Finding Yorkshire ancestors

This blog post is on a subject close to my heart: Yorkshire family history and some of the joys and challenges of finding Yorkshire ancestors and the unique sources Yorkshire has to offer.


Yorkshire is the biggest county in the country and is divided into ‘Ridings’ from the Danish word ‘thridding’ for a third. The ridings are North, East and West with the City of York sitting separately.   Each riding has its own record office or offices but there is some cross over, for example, some North Yorkshire records such as wills are held at West Yorkshire Archives. Not to forgot, too, that the border is not the same now as it was 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago which means that some records for those parishes on the boundary may be held in Lancashire or Durham.  For example, part of Todmorden on the western border used to be in Rochdale parish and those records are now held at Lancashire Archives. Some resources are Yorkshire wide and as with all English records, many are held at the National Archives at Kew.

I’ll be focussing here on records for the North and West ridings of Yorkshire.

Parish records are generally held by the county record office for the riding they relate to: so Spennithorne is in North Yorkshire and its parish records are held at North Yorkshire Record Office in Northallerton.  Registers for Halifax, in West Yorkshire, are to be found at West Yorkshire Archives, Calderdale office. The National Archives Discovery catalogue can help identify where registers are held if you’re not sure and GENUKI is also a good place to find information about individual parishes.  Most registers are only available on microfilm at record offices, it’s rare to be able to handle the original registers as this would damage them too much.

Where it gets a little complicated is that there is another type of record called Bishop’s Transcripts: these are copies of parish registers which were sent to the Bishop each year.  They should be identical to the parish registers though in reality there are sometimes differences, a little more information for example or an entry included that wasn’t in the original parish register.  But even more importantly they may survive where parish registers don’t or where the entry you want is at the bottom of a page which has been nibbled by mice, so it may be easier to read in the Bishop’s Transcript.  Bishop’s Transcripts were kept by the diocese until they found their way into county record offices, so they don’t always end up in the record office you expect.  For example, those for Spennithorne in North Yorkshire are at West Yorkshire Archives in Leeds. Again GENUKI is a good guide.

Many of the registers are now online: West Yorkshire’s are on Ancestry and the City of York, East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire’s are on FindMyPast but not all have been indexed and there are some transcription errors so browsing (as you would at a record office) is better than relying on the search especially where the name you are looking for is unusual or spelled a number of different ways.  Not all records survive and GENUKI is a good way of identifying which parish registers survive and whether Bishop’s Transcripts are available as an alternative.

While it’s wonderful having the registers online, it’s not always easy to find the entry you’re looking for.  Many people ask why they can’t find the baptism they are looking for online.  Sometimes this is down to gaps in the registers, an illegible name or different spelling in the original record (it’s always good to be open minded about spelling especially in older records!) or due to indexing errors online.

But sometimes it may be that the baptism didn’t take place in an Anglican parish.  Up to around 1800 it was more common to find that a baptism took place in the local Anglican church.  With the rise of non-conformity from the middle of the 18th century into the 19th century and especially in towns and cities, things began to change.  Some people simply weren’t baptised or their births registered, others were baptised or registered in one of the growing number of non-conformist chapels.  This was particularly so in the industrial towns of West Yorkshire where non-conformity was particularly common.  These towns also saw immigration from Ireland after 1845 so the number of Catholics grew too.  For North Yorkshire there had always been a tradition of Catholicism and many ‘missing’ baptisms are due to them being recorded at a Catholic mission.  Many of the records of these missions no longer survive as registers were carried from place to place by priests and those that do survive are not always online.  To access many Catholic and non-conformist protestant records it does mean a trip to the record office.

Wills are another important source of information about families and one of my favourite types of record as they can give an insight into the family you can’t get from other sources.  Before 1858, church courts proved wills after someone died and there were several levels of church court from the Provincial (or Prerogative) Courts of Canterbury and York, then the diocesan and archdeaconry courts, right down to the small local courts such as Masham Peculiar which might only cover one or two parishes.  The Borthwick Institute at the University of York holds the Prerogative Court of York and the Exchequer (diocesan) Court records and those for a number of peculiars, and West Yorkshire Archives at Leeds holds records for the Archdeaconry of Richmond (covering part of North Yorkshire) and Masham Peculiar.  Tracking down a will can be a challenge, but worthwhile.

Yorkshire is well served for finding out about property through its registries of deeds.  Only five registries of deeds were set up in the country and three of them are in Yorkshire.  A registry of deeds was set up in West Yorkshire in 1704, in East Yorkshire in 1712 and North Yorkshire in 1736.  Deeds were summarised in large deeds books and include deeds such as conveyances, long leases, mortgages and wills.  It’s not the original deed but can provide a lot of information: for example, it can reveal how someone has inherited a property or refer to a court case where there has been a dispute over a property.  It also details purchases of land where the original deeds have since been lost.  If you are interested in researching a property rather than a family, this can be a treasure trove of information about who built, owned or lived in a property over the years.  The registries of deeds are now at their respective record offices.

Evergreen Ancestry specialises in Yorkshire research and the variety and breadth of records that make Yorkshire research enjoyable and rewarding. Get in touch if you need help finding Yorkshire ancestors!

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