Chosen by Imogen Russell, member of staff
Those tracing their family history within the Church of England will find that it is fairly straightforward, discovering baptisms, marriages and deaths in the parish registers held at the Record Office. However it is not always clear how you search for families who subscribed to a religion that was non-conformist. The various denominations, splits within those denominations and history of non-conformity can be complicated, and quite often means that many of the records have not survived. If they have, the registers normally start from the mid-17th century following the Toleration Act 1662 which allowed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists to practise more openly and officially become classed as ‘non-conformist’.
Because of the different structures, administrative methods and practices of non-conformist chapels, the registers do not tend follow the same format as the Anglican ones, may not be 100% accurate, and may only start from the 1830s when civil registration was established.
As most non-conformist births, marriages and deaths can be listed in the chapel’s minute books, it is exciting when we come across something a little different like the Bosham Congregational Church book. The book is a delightful resource showing the way a different religion conducted their administrative business. In it we not only have the background to the church’s establishment in October 1812, when the inhabitants refused to attend services conducted by the drunkard parish Vicar and set up their own chapel instead, but it also includes copies of correspondence, a covenant signed by the founding members, a list of members, names for dismissal due to non-attendance or transfers to different chapels or religious denominations.
It is not just valued locally for the history of the church and its administrative information, it is also useful as a source for family history. The baptismal index at the back includes added little details, such as when and where the individual was born, when and where they were baptised, father’s occupation, mother’s maiden name and place of abode. This page shows Sarah Jane Upfield, being born in a cart near Hambrook, Chidham during July 1856. Sadly it appears that Sarah Jane didn’t survive infancy and her burial is recorded in Chidham parish registers on 14th September 1857 aged 14 months.
Non-conformist family history can be difficult to grasp but if you follow these simple guidelines you can open up a whole new world of possibilities:
- The geography of the parish and the geography of the non-conformist congregations may not be the same, especially in rural areas. Some of Bosham’s congregation comes from elsewhere, such as Hayling Island; and the records for the Chichester Quakers are housed at East Sussex Record Office.
- Membership rolls and minute books are likely to tell you about your ancestors in the same way as parish registers. You can even see some evidence of non-conformity in the parish registers. For example Sarah Sendal of Billingshurst is recorded as being baptised with her Anabaptist father’s consent in 1692. Legally all marriages after 1754 had to be in the parish church.
- Some copies of early non-conformist registers are available at The National Archives under references RG 4, 5, 6 and 8, and copies of the Sussex ones can be found on microfilm in the Record Office’s Searchroom.
- Books and guides on the specific denominations can help you to understand the individual records each non-conformist denomination produces.
Following a course on Ecclesiastical Archives, I was asked to conduct one of our Coffee Time Workshops on non-conformist family history. This was carried out in May and was a great success. If you are interested in attending one of these workshops, do look out for the 2017 Coffee Time Workshop programme due for release in November. I particularly recommend you book early for the beginners guides to Ancestry and Find My Past, as these can be sold out months in advance.