What Documents Were Kept In The Parish Chest?

In 1538 an Injunction was issued requiring every parish to keep a register in which to record the date and names of person who was baptised, married and buried. This book was to be kept in a chest secured with 2 locks; the key to one lock kept by the minister and the key to the other by the church warden. This large wooden chest is what is known as The Parish Chest.

Apart from holding the Parish Register many other parish books and documents were often kept safe inside it. Typical items kept inside the Parish Chest would be:

  • Overseer’s Accounts
  • Records for Poor Law Administration:
    • Settlement Certificates
    • Examinations as to settlement
    • Removal Orders
  • Bastardy Records
    • The Examination
    • The Summons
    • The Bastardy Bonds
  • Apprenticeship Indentures
  • Parochial Records
  • Vestry Minutes
  • Churchwarden Accounts
  • Parish Lists

Most of these documents relate to the care of the poor and destitute members of the parish. Before 1538 care of the poor and destitute was mainly looked after by the monks and nuns of the monasteries but after the dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII responsibility for caring for the poor and destitute passed to local parishes.

The Poor Law Act of 1601

By the end of the 16th century all parishes were ordered to levy a poor rate to fund the care of the poor. The Poor Law Act of 1601 governed the care of the poor for more than 200 years.

Who were the Overseers?

The Poor Law Act required each parish to appoint two Overseers each year. Their job was to collect the rates from the property owners in the Parish and distribute it to the poor.

What are the Overseers Accounts Books?

The Overseers were ordered to keep records of all their transactions in the Overseer’s Accounts Book including the names of everyone who received relief.

What were the Examination Records?

Although the idea of giving Relief to the poor was a good idea there was the practical problem that many people moved from parish to parish in search of work. A parish may therefore have new people arrive who are in need of Relief. The Settlement Acts of 1661, 1691 and 1697 gave two Justices Of The Peace the power to examine poor new arrivals to determine the parish which should give them Relief.

What was a Removal Order?

If the result of The Examination was that the destitute person was not entitled to Relief in that parish they would be issued with a Removal Order sending them back to their original parish for Relief.

What were Settlement Certificates?

A Settlement Certificate gave a person the right to live and work in another parish on the condition that their original parish would take them back if they found themselves destitute and in need of Relief. A Settlement Certificate was the forebear of modern day Work Permits.

What was a Bastardy Bond?

Bastardy Bond

If a woman had an illegitimate child there was the likelihood that both she and her child would become dependant on the parish for Relief. Two Justices of the Peace would therefore Examine the mother to try to discover who the father was. Once they determined who the father was they would issue a Bastardy Bond which required the father to pay for the upkeep of the illegitimate child. The Bastardy Bond is the forebear of our modern day Maintenance Payments system.

What were Apprenticeship Indentures?

From the 14th Century boys and girls could be signed up to a master to learn his trade under strict conditions in return for a fixed payment. Apprenticeships were also used as a way for a parish to avoid paying for the upkeep of a poor child from 1601.

The Apprenticeship Indenture was the certificate explaining the details and terms and conditions of the apprenticeship. It can be especially useful to Genealogists as it may give the names of the child and the master and their addresses as well as the age of the child and details of the trade the child was being trained in.

The History of Parish Registers

Marriage EntryIn a previous article I have mentioned the Ipswich Parishes which had deposited their Parish registers at the Suffolk Records Office. But what are Parish Regsiters and how have they evolved over the years?

1538 and Thomas Cromwell the Vicar General to Henry VIII

The most significant year for Parish Registers was 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General to Henry VIII ordered every church in England and Wales to record all their Christenings, weddings and burials in a register. To ensure the integrity of the records the register was ordered to be kept locked in a strong chest secured with two locks. One key was to be held by the minister and the other by the Churchwardens. The entries in the register were to be made by the minister every Sunday in the presence of the Churchwardens.

Parchment Books Used From 1598

Bearing in mind that the parishes had to pay for their own registers they initially used cheaper paper books. Unfortunately paper does not survive well so in 1598 an Act was passed requiring all entries to be copied into more expensive, but more hardwearing, parchment books. Unfortunately the wording of the Act said that the entries were to be copied “especially since the first years of Her Majesties reign” so some ministers only copied the entries from 1558 rather than from 1538.

Practical Problems With Early Registers

One problem you will find with early Registers is that there were no real rules about exactly what data should be recorded or how it was to be entered in the Register. Some ministers recorded more information about the people being Christened, married or buried than others. Also some ministers would intermingle all three events in chronological order in the Registers while other ministers would divide the Register up into separate sections for Christenings, marriages and burials. Bearing in mind the relatively high cost of parchment books you will also find that some ministers tried to make maximum use of all available space so you may start reading through the Christening entries then come across a note to jump forward 10 pages to a space at the end of a burials page where the minister squashed in half a dozen Christenings and then jump another 4 pages for another handful of entries hidden at end of a page of marriages.

English Used From 1733

Early entries in Parish Registers were often written in Latin but this was stopped in 1733 when all Entries were ordered to be written in English.

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1754

The next significant change to Parish Registers was Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which came into force on 25 March 1754. This Act tightened up the rules regarding marriages and introduced many requirements. The marriages were to be recorded in Registers with ruled and numbered pages (to ensure Entries were not added or removed). Each Marriage Entry had to be signed by the minister, bride & groom plus 2 witnesses. All marriages were to be proceeded by having Banns read out in the church during the 3 Sundays before the wedding or else a License must be obtained. The minimum age of consent was 12 for girls and 14 for boys and parental consent has to be obtained if the bride or groom were under 21 years of age.

