their deceased husband's brother.

Before these dates you may find such couples living together as man and wife, without a marriage ever having taken place. Alternatively couples might marry somewhere remote from home claiming to be previously unmarried. Depending on the level of local knowledge, and/or the sympathies of the local vicar, children of such couples might be baptised normally with both parents named, or might be baptised as illegitimate, with just the mother named.


Where were they buried?
Most commonly in the parish where they died. Usually this would be the parish where they lived but if someone happened to die away from home they might well be buried in the parish where they died rather than have the expense of transporting the body back home for burial. At the other end of the social scale, more affluent families may have owned vaults or burial plots in their "ancestral home parish" and so the deceased would be taken back there for burial.

Can I trust the age in a burial register?
In a word, "no". Ages of infants or young married people are usually reliable but for older folk, the deceased themselves probably had only an approximate idea of their age, and anyway were in no position to say! The entry in the register is often little more than a guess by the parish clerk and any surviving relatives.

I can't find a burial. What are the alternatives?
Baptisms and marriages can often not have taken place and so go unrecorded, but everyone dies eventually. So if they were not buried where you expect, they must have been buried somewhere else. If this was in Oxfordshire, the Search Service can often help locate the burial. If not found, they may have left the county, or indeed the country. The latter could have been as voluntary emigrants, or as transportees as a results of some misdemeanour.

Why were they "Buried in Woollen"?
Entries in old burial registers will often include a phrase such as "buried in woollen" or "affidavit sworn" often with the name of a person testifying this. What is this all about? In 1666 parliament passed the first of the "Burying in Woollen" acts, requiring that all persons other than plague victims be buried only in material made from wool. This was an attempt to protect the British wool industry from a perceived threat of foreign imports of linen or other materials. (See www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=47386) It was largely ignored and in 1678 was replaced by an act with more "teeth". This required the person responsible for laying out the deceased to swear an oath before a Justice of the Peace and two witnesses, that only wool had been used. An affidavit to this effect was to be shown to the parson responsible for the burial and he in turn had to include the details in the burial register. These extra names can be of great interest to the family historian. Laying out the dead often seems to have been the responsibility of a small group of older matriarchs within a community and you find the same names cropping up again and again. The example shown here shows an entry from the Deddington Burial Register for the burial of Elizabeth PAINTER on 5 November 1684, where the oath has been sworn by Jane PARSONS. This is the sixth time Jane had performed this function since 1678. She herself died in 1691, in her mid seventies.

Burial Register Entry from Deddington

If you are very lucky you may find an original signed affidavit, such as the one shown here, which is on display in South Newington Church and is included in more detail on OFHS Monumental Inscriptions CD OXF-MI-SNT.

Affidavit from South Newington


Where can I get a certificate for a pre-1837 birth / marriage / death?
You can't! Certificates for births, marriages and deaths did not exist before the start of civil registration in July 1837.

Can you send me a birth / marriage / death certificate?
No. We cannot supply such certificates. You need to order them either from the General Register Office, or from the local Register Office of the district in which the birth, marriage or death was registered. The FreeBMD web site at www.freebmd.org.uk is a good place to start a search for such records. This site also contains details of how to order certificates on the page www.freebmd.org.uk/Certificates.html

His death was registered in 1867 at Chipping Norton (for example), can you look up the burial?
No. It is a common misconception that a birth, marriage or death registered at a town such as Chipping Norton, means that the event actually took place in that town. This is far from the case. Registration districts cover a large area, with each registration district including around 30 parishes, and it is not practical to look up each of these by hand. Moreover the registration districts do not follow county boundaries, so for example the Chipping Norton district includes some parishes in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, as well as those in Oxfordshire. Had the death been in or before 1851, we could conduct a burial index search but after that date you have no option other than to purchase the certificate.

The GENUKI web site includes a list of all the Oxfordshire registration districts, together with lists of places covered by each district. You can find it at: www.ukbmd.org.uk/reg/oxf.html


Can I determine my ancestor's year of birth from their age in a census?
Yes, but with reservations! At first you might assume that if for example, your ancestor was aged 20 in the 1851 census, they must have been born in 1831 because simple arithmetic tells you that 1851 minus 20 equals 1831. If the census had been taken at midnght on 31st December 1851, this would be true. However censuses were not taken at the end of the year. So your 20 year old ancestor may have been born in 1830 rather than 1831. In fact most censuses were taken around the end of March or the start of April, so the majority of people were born later in the year than the date of the census. This makes the odds roughly 3:1 that a person aged 20 on the night of the 1851 census was actually born in the last three quarters of 1830 rather than the first quarter of 1831. (So an easy rule of thumb for estimating the most probable birth year by subtraction is to treat the census as being in 1850, 1860 etc. Then you don't have to remember whether you should be adding or subtracting one!)

