In 1538 Thomas Cromwell ordered each parish to keep a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials. At first the normal practice was to write on loose sheets pf paper, but from 1597 it was ordered that records should be entered into a bound register with past records being copied up. The same Act of 1597 also ordered that in future a copy of all the events registered during the past year should be sent to the bishop’s office. These are known as bishop’s transcripts and can be used to cover gaps in the registers.
Most parishes including Pirton began their records in 1558 the year that Elizabeth I came to the throne. Until 1774, all events in the parish of St Mary’s were recorded in one volume, but after that marriages were kept separately. Baptisms and burials remained in the same book until 1814 after Rose’s Act decreed that they should be separated and standardized.
Until 1752, the custom was to begin a new year not at January 1st but at Lady Day [25th March]. The entries for each year therefore continue beyond 31st December until the following Lady Day. This method of reckoning was abandoned in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which had long been in use in Mainland Europe, in place of the Julian calendar, which was 11 days different by that time. The adjustment meant that the 3rd September 1752 was followed by 14th September.
It is important to note that the database uses modernized dates throughout.
The growth of nonconformity in the late 18th and 19th centuries affected the comprehensiveness of the Anglican registers. In earlier times, the problem was less acute, for most dissenters were prepared to accept Anglican marriage and burial services and, to a lesser extent, baptism ceremonies. Civil registration began in England and Wales on 1st July 1837.
Baptism was held to be essential to salvation in the Middle Ages and was therefore performed as soon as possible after birth. After the Reformation, the Book of Common Prayer recommended that the ceremony be performed on a Sunday or holy day unless it was feared that the baby might die. In the early modern period the custom grew up amongst the gentry of private baptism at home.
Baptisms at St Mary’s are recorded from 1562 until the present day, but the database only includes records up to 1908. Until 1634 only the father’s name was recorded and then both parents were included. Rose’s Act, which came into force January 1813, insisted on standard entries in bound volumes for all events. Henceforth, a baptismal entry noted the name of the child, the date of baptism, the full names of the parents, their place of residence and the occupation of the father.
Until 1907, when the present Methodist church in Pirton was built, methodist parents had their babies baptised either at St Mary’s or one of the methodist churches in Hitchin. There had been two previous Methodist churches in Pirton, but they were not licensed.
No standard form of entry was imposed until Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act . Under this legislation marriage by the simple process of affirmation before witnesses was no longer recognized by the law. The Act required marriages to be performed in the churches and chapels of the Church of England [except for Jewish or Quaker marriages] and to be registered in a prescribed book which was kept separate from the registers of burial and baptism. Marriages are recorded in St Mary’s registers from 1560, but until 1774 they only give names of bride and groom and parishes of residence. After this date, marital status, whether the couple signed or marked, and the names of witnesses are included. By 1837, when civil registration was introduced, the records are much more detailed, with information on the partners’ families.
Burials are recorded in the Pirton Registers from 1558 and this database continues until 1914. Entries note: name, date of burial and in some cases relationship (i.e. wife of or son of etc).