1. I wish I knew when they were born!

    Have you ever wondered how long the gap was between a date of birth and a baptism? When you are used to knowing a date of birth from working with civil registration records, moving into parish registers and having only a baptismal date can be frustrating, particularly in the absence of other good quality information about a person. Sometimes in questions of multiple identity we really do need a precise date of birth, or at the very least a definite year and probable month. Sometimes we have a date of birth perhaps from a family record, but no baptism date. How far along should we search? What was the common interval between a birth and a baptism?
    Until the 17th century, the Church in England & Wales required that no longer than 7 days should elapse between birth and baptism. Indeed some baptisms in the mid-16th century (when parish registers begin) are known to have taken place on the same day as the birth (Chislet, Kent) and it is thought that medieval practice was also for baptism on the same day as the birth. The Book of Common Prayer held that a child should be baptised on the next Sunday after birth, or failing that the following Sunday. But did people obey this ‘rule’?
    Yes and No.
    One of the interesting but highly frustrating things about doing family history, is that each family is unique, and of course some parts of any family are going to be more awkward and less conforming than others. After all, if everybody did exactly the same thing, then it would be easy to find them and easy to predict them, and genealogy would not be full of all those ‘But why?’ type questions, and all the duller for it. Historians can satisfy themselves with what was the ‘norm’ by looking at all the births and baptisms from those rare parish registers where both are recorded, (the well-known ‘Dade and Barrington’ registers of Yorkshire and Durham have both) and draw some general conclusions, but unless we family historians have the specific facts in front of us, there is no way of knowing how much our own family conformed to the rest of society. It seems very likely that different districts had different ‘norms’; thus it would be foolish to presume that birth/baptism intervals in both Kent and North Yorkshire would be the same. Many factors are likely to have come into play; how far the church or chapel and baptising Minister was from the family home, the time of year, whether the family were Dissenting or not, what the neighbours did, how strict the Minister was, indeed how strict the diocese was, and whether the community was rural or urban.
    Nevertheless, we can apply a rule of thumb to the period when the Church tended to have a tighter grip on things, say prior to the 1640s. If you have a baptism but no way of knowing the date of a birth, then it should be within a 14 day period, and in the 16th century probably more like 7 days, unless something very unusual had happened. That is the good news. The bad news is that most of us don’t have our ancestors back as far as this, or at least only have a few ancestors back as far as this. Over the next 200 years, the interval between birth and baptism tends to get longer, particularly growing in the second part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. The work of historians and demographers tend to tell us things like ‘75 % of children in X parish were baptised within 14 days of birth in 1750’. This does not help a genealogist work out a likely gap in 1830, in Y parish, although it might be helpful to know that you should consider a gradually increasing interval as being normal. In a regular church going family it is highly likely that any child would be baptised between one and six months old. But then, not all families were regular church goers, as the Victorians were shocked to discover from the 1851 Religious census. http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/building-on-history-project/resource-guide/source-guides/religious-censuses.htm
    I have been building a big tree for a client, and one family has 14 children born in the period 1800 – 1820 in various locations, including in India and one even at sea. The family were good church attenders with the father being a churchwarden at one point. We have dates of birth for all of them from family records, so we can be sure that we have a fairly accurate picture. The eldest children were all baptised within 28 days. With the younger children it becomes much more flexible, with the biggest interval stretching to six months, but most of them being baptised at four or five months. In the previous generation of the same family, (1760s to 1780s) the birth baptism interval (where known) is always about one month.
    Looking at my own family at the start of the 19th century, where the information on both birth and baptism is known, some children are baptised at one month, but there are also others at around five months. Perhaps a conclusion to be tentatively drawn from this is that the more children you have, the more lax you tend to become, suffering less pressure from others to do the ‘right’ thing.
    Historians and demographers have only done studies on a very few parishes, because it was hard for them to locate registers where both birth date and baptism dates were known; Pevensey in Sussex is one. However, now that so many registers are online it is hopefully not going to be too long until studies based on more registers which show both birth dates and baptism dates are made.
    Where there are really long intervals, as with adult baptisms, it does beg a lot of questions. I have an interesting example in my own family, with four children baptised on the same day in 1815 in a chapel far from where they were living in central London. The father was an Attorney at Law, and although of foreign extraction (his father being an Italian-French migrant to London); I have no evidence for him being anything other than Church of England. He was educated and well to do, so why did two of his children get baptised in London (the two boys), and then all four children (boys and girls) get baptised or in the boys case, re-baptised (one of them within 2 months of their first baptism) at Aldborough Hatch, a little chapel of ease for Barking?
    I don’t know when the two middle children, the girls, were born, but I think they were about 8 and 5 years old in 1815. Naturally it is one of the girls I particularly want a more accurate date of birth for. They definitely lived in the parish of St Anne’s Soho in London, so this little chapel was obviously chosen as an out-of-the way place to avoid any nosey neighbours, but why? Were the parents not legally married, which was then rectified just prior to this set of baptisms in June 1815? It was obviously originally considered more important to baptise the boys rather than the girls, so were the 1815 baptisms a change of heart, in which case why include the boys?
    If anyone has any ideas, or similar stories from their own family, please share them!
    What are the birth and baptism intervals in your family?
    Read more from Stuart Basten
    Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

    6 thoughts on “I wish I knew when they were born!

