William Dade and the English Parish Register

In a previous blog (July 2013) we lauded Thomas Cromwell, the formidable father of the English parish register.  We turn now to a lesser known pioneer, the 18th century priest and antiquary, William Dade.

Before Rose’s Act of 1812, there was no standardised form in which parish records were to be kept.  Pre-1813 registers manifest a wide variety of skills and enthusiasm in record-keeping, from the barely literate to the garrulous.

Anyone who works in 18th century Yorkshire records will at some point come upon a ‘Dade Register’, in which an unexpected wealth of genealogical information is embedded in a single record.

William Dade, whose own baptism was recorded in the registers of Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 26 January 1741, came from a clerical family.  His father was vicar of Burton Agnes; his grandfather had also been a priest.  Dade was a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1759 to 1762, although there is no record of him having obtained a degree.  From university he went into the priesthood, serving as curate in a series of York churches before securing his own parish of St Olave, Marygate, York, in 1771. Like many eighteenth century clerics he was a pluralist, being also the incumbent of St Mary, Castlegate, and St Michael, Spurriergate; and by the end of the decade he had also acquired the livings of Barmston and Ulrome in Holderness (East Riding of Yorkshire).

Unlike the modern hard-pressed clergyman who rushes from one church to another on a Sunday morning, the 18th century pluralist was not over-burdened by parish affairs, which would largely be delegated to curates.  Dade found time to develop the skills of the antiquary, that wonderfully dated term which the Oxford English Dictionary defined (in 1885: the entry has not been fully updated since):

A student (usually a professed student), or collector, of antiquities. (Formerly used, in a wide sense, of a student of early history; now tending to be restricted to one who investigates the relics and monuments of the more recent past.)

Dade’s close involvement with parish registers made him see their potential as a precious source of historical data.  He instituted a form of record-keeping in his parishes which asked for additional information to be added to register entries for the benefit of ‘the researches of posterity’.  Each record of baptism, for example, was to include not only the father’s profession and ‘abode’ but also those of the father’s parents; the entry was also to state where the infant was placed in the family (whether first or second son, etc).  Burial entries were to include the cause of death, the age of the deceased, and family details which made them superior to the Victorian death certificate that was to be introduced in 1837.

Dade’s scheme was approved by Archbishop William Markham and introduced in the whole diocese from 1777.  However, the concept of obedient and copious form-filling had yet to be imprinted in the national psyche.  The extra work that it generated meant that it was short-lived and not all incumbents complied; those in densely-populated industrial parishes found it particularly arduous.  It was discontinued after 1812 when the new standardised parish register books came in.

Dade made Barmston his home and there embarked upon a history of Holderness which, like many a similar project, was never published, although it reached proof stage in 1784 and some fragments survive in the British Library.  The author’s health had already begun to deteriorate and he died in 1790 at the age of 50.

An informative discussion of Dade registers by Roger Bellingham, published in 2004 in Local Population Studies, emphasises the value of these records, not only for genealogists but for those with wider interests whom we might describe as local or social historians, or demographers: to William Dade, without a doubt, they would be antiquaries.

References:

William Joseph Sheils, ‘Dade, William (bap. 1741, d. 1790)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 .

http://www.localpopulationstudies.org.uk/PDF/LPS73/Article_3_Bellingham_pp51-60.pdf

 

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