1. Online Parish Clerks, A Great Volunteer Activity for Genealogists

    This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard


    I volunteer as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four ancient parishes in Devon – Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice. So what does an OPC do and how do they help family historians? I have written a few articles that explain the OPC scheme. There was also a great piece in Family Tree magazine by Roy Stockdill (2012) about the subject. References to them are listed below.

    Several counties in England now have an OPC program – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Somerset, Sussex, Warwick and Wiltshire. Basically, an OPC adopts a parish or parishes and compiles reference material in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites such as mine (http://www.cornwood-opc.com/) where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed. A major stipulation for being an OPC is to share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email.

    Map of England showing counties in which an Online Parish Clerk program is present – dark grey-shaded areas show where individuals act as OPCs, light grey-shaded areas are represented only by a coordinator who manages all data received from others

    I get one or two requests per week from people looking for information about their families. Because I have copies of all of the BMD registers, censuses and lots of other information, I can access the data right at my desk, at any time, and quickly answer many of the initial questions from family researchers Most often they want confirmation about dates of baptism, marriage or burials or the names of parents. Some of the information is now online at Ancestry or FindMyPast however not everyone has a subscription or can get to a library to access these databases. With a simple search of a parish name, my websites come up and researchers then have at least an initial contact.

    Occasionally people want to know about family relationships, especially where there are several families with children of similar names (not uncommon as children were often named after their grandparents so cousins often had the same name). The spelling of surnames is often different in various types of documents. For example, I found the same individuals on BMD and census records with the surname of Kellow, Kellar, Callard and other minor variations. Family members moved around Southwest Devon quite a bit and in each place they lived, their surname seems to have been recorded differently.

    Another researcher wanted information on an ancestor named “George Chapple, alias Geo. Chapple Standard”, according to his Royal Navy service record (Shepheard, 2014). He was baptized in Plympton St. Mary parish as George Chapple Standard, son of a single woman named Margaret Standard. He married as George Standard and had three sons in the 1850s all baptized with the same surname, although the last one was registered as Chapple. But by 1861, as shown on the census, the family was using Chapple and did so from then on. We still do not know where the Chapple name comes from, possibly from his natural father, but George obviously thought that was his real name from the age of about 35.

    One of the side-benefits of being an OPC is that, through requests from others looking for their family members in my parishes, I have met many new “cousins” from all over the world. Since the Shepheards inter-married with a number of other families, I was directed to those additional names via specific queries. Through some of those cousins I found out information on other branches of the family that I may not have discovered for some time, if at all. Along with that knowledge, in some cases, came histories that I would not have known about and copies of documents and photos that I might never have seen.

    Anyone with an interest in family history can be an OPC. Volunteers are always welcome, especially if they have knowledge about a specific parish or county and like helping others find their ancestors. Have a look at which counties and/or parishes are open and contact the relevant administrator for more information.


    Shepheard, Wayne (2012). The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks. Crossroads, quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association. 7(2), pp. 6-13.

    Shepheard, Wayne (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: Examples of information gleaned from parish registers. Relatively Speaking, quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society, 41(1), pp 14-19.

    Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: A case study involving the use of information from parish registers and other data sources. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, May (146), pp. 24-29.

    Shepheard, Wayne. (2014). George Chapple Case Study. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, February (149), pp. 29-31.

    Stockdill, Roy. (2012). Online Parish Clerks. Family Tree, 28(7), pp. 38-41.

    OPC information can be obtained at the following Websites:
    • Cornwall – http://www.cornwall-opc.org
    • Devon – http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/OPCproject.html
    • Dorset – http://www.opcdorset.org
    • Essex – http://essex-opc.org.uk
    • Kent – http://www.kent-opc.org/index.html
    • Somerset – http://wsom-opc.org.uk
    • Sussex – http://www.sussex-opc.org
    • Warwick – http://www.hunimex.com/warwick/opc/opc.html
    • Wiltshire – http://www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/
    • Hampshire – http://www.knightroots.co.uk/parishes.htm
    • Lancashire – http://www.lan-opc.org.uk


    3 thoughts on “Online Parish Clerks, A Great Volunteer Activity for Genealogists

    1. Chris Wilson

      I wanted to offer my services as an OPC (in Devon as it happens) but I was told I would need various ‘stuff’ such as a microfilm reader and a batch of fiche/film, but I’d be starting from scratch. Can you offer any tips on how best to get started?

      1. Wayne Shepheard

        Hi Chris,
        Sorry I missed your reply to the article before now. In my case, starting a dozen years ago, the main information source of parish records was on microfiche. I was in the position of being able to purchase all of the microfiche available for the parish registers as well as censuses taken. I also used microfiche in my own daily work as a geologist. So I already had a reader and it was much easier to get involved quickly.
        Much of the data from parish registers, and all of the census information is now accessible online on various websites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. I do have full subscriptions to both and can review the images at any time. Microfiche and microfilm are not always easy to read, depending on the reader, but the images reproduced by the two websites are generally of very good quality. I have downloaded for my own use most of the images for my parishes now and use them to augment or check my own data. I still go back to the microfiche when people request information, though, as it is often much handier to use that searching online. The online sources are making other data sources available too such as tax and tithe records, publications about the areas, school lists and directories, etc. I try to keep up with what is out there and get copies of the information. Record offices also have lots of information, much of it not yet indexed, of course.
        With the help of many other volunteers, I have had all of the registers and most of the censuses transcribed and the information put into Excel spreadsheets. Now I can sort entries by name, date, place, or any other piece of information and respond to requests about families very quickly. I do not and cannot provide copies of any image due to copyright restrictions of the diocese and restrictions on the website subscriptions but I can at least come up with some very quick information for people to get them started on their own searches.
        As an OPC you would need to have access to the parish data in one form or another. I do recommend purchasing the microfiche and a reader (maybe a reader/printer?) as it is an easy way to get at the data at home. I think most OPCs have transcribed much of their parish information, as well, which allows them to access it quickly and reply to other family researchers. Films and computer access are available in LDS Family History Centres and on the major websites but these are not always handy, especially if you have to order the films in advance, and somewhat expensive if you have to buy a subscription.
        It does sound like starting from scratch and, if you do not already have the data, it can be. It is possible to work at it slowly, though. Start with one parish and with one set of data, such as just baptism data, perhaps from a specific time period. Build up your library over time. Microfiche readers are very inexpensive these days although gradually they are being phased out of business applications and will, in the future, be more difficult to obtain. Check with used office equipment and furniture outlets.I have a dual-fiche reader in my garage that I need to get rid of as it is no longer used.
        The short answer to your question is, “Yes you will need the data and, if you choose to use microfilm, you will need the fiche and the reader.” Other “stuff” will accumulate over time.
        One thing I would say, though, is that once you have the data in hand and start to go through it in detail, you will learn a great deal more about your own family and the community in which they lived, as well as realize the satisfaction of helping others with their research.


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