    1. Gail Roger

      Prior to the nineteenth century, family christenings in both my husband’s family and mine seemed to occur quite promptly, within three weeks — except among our non-comformist members, of course! Intervals between birth and C of E baptisms from the 1790s on, though, seemed to depend on the given family unit.
      For example, for two generations, my husband’s mother’s ancestors in Folkestone (mid-nineteenth century), carefully presented their children at the church as close to exactly one month after their respective births as possible. The exceptions, of course, were private baptisms, when the infant was not expected to survive.
      However, more than one branch of my father-in-law’s mother’s East London forebears would take their children in batches, usually three at a time. They were working class, so I think available money and time would be a factor. A big plus with these groups of delayed baptisms is that the birthdate is more likely to be noted in the margin.
      The strangest baptismal ceremony I’ve come across in my family took place on 6 May 1880 in Wolverhampton. Fourteen grandchildren of my great-great-great-grandparents William Stokes & Frances Meanley were christened this day – six of the nine children of one daughter, one of the two children of another daughter, and seven of the ten children of my great-great-grandfather, including my great-grandmother, then aged thirteen. They take up two pages of the parish register. One of my dearest wishes is to stumble across a letter or some other document explaining why these cousins, ranging from ages one to sixteen, were all christened at once. The families were comfortably middle class and staunchly Church of England.

      1. helenosborn Post author

        That is odd Gail!
        I wonder just how staunchly Church of England they all were? I wonder if all the births are registered with the local registrar. I would like to know what happened in the family immediately before this mass baptism and what happened afterwards, what affected their lives that resulted in this. It is easy to understand that sometimes a whole family might want to make sure that things are made ‘regular’, perhaps before migration away from an area, but to have all the children of 3 siblings baptised on the same day is surely very unusual. What was going on in the generation above? Had someone very influential on them all died?

        1. Gail Roger

          I believe they were staunch — my grandmother was born in 1900 and she remembered her aunts and uncles well. Yes, all births had been registered promptly, and the other children of these three siblings were christened reasonably soon (that is, within the month) after their births – several children were born and baptized before the mass christening (in fact, one appears to have been christened twice!) and some others after. So, it wasn’t *all* the children of the brother and two sisters; there were twenty-two grandchildren in total – the other three children of my ggg-grandmother were childless.
          It may (or may not) be relevant that my great-great-great-grandmother had the curate of St Paul Wolverhampton as a boarder; he is listed with the household in the 1881 census. My ggg-grandmother died about two months after the census, so a little over a year after the mass christening — maybe she imposed a “deadline”? (Sorry about that!)
          I do timelines for the various branches of the families I research. I’ll knuckle down and update this one!

    2. Wayne Shepheard

      I actually have a lot of data both births and baptisms for one of the parishes I look after as an Online Parish Clerk – Plympton St. Mary. I had noticed there were differences in the dates but had not really looked at them all to see what the averages were or if there were trends. Thanks for reminding me Helen.
      Some Vicars in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were very diligent and recorded both the baptism and birth dates in the registers. The seemed to come in groups though, with data set out for several years and then no birth dates for several years. I went back and analyzed the information and got quite a shock. I always assumed baptisms were done within a few days of the childrens’ births. I found that was not necessarily so!
      As Helen indicated, they did not always follow the rules.
      There are five groups of data in the Plympton St. Mary parish baptism register where we can compare the dates:
      1646-1651: Total baptisms 183; Total births recorded 162; Average time between births and baptisms 13.9 days; largest interval of time observed 44 days
      1653-1661: Total baptisms 312; Total births recorded 232; Average time between births and baptisms 16.6 days; largest interval of time observed 181 days (1)
      1697-1706: Total baptisms 239; Total births recorded 118; Average time between births and baptisms 14.7 days; largest interval of time observed 40 days
      1798-1814: Total baptisms 909; Total births recorded 223; Average time between births and baptisms 204.8 days; largest interval of time observed 2843 days (2)
      1815-1817: Total baptisms 116; Total births recorded 114; Average time between births and baptisms 44.5 days; largest interval of time observed 1665 days (3)
      (1) One entry had 181 days between the birth and the baptism which, when excluded from the calculation, dropped the average to 15.9 days. Without this entry the longest period was 44 days.
      (2) There 29 entries where the child was older than one year: 9 children over 1 year old; 8 over 2 years old; 5 over 3 years old; 5 over 4 years old; and 2 over 5 years old. Without these entries, the average time dropped to 76.7 days.
      (3) One entry had 1665 days between the birth and the baptism which, when excluded from the calculation, dropped the average to 30.1 days.
      I was very surprised that the intervals were so long, about 2 weeks in the 1600s and rising to 10 weeks in the 1700s and coming back down to about 4 weeks in the early 1800s. Out of the total 849 entries with birth data, only 9 children were baptized the same day they were born.
      Only one interval had so many children over one year old baptized and all between 1800 and 1814. These were mostly in families where more than one child was baptized. I am curious now what was going on during that time that when so many parents waited to have their children baptized.
      The results beg for more research into the history of the parish.
      So can we use these calculations as representative of the periods when births were not recorded? I think analyses like these are very useful. I wish more of the Vicars in my other parishes had been as thorough.

      1. helenosborn Post author

        Wayne that is fascinating.
        I wish that the Online Parish Clerks could all get together and get this type of data and information out into the public domain. This is the type of project that we should be thinking about and promoting.
        I would say that yes we can use these calculations as representative of the periods when no births are recorded. However, it is always those outliers that cause concern because we are usually dealing with individuals rather than communities. However it is really useful to know what was ‘normal’ for any parish, as it then throws those not normal families into a sharper relief.

    3. BookerTalk

      I’m going to take a guess that the reason why there was a seven day rule was the incidence of death just after birth and this the desire to make sure the individual didn’t die unshriven. As mortality rates improved, a longer gap was possible?


    Comment on this post

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *