How common is it to be unable to find baptismal records of a whole family in early 19th century England?

In one tree I am researching, there is a John Feather, who Census records locate in 1861 and 1871 in Manningham, near Bradford, with a birth date of 1836–7 and a birthplace of Heptonstall, Yorkshire. In both his marriage certificates, the spaces for father’s name and rank have a line drawn through, while the brides did provide this information. I infer that he was illegitimate, a common occurrence in Heptonstall’s parish records at the time, but I have been unable to find a birth or baptism record for him.

I have, however, found Census records for him in the 1841 and 1851 Censuses, the first in Todmorden, very close to Heptonstall, and the second in Manningham, as one would expect. The household in 1841 consisted of an older woman, Mally Thomas, and four young adults in their 20s in addition to the five-year-old John: Penelope Feather, Sarah Feather, James Feather and James Jackson. Penelope seems to have married a William Hitchen in 1843, while still living in Heptonstall, and died in 1848 in Manningham. I infer that she, not Sarah, was John’s mother because the ages fit better and because he named his own eldest daughter Penelope. Nonetheless in the 1851 Census, it is the probable aunt Sarah who he is sharing a household with, again as lodgers with a family of Thomases, Richard and Mary (possibly the same Mally as before?). Unfortunately because they are lodgers, the Census doesn’t indicate the relationship between them.

Here is the weird thing. There are a couple of families of Feathers in Heptonstall with baptisms in the late 1700s, including a Mally who could be the Mally Thomas mentioned previously. But I cannot find any baptismal records for John, Penelope or Sarah in Heptonstall. There aren't any Feather baptisms in the 1810–30 period in Heptonstall, and the few in nearby Luddenden do not include a Sarah or a Penelope. (At least not in FamilySearch or Ancestry.com that I can find.) and the only Heptonstall baptism of a John Feather in the right time range is one I already know died as an infant.

I can’t rule out that they were baptised elsewhere. Certainly there are a bunch of Feathers in Haworth, but no Penelope’s that I can find. I have no reason to think they were Non-Conformists.

What is the most reasonable hypothesis here?

  1. None of these people were ever baptised, and I’m stuck.
  2. They were baptised, but the records aren’t in the usual databases because of transcription errors or legibility problems, and I need to start trawling through the West Yorkshire parish record scans on Ancestry.com page by page?

4 Answers 4


There are a number of factors to consider here that might explain why your search has been unsuccessful so far.

Accuracy (or lack of it) of census birthplaces

For adults in particular, census birthplaces must be taken with a pinch of salt -- they are often the earliest place an individual remembers living, or where they were told they were born (which may be a larger place close to the actual birthplace), not where they were actually born. So I would not confine your search of Parish Registers to Heptonstall or even Todmorden.

One very common scenario is that the mother gave birth (particularly to a first child) at or near her parents, then took the child to her own home; the child grows up not knowing their actual birthplace and believing they were born where their parents lived.

Civil registration of births etc.

This started in July 1837, but was not compulsory until 1875. There was good reason to record marriages and deaths accurately from 1837, because marriages could be carried out in a limited number of places by officials who were obliged to record the event, and burial required the production of a death certificate; however, births were less well recorded. With a birth-date of 1836-1837, you should not discount the possibility of finding a civil certificate post July-1837 but cannot rely on it either. Not finding one could mean that he was born before July 1837, or that his birth wasn't registered.


You say you have no reason to believe they were non-conformists, but do you have any firm evidence to say that they weren't. Marriage and burial in a parish church may only indicate that there was no better option available at the time. Marriage in a civil ceremony may be suggestive of non-conformity but may also have been the most convenient option. And his beliefs (or his bride's beliefs) at the time of marriage don't have to be his parents' beliefs. What does his marriage certificate tell you about where he married and under what rites? You should also search any available non-conformist records, being aware that a negative finding isn't conclusive in any way.


What surname variants have you searched for? I would extend your search (if you have not already done so) to include Father, Fether and possibly even Featherston(e). Plus (as you have suggested) a visual search of the available records for possibilities you haven't thought of and mis-transcriptions.

  • These are all good suggestions. In this case, I've already searched those misspellings and also Leather and Teather (some of those Census records were under those). The fact that I have a 1851 census record for John when he was 15 and living with his aunt suggests his birthplace is ok. FamilySearch turns up no Penelope Feathers born 1810-1820 in all of England, except for the 1841 Census and the marriage record I already link to. I did pretty expansive searches on both databases, and paged through a stack of scans before asking here.
    – Verbeia
    Jul 30, 2013 at 9:07
  • 1
    @Verbeia, I suspected as much but was trying for a generally-useful answer. Glad to see you've found a reference to a bastardy bond -- I was about to edit this to suggest it when I saw your comment to TomH. Re census birthplaces, I've examples where the parents got it wrong only a couple of years after the infants birth, so I always take them with a pinch of salt.
    – user104
    Jul 30, 2013 at 9:10

My experience with researching in that area of West Yorkshire is that it's not particularly surprising not to be able to find a baptism record for a person, or even a whole batch of siblings.

The Ancestry collections that you're looking at are in no way complete - it's fairly easy to find things in the West Yorkshire Archives Service catalogue that don't appear to be included in the scans available on Ancestry, especially in the non-conformist registers. On top of that there will be registers which WYAS don't hold for whatever reason.

At that time, and in that area, you have the start of the massive population growth associated with the industrial revolution, which causes the population of many Church of England parishes to expand rapidly until new churches can be built and parishes split - in the early 1800s for example people from Shipley (north of Manningham) will typically turn up the in the Bradford St Peter (now Bradford Cathedral) registers until Shipley St Paul is built.

That area also has very large numbers of non-conformist chapels of various types which seem to have been constantly splitting and joining etc.

It's not unusual to find changes from Church of England to non-conformist, or from one non-conformist chapel to another, from one generation to the next or even somewhere in the middle of a group of children.

  • This is really helpful, thanks! I hadn't realised how useful their search was. I found this almost at once. I had assumed that I'd never find John Feather’s father.
    – Verbeia
    Jul 30, 2013 at 8:54

Is this one in Ancestry's West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 any use for for Sarah?

Name: Sarah Suteliffe

Birth Date: 17 Jul 1815

Parish: Heptonstall, St Thomas

Baptism Date: 6 May 1816

Father's Name: Richard Suteliffe

Mother's Name: Mally Flether

It shouldn't be indexed as "Sutcliffe" - there is no evidence on the page that was her name and since she was illegitimate, the usual surname used would be her mother's. That one came from looking in Ancestry on a wild-card of F*ther.

  • Nice find! Sarah's birthdate is a little whacky. She was apparently a rounded 20 in the 1841 Census and 43 in the 1861 Census, but the 1851 Census is consistent with this. Birthplace and family members lead me to believe they are all the same person. Sorry the Ancestry.com lins are too long for a comment.
    – Verbeia
    Jul 30, 2013 at 23:55

Try looking for a later baptism. Heptonstall St Thomas has many late baptisms. I found Mary Wadsworth baptised in 1837 although she was born in 1819. Several of her siblings were baptised at the same time regardless of age. Other entries show late baptisms for other families. Once found the entry was meticulously entered. It named Mary's father although she was born illegitimately and also confirmed that the parents were now married. PS You need to be very careful to get the right person. There are few surnames in the area and all families seem to use the same first names. You will need to check & check again that you have the right person. Also you may find marriages are recorded at St John the Baptist, Halifax

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