For hundreds of years the parish was the most important unit of local government. This talk covers the historical administration of the parish, its officials and their records, as well as showing you how you can use these records to trace your ancestors and find out more about their local community.
The parish: administration and records
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to talk to this afternoon a bit about the parish, the historical parish. I’ll say a little bit about the ecclesiastical parish, but it will mainly be about what became, through statutes, the civil parish where more and more administration was actually put on parish officials to administer and run things like the Poor Law and the Laws of Settlement.
So, to start off with: a little bit about the historic parish. The parish, as we know it, or the ancient parish, originally started in the eighth, ninth centuries, based around the Anglo Saxon Minsters, the Minster churches, and those parishes covered a large area which could include several market towns and townships. Over time, daughter churches grew up around the Anglo Saxon Minsters, and instead of priests going out from the Minster to preach in villages and towns, each township or village started to have its own church or chapelry defined by state boundaries created out of the ancient parish. So, by the 12th, 13th century the parish system as we know it had come into being. Lords of the Manor would open their own chapels that might actually then be endowed and become parish churches.
Now, a little bit about the different terms that you will come across. A parish has a parish priest, an incumbent priest, who is officially styled ‘the parson’, but only a rector can be known as a parson rather than a vicar, and the rector is the parish priest or parson. And the benefice is the living, which includes the parsonage and the glebe land and the tithes – both great tithes and small tithes – collected from the parishioners to maintain the parish priest. Over time, however, some of the tithes could be appropriated by landowners or ecclesiastical or collegiate bodies, so, diocese bishops, abbots, feudal barons or collegiate bodies like university colleges. And where the great tithes were appropriated the collegiate body or the individual, if it was a layman, a lay person, would become the rector, the lay rector, and then the living would become a vicarage with a vicar and the parish priest would be a vicar rather than a rector. Vicar originally meant deputy, and vicars only received the small tithes while the great tithes went to the lay rector.
Now the advowson is the right of presentation to the benefice to the living, that’s the appointment of the parish priest when the living becomes vacant. Now, that was originally invested in the founder of the church, or the original chapel of ease to the minister parish. So, it would be invested in the founder and their heirs, but it could be purchased, even up until the 20th century, advowsons could be purchased, but they normally descended like any other property and real estate. So usually it was the founder and his family, but later on, advowsons could be purchased by various people and they would have the right or presentation of either the rector or the vicar to the parish.
Now I’m just going to say a little bit about the clergy. There is the rector or the vicar. As I say, there is a vicar, rather than a rector if the great tithes have been appropriated by a collegiate body or a layperson. There’s also perpetual curates, which are usually the priests in charge of a chapel of ease, a sort of daughter chapel to a parish church, and he has a permanent position to that living, to that chapel or district church. And you get curates, which are basically the assistant clergy to a rector or a vicar. Sometimes in the 18th and the 19th century the term curate is applied to the incumbent parish priest, the rector or the vicar, as the priest having the cure of souls, but it should normally be referred to as an assistant clergyman, a non-beneficed clergyman, working in a parish as an assistant to the rector or the vicar of that parish.
Now parishes are grouped into deaneries under a rural dean who is one of the parish priests, either a rector or a vicar of one of the parishes, and then the rural deaneries form the archdeaconries, which roughly acquaint to counties under an archdeacon, and then the various archdeaconries form the diocese under the bishop. You also get peculiars, which are extra territorial jurisdictions where a bishop might have a jurisdiction over a parish that is outside his diocese, or a nobleman or landowner, or the crown might have ownership of a parish or an estate which then has a special jurisdiction outside the diocese, the normal diocese that it’s surrounded by.
