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.