Parish Chest Records – Introduction
Once you have got past the time period of civil registration and census, that is tracing your family back to the 1830’s, you will arrive at a new set of records. When I am teaching, students are often surprised to learn that there is a lot more to parish church records than just the registers containing details of baptisms, marriages and burials. It is always a delight to show what a variety of records were kept in the parish chest of each church. Of course these records, like most records we search, weren’t created with genealogy in mind, but parish chest records contain names, dates and information about your ancestors lives and will add greatly to your family history.
If your ancestors were non-conformists don’t think that the parish chest records aren’t of interest to you. Non-conformists weren’t always allowed to follow their beliefs freely, they might practise their religion secretly whilst attending the local church. They didn’t always have separate burial grounds so they will feature in the burial records and of course they may have had no option other than to marry in the local church. They may also feature in the parish chest records in notes recording the fact that they were non-conformists.
This post is going to run through the records you would expect to find and then I will write a series of posts explaining more about each type of record, why they were created, what you can expect to find in them and where they can be accessed.
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Let’s start with the chest itself as this will give you an idea of how important the church viewed their records, how the congregation felt about the records and what steps were taken to keep them safe.
Parish chests existed long before the injunction was sent down to the parishes to provide a chest that could hold all the valuables and records that the individual church held. Medieval churches were places of much splendor with silver chalices and platens, bowls and candlesticks. Rich embroidered fabrics might adorn the altar and the vestments of the clergy might well contain gold and silver threads. All this needed to be kept safely away from thieves, beggars and vermin. The chest might be referred to as a chest, ark, coffer or even a hutch, but they were all made sturdily out of wood and mainly kept in the church. The chests were kept locked for obvious reasons and were required to have at least two locks, one key being held by the Vicar or Rector and the other by the Churchwardens thereby making sure that one individual with a key could not be accused of tampering with the contents.
A website I have recently come across is Intriguing History and they have an excellent article on parish chests.
A book to have on your book shelf is what is regarded as the definitive book on parish chest records The Parish Chest by W E Tate. It was first published in 1946, but has been revised (2011) and is now available for sale. Click here.
Parish Chest Records – What are they?
Genealogists need to be aware that the church and clergy were extremely powerful within the parish. Along with local landowners they controlled much of the activities of the parishioners. The church took charge of parishioners souls and the landowners took charge of their ability to house, cloth and feed their families.
- Parish Registers – Baptism, Confirmation, Banns, Marriage, Burial
- Churchwarden Accounts
- Charity Accounts, Records and Briefs
- Glebe Terriers
- Tithe Records
- Church Court
- Visitation Records
- Notices and Proclamations
- Vestry Minutes and Agreements
- Petty Constables Accounts
- Poor Law
- Highway Maintenance
- Enclosure Act
- Examination, Removals and Settlements
- Land tax
Parish Chest Records – Where Can they be found?
I am pleased to be able to say that more and more parish chest records are coming online. My post on which counties have placed some or all of their parish registers online can be read here. It is very pleasing to note that the other records are also starting to be present on Ancestry and FindMyPast. Some are available at FamilySearch Family History Centre’s, but at the present time these aren’t available from home although this might change in the future.
The parish chest records are a source on which a substantial family history can be build. They are the records that can tell us about our ancestors lives whether they were rich or poor. In fact the poor tend to feature more heavily than those who had money to buffer them from the hardships of life. Often these records contain facts that are recorded no where else. If I hadn’t searched the Poor Law records of Stanford in the Vale I wouldn’t have known that my 3rd great grandfather fled the village on foot to avoid marrying my 3rd great grandmother. He was caught after two of the churchwardens rode after him and after a two day hunt found him and “persuaded” him to return and marry poor Sarah. They did marry and went on to have another seven children and Joseph does not appear to have left the village again! I look forward to teaching you more about the records that have survived centuries because they were stored in a chest usually made of oak with two locks to keep them safe from rats and vagabonds!
Parish Chest image by Richard croft is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Woodcut of begger Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681487
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