Ecclesiastical courts to which the churchwardens would have made presentments; the basic court for the archdeaconry is the archdeacon’s court, which was the basic court of probate as well for the people living within parishes of that archdeaconry. Then you get the bishop’s commissary court, which covers just one archdeaconry within the diocese, and the more normal bishop’s consistory court where wills could be proved, covering the whole of the diocese. And above the diocesan courts, you get the prerogative courts, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and the Prerogative Court of York, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury being the more senior of the two. This was the hierarchy of the ecclesiastical courts, which are the courts for probate up until 1858.
Now this is the breakdown of Parish administration ecclesiastically. You have the parish priest – the incumbent – either a rector or vicar and the parish meeting or vestry, which is the collection of the principal householders of the parish. You also have the principal officers under the rector, which are the churchwardens, usually chosen by the rectoral victor with the consent of the vestry, the parish meeting. But, if there was a dispute, then the custom was that the vicar or rector would choose one of the wardens and then the parish meeting or vestry would choose the other one, known as the people’s warden. Sometimes this division became fixed; customarily, the priest would choose one and the vestry would choose the other. You also have the parish clerk and under him, the sexton, responsible for maintaining the churchyard and digging the parish graves. The parish clerk and the sexton were normally appointed by the rector or vicar, the appointment confirmed by the diocese, by the registrar, but normally they would also be approved by the parish meeting or vestry.
Now, in conjunction with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, you also get the civil hierarchy, which grew up as more and more procedures were created by statute law that had to be fulfilled by parish officers. At the top of the administration, the civil administration, is the Commission of the Peace for the County and the Justices of the Peace, created in the 14th century. Now the way the diagram is set up it looks as thought the parish meeting, or vestry, directly reported to the Justices of the Peace, but actually the parish constable, the surveyor of the highways and the overseers of the poor were usually nominated and confirmed by the parish meeting, but rather than being answerable to the parish meeting or vestry, they were answerable to the Justices of the Peace and the Commissioner of the Peace.
Now I’m going to say a little bit about each of the offices in turn and the duties that they covered and the records that they created which survive.
First of all, the parish meeting or vestry. This was a meeting of all the householders or rate payers of the parish, usually in the church, in the part of the church known as the vestry, hence the generic name for the meeting, the parish meeting or vestry. Meetings were usually once a month or could be fortnightly and were usually chaired by the incumbent, the rector or vicar who was ex-officio, the chairman of the meeting. Originally the parish meeting and the meeting was open to all householders, but some became select vestries which just co-opted householders. Under a Vestry Act in 1819, A select vestry was created in most parishes to deal with matters relating to the Poor Law, but, there was still usually an annual parish meeting or vestry, where all the householders could attend for the election of parish officers. But the select vestry after 1819 tended to become the main vestry. And after 1831 householders, depending on a property qualification, had a certain number of votes – up to six votes to elect members to be members of the select vestry.
Now parish officers were chosen and elected usually at the Easter meeting and there was a property qualification. Offices could be held by rotation, sometimes by what was called ‘house row’ where the actual appointment would go from house to house, literally every year down the row of houses. You would hold the office for a year and then it would pass to your neighbour and a year later it would pass to his neighbour, down the row of houses. Householders could be fined for refusing to hold office. Now if a female householder became liable for appointment, the office was usually held by a male substitute who was appointed on her behalf, but there are a few examples of women actually filling offices. Particularly there are examples, a few examples, of women being overseers of the poor. Usually a male substitute was appointed for the office of constable and the churchwardens were usually male.
Now approval was needed from the Justices of Peace for the appointment of the surveyors of the highways under the Highways Act and for the overseers of the poor and the parish constables and this was normally a formality once they’d been chosen by the parish meeting or vestry, but not always. And if there was a complaint made and if the person was found to not be suitable or didn’t match the property qualification, they could be discharged from their office.
