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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Civil Records In The Parish Chest

Parish Constables


Anciently the parish constable was the man who preserved the peace and was appointed annually and regulated by the manorial court. He was also known as a Petty Constable or Bylawman, and in some places was synonymous with the Headborough, Thirdborough or Tithingman. In some boroughs the constable was known as the dozener, a term derived from the head of the dozen or jury.

In 1381 Justices of the Peace were established to whom he then reported, but for certain duties he was responsible to the Head or Chief Constable of the county division known as a hundred or wapentake.

As manors decayed during the 17th and 18th centuries, the parish vestry took over appointing the constable, but the head constable would be appointed by the quarter sessions, and was paid £5 per quarter. A constable was unpaid, (but did get expenses re-imbursed), and had to be an able-bodied male resident aged 25-55 who was required to serve when called unless he could pay for a substitute, or belonged to one of the exempted occupations (Arnold-Baker). Constables expenditures were paid for out of a separateconstables rate or from the poor rate from 1778.

From 1842 paid constables were appointed by the JPs, and county police forces were established from 1839, gradually replacing the parish constables.

Appointment of Headboroughs Vestry Minutes, St. George-in-The East, MDDX FHL film 1,786,554

                                                         6 April 1817

Memorandum that the persons undermentioned were sworn to serve the Office Headborough for the ensuing year.


David Janes John Coverdale John Lowen
James Proudfoot William Mackay Joseph Reilly
John Benton James Briggs Charles Jauncey
Henry Palmer William King William Brown
John Wm Price William Brooker Thomas Parker
John Sargeant William Barker Joseph Messenger
Charles King Andrew Anderson Aaron Knight

Appointment of Constables at Berkshire Quarter Sessions 1794-1813

FHL film 0088144
1794 14 Jan Thomas Toms of Swallowfield yeoman is appointed one of the Chief Constables of the Hundred of Charlton in the room of [i.e. to replace] Thomas Sharp.

1795 13 Jan John Elisha of Shinfield farmer is appointed one of the Chief Constables of the Hundred of Charlton in the room of Thomas Toms

FHL film 0088145
1809 11 Apr Edward Toms of the townholding of Wantage gardener is appointed Petty Constable of the townholding aforesaid in the room of William Talmage.

FHL film 0088147
1813 5 Oct Robert Darling of Wantage butcher is appointed Petty Constable of the townholding of Wantage in the room of Edward Tombs.

Duties of Constables

The constable had a wide variety of responsibilities (Church, Hey, Fitzhugh):

  • ŸThe village stocks, pillory and cage or lock-up. The 1841 census for St. Osyth, Essex (HO107/338) shows three people confined in the parish cage for the night! In Bexleyheath, Kent on census night in 1851 the four Simpson children, ages 13 to 5, were left to fend for themselves, as a side note reveals thatthe father and mother were prisoners on the 30th in the police cells at the Station, Bexleyheath.
  • ŸWatch and Ward, the mediaeval and early modern system of patrolling of towns for security. The night patrol was the watch, and the daytime was the ward, a rotating duty for all male citizens. They raised the hue and cry which was a parish responsibility whereby victims of, and witnesses to, crimes had to shout an alarm, and all who heard this were required to pursue the felon. If the latter succeeded in crossing the parish boundary the responsibility for his capture devolved upon the next parish.
  • ŸVagabonds and intruders who had no right of settlement in the parish, and whipping vagrants.
  • ŸSecuring prisoners and transporting them to quarter sessions or assizes.
  • ŸEscaped prisoners, riots and unlawful assemblies. He was supported by the Riot Act of 1715 which, when he was faced by 12 or more persons whom he considered to be gathered riotously or unlawfully, allowed him to read a certain section of the Act forcing them to disperse within an hour or be considered felons.
  • ŸCollection of county rates (taxes) which paid for the house of correction (later the county gaol), roads and bridges, lame soldiers, travellers with passes, and the assizes. Before the rates were amalgamated the annual payment from each parish to the High Constable of the hundred for the maintenance of prisoners in the county gaol was called rogue money.
  • ŸCollection of national taxes like the poll tax, hearth tax and land tax.
  • ŸOrganizing ballots from 1757 for raising local militia and compiling muster rolls.
  • ŸProviding lodging and transport for armed forces.
  • ŸLighting of beacons.
  • ŸWeights and measures.
  • ŸSupervision of alehouses and providing a list of them for licensing at the brewster sessions.
  • ŸNon-attendance at church.
  • ŸOppression by other officers.
  • ŸCommercial irregularities.
  • ŸCompiling jurors’ lists.
  • ŸDrunkenness.
  • ŸUnauthorized building of additional cottages and dovecotes.
  • ŸPoaching and orchard robbery.
  • ŸHedge-breaking.
  • ŸTaking lewd women before the Justices of the Peace and control of bawdy houses.
  • ŸDetaining fathers of bastards.
  • ŸDestroying vermin.
  • AŸppearing at inquests.
  • ŸAssault complaints.
  • ŸRestraining loose animals in the pound or pinfold, the former name for the keeper of the pound being the pinder. For illustrations and descriptions of animal pounds see Parish.
  • ŸThe parish bull.

The position of constable was thus exceedingly time-consuming and resented by many who had to take their turn, with concomitant inefficiencies. Church has edited a contemporary account of the parish constable’s duties, and a detailed account of how they were appointed with a long list of those who were exempt is in Charles Arnold-Baker’s Parish Administration. From the time of Charles II cities employed night watchmen as assistants to the constables. These were usually old, infirm men who were virtually useless for the position, so quickly acquired the nicknames (right) Charlies. Their watchhouses, some also used as cages to hold prisoners, were sometimes converted into early police stations later on.

