Basics on church records (Australia)


Records of baptisms, marriages and burials were maintained by the church authorities for the colony of New South Wales from the sailing of the First Fleet from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787, with the earliest recorded events of this kind taking place during the voyage to the new colony. While initial records were those of the Church of England chaplains, individuals with other religious affiliations will also often be found in these early records.

From the introduction of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in New South Wales on 31 March 1856 researchers can often find at least two records of the one event:

  • a church record of a baptism as well as the civil birth registration;
  • a church record of a burial as well as the civil death registration; and
  • a church record of a wedding as well as its civil registration.

The NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages holds copies of registrations of many church events prior to the commencement of civil registration, and some relating to the period after. The indexes to births, deaths and marriages for NSW (1787-1918 for births and 1787-1945 for deaths and marriages) are therefore a good starting point for these events. The indexes can be consulted online, on CD-ROM and microfiche at SAG.

Not all births and deaths resulted in baptisms or church burials, so until March 1856 some went unrecorded by either civil or church authorities. In other cases, a baptism or marriage may have taken place, but the minister or priest involved lost his notes and never entered the event in a register. Further, many couples chose to live together as husband and wife without a church ceremony having taken place.

The information in church records is not as extensive as that found in civil registrations. A baptism, for example, will normally only show the name of the child being baptised, its parents (not always the mother's maiden name), the date of the baptism and where the ceremony was performed. The date of birth of the child is not always given. Details of where the parents were living at the time of the baptism and the occupation of the father may also be included. Unlike a birth record, a baptism record will not provide details of other issue born to the same couple, the ages of the parents, their birthplaces or place and date of marriage. Similarly, a burial record will provide only the name and abode of the deceased, together with age and occupation. That is, the place of burial will generally not be shown, though this can sometimes be gleaned from sources such as newspapers.

Over 120 volumes of early church registers have been released on microfilm by State Records in association with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the various church authorities. They are available in many libraries, including SAG. If a researcher locates an early baptism, marriage or burial on the Registry's NSW BDM indexes and the volume number referred to is between Volumes 1-123 it is therefore possible to view this record on microfilm without needing to purchase a copy of the certificate through the Registry. Note that events in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania are recorded when these States were part of the New South Wales colony.

Joint Copy Project

The early church registrations now held by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages are not the originals, but are returns sent to it at a later date. Because of the risks of mistake or omission in the copying process, the original church registers are always worth checking. These registers remain with the relevant church authorities, and for more than 25 years SAG has been working with the National Library of Australia and the Mitchell Library to microfilm them and make them available to researchers at these three repositories.

Most inner-Sydney churches have been filmed, as have all registers of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn. Many Roman Catholic and Presbyterian registers have also been microfilmed. A cut-off date of about 1940 has been applied to many of these registers for privacy reasons.

Advantages of church registers

The original marriage register maintained by the church contains the signatures of the bride, bridegroom and witnesses (or their mark if they were unable to sign their name). A marriage certificate produced by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages of the same event will normally be a copy of the return sent to it by the officiating minister, and will not contain original signatures or marks.

It was not until 1896 that it became compulsory for the age, birthplace and parentage of marriage parties to be provided for civil registration. The Registry attempted to capture the missing data from church records in the early 1900s, annotating Registry records appropriately, but many such records still have these columns blank. Church records, on the other hand, often record them. Baptisms and burial records do not provide the same scope for extra information, but researchers should always locate any relevant church registers event to ensure information recorded at the time has not been omitted from or incorrectly transcribed to the civil records.

Locating church registers and how SAG can help you

SAG's microfilm holdings are now included in our online library catalogue. Some items managed by SAG for the Joint Copy Project above can also be identified in the online catalogues of the Mitchell Library and National Library of Australia - search for "Society of Australian Genealogists" as author and inspect hits that are shown as microforms.