Now one of the oldest parish offices was that of churchwarden. Now church reeves or high wardens or churchwardens are recorded as early as the 12th century. Most parishes had two, but many parishes had more than two churchwardens. Large ones could have three, four, five or even six churchwardens, but for most periods, of most times, you will find that a parish had two churchwardens. Larger parishes where they’re divided into townships will have two wardens possibly representing each of the townships as the main parish township. And they’re responsible, the churchwardens, for the maintenance of the parish church, for the fabric of the building, and they keep their accounts, basically relating to the income of the parish church and the expenditure on the maintenance of the fabric of the parish church. They presented twice a year to the archdeacons, at each visitation, any misdemeanours of parishioners to be answered in the ecclesiastical courts, usually in the archdeacon’s courts. So any transgressions of canon law, church law, relating to morality would be presented at the archdeacon’s visitation and heard in the church courts.
Of course, from 1538 when parish registers were first instructed to be kept it was the duty of the incumbent to record, in the presence of the church warden, all the baptisms, marriages and burials that had taken place during the previous week. And from 1598 he was supposed to record all the events in the presence of both of the churchwardens and they were also required to make sure that the parish entries were copied and sent to the bishop every year at Easter or within a month of Easter. So, all the returns, known as Bishops transcripts, should be sent each year to the diocesan registrar. In theory any parishioner or householder could be chosen or elected to serve and they could be heavily fined, and in the 19th century it was as much as £20 if they refused or declined to serve.
Now the main records of churchwardens are the accounts that they kept. Some churchwarden’s accounts go back to the 15th century and a few examples are even earlier, but most start in the 17th, 18th century and they usually relate to the fabric of the building. Some early ones have been published. For example, the ones relating to Halesowen in Worcester were published many years ago by the Worcester Historical Society, the earlier accounts dating from 1487 to 1582. They record the income collected by the churchwardens and this can relate to funds collected for repair of the church. So, things like church ales – which were a particular fund raising event before the Reformation, usually at Christmas and Easter and Whitsun – the churchwardens would actually hold a sort of fund-raising event to collect money for the church and then for the maintenance of the church.
Church property, church land could be leased out for income and in early churchwardens’ accounts in the 16th century, you can find details of property let out to tenants and the rent paid by tenants. You also get gifts and bequests left by parishioners in wills and these may be recorded in the churchwarden’s accounts; either gifts of money or sometimes gifts of land, which the church would then actually lease out for extra income. You also get the ordinary rates, the Easter offerings due at Easter time and other dues, monetary payments to be made to the parish priests that were collected by the churchwardens. After the Reformation, the custom of renting out space in the church, pew rents came into being and you can find lists of pew rents and money allocated to individuals and the rent collected from those individuals for the rent on their pews. And there were various other church levies; sometimes you hear reference to…church rates usually collected annually at Easter time.
So churchwardens’ accounts will record the income coming in from church lands and fund-raising events and also church property that is leased out. You also get, in the churchwardens accounts, the expenditure on repair of the church bells, fixtures and fittings, bibles, prayer books and buying new copies of registers for the parish records, repairs to the fabric, the cleaning of the church, washing of garments, payments to the parish clerk, the sexton, bell ringer and other officials. Sometimes, you’ll find in the records of the churchwardens, references to apprenticeship and poor relief matters. In some parishes, it was the custom that having served for 12 months as churchwarden you’d then serve the next 12 months as the overseer. Sometimes the offices were held at the same time so you’d be both churchwarden and overseer and when you’re looking at parish records it’s always worth checking if they survive both the overseer’s records and the churchwarden’s accounts. Sometimes if both offices were held jointly, then sometimes things that ought to be in the overseer’s accounts will be in the churchwarden’s accounts and vice versa. This is just an early example of an early churchwardens’ account from St Mary’s Bletchingly in Surrey, in 1546-52. Early records are usually very neatly kept and some of the early ones are in Latin rather than English.
