When May Street Presbyterian Church opened its doors in 1829, worshippers queued around the block to ensure they gained admittance to the inaugural service. The church had a thriving congregation for many years and we now hold records for baptisms and marriages which are of interest to many people who are tracing their ancestors.

The records of May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast have gone digital – thanks to a helping hand from the North of Ireland Family History Society.  Members of the Society have diligently deciphered and transcribed many hundreds of pages of handwritten documents, contents, putting them in alphabetical order.  This painstaking task involved going through the records for baptisms and marriages from 1835 to 1930.

Although May Street opened in 1829 the earliest registers date from 1835.  The reason for the absence of records between 1829 and 1834 is not clear, but there is evidence from an earlier congregation in which he served that the first minister, Dr Henry Cooke, had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards record-keeping.  In total, the registers contained details of 3,375 baptisms and some 4,348 marriages, creating a vast archive of the life and times of May Street Church over a 100-year period.

The records include poignant details of the 40 May Street members who were killed in action during World War One and the Family History Society has traced their stories to the war graves where their sacrifice is commemorated.  Included are references to two May Street members who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and one soldier who lost his life on the front line in France on November 8, 1918, just days before the Armistice.

Registers can be used not only for family history but can often provide a picture of what life was like in the past.  The marriages registers, for example, will record the occupations of the two people getting married and of the fathers of the bride and groom.  In the case of May Street, the preponderance of farmers in the mid-1800s is noticeable.  In later days the occupations range from shipwright to carpenter, from butler to land steward, from attorney to gentleman, and from flax dresser to riveter.

Charlotte Murtagh, a member of the Belfast Branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society who was responsible for the project along with Society members Edith Tucky and Doreen Walker, said they were very pleased to have been given access to the May Street records.

“This is a most valuable record of what was one of the leading Presbyterian congregations of its day, taking us through a period of enormous social change,” she said. “Belfast was evolving from a village to a major industrial city.   Street names were changing – for example, in the records we found a reference to Hercules Street, which is now Royal Avenue.  In the 19th century, May Street was drawing people in from the nearby countryside and among the addresses recorded by those who were being married were Drumbeg, Killynure, Drumaness, Ballykeel, and Donaghadee.”

The registers record two names of special interest – Samuel Gibson Getty, who served as Mayor of Belfast from 1856 until 1857 had his children baptised in May Street; and John Workman and his son Robert who played a leading part in the affairs of the congregation during its early years.  Robert Workman was the father of 13 children, the youngest of whom was Frank Workman, one of the founders of Workman & Clark, a famous shipbuilding business on the Lagan.

Charlotte Murtagh added: “There is a growing interest in family history and now the information will be readily to hand for the members of May Street and the members of the public.  Going through the registers was not easy and involved our team in a lot of detailed work.  Because some of the records are so old and the writing, in places, almost illegible, we had to employ a bit of detective work.  Often there are variable spellings of names, and many names are phonetic and spelt in unexpected ways.  We must transcribe exactly what is recorded which is why it takes longer to identify the person you are searching for.  It was dependent on the Minister writing the name according to the way he thought it should be spelt and in marriage records an ‘x’ can be found when the bride or groom was unable to write.”

As part of the project pen pictures of the 11 ministers who have occupied the May Street pulpit since 1829 have been compiled, including the family tree of Dr Cooke, right down to his great-great-great-granddaughters, Iris Palmer and Muriel Morrow from Belfast, who visited May Street last year as part of their own researches.

Charlotte Murtagh said: “Church records are invaluable particularly when they pre-date civil registration, which started in 1864 for baptisms, 1845 for Protestant marriages, and 1864 for Roman Catholic marriages.”

Kathleen Rea, an elder at May Street, said: “This has been an enormous project involving countless hours of time by Charlotte Murtagh and her colleagues at the North of Ireland Family History Society and we are indebted to them.  The database which they have presented us with will make it much easier for us to help people who contact us seeking information about their forebears.  Because the information is now on disk it means it will be safeguarded for future generations.  This archive also gives an absorbing insight into the life and times of the May Street congregation when it was at its height in the late 19th and early 20th century.”

Valerie Adams, librarian at the Belfast-based Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, which collects and preserves historical material relating to Presbyterianism in Ireland said:

‘’Congregations should ensure that their records are kept in a safe place of custody and are always in the possession of the church as over the years so many records have either been mislaid or, even  worse, lost as a result of fire or flood. Particularly in older congregations, church records are a unique source of information for the growing numbers of people who are tracing their roots and for those who want to write a history of their congregation and to explore the history of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

“Registers of baptisms and marriages are important, particularly those that pre-date civil registration of births and marriages, but so too are Kirk Session and Committee minutes, stipend books, Sunday School rolls and communion rolls.  We would encourage congregations to have their records copied so that if any of the original records are lost or destroyed at least the information is secure.

“If congregations would like preservation or copying advice we at the Presbyterian Historical Society would be happy to talk to you.  We would also encourage congregations to organise volunteers within their congregations to have their earliest registers of baptisms and marriages indexed and to lodge a copy of the indexes in the Society’s library which will relieve congregations of the need to handle enquiries concerning their records and save on the wear and tear of the original registers.

“Should you wish to do this yourselves or to have an organisation do it for you but don’t know where to start we would be only too pleased to give advice on how this should be done. We owe it to future generations to make sure that our records are kept safe and secure while at the same time ensuring that the information can be made easily accessible.’’