How to look for records of... Nonconformists

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide provides advice on nonconformist records held at The National Archives. There is information on how and where you can find these records, whether searching online or on site at our building in Kew. It covers records from 1559 to 1970 but most of the records referred to date from the 19th century or earlier.

The guide may be useful if you are tracing ancestors who did not belong to the Church of England, particularly between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. It highlights records and other useful resources you should consult for details of births, marriages or deaths recorded outside of the Church of England as well as advice on various other kinds of records that uncover details of nonconformists.

Consult our guide to records of Catholics for more in-depth detail on the records specific to Catholics in England or Britain up until the 19th century.

2. Who were nonconformists and what are nonconformist records?

Nonconformists were people who did not belong to the established church. In England, up until 1533, this meant the Catholic Church, but that then changed when in 1559 the Act of Uniformity made the Church of England the established church. Thus from 1559, the starting point for this research guide, all non-Anglicans were nonconformists. Though Catholics, as well as Jews, were technically nonconformists, references to nonconformists in this guide are to the non-Anglican Protestant denominations, most prominently Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers.

Nonconformist records were therefore records kept by non-Anglican churches or other congregations that recorded details of people who did not belong to the Church of England. Although nonconformist records are, by definition, non-parochial records it should not be assumed that all non-parochial records are necessarily records of nonconformists. Non-parochial records, of which there are a considerable number in the RG collections highlighted below, were registers kept outside of the local parish church but these were not necessarily records of non-Anglicans. Some Church of England records existed outside of the usual parish structure, such as those maintained by Greenwich Hospital.

3. Nonconformist birth, marriage and death registers 1567-1970

Large numbers of nonconformist registers were collected by the General Register Office in 1837, when civil registration began, and again in 1857. Many of these are now kept at The National Archives and are filed under catalogue series codes RG 4, RG 5, RG 6, and RG 8, all available to view on The Genealogist website (£). For more on how these records can be searched, see ‘3.1 Searching the registers’ below.

Birth and baptism registers are most numerous amongst these collections. Though there are a number of burial registers amongst them, in RG 4, RG 6 and RG 8, before the 1850s the vast majority of burials were recorded in the parish registers of the Church of England and so do not appear in these series. There were very few marriage registers amongst these collections since between 1754 and 1837 only Church of England marriages had been legal. However, Quakers were exempt from this law and RG 6 contains exclusively Quaker records.

Though they cover predominantly the 18th and early 19th centuries, these records date back as far as 1567 and right up to 1970. They are registers of various Protestant denominations, though there are some Catholic records included too. Principal amongst them are the Protestant Dissenters’ Registry of Births from Dr Williams’ Library (covering 1716-1837) and the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry (covering 1773-1838) which recorded births only and served Wesleyan Methodists throughout England, Wales and elsewhere.

3.1 Searching the registers

To search the registers by the name of an individual go to the The Genealogist website (£), where you can also search by other criteria, using the ‘Advanced Search’ option.

Alternatively, search in Discovery, our own online catalogue. To do so, search by place and date in RG 4, RG 6, and RG 8 (and in RG 4 and RG 8 also by denomination). Place can be a county, town, city or even the name of a chapel. To search by denomination, the terms most likely to return matches are Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Wesleyan, Congregational, Moravian, Methodist and Independent (and for registers beyond Protestant nonconformist denominations, Catholic and New Jerusalemite). Separate each term with AND. For example, Berkshire AND Methodist.

4. Fleet Registers: clandestine marriages and baptisms in London 1667-1754

An irregular or clandestine marriage was a marriage conducted by an ordained clergyman, but without banns or licence. Although they breached canon law, these marriages might still be legally valid, and could be recognised as such in English Common Law. The marriages were normally performed outside the home parishes of the bride and groom, and originally took place in prison chapels, though they were not necessarily disreputable in any way. Clandestine venues and ceremonies allowed the couple to avoid the trouble and expense of an ecclesiastical licence and afforded them some degree of privacy.

The most notorious of these venues was an area in the vicinity of the Fleet prison in London known as the Liberty of the Fleet and the registers are collectively referred to as the Fleet Registers, though many were maintained by individuals and at locations beyond the Fleet prison and its surrounds. The Fleet Registers record more than 200,000 marriages (and some baptisms) performed in the Liberty of the Fleet but also at the King’s Bench prison, the May Fair Chapel and the Mint, between 1667 and 1754, the year in which Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act came into force, making it a legal requirement to be married in the Church of England, though Quakers were exempt from this law. It has been estimated that in the 1740s, nearly 15% of all marriages in England were celebrated in the Fleet. Most of the parties, not surprisingly, came from London and neighbouring counties.

Because of their irregular nature, the registers and notebooks in the Fleet Registers series need to be used with care. The information in them is not always reliable, with some duplicated entries and others that are known to be forged. For more detail on their background, and how to use them, you may like to consult the books listed below (see Further reading), copies of which are available in the National Archives on-site library and in the reading rooms.

4.1 Record series containing Fleet Registers

The Fleet Registers are found in record series RG 7 and take the form of registers and notebooks. The information in them is not always reliable, with some duplicated entries and others that are known to be forged. The series should therefore be consulted with care.