Sometimes the churchwardens were semiliterate or even illiterate in which case they would pay someone else, maybe the curate or a clerk to actually write up their accounts for them and you could find that actually in the accounts: ‘paid so and so for writing up the accounts’. They usually, because they relate to the fabric and maintenance of the church, actually include names of skilled artisans and craftsmen; so blacksmiths, carpenters, joiners, silversmiths, jewellers, so mainly the skilled craftsmen and artisans of the village and of the surrounding community. Often if they didn’t have a craftsman in a village, then they would send to the nearest town – market town or county town – for goods and for services.
So these sorts of records are more important for craftsmen and tradesmen in the village rather than the sort of humble labourers that you’ll find in the overseer’s accounts. But you’ll also find things relating to the care of the church and the churchyard so often in the churchwarden’s accounts. You’ll get unusual things like lists of payments for the destruction of vermin; so rats and moles and, in this particular example, sparrows.
And this is a list of monies paid out to people, children, but not just to children for collecting sparrows heads because the churchwardens are paying for sparrows heads at nine pence per dozen. Less than that, where you’ve got less than a dozen sparrows, they’ll actually pay out money, so there’s tuppence, sixpence and nine pence, or even more where they’ve collected more than a dozen sparrows. But you also get similar bills giving accounts of payments for the collection of rats and moles and other vermin.
Now the parish clerk was appointed by the rectoral vicar and acted as his clerk and sometimes as clerk to the vestry. He assisted at the church services and led the responses and in some parishes he would act acted as the sexton as well and actually dig the grave and actually maintain the churchyard. He might sometimes make entries in the parish registers, but he wasn’t supposed to. Only the parish priest, witnessed by the churchwardens, should actually make entries in the parish registers. But, sometimes in the 18th century and early 19th century, particularly in the period when the clergy could be very lax, you can find examples of the parish clerks actually making entries in the baptismal and marriage registers although after 1812 it specified in the Parochial Registers Act that it had to be the parish priest that made the entries. And under Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753, where he required the bride and groom to sign the register or make their mark and their witnesses to sign the register or make their mark, the parish priest had to make the entry in the register. But there are examples of the clerks making entries in baptismal and burial, what we call general registers, in the late 18th century, up to 1812.
This is an example of an appointment of a parish clerk, Francis Ray in Sutton Maddock, a parish in Shropshire in 1808 in May. Now you might find details of an appointment details of an appointment mentioned in the vestry records, the vestry minutes or in the churchwardens’ accounts. But if you don’t, then the appointment had to be ratified by the archdeacon and a copy sent to the diocesan registrar. So if there’s nothing in the parish records, it’s worth checking at the diocesan record office, which is normally a county record office, to see if there are records of appointments of parish clerks, and you usually get a couple of nominations or certainly the nomination from the parish priest saying, ‘I would like to appoints so-and-so to be my parish clerk’.
Sometimes you’ll get a recommendation as well. So, here we have a nomination by the parish priest, the vicar of Sutton Maddock, who was also the rector of the neighbouring parish of Kemberton, appointing Francis Ray or asking for Francis Ray to be confirmed as parish clerk for Sutton Maddock and he signs the one letter, but there’s also a letter from the patron of the living, John Williams, again also nominating Francis Ray to be parish clerk. This one’s quite interesting because it gives a little bit of background information on the individual and is actually appointing Francis Ray in place of his grandfather who was retiring on account of him being in his ninety-first year. So his grandfather was still parish clerk at the age of 91.
This particular example I found from the census returns because Francis Ray appears in later census returns as the parish clerk in 1841, ’51, ’61 and in 1871 as the late parish clerk, i.e. retired parish clerk. He actually died in 1872 at the age of 89, having been born in 1783. He appears to have been baptised in the parish records in 1783, he died in 1872, so he became parish clerk in succession to his grandfather at the age of 25 and he retired some time in the 1860s. There’s no actual… nothing in the parish records to actually say when he retired. But, he was still parish clerk in 1861, so he did probably 60 years as the parish clerk.
