It is now more than half a century since W.E. Tate provided us with his comprehensive review of the contents of The Parish Chest. His work remains the authoritative guide to parish records. However, since he wrote, a huge amount of research has been undertaken, as witnessed by the contents of this website. In his day, parish records were generally still held in parish chests; today, apart from current records, they are in record offices. Many, if not most, are fully listed in online catalogues. Numerous transcripts – especially of parish registers and churchwardens’ accounts – have been published by record societies and others. The value of parish records is now widely accepted by academics, as well as by enthusiastic family and local historians. Seminal works such as Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath (Yale2003), and Wrigley & Schofield’s’s Population history of England 1541-1871 (Harvard, 1981), have been based upon them. The internet has many relevant sites (such as this one). It is therefore surprising that Tate’s work has not been fully updated until now. My Tracing Your Ancestors’ Parish Records: a guide for family and local historians (Pen & Sword, 2015) is an attempt to remedy the omission. I begin by placing parish records in the context of the history of the parish. Parish records mostly owe their existence, not just to the clergy, but also to churchwardens, poor law overseers, parish constables, and highway surveyors, so the roles that each of them played is analysed. Then follows the meat of the book – detailed discussions of the various different types of records that could once be found in parish chests. Vestry minutes, officers’ accounts, poor law records, various records relating to ecclesiastical administration, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, and the records of tithes, enclosure, and charities, are all considered. Detailed information concerning sources published both in hard copy, and on the internet, is provided. I hope that my book will be of assistance to everyone interested in the study of both local and family history, whether they are academics, undergraduates, local enthusiasts, or just trying to trace their family history.
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This coming Monday 28 April, Dr Andrew Gordon (University of Aberdeen) will be giving a seminar paper on ‘The Parish Clerk and the Parish Record in Early Modern London’. The seminar is part of a series of Open University Book History Research Group seminars co-organised with the Institute of English Studies at the University of London titled ‘Paper, Pen and Ink: Manuscript Cultures in Early Modern England’.
The seminar will take place between 5.30 pm and 7 pm at in Room 234, Senate House, Malet St, London, WC1E 7HU.
For more information on the Open University Book History Research Group, please see their website here.
The full list of ‘Paper, Pen and Ink’ seminars, with details, can be found here.
Two forthcoming events at the Warwickshire Record Office might interest locally-based My-Parish members. On Saturday 1 March Dr Gillian White will be giving a talk on The Great Fire of Warwick (1694). The fire destroyed much of the centre of town and gave rise to an ambitious rebuilding and restructuring project. Today the town centre remains an excellent example of the late-seventeenth century ‘English urban renaissance’. The talk will be held at the Warwickshire Record Office between 2pm and 5pm and costs £3.
On Wednesday 9 April Christine Hodgetts will be giving an illustrated talk about poor relief from the Middle Ages to the New Poor Law of 1836, titled ‘”On The Parish”: The problem of poverty’. This will also be held at the Warwickshire Record Office, from 7pm to 9pm, and costs £5.
As a crown peculiar rather than a ‘normal’ part of the United Kingdom, the channel island of Jersey occupies a distinct constitutional position. Yet its parishes are (if anything) yet more prominent features of public life than on the mainland.
Ecclesiastically, the twelve ancient churches of Grouville, St Brelade, St Clement, St Helier (pic above left), St John, St Lawrence, St Martin (above right), St Mary, St Ouen, St Peter, St Saviour and Trinity (transferred from the French diocese of Coutances to Winchester in 1569) underwent a radical Huguenot-inspired Reformation in the sixteenth century, but many retain late medieval features like fonts (as at St Clement) and wall paintings (most famously the two cycles dedicated to the Annunciation and Jesus’ passion in the fishermen’s chapel at St Brelade; pic left).
Alongside, the parishes have long been local government units. The early modern priority of poor relief manifested itself e.g. in donations of alms dishes (preserved, like a late Stuart example at Grouville, in several of the treasuries of church plate displayed in situ; pic below). Other duties included the provision of trained bands, a parish canon and policing. Periodical communal assemblies exercised rating powers and elected representatives like the connétable (head of the civil parish), churchwardens and almoners. Later they also took charge of refuse collection and driving licences!
In many ways, this structural framework – combined with the remote geographical location – might have led the islanders down a republican path (as in the German parish federation of Dithmarschen on the North Sea coast), but royalism remained strong in Jersey, which repeatedly offered asylum to the future Charles II during the English Commonwealth. Central institutions of the States of Jersey include an Assembly with parish representatives, but legislation requires Privy Council approval and key officials like the rectors, bailiff and lieutenant governor continue to be appointed by the crown.
This is a guest post by Dr Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick. Her book, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, discusses the rich female political culture in Victorian Britain, including women’s participation in parish politics.
Women and the Politics of the Parish
The parish electorate in England and Wales was generally broad and inclusive. There was the potential for elections for a range of parish officers including constables, highway surveyors and overseers of the poor. Parishioners could also vote for parish servants such as beadles and sextons. Although there were attempts to reform and codify this system in the early nineteenth century, in reality, in many parishes, democracy was in the ascendant. What is less appreciated is the fact that women ratepayers were able to participate in these very local elections. There are many reasons for this oversight. First, two landmark pieces of legislation in the 1830s, the Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act, restricted the right to vote to ‘male persons’. Second, the story of female enfranchisement has been dominated by the women’s suffrage campaigns at the end of the century. And, third, there is little direct evidence of women voting, therefore, historians have assumed they were effectively barred from the polling booth.
The discovery, in a box of solicitors’ papers, of a poll book for the election of overseer of the poor for St Chad’s parish in Lichfield, provided the missing link between the theoretical right of women to vote, and their practical application of that privilege. The poll book listed over 300 voters and among them were the names of 30 women. Ironically, they were almost equally split between the Tory and Liberal candidates. The women came from all walks of life, from wealthy businesswomen to lowly paupers. The fact that they were able to participate and make choices in this parish election has important implications for our understanding of female citizenship in this period.
To learn more about the poll book and its implications, see the following:
BBC Radio 4, Document: Victorian Women Voters (available on iplayer)
The Victorian female franchise (Victorian Commons blog)
Women voted 75 years before they were legally entitled to in 1918 (Daily Telegraph blog)
Where are all the women in politics? (History and Policy policy paper)
Recent verdicts reveal Interesting contrasts in attitudes to legal tradition: while English Law Lords ruled that a lay rector remained liable for chancel repairs at Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire in 2003, a court in the Swiss canton of Glarus has just cleared a farmer of the obligation to maintain a church light at Näfels which his predecessors had supported since the fourteenth century.