Description of records Record series codes Online access
Clandestine marriages and baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel RG 7 The Genealogist website (£)
FamilySearch (some indexes only)
Registers RG 7/1 to RG 7/273 The Genealogist website (£)
Notebooks RG 7/291 to RG 7/835 The Genealogist website (£)
Two registers submitted as evidence to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1726 and 1735 PROB 18/50 Not available online – visit The National Archives at Kew to view the original documents

4.2 Indexes to the Fleet Registers and other resources unavailable online

Below are details of indexes to the Fleet Registers viewable at The National Archives in Kew but unavailable online. These indexes provide the RG 7 reference codes which can then be used to view the record using the ‘Advanced Search’ option on The Genealogist website (£).

Description of index Location and notes
Clandestine Marriages in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison. There are 3 volumes but they cover very few registers Copies available in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew
Brides and grooms from Hertfordshire Copies available in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew
Brides and grooms whose parish of origin was in Kent, Sussex or Surrey Available in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew
Index of marriages alleged to have taken place at the Fleet Prison based on claims made in the poor law settlement examinations at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London Available in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew. There is no guarantee that these marriages will be found in the RG 7 registers, since the index is not taken from the registers themselves

5. Other records with details of nonconformists

Nonconformists appear in records beyond birth, marriage and death registers and there are several records series at The National Archives worth consulting when investigating nonconformist histories. In the late 16th and 17th centuries in particular, non-Anglicans were regarded with much mistrust and suspicion and this is reflected in the kinds of records in which they appear during this period. After 1581, recusancy (refusal to attend the Church of England) became an indictable offence and fines levied against recusants were recorded at the Exchequer. Not all nonconformists were necessarily recusants and those that were prepared to sign oaths of allegiance to the crown can sometimes be found in oath or affirmation rolls. The Toleration Act of 1689 made life for nonconformists a little easier and allowed them to practice their faith more openly but they were required to take out licences to register their meeting locations and records of these licenses provide another source for nonconformist histories.

Description of record Catalogue reference How to search this series
Recusant Rolls 1592-1691 E 376, E 377 Online and by date only
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for London and Hampshire dissenters 1696 C 214/9, C 214/10 View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for Quakers in Colchester 1696 C 213/473 View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for Nonconformist ministers in Cumberland 1696 C 213/60, C 213/61 View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for Baptist ministers in London C 213/170A View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for Quaker attorneys 1831-1835 E 3/5 View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Oath or Affirmation Rolls for Quaker attorneys 1836-1842 CP 10/21 View the original documents at The National Archives in Kew
Deeds for the establishment of nonconformist institutions contained within Close Rolls: 1736-1902 C 54 Use the trust deed indexes at The National Archives in Kew. For more information on these indexes see the Land for charitable use research guide.
Deeds for the establishment of nonconformist institutions contained within Close Rolls: 1902-2003 J 18 Online and by date only

6. Nonconformist records and resources in other archives

Most post-1837 nonconformist registers are kept in local record offices and many can be tracked down using the county volumes of the National Index of Parish Registers (see table below). Some nonconformist chapels did have their own burial grounds and many nonconformist burial registers are still kept at the burial grounds themselves.

You can search our catalogue by chapel name or georgraphic location to find what is held in chapel archives. Refine your results using the filters.

Description of records or resource Location and access
Registers of baptisms 1740-1754 and marriages 1735-1754 at the May Fair Chapel (also referred to as St George’s Chapel, Mayfair) The original registers are held at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. Transcripts have been published in Publications of the Harleian Society, Volume XV, 1889. They are published online at Ancestry UK (£)
A single Fleet Register from 1725-1731 Within the Rawlinson Manuscripts, held at the Bodleian Library
National Index of Parish Registers.
Contains a listing of the location and coverage of all parish registers organized by county, covering nonconformist as well as Anglican and Roman Catholic registers
Copies of these publications are available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew

7. Further reading

Our shop has a selection of books on religious records for family historians

T Benton, Irregular Marriages in London before 1754 (Society of Genealogists, 2000)

G R Breed, My Ancestors were Baptists (Society of Genealogists, 2007)

D Clifford, My Ancestors were Congregationalists (Society of Genealogists, 1997)

M Herber, Clandestine Marriages in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison (3 volumes) (Francis Boutle, 1998-2001)

W Leary and M Gandy, My ancestors were Methodists (Society of Genealogists, 1982)

E H Milligan and M J Thomas, My ancestors were Quakers (Society of Genealogists, 1999)

P J Oates, My ancestors were Inghamites (Society of Genealogists, 2003)

A Ruston, My ancestors were English Presbyterians/Unitarians (Society of Genealogists, 2001)

D J Steel, National index of parish registers Vol 1: Sources of births, marriages and deaths before 1837 (Society of Genealogists, 1968)

R Wiggins, My ancestors were in the Salvation Army (Society of Genealogists, 1997)

See also:

County volumes of the National index of parish registers (Society of Genealogists)