Pulling back the covers! How to blanket search parish registers

Cover of Hempnall Parish Register

In this blog I am going to discuss blanket searching parish registers in England & Wales and how it can benefit your research.

I first heard the term used in the 1990s, but have not heard it mentioned much since, presumably because database searches have taken precedence. Researchers who undertake both one surname and one place studies will be very familiar with the practice and may have their own term for this search method.

It consists primarily of an awful lot of ‘legwork’ followed by careful analysis. Researchers not used to the amount of work involved might shy away from undertaking the task, but I would beg patience in this regard because there might be significant rewards.

It can’t be used in all scenarios because it relies on our ancestors staying put for a few generations. It’s also a big task to cover an inner city or town parish, not just because of the sheer number of entries, but because analysing the results will be onerous and possibly not beneficial.

What is blanket searching and when should I use it?

The best scenario for its use would be if your research has led you to an ancestor born before civil registration who came from a small or smallish rural parish. You will have evidence that the family may have originated from the parish. Even if you do not, once you start your search it will soon become evident from the repeated occurrence of the name (or lack of) whether this method will be worthwhile.

I will speak about surname clusters and frequency later, but I suggest if you do not start picking up the surname in your first decade or 15 year search, then you should stop because this method may not be appropriate.

Many family historians may also be faced with a situation where they have two individuals with the same name born close to one another and either could be their ancestor. Blanket searching may not answer which one is their ancestor (though sometimes it does or may lead to a common ancestor – see below), but it might facilitate solving the problem.

So what is it? Put simply it is searching through an entire parish register for occurrences of a particular surname and its variations. For effectiveness the results are fully transcribed complete with any marginalia and in chronological order, they are then analysed after.

You should repeat the process for the Bishop’s Transcripts because they may include other information or be easier to read etc! Always do both.

Tools – where and by what means

I have undertaken all my blanket searching in archives using original microfilms of the registers. I find it easier to scroll through pages, identify gaps in the registers, consult catalogue lists or ask the archivist about missing material if I need to.

On the other hand, there is all the trouble of travelling to the record office frequently and getting motion sickness using the microfilm readers. The zoom function and lighting can also be poor when using microfilm readers.

Ultimately whether you choose to view microfilm or scroll through sometimes slowly loading poorly scanned images is down to you.


The parish for this exercise is Hempnall in Norfolk and I am interested in the family by the name of Sporle. It has many variants including Sporl, Spaul, Spall and Spawl.

The ancestral candidate I am in interested in was born in the 1790s. I am not going to start in the 1790s however, I am going to start in the 1890s!

I am also going to start with burials. I will search the burial register page-by-page working backwards from 1890 – at this date and for many decades going backwards the register will be in a separate volume.

I extract from the register every occurrence of the name Sporle and its associated variants. This allows me to instantly identify any potential great grandparents, grandparents, parents etc., of the individual I am interested in; it also allows me to look for siblings of my ancestor who may have died young. Knowing the deaths of the older generation can allow me to not only search for them in the census records, but to also look for Wills and newspaper articles, poor law and so on.

Why is this significant? I might be able to use Wills and newspaper obituaries/funeral attendance notices to confirm or eliminate an individual from my search.

Image of a parish register blanket search
(C) 2022 Family History Gifts. No reuse without permission.

Killem’ Off

Viewing the burials first may also kill off any candidate who shares the same name with an ancestor, this helps with the elimination process. Avoiding bias is paramount in research – we may find a baptism that fits our narrative and will be convinced it is our person; if we have the burial first and we can see that individuals have died, we will not be swayed and will look elsewhere.

It may also be the case that we manage to kill off both our candidates when they were infants or children. Immediately we will know we are looking in the wrong parish or the wrong church and must turn our attention to somewhere else. We may have done a lot of work so far, but we still might need it, so hold onto those burials and continue back as far as you can!

Getting to Know Them, Getting to Hate Them…

As you gradually work your way back through all three sets of baptism, marriage and burial registers plus the composite register (remembering to search page-by-page), you will start to become familiar with local families, their names, the localities and the handwriting of the various clerks.