Every Entry To Be Taxed from 1783

In 1783 every Christening, marriage and Burial Entry became liable to threepence duty. This duty was repealed in 1794.

Rose’s Act of 1813

Rose’s Act required each parish to buy pre-printed books for Christenings, marriages and burials from the Kings Printers. This was the first time separate books were required for each type of service. The printed forms meant that there was more consistency of the data recorded than in previous centuries. There were also strict rules for the timescales of the Entries. Marriage Entries had to be made at the time of the marriage and Christenings and burials had to be entered within 7 days of the event.

Civil Registration Act 1837

From 1837 all births, marriages and deaths began to be recorded by the government. The main impact of this on parish Registers was the redesigning of the printed forms used in the Marriage Registers. The redesigned forms introduced are almost identical to those we use today.

Suffolk Records Office

The Suffolk Records Office has 3 branches: One in Ipswich, one in Bury St. Edmunds and one in Lowestoft.

There are a wide range of documents stored in each location; from modern day organisations and individuals right back to the 12th century. They also provide computer access to many online documents and free access to normally paid-for genealogy websites such as Ancestry. You can also access Parish Registers, local census records, archives of newspapers and many other documents are available to view on microfiche and microfilm but it is always best to reserve a reader in advance, especially if you are travelling a long distance to get there.

Other documents (not available on microfiche) can be ordered from the strongrooms after you have provided proof of ID. Note however that original documents will not be brought up from the strongrooms between 12:45 and 2pm.

Each branch of Suffolk Record Office also holds regular talks, workshops and courses about family history and local history.

Ipswich Records Office

The Ipswich Records Office is located in the old Bramford Road school buildings. Its address is:
Suffolk Records Office
Gatacre Road

Telephone: 01473 263910
Fax: 01473 263904

Bury St. Edmunds Record Office

The Bury St. Edmunds Records Office is located opposite the New Shire Hall and Police Station. Its address is:

Suffolk Records Office
77 Raingate Street
Bury St. Edmunds
IP33 2AR

Lowestoft Records Office

The Lowestoft Record Office is on the first floor of the Central Library. Its address is:

Suffolk Records Office
The Library
Clapham Road South
NR33 1DR

Telephone: 01502 674680

Ipswich Parishes

Ipswich is the County Town of Suffolk in England.

There are eighteen Parishes in Ipswich:

All Hallows All Saints From 1882
Holy Trinity From 1857
St. Augustine From 1927
St. Clements From 1563
St. Helen From 1677
St. John From 1880
St. Lawrence From 1539
St. Margaret From 1537
St. Mary-at-Elms From 1557
St. Mary-at-the-Quay From 1559
St. Mary-le-Tower From 1538
St. Mary Stoke From 1565
St. Matthew From 1559
St. Michael From 1881
St. Nicholas From 1539
St. Peter From 1657
St. Stephen From 1585

In addition there are twenty Non-Conformist Chapels in Ipswich who have deposited some records with the Suffolk Records Office:

Roman Catholic
Society of Friends
Alan Road Methodist
Landseer Road Methodists
Wesleyan Methodist Circuit
St. Mary Elms primitive Methodist
Ipswich Primitive Methodist Circuit
St. Nicholas Street Presbyterian/Unitarian
Bethesda Independent, Dairy lane
Nansen Road Baptist
Hatfield Road Congregational
Stoke Peoples Hall
St. Mary’s Catholic
Turret Green Baptist
Stoke Green Baptist
Dairy Lane Particular Baptist
Barrack Corner Presbyterian / United Reformed
St. Nicholas Street Independent
Tacket Street Independent / Congregational
St. Thomas Mission Chapel (From 1905)

Genealogy Software

Genealogy Software for Windows

If you are looking for some genealogy software to help you store, organize and display your Family Tree as you work on it we can thoroughly recommend the FAMILY TREE MAKER software. This software is widely available and can be purchased online from Amazon. This Family Tree software program is very easy to use, affordable, and allows you to import and export your Family Tree in GEDCOM Format so that files can easily be exchanged with friends running other Genealogy software. The ability to share your Family Tree in GEDCOM format also means that you can send and receive your files with professional organizations, such as ourselves, who may use other types of computer which are not running Microsoft Windows. Family Tree Maker also integrates well with the Ancestry website allowing you to easily download and upload data.

What if my computer isn’t running Windows?

The software we have recommended above runs on Microsoft Windows because Windows is the Operating System run by most of our clients. We are however aware that some of our clients use alternative Operating Systems such as Linux or have other needs, such as requiring the ability to publish their growing Family Tree on the internet so that it can be worked on by several family members simultaneously. We would therefore also recommend the following:

Genealogy Software For Linux

We run the Linux Operating System on many of our computers here at the Suffolk Family History Research Service. The Linux Genealogy Software we use on these is GRAMPS. You can discover more about GRAMPS by clicking on the following link:


Sharing Your Family Tree On The Internet

We are often asked to recommend software which will allow several family members to work on their Family Tree simultaneously. Here at the Suffolk Family History Research Service we run the free program PhpGedView on our internal servers to allow our Family Historians to work together on customers Family Trees. You can read about PhpGedView by visiting the following Webpage:


What Is A GEDCOM File?

The GEDCOM standard defines a universal way of storing genealogy data. It is the standard way of transfering family history data between different genealogy programs.