There are only a few references to him in the actual parish records, in the vestry minutes, and this was the only other record with details of his nomination that had survived in the diocesan records. So if you’re looking for the parish clerks, it’s worth checking to see whether nomination papers have survived in the diocesan records if there’s nothing actually in the parish records, in the vestry minutes or in the churchwarden’s accounts.
Now, the overseers of the poor. Collectors of the poor, were first appointed by an act of 1563, formally appointed as overseers of the poor under the Relief of the Poor Act of 1597. Parishes had at least two overseers, or in large parishes that were divided into townships, you’d get two overseers for each township. Now in small parishes, small rural parishes, you would only get two overseers and if it was a sparsely inhabited parish then, although they’re appointed for 12 months, you might find in the overseer’s accounts that one of them will do the first six months and then they will swap around and the other overseer will do the second six months. So they will actually split the 12-month period of duty between them. But it varies from parish to parish.
They’re responsible for collecting the poor rates. So they draw up the valuations, the property valuations and set the poor rates, which is agreed with the vestry, and then they’re responsible for actually collecting the rates in the parish or township. They’re responsible for putting the able-bodied poor to work, providing outdoor relief for those unable to work – so the old or the infirm – until the new poor law was created by the first Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, and they would pay for pauper funerals and for the burials of strangers that happened to die in the parish while travelling through. They also enforced the settlement laws which were part of the poor laws from 1662 and examined and arranged for the removal of strangers and those that didn’t have legal for settlement within the parish. And they also compiled the names for jurors for the county juries and the voters’ lists for the voters’ juries for the counties up until 1918. And they also were responsible, before census enumerators were appointed by the Home Office and the Registrar General, in the early censuses, they actually compiled the census returns – the headcounts – for the early censuses.
Where names survive in the pre-1841 censuses, it’s because the overseers of the parish actually used their lists of ratepayers, basically, that they used for collecting the poor rate. Sometimes they will just list the heads of households, the ratepayers, and then count the number of people within the household; they might list the wife and other individuals, maybe the children by name, or just give numbers. In many cases these don’t survive, but in some cases, you will find pre 1841 headcounts from the early censuses and they were compiled by the overseers.
Now, they also kept the rate and accounts books. Rate books in theory commence in the early 16th century with the two Poor Acts, the 1597 Act and the 1601 Act, which form the basis, which formed the old Poor Law up to 1834. But, in most cases, most rate books are going to be later and these just record the occupiers of property and the rateable value of that property, so how much they could expect to pay once the rate has been set – so they’re evaluations or assessments of property. But the important thing is that they actually list the occupiers of the property who actually paid the rates, rather than the actual owner of the property. So they’re good lists to look for inhabitants – those actually living within the parish at a particular date. Sometimes you can find the valuations aren’t in separate rate books in the overseer’s records. There might actually be a valuation, which is actually attached to the vestry minutes and actually in the vestry minute book.
There’s a whole series of responsibilities for the overseers. The account books that survive record the payments out, made out by the overseers, and those survive in better condition for the 18th and 19th centuries and those record the people receiving relief and at the end of their period of office, their 12-month period of office, their accounts would be presented to the vestry for approval. But they’ll list the names of people receiving poor relief payments. They might also record payments for a doctor to attend a sick person; for nursing or midwives’ expenses; maintenance for single mothers, where fathers weren’t around and if they couldn’t enforce maintenance from errant fathers, they would pay maintenance to single mothers; upkeep of orphans and children boarded out, who might, when they’ve reached a certain age – usually seven – be apprenticed out either locally within the parish or to neighbouring parishes; provision of coals and clothes to the old and infirm as well; and purchase of materials for the poor to work. Originally, the idea was that those that were able to work would actually be set to work. If they couldn’t find employment, they would be given materials to actually keep them employed. This system didn’t work and in the 18th century you get the provision of poor houses and workhouses by parishes and various reforms of the Poor Law.
