Using the Library II: church registers
How to get the best from Guernsey's unique church registers.
By Jean Vidamour.
Before the 20th century, Guernsey church registers were usually written in French.1 This should not put off non-French speakers, for as a rule all church register entries followed the same pattern; it is only necessary to recognise a few key words to make sense of the whole. Later on we will show some examples and list the words and phrases a researcher is most likely to encounter.
There are a few research criteria that are particular to Guernsey records:
- Woman's maiden name. One of the most significant is the use of a woman’s maiden name. In England a woman ceased to use her maiden name upon her marriage, but in Guernsey she was referred to by her maiden name throughout her life.
- Spelling. Surnames are often written phonetically. Rectors and clerics may have spoken French or English or both, newcomers spoke with a myriad of dialects and the local population spoke either French or the local patois. This has led to a hotchpotch of spellings, some of which bear little resemblance to the way in which we now pronounce or spell a name.
- Confusing family lines. Care must be taken to ensure you are following the correct family line, especially when researching an old established Guernsey name, for you may find more than one person of the same name, of similar age, living in the same parish. Families kept to their favourite given names over many generations, which were usually the same used by other Guernsey families: to have a Paul or André, for example, was rare, a researcher's dream. First-born children were often named after their parents. Subsequent children had the name of a grandparent and then of uncles and aunts. To give an example: If man named Pierre had six sons, then each of his sons might be expected in turn to have used the name Pierre for a son of theirs. Hence many people of the same name and similar age, all living in the same parish!
- Transitory nature of the garrison. Up until the Second War the islands were always garrisoned. Regiments usually stayed for a period of eighteen months to two years, but the islands were also used as a sort of transit camp with battalions stopping off for a short period whist in transit or to recuperate after a battle. Many events are recorded in the church registers, but if you cannot find a particular person or event you should contact the National Archives. Staff at the Priaulx Library can help you to find out which regiment was stationed in Guernsey in the period you are researching.
It was not until much later, (in some churches the early 20th century) that a printed form was used, where entries were hand written and the content of the entry varied from rector to rector. Some entries are very brief and contain the minimum of information, while others are more informative.
These vary greatly from church to church; all rectors had their own format for recording events. Early records tend to be very brief, recording only the name of groom and bride with the date of marriage. From the mid-18th century, parents' names are usually included, with the parish of birth or residence. It was not until printed forms were introduced that all criteria were recorded.
Many Guernsey marriages are between persons who have the same surname. These are very often marriages between cousins. The wealth for many families was tied up with the land, therefore it was essential to retain the land within a family; merging two adjoining parcels of land in a parish meant the family obtained a substantial holding.
David Marquand son of Henri and Betsey Mauger his wife, and Susanne Le Clerc daughter of Jean and Susanne Guignon his wife, both of St. Andrews, were married together 18 November 1852. See French original.
Thomas son of Nicolas Langlois of St. Pierre du Bois and Elizabeth Le Poidevin daughter of Thomas of the parish of the Vale were married together in the Vale Church 29th 9bre (November) 1783. See French original.
Thomas Ogier and Marguerite Nant were married 21 May 1719.
As one might expect, very early 17th century baptismal registers are very brief. They contain the child’s name, date of baptism and chief godparent; the mother’s name is not always recorded. Later entries usually give the child’s name, name of the parents, date of birth and baptism and the godparents.
Godparents are particularly important. A male child was given two godfathers and one godmother, while a female child had two godmothers and one godfather. Very often the first born child’s grandparents took this role and subsequent children often had their uncles and aunts as godparents. The recording of all these names often points to the makeup of the previous generation, an invaluable tool when confronted with several candidates all of same name and similar age.
When a child is baptised en particulier it means that the child was unwell and baptised privately, usually at home. This child may have subsequently died. If a child died in infancy, later born siblings were often given the same forename.
Rachel daughter of Nicolas Rose and Rachel Girard his wife presented for baptism by Pierre Girard & Anne Ozanne. The infant was born on the same day. [This also probably indicates the child was very unwell.]
Eliza Robert daughter of Jean Robert jnr., from the Hurel [the address] and Rachel Brehaut his wife, born 6th May 1820, presented for baptism on 14th of the same month by Jean Pincemain, Elizabeth Robert and Sophie Brehaut.
Up until the early 19th century only the name of the deceased is given, date of burial (not of death) and rarely the age, so burial registers may be of limited use. Later burials give name, date of death, date of burial and age. Sometimes the name of parents are given, and occasionally addresses. Records vary immensely. Remember that a woman’s record will be in her maiden name and should give her status, i.e. wife or widow.
Jean de la Rue was buried 28th January 1713/14.
WORDS AND PHRASES MOST OFTEN USED: FRENCH
WORDS AND PHRASES MOST OFTEN USED: ENGLISH
Sr, short for Sieur, and Dame. [Note that M. or Mr. for Monsieur indicates a higher status than Sieur, until Mr. in the English sense debased it.]
A term of respect, like the English "Mr", or "Gent.", a landowner rather than a farm labourer.
Dame: a landowner in her own right.
Tous deux de cette paroisse
Both of this parish
The next day
Records held at the Priaulx Library:
For a list of the church records available on microfilm at the Library,and the conditions attaching to their use, please see the Library's Downloads page.
1 In the Town Church, St. Peter Port, services were held in English twice a week from the early 19th century to accommodate the garrison and the constant flow of newcomers, and entries from these services were sometimes made in English. In other parishes, if both parties were English speaking, then the Rector (if he was fluent in English) might very occasionally have written the entry in English.