If you are able to trace your ancestry back to England, it’s likely that you will encounter a Parish Register of some form. Instructions to each parish to record births, marriages and deaths were issued as early as the reign of Henry VIII, but many locations failed to conform, and it was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that most locations started recording vital records. The Vestry Minutes of Stepney Parish record the efforts of one East London parish to implement Elizabeth’s instructions1.

“The Xth day of ffebruary 1598 at an assembly of the vestry men…

2 Item, that three new bookes of parchment be forthwth bought to register all marriages Christeninges & burialls that have bin wthin the said pish since the first yere of hir mata raigne…”2

Unfortunately for the genealogist of today, that instruction was not entirely followed: the earliest records in the Stepney register are from 1568.

The parish occasionally struggled to keep the register up to date, as the 14 December 1613 minutes show:

“Also yt is agreed that whereas there is much of the Register unrecorded as well for Christnings Mariages and Burials where through much hurt may arise, that therefore Peter wright If he like yt shall have foure pounds for the full recording of all that is yet unrecorded unto the time of the death of Jhon Brockvbancke late clerk of the Registrye…”

Keeping the Register current continued to be a problem. The 3 May 1655 meeting of the vestry concerned itself with “… the Many abuses in or Parish…”. Among the items is an instruction to the Sexton

“That all the names and tymes of birth of every child wthin this Parish bee sent unto the pish register for tyme being wthin one moneth next … and hee pforme his dutye in due tyme.”

Despite the problems, the Stepney Parish “bookes of parchment” record the marriage of my eighth- great grandfather Samuell Pettypoole to Alice Jackson 19 September 1627 as well as the births of their children, one of whom-William, born 20 October 1630- arrived in Virginia as an indentured servant circa 1655.

…for what it’s worth…

If you have a family originating in the Tower Hamlets of Ratcliffe, Shadwell, Poplar, Limehouse or Mile End, or if you have an interest in 17th century English history, I recommend reading the Vestry Minutes. If your ancestors were a bit more prominent than mine, you might find them listed by name in the minutes, and Hill and Frere included brief biographical sketches of many of these in their footnotes. In addition, it is a rich source of social history as the parish struggles to deal with issues as mundane as church roof repairs and as horrific as the plague:

“Itm att the sayed vestry holden the said 23 of January It was ordered and decreed that the foure Churchwardens… shall immediatelie with all convenient speed take order for the speedy purchasing of one parcell of ground for to make a … place of Buriall, and likewise provide that the now Churchyard be speedilie earthed over for the prevention of such noysome sents as may arise from the graves and bodies there buried…”

And, last and certainly least, you can add a snappy 17th century insult to your repertoire:

“The xxvijth of August 1601  Jt is ordered … that ffrancis Whitacres sexton shalbe put out of his place for his misdemeanors following (viz)  … did bidd ffrancis Snow shake his eares emong the dogges…

  1. Published 1890- 1891, edited by George William Hill & Walter Howard Frere as Memorials of Stepney Parish: That is to Say the Vestry Minutes From 1579 to 1662, Guilford: Printed for the subscribers by Billing & Sons; online copies and reprints are available from various sources.
  2. All quotations from this article are taken from a reprint of the Hill & Frere book..