They also enforced the settlement laws, which are again acts relating to the relief of the poor which are again commonly known as the Settlement Acts, starting with an act in 1662 that said that people had a right of settlement in their parish of birth. By subsequent acts in 1692 you could earn a right of settlement if you went to work in another parish, and from 1697 churchwardens and overseers could provide parishioners with a settlement certificate for them to take with them when they went to work in a neighbouring parish which would guarantee that if they became unable to work, they could return to their parish of legal settlement and they would be supported by the overseers and churchwardens of the parish of their legal settlement.
These are a couple of examples of overseers’ accounts. This is one of the overseers, John Gale, for the parish of Muston in Lestershire, setting out very neatly his payments over the course of his period of office.
In the 18th century the records are usually very good; particularly late 17th century, up to the end of the 17th century, records are usually very neatly laid out, but towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th century overseers accounts can be very untidy and very messy, as with this example. I’ve seen worse than this, but they can be very untidy and very jumbled, names entered at random and payments just noted down. So the quality of record keeping does vary on the calibre and the ability of the person holding the office for that period, that 12-month period.
Now this is an example of a removal order for James and Anne Illot from Taynton to Swinbrook in Oxfordshire in 1808. This is actually one document that has been split into two, so you’ve just got the top and the bottom of the document. James Illot was resident in Swinbrook and appears in the census with his family in 1841 and 1851. He’s just a labourer. His wife died in 1849 and he died in 1860 and in the 1851 census he appears as a pauper and labourer. By consulting the surviving overseer’s accounts for Swinbrook, you can find the payments made for him by the overseers from 1814 onwards, almost for the rest of his life, until 1860.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was supposed to end outdoor relief and create Poor Law Unions. It didn’t actually abolish the office of overseer of the poor and their records do continue. The change didn’t happen overnight and it was resisted; so although Poor Law Unions were created and boards of guardians, elected boards of guardians, and a relieving officer, the idea was that people would be encouraged to have to seek indoor relief and go into the workhouse. But many parishes and many counties did actually resist this in the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s and in Wales even more so. There were examples, in the 1860s, 1870s, of parishes not joining unions and not having work houses and still paying outdoor relief. So it’s worth checking whether there still are overseers’ records after 1834. If there aren’t then you should look for workhouse records in the records of the Boards of Guardians, which are going to be held in the county record offices anyway.
But this person actually received, James Illot, payments in the parish of Swinbrook from 1814 onwards. He’d actually, because I’d seen that from the record, he’d actually come from Taynton, checking the neighbouring parish record, he actually married Anne, Anne Eales as her name was in Taynton, in April 1807 and there’s this removal order from October 1807. Anne Eales was actually borne and baptised and raised in the parish of Taynton – born there in 1786, so she’d lived there 23 years. She married James Illot in April 1807 and by doing so she lost her right of settlement, her right by birth of being settled in Taynton. By marriage she took her husband’s settlement and he didn’t have a legal settlement in Taynton. There was a complaint from somebody and there’s a note in the box of records in the Oxfordshire record office that there was a complaint made to the churchwardens or overseers that they didn’t have a proper place of settlement, that James didn’t have proper employment and that they should be removed to the parish of Swinbrook, which is where James had come from. So there was an examination in front of the Justices of the Peace.
Now examinations, if they survived, may be amongst the parish records or if it’s done before the Justices of the Peace, the court of sessions, they may be amongst the Court of Sessions records. This removal order survives in the overseer’s records for Taynton. Unfortunately, although James was examined, that particular record, the examination, doesn’t survive and in many cases examinations won’t survive. Where they do, they’re a gold mine for family historians because they give you a little potted biography of the individual. It will say where they where born, where they were apprenticed if they were apprenticed, where they’ve worked, usually their current employer if they have a current employer, who their previous employer was, where they think they have a legal settlement. So it gives you a little mini potted biography of the individual. But in many cases they haven’t survived. The one for James didn’t survive, but he was found not to have a legal settlement in Taynton and the Justices ordered his removal and this is the removal order, which does survive, from the churchwardens and overseers of Taynton, sending him back to Swinbrook, which is where they lived for the rest of their lives and where they appear in the census and where all their children were actually born.
