Parish Magazines for Family History

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Old Parish Magazines can provide family history researchers with a unique insight into the lives of their ancestors, sometimes providing information about individuals which cannot easily be found anywhere else.

The CDs produced by Yesterday's Names (and available in the Yesterday's Names eBay shop) are mostly indexes of names, plus basic details, extracted from Victorian parish magazines, designed for use by genealogists and family history researchers. Sometimes, if the volumes of magazines are suitable, the CDs include scanned page images from the magazines.

This guide is intended to give a bit of background about parish magazines, and explain how this underutilised resource can help those researching their ancestors.

So what are Parish Magazines?

In the 1860s, bishops started to promote the idea amongst their clergy that using magazine to communicate with their parishioners would help them to maintain regular contact. Gradually this idea was implemented - more successfully in some parishes than others - and today it is the norm for parishes to regularly publish magazines. In the Victoria era though, a lot of initial attempts at publishing parish magazines faltered for economic reasons. Generally, parishioners were charged about a penny for each monthly copy, but this often wasn't enough to cover the costs of production. A number of centrally produced publications started to appear - e.g., Home Words, Church Monthly, Parish Magazine - and these were often used as the main content of the local magazines, with the parish just producing a single sheet "wrapper" for the magazine, with this containing all of the local church news. The number of magazines produced in each parish varies greatly - some large parishes produced thousands of copies each month, whereas some small parishes only produced 50 copies per month. Consequently, survival rates of these old magazines are very variable.

How can old Parish Magazines help with family history research?

All magazines are different, and their style and content varied greatly, depending on the whim of the vicar or (more usually) the curate who edited them. So some of them are more helpful than others for genealogy researchers.

First and foremost, even if your ancestors aren't specifically named in the magazines for a parish in which they lived, the magazines can still give you a flavour of what their lives were like. But if your ancestors were active within the parish, then the magazines could contain a treasure trove of information. Once you've traced the basic details of your family history, references to them in parish magazines might give you more of an idea of what your ancestors were up to in between those precious census snapshots and birth, marriage and death registrations that are often all we know of them.

What information do old Parish Magazines contain?

Typically, old parish magazines contain a selection of the following types of information of genealogical interest:-

Parish register extracts : Details of baptisms, marriages, and burials. Sometimes only names are given, but frequently the baptism references also include names of parents and addresses, and burial details usually include age. For residents heavily involved with the church, there would sometimes be a detailed obituary included in the magazines.

Donations : The Victorians were great at cataloguing things, and they often excelled themselves in their parish magazines by listing all of the donations made by their parishioners to the various church funds and appeals. Obviously, these lists usually only include people who were able to afford to give money to the church, but if your ancestors are listed, together with the sums they gave, this can give you an insight into their wealth and social standing.

Clergy and church officers : As you'd expect, parish magazines contain a lot of detail about the activities of the Vicar and the Churchwardens. So if you have an ancestor who was one of those, they can be an absolute goldmine.

Prizes : Many parishes named in their magazines the children at Sunday School who won prizes for attendance or examinations. The day schools were also managed by the church, and had regular inspections where the children were tested on their religious knowledge, and again the prize winners were often named in the parish magazines. It was also not unusual for parish magazines to publish details of winners in the local flower shows etc., and winners of other types of award are also sometimes included - for example, the Highgate parish magazines contained great detail about the competitions held by the local Rifle Volunteers.

Parish Events : Before the advent of television, parish life included many organised entertainments and group outings. The descriptions of some of the entertainments can be very enlightening if you are lucky enough to find an ancestor mentioned. The descriptions of what they sang, played, or recited can sometimes be very illuminating! Some magazines describe parish cricket matches in great detail, others describe in detail the church decorations made by various church helpers. There are also descriptions of meetings held by various groups such as Mothers Meetings, Band of Hope, chess clubs, debating societies, Bible Classes, Girls Friendly Society, and various others.

In summary ...

Each parish's magazine had a different style, and some contain much more information of interest to a family historian than others. But all of them give those researching their family history a unique insight into the parish life of their ancestors.

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