Local Anglican church records, stored in parish chests, included much more than births, marriages, and deaths. Let's look at some examples of these "strongboxes", and also at some of the records they held.
In the mid-1500s, at the time of the Reformation, it was mandated in England, Wales, and Ireland that all parish churches should acquire a chest, with a hole in the top for alms, and three locks.
The size and shape was not regulated. Neither was the material out of which it was to be made. Each church set its own budget and hired its own craftsmen, with the result that every strongbox is wonderfully unique.
The three locks were to ensure that the strongbox was never opened by only one person. The clergyman had the key to one lock, the church warden had the key to another, and a trusted, religious-minded layperson from the community had the third. For the chest to be opened, then, all three men had to be present with their keys.
A number of decades later, the requirement was added that the strongboxes had to be reinforced with strips of metal.
Many fine examples of parish chests remain. Some are quite large, while others are comparatively small:
Some were quite nicely crafted, like the smaller one, above, while others were carved out of the trunk of a tree:
This one, from North Walsham, Norfolk, appears to have been either made of, or overlaid with, metal sheeting. It also has seven padlocks, instead of the mandated three – which means that seven different men had the only key for each lock, and all seven had to be there in order for the parish chest to be opened. It seems there was a great deal of mistrust in that town!
St Nicholas, North Walsham, Norfolk.
Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons
In any event, while looking at examples of parish chests is interesting, it is what was kept inside them that is of more interest to family historians.
During the 1700s and 1800s, the parish church functioned in some ways as a form of local government. Each parish church kept a number of records, other than births, marriages and deaths. They also had money, vestments, wills, and other valuables which needed to be under lock and key.
These records and valuables were kept stored in the parish chest, which usually was located in the vestry of the church, and thus were known as “parish chest records”. These documents are not online, for the most part, but usually are available at county record offices. Some of them date from the 1600s; others do not begin until the 1800s.
Vestry Minutes were part of the parish chest records. A vestry, or parish council, was composed of the parish clergyman, and a number of other worthy parishioners. This was somewhat akin to a town council today. Essentially, this group had power over the village, along with the Justice of the Peace.
The minutes of vestry meetings are of interest to family historians, as they often record what was happening to individuals in the village. Examples include the care of illegitimate children, people who have come to or left the parish, and lists of apprenticeships (more about this on the Poor Laws page).
The village was responsible for the care of the poor, sick and
elderly. It also had responsibility for law and order, and for
maintenance of roads and bridges. Public services, such as watchmen,
lighting, sewers, and pest control (a couple of my husband's ancestors were listed on the census records as "Rat Catchers"!) all were handled at the
village level. Records therefore had to be kept of all of these things. They all come under the heading of parish chest records.
The Surveyors of the Highways were responsible for maintaining roads and bridges within the parish. Often, those who were poor but able-bodied were given the task of picking up stones from the fields.
The Surveyors would employ different villagers in these maintenance tasks, using the stones gathered, and keep records of what was done and by whom, for what wage.
The Surveyors' Accounts formed part of the parish chest records, and were stored in the "strongbox".
The parish constable was chosen from among the villagers, and was supervised by the vicar. He was responsible to maintain law and order, to arrest and detain criminals, and to transport them to the magistrate for trial.
This was an unpaid, part-time position.
The parish constable also kept a list of men eligible to serve in the Militia. Further, he was involved in caring for the poor, sick, aged, and vagrants.
He would keep records regarding his activities, and submit invoices for his expenses. These parish chest records would be called Constables’ accounts and vouchers.
Churchwardens were appointed at the Easter quarter sessions / vestry meetings, for a one-year period. At least two men would be appointed, one chosen by the clergyman, and one chosen by the villagers.
Churchwardens were responsible for the upkeep of the church and the grounds. They would submit receipts, or “vouchers”, for reimbursement of expenses incurred. Often these included work done in the village by various villagers.
In addition, churchwardens were responsible to report any wrongdoings that they were aware of among parishioners to the Bishop or magistrate at the quarterly Ecclesiastical Court sessions, including not attending church services, drunkenness, or other behaviours considered unsuitable.
They also were required to report on any misbehaviour by the vicar and other vestry members.
While recently reviewing (online) the holdings at the Norwich, Norfolk archives with respect to the small village where a number of my ancestors were from, I noted that the parish chest records included a number of references to difficulties between the local vicar and one of the churchwardens.
It got to the point where the vicar sued the churchwarden. The details appear to have all been laid out in the records, judging by the titles of the documents. I wonder if this arose as a result of the churchwarden reporting on some sort of misbehaviour by the vicar!
To find parish chest records, check with the County Records Office for the area where your ancestors lived.
Most of these records are not online, but you may find that many of them have been microfilmed, to preserve the original records. That is, you likely would be able to use the microfilm version, rather than the old, fragile volumes themselves.
You may also find that, while the actual records are not online, they have been catalogued, and their presence in the local archives is listed online. Check the archives for the county where your ancestors lived, and drill down through the menus to the local village where they were located.
The Latter Day Saints also have many of these records on microfilm. Check their catalogue for their resources. If they have the ones for your county on microfilm, you can order them to the nearest Family History Centre, and view them there.
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