By finding clues in the census you can then go to things like the surviving overseers’ record and constables’ records for the parishes concerned. Coming on, just to constables; originally the constable was a manorial official, answerable or appointed in the manorial courts and presenting misdemeanours at the manorial courts. But over time, new statutory duties were given to the constables and they became a parish officer. Depending on how strong the manorial system was in a parish, the constable might still be an official of the manor rather than of the parish, but if the manorial system was weak, then the constable might actually be more answerable to the parish vestry than to the manorial courts and, after the 1842 Parish Constables Act, parish constables had to be confirmed by the parish vestries. So, from 1842, they did cease to be a manorial official, but before 1842 they might still be appointed by the manorial court, nominated by the vestry and then they needed to be approved by the Justices of the Peace.
Because they were originally a manorial officer they had some vestidual duties of a manorial officer, so they were responsible for looking after stray animals, looking after the animal pound, collecting stray animals. They’d also look after the parish bull if there was one, which would be taken round the farms. They were responsible for keeping the lists of the militia up to date, so all the able-bodied men in the parish would be kept on a role and then these men would be mustered for choosing by lot to actually join the militia. If men didn’t want to be in the militia and they’d been chosen, if they could afford it they could pay for a substitute to go in their place. So the constable would keep the role of eligible men and the role of those allotted and any payments that were received for substitutes.
They were also responsible for law and order and apprehending lawbreakers and then presenting them at the Hundred Court or the Court of Sessions, so bringing them before Justices of the Peace, and they were responsible for keeping the parish stocks, the pillory and the parish village lock up. Now they’d report to the Justices of the Peace on a number of things; various statutory requirements on a number of Acts of parliament. So they would have to maintain and report lists of recusants or Roman Catholics within the parish, in the 15th and 16th centuries, non- attendance at church. They’d also be responsible for looking after licensed beggars and making sure that beggars were licensed to actually beg. They would report and keep an eye on ale houses and make sure that licences were up to date and renewed by the Justices of the Peace and would arrest drunkards and people acting irresponsibly.
They would also be involved with the overseers of the poor for being involved with settlements disputes, for being involved for the removal of people from one parish to another and also for bastardy cases as well, where overseers tried to get putative fathers either to marry the unmarried woman or to pay maintenance for the upbringing of the child. So they would actually enforce bastardy orders and removal orders as well. And they would collect the county rates, known as ‘quarterage’, for delivery to the Clerk of the Peace and some other national taxes as well, and other records. So some subsidies, some exchequer records, will have been collected by the constables; things like the protestation returns and the association oath rolls would have been compiled by the constables. And sometimes the records are arranged by parish and constablewick. Now constablewick is the area of which the constable has charge and that usually equates to the township or in a small parish, the parish. Things like, some of the subsidies and the association oath rolls are arranged, rather than by parish, but by constablewick, which usually acquaints to the township.
They maintained the accounts books as well. So they’d account for their expenses, attending the hundred courts and the petty and quarter sessions and the county assizes, removing people from their parish of unlawful settlement, they’d account for the money for the hire of substitutes for the militia, payments to the wives of militiamen in training, because obviously if they’re away training they’ve not got an income coming in, then they could, out of the county rates, pay allowances to the wives of militiamen in training. They could make payments to soldiers discharged from the army travelling back from their place of discharge to their actual home.
This is an example of an early account from 1689, again recording the payments made by the constables for their various duties. Again, it’s an early account – late 17th century – very neatly kept. Again, later accounts can be very scrappy and very difficult to read, but it’s a matter of luck what survives for your particular parish and how well the record has been kept.