Constables Records and Accounts

Some constables accounts survive, for example those for two constables in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, William Boddington and John Joy can be found on FHL film 1786411. Another documents relating to the varied duties of the constables is shown below.

Assault Complaint 1831 Rogate, Sussex

Sussex, to Wit: To the Constable of the Hundred of Dumpford in the said County and also to Daniel Moore.
Whereas Susan Kemp of the Parish of Rogate in the said County on the eighth day of September made Complaint and Information on Oath before me, Sir Charles Harriston, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County That on the seventh Day of August last at the Parish of Rogate aforesaid in the said County Martha Harding wife of Edmund Harding of the Parish of Liss in the County of Southampton Laborer did unlawfully Assault and kick her the said Susan Kemp contrary to the form of the Statute in such Case made and provided.
These are therefore to command you immediately to apprehend the said Martha Harding and bring her before me, and one other of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County, or some two others of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County to answer to the said Complaint, and to be further dealt withal according to Law.
Herein fail not, as you will answer the contrary at your Peril.
Given under my Hand and Seal, at Midhurst in the said County of Sussex the sixth Day of September in the Year One Thousand Eight Hundred and thirty one.
P. Hamilton

A person capturing a felon who was later found guilty was issued a certificate called a Tyburn Ticket, named after the place in London where criminals were executed. This ticket was a valuable commodity as it exempted him from serving parochial office, and as it was transferable it could be sold for a good price, actually more than a labourer’s annual wage (Burchall, Cole, Sue May).

Poor Law Administration

Perhaps the most fruitful hunting ground for genealogists because of the wealth of relationships and family history to be found in these records, where they still survive.

Overseers and Guardians

The position of administering the Poor Law was undertaken in rotation by worthy men in the parish, anyone refusing to serve being fined. The Overseer of the Poor, at first called the Collector of the Poor and sometimes the Distributor, was chosen annually in the spring by the township or parish vestry from amongst their number, and in larger parishes two would be appointed. The names would then be approved by the Justices of the Peace. It was an often onerous position, but regarded as somewhat of an honour to be chosen, even though it was unpaid and with no recompense for lost wages. Overseers were therefore chosen from amongst the middle-aged yeoman, husbandmen and craftsmen, rather than from younger men or the less well-off cottagers or labourers. The individual was empowered to raise a rate or assessment to cover the needs of the poor, and had to justify his expenses by submitting his account at the end of his term, even being held responsible for costs unauthorized by the vestry.

Overseers of the Poor were first seen during the reign of Elizabeth I and continued until the New Poor Law in 1834 when they were replaced by Boards of Guardians. Upon the overseer fell the responsibility of deciding who needed assistance and balancing this against the ratepayers’ ability and willingness to pay. It was essentially a full time occupation as can be seen from the amount of paperwork generated and the amount of interviews and travel involved.

From 1834 the new Workhouse Guardians administered the system and a similar set of records were kept as had been by the Overseers of the Poor:

Note that the records of parishes which joined the voluntary Gilbert Unions between 1782 and 1834 may well be held with the post-1834 Poor Law Unions rather than with the parish chest material for that parish. It thus behooves the researcher to find out the history of his parish’s union involvement, and to search both groups of records - parish and union - for this middle period.

The Jeremy Gibson Guides Poor Law Union Records #s 1-3 present a summary of the extant Poor Law Union records 1834-1948 arranged by county and union, and giving the present location in England of the records. The list of record types and sketch maps of unions in each county are particularly handy. More detailed lists can be found in the holdings lists published by the county archives themselves. These should both be used in conjunction with the FHLC, so that those records that are extant but not yet filmed can be located. Gibson Guide #4 has been superceded by the author’s Parishes and Registration Districts in England and Wales. It should be noted that only the union records are covered by these Gibson Guides, not the former parish records.

Poor Rates

The Poor Rate was the main tax on the parishioners for the support of the less fortunate in their parish or, after 1834, in their union. In early times there were several small rates to pay for various expenditures, but for efficiency they were later amalgamated into the general Poor Rate. This took place in a number of ways and at different times in different places. Poor Rates continued to be collected by the parish after 1834 but handed over to the new Union Boards of Guardians. In 1862 unions started collecting their own rates, and in 1867 payment of rates within each Poor Law Union was equalized, with London adopting a common fund in 1865.

Poor Rates were levied annually, and sometimes more often. Some records, naming householders and the rate they paid, survive from the Old Poor Law but most extant records are from the New Poor Law period post-1834, when both owners and occupiers are listed. The values of land and property expressed on these lists should not be viewed as accurate, since there was a natural tendency to undervalue for tax purposes. However, the relative value compared with other inhabitants of the parish is probably a better measure of their standing in the community.

An example from a Poor Rate book is shown below.

Poor Rate Book of Wippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire 1845 FHL film 1526198 items 1-14 The parishioners of Whippingham paid poor rates quarterly and for the 2nd quarter of 1845 the highest amount paid was £19-5-11 by Queen Victoria for her land and buildings. Others paid from a few shillings to a few pounds. The books are very wide with columns for the owner, occupier, name and type of the property and acreage of land as well as the various calculations.

AN ASSESSMENT for the necessary Relief of the Poor, and for the other Purposes in the Several Acts of