So far much of your research will have been online, but to get back before the censuses and the start of Civil Registration you’ll need to consult parish registers.
These are the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, kept by Anglican parish churches in England and Wales since 1538 (1555 in Scotland) – although few survive from before 1600.
These records are rather more complicated, and piecemeal, than the neat system set up by Civil Registration. For a start, they don’t record the same thing – baptisms, marriages and burials (BMBs), rather than BMDs.
Also, they were maintained by the local vicar and with little standardisation – some did it well, providing lots of information in a perfectly legible script, others did not. To protect these crumbling paper records, most of those you see now will be on microfiche.
“Nonconformist” is used to describe Protestants who practiced outside of the Church of England, including Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians and Congregationalists.
Parish registers are kept locally by County Record Offices, so you will need a good idea of your ancestors’ geographical origins to find family members in these records.
If you aren’t sure of an ancestor’s parish, the International Genealogical Index is a good place to start. It lists baptisms and some marriages (but no burials) between 1538 and 1875 and from all over the British Isles.
Search it online at www.familysearch.org. Bear in mind that it is incomplete and contains errors, so you must also check the original register where it is possible to do so.
What if I can’t find my ancestor?
Although the Church of England acted as de facto registrars before the start of Civil Registration in 1837, parish registers were not secular. If your ancestor does not appear in them it may be because they belonged to a non-Anglican religious denomination – Jews, Catholics, Protestant nonconformists and other religious groups often kept their own records.