Surveyors of the highways, or way wardens were first appointed under the Highways Act 1555 and this was a statutory appointment which had to be confirmed by the Justices of the Peace. They were responsible for the repair and the maintenance of parish roads. Parishioners under the statute of 1555 had to provide statute labour to actually work themselves on the repair of the roads or pay for a substitute to do the work. These are the least likely records to survive and the surveyors of the highway tended to be the least literate of the parish officers, so their records were very badly kept or hardly kept at all. But they will usually provide records of parishioners providing stones and spending time – the statute days – actually working on the roads, and usually for people like labourers, you can find them in the surveyor’s accounts working on the repair of the roads in the parish.
The system stopped after the Highways Act of 1835, which created highway districts, and highway boards, which replaced the actual parish surveyors and actually ended statute labour or substitute labour, so people no longer had to work on repairs of the roads. But where they survive, they can record payments of individuals for either providing stones or actually doing work on the roads according to the statute of 1555.
Some other miscellaneous material that you can find: the enclosure award or enclosure map where commons and wastes were enclosed. You can sometimes amongst parish records find related material. So, very rarely, minutes of the enclosure commissioner or commissioners, where they held meetings with the principal land owners and other parishioners, the interested parties. Sometimes you can find details of sales of the particular plots of lands by auction, which are then bought by parishioners if they can afford them, the money being raised by the sales towards defraying the costs of the enclosure. You also get some surviving taxation lists, lists compiled by the constables or the overseers which may have survived in the parish records which will now be in the county record office.
Sometimes [you’ll find] other legal opinions relating to parish land, parish charities that have been created, usually by wills and bequests of parishioners, so there’s always a legal dimension and there may be a dispute over land that is left to the church or a charity that’s created by somebody and then there’s a dispute over the creation of the charity or the gift of the land. So there may be disputes, there may be legal opinions from solicitors or legal attorneys.
You can get other subscriptions for various patriotically charitable collections. So sometimes when market towns were devastated by fires and large numbers of houses were destroyed, there might be a levy throughout the county and parishioners would subscribe in their parishes to a fund for the repair and rebuilding of a market town damaged by fire. You get examples, as well, of collections after the Battle of Trafalgar, funds for the widows and orphans of men killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, or other battles particularly in the 18th century or early 19th century when people were still prepared to fork out for charitable collections. Later on, these became less fashionable; particularly when the burden on the poor rates got heavier and heavier, people were less inclined to give money to charitable causes.
You also, as I’ve mentioned, get pew rents, payable on pews in some parish churches and sometimes you may even find a plan of the pews in a parish church and who actually owns those particular pews and maybe a rent book listing the rents payable on those pews and details of when the pews change hands, either when they’re inherited by the person inherits the property. They may be passed from father to son. Some pews would actually go with an estate, so if a farm changed hands, the pew, which went with the farm would change hands as well, or it might just be bought and sold in an ordinary transaction. And you’ve also got, of course, the tithe award and tithe map which we hold a copy off – we hold the tithe commissioners copy – but the parish copy and the diocesan copy that went to the bishop, both those copies should now be in the county record office.
Just some further reading – although it was first published in 1946, it’s a very useful guide to the various officers of the parish – W.E Tate’s, The Parish Chest, published by Phillimore. The current, most recent re-print is 1983, but it’s still available in many bookshops and available through family history societies. There’s also John West’s Village Records, again published in 1962. The most recent Fillmore edition is 1997 and that covers the records you’re likely to find in the parish chest. Eve McLaughlin’s guide, Annals of the Poor, which relates to the Poor Law and the various acts relating to the Poor Law and settlement, and another book by Anne Cole, Poor Law Documents before 1834. And there’s also my guide, Family History Companion, which basically covers some of the officers and descriptions of them, the periods that they cover and the sort of records that survive for particular periods.
That’s all I’m going to say this afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for your attention. Thank you.