Michael Gandy has published a series of volumes detailed below that give the location of known registers from the 18th century towards the end of the 19th century. The volumes were published published in 1993 (with the London and Home Counties volume being revised in 2002 and the North West England volume in 1998) and so can be somewhat out of date, but are still very useful as a starting point in understanding what records are available. Some volumes are now out of print, but major libraries should have copies.
Note that there are no central records of conversion to Roman Catholicism, but missions should have recorded details of those people received into the church.
Catholic records are sometimes written in Latin but this often follows a formulaic pattern and translation should not be too difficult, there are many internet resources that will help. Note that a Latin first name may have more than one English equivalent; Jacobus could be Jacob or James; Helena could be Helen or Ellen.
Many Catholic registers have now been deposited in the appropriate county record offices and should be readily available to view. Some still remain with the parish priest and these can be more difficult to access. There is no legal requirement for the priest to grant access, and you will need to rely on his goodwill. For postal enquiries please enclose a stamped addressed envelope or international reply coupon. Many priests are too busy to help or have no interest in helping family historians.
Birth and Baptism - These were normally combined into a single register with one column showing the birth date and another the baptism date. Typically, you will expect to see the name of the child, the parents’ names, and the godparent’s names. Godparents are often (closely) related to the family and are a useful pointer to further research. If the child subsequently married somewhere else, then the priest sometimes noted this against the baptism record as in this example:
11 January 1863 Anne d of John & Elizabeth Ratcliffe (olim Cheetham) born 8 inst
Ipsa die quarta mensis Septembris anni 1918 matrimonium contraxit cum Jacobo Turner filio Mathaei et Anna Turner in ecclesia Sancti Joannis apud Wigan
My translation: 4th Sept 1918 married James Turner son of Matthew and Ann Turner in the church of St John, Wigan
Sometimes, perhaps to prove legitimacy or not wishing to offend the local minister, Catholics were also baptized in the Anglican church.
Confirmation and First Communion – usually there is not much more detail than the name of the person and the date. Note that making assumptions about the age of the person is unreliable as the ceremonies can take place at any age. Central registers of confirmation were kept from 1768 - 1811 and 1816 for the Midland counties, and 1826 - 1837 and 1843 for London and the home counties and these have been published by the Society.
Marriage – The amount of detail varies, but may include both sets of parents’ names and residences. Again witnesses are often closely related to the bride and groom. Note that when Hardwicke’s Act was in force there may be both a Catholic and an Anglican ceremony, with the Anglican ceremony not necessarily being in the nearest church. As an example:
Catholic: 2 Jun 1881 John Ratcliffe married Mary Unsworth at Wrightington Hall
Anglican: 3 Jun 1881 John Ratcliffe married Mary Unsworth at St Peter and Paul, Ormskirk (this was about 8 miles from their home, and the nearest Anglican church was less than 2 miles away)
Death and Burial – Expect to find date and age, and sometimes the cause of death. Note that the cause of death can be different from the official death certificate. Where the Catholic church did not have a graveyard (and many early ones did not) then there would normally be only a record of the death with the burial taking place in the Anglican graveyard, and there would be a corresponding Anglican record. If you are lucky these entries will be marked as ‘Papist’ or ‘Church of Rome’ or similar. Here’s an example from the death register for Wrightington Hall, and the corresponding entry from the Anglican parish burial register:
Death: 4 Feb 1838 John Ratcliffe aged 53 years
Burial: 7 Feb 1838 St Wilfrid’s, Standish John Ratcliffe - Age: 53, Abode: Shevington, Notes: Interred as a member of the Church of Rome
Churchyards started to become full in the early 19th century, particularly in large towns and cities, and civic cemeteries were established. These sometimes had specific areas for Catholic burials and where records have been published they often indicate the religious denomination of the person. It is worth trying to identify all the burials in a particular plot as, except for common plots, this can indicate other family members or relatives. Where the denomination is not given then this can be established if the name (and denomination) of the officiating minister is known. The name of the Catholic priest at the time (if the mission/parish is known) can usually be obtained from Kelly (see below).
These notes on mission (parish) registers are © Peter Barlow 2016
- Gandy, Michael Catholic Missions and Registers 1700-1880 (6 volumes including Scotland) 1994
- Gandy, Michael Catholic Parishes in England, Wales and Scotland: An Atlas 1994
Kelly provides historical details of the Catholic missions (parishes did not appear until after the end of the first world war) up to the very early 20th century.
- Kelly, Bernard W. Historical Notes on English Missions Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co 1907 reprinted by Michael Gandy 1996