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