If you want to aim for precision the following are the dates of the principle censuses of interest to UK family historians:

  • 1841 - Sunday 6th June
  • 1851 - Sunday 30th March
  • 1861 - Sunday 7th April
  • 1871 - Sunday 2nd April
  • 1881 - Sunday 3rd April
  • 1891 - Sunday 5th April
  • 1901 - Sunday 31st March
  • 1911 - Sunday 2nd April

All of the above assumes that your ancestor has correctly told the enumerator their age but this is not necessarily the case. Ages can be recorded wrongly for the reasons discussed near the top of this page. Finally ages in the 1841 census can cause further confusion for the reasons described in the following section.

My ancestor's age in 1841 seems wrong?
The method of recording ages in the 1841 census is a source of great confusion, not least to some of the enumerators who conducted the census! The instructions given to the enumerator were: "Write the age of every person under 15 years of age as it is stated to you. For persons aged 15 years and upwards, write the lowest of the term of 5 years within which the age is." So if the age appearing in this census is 35 for example, you should expect the true age of the person to be anywhere between 35 and 39. The instructions go on to give some examples which should have made things clear but some enumerators still got it wrong. The most common "mistake" is to ignore the instructions altogether and record exact ages, which is great for us, as family historians. The fact that the adult ages are not multiples of 5 years gives a clue when this is happening, but even this should be treated with caution. I have come across one enumerator who consistently subtracted exactly 5 years from every age!

My ancestor's birthplace in 1841 seems wrong?
The 1841 census did not record actual birthplaces. The only indication is a column headed: "Where born - Whether in the same County." and another headed "Whether born in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts". For the first of these, the instructions given to the enumerator were: "Write opposite to each name (except those of Irish, Scotch or Foreigners) "Y." or "N." for Yes or No as the case may be." For the second, the instructions were: "Write in this column, "S." for those who were born in Scotland; "I." for those born in Ireland; and "F." for Foreigners. This latter mark to be used only for those who are subjects of some Foreign State, and not for British subjects who happen to have been born abroad."
Nowhere does this answer the question "Whether in the same county as what, or whom?" The intention was that the "Y" and "N" should indicate the birth county relative to the county in which the person was now living, but this is not clearly stated and a high proportion of the letters are wrong. Some enumerators seem to have interpreted it as "in the same county as the head of the household" or as "in the same county as the previous person entered in the schedule." Note also that a correctly entered "N", with the second column left blank, can indicate a British subject born in Buckinghamshire, Wales, or Timbuktu, but not in Scotland or Ireland! A correctly entered "Y" indicates that the person was born in Oxfordshire, but not necessarily (as is assumed by some beginners) that they were born in the actual town or village where they were living in 1841.

My ancestor seems to be missing in 1841?
During the summer months, some agricultural workers lived in temporary field shelters. The 1841 census was held on 7th June by which time these people were away from home and so "escaped" the attention of the census enumerator. Later censuses were held earlier in the year at the end of March or the beginning of April, partly to avoid this problem.

My ancestor seems to be missing in 1861?
The census enumerators' books for 1861 for the Woodstock sub-district, are missing. So if your ancestor lived within this area (which extended as far south as Kidlington and Wolvercote), they will not appear in the 1861 census.


What format do you use to send the data?
The search results are sent as a "document" attached to an email. The document uses the RTF data format. We have chosen this for two reasons:

  1. It comes closest to a universal format that can be read with just about any version of any word processor program, but still has all the formatting features needed to lay out the search results neatly
  2. It cannot contain macros or any other "active content", so there is no risk of an RTF file carrying a virus.
As sent the data is formated to print on an A4 size page. However within the data file the individual results are in one or more tables. This ensures that that they will still be formatted logically if printed on any other size of table. It also makes it easy for you to "cut and paste" the data into your own family history documents.

In what order do you sort the results?
For parish register data such as baptisms, marriages and burials we normally sort firstly by parish, then by year within each parish. This tends to group family members together. For census index entries, by default we sort by place name, then folio number, then age. This generally groups households together with the parents first and the children, in age order, following. (However if two households for your surname appear on the same page of the census the members will be intermixed). For census transcript entries the data will of course be ordered as enumerated in the census.

Can I re-sort the results into a different order?
You certainly can. Most word processors have the ability to re-sort tables. The exact mechanism will vary and you will need to check the method used by your word processor. For example in the case of Microsoft Word 2002™, you would click somewhere in the table to identify it, then select Sort from the Table menu at the top of the screen, to obtain the dialog box shown here. Within this, you would indicate that your table has a Header row, then select the criteria by which you want the table sorted. In this case we are going to sort the data by year, and then by forename within each year. Once you have selected these criteria all you need to do is click the OK button and the job is done. The principle is the same in other word processors but the details will differ. For example the LibreOffice Writer word processor, does not recognise a header row, so instead, you select the data rows you want sorted and identify the sort criteria by column number, rather than header name. Either way, the end result is just the same, data sorted by whatever criteria you choose.

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