This is crucial to your understanding of the register particularly if your family had been there for generations. You may eventually find some of these families turn out to be related through female ancestors you identify, meaning you might have to do this process more than once. Grrr.

Learning the locales of families means you can group them and you may be able to start to construct trees once you have been through all the registers.

Also, there might be similar surnames to your own, particularly at the root of the name, which may confuse you, so it is good to note them during the first phase of your research before the handwriting becomes nebulous.

Talking of which, as you go back you will discover the writing will become more difficult to read particularly before the Rose Act and the unified registers. You may encounter bleed-through pages, faded ink, vermin damaged, water damaged registers.

At this point you will curse the clerks for their orthography and ye Gods for letting the damage happen!

Thanks to your preparatory work in getting to know the people of the parish you are in a better position to tackle these problems.

Surname frequency

As you go back in time you may notice the surname starts to thin out. Once you have done blanket searching a few times, you will use this thinning out to more or less accurately predict when your ancestors came to the parish.

If the thinning out or infrequency occurs while you are still in the 19th or late 18th century, be prepared to have to start looking at other neighbouring parishes very soon.

If you discover lots of events with your surname and you are pretty sure this is your ancestor in the baptisms, be happy, it probably means your ancestors have been in the parish a long time multiplying every generation.

John, William, Thomas and Robert again and again

I have already mentioned how we may encounter two individuals of the same name in the same parish and we do not know which is our ancestor.

This can happen organically with ubiquitous names like Smith and it can be a devil to sort them out. It can also occur when a family has been in a parish a long time.

With a small pool of first names in use and with naming patterns dictating who the sons and daughters were named after, we may be confronted with something like this:

In reality this can occur over more generations than I have shown here. (C) 2022 Family History Gifts. No reuse without permission.

We can see we should be wary of younger sons giving their sons the same first names. To boot these cousins will be of the same or similar generation; you may find them baptised more or less at the same time across a span of five to ten years or so. Yes this is confusing, but you can also see that ultimately they lead back to the same ancestor.

This means you should endeavour to continue with your blanket search of the parish registers in order to construct these families and see how they link up.

Blanket search marriages, blanket those banns

You may find your ancestor and his siblings in the marriage and in the banns register. Again start from the late nineteenth century backwards. Marriage registers are a good place to find out what happened to females because they traditionally married in their home parish, so that 4 x great grandmother who was widowed may have remarried and you may therefore find out what happened to her.

Family Clusters

Parents having children in groups are useful and we can use this to construct mini trees before we bring them together, hopefully using clusters from previous generations in our baptism search.

We should be mindful of the gaps we can identify from doing the blanket search. Here we have Robert and Sarah Sporle having children in the 1740s and then a Robert and Sarah Sporle having a child in 1770. Unlikely?

(C) 2022 Family History Gifts. No reuse without permission.

If the gaps in between children are small for the same couple, but large enough for us to be asking why, we should consider the couple went to a neighbouring parish and then came back again. Or they dabbled in a bit of non-conformity before deciding they didn’t like it or had no idea of the legal consequences for their children when it came to proof of identity.

Some individuals who were baptised in the parish, left and had their children elsewhere, then came back for their inheritance. Hence the reason to keep those burials if your original candidates died! John Sporle who was baptised in 1773 left and married Martha, he then went onto have children at Fritton before returning and was eventually buried at Hempnall in 1858. Such movements in and out of the parish are easier to identify with blanket searching.

Wrapping up

There is much more I could say about analysing blanket search results, but this post is far too long already and my AIOSEO score will be zero if I continue, so I will leave you with this horrifying addition to the burial register you would have discovered if you had blanket searched the Hempnall parish register:

Norfolk Record Office; Norwich, Norfolk, England; Norfolk Church of England Registers; Reference: PD 436/3

[Susanna Sporle widow found barbarously murdered in bed March 1st buried the 4th]

Text and graphics (C) 2022 Mish J Holman for Family History Gifts. No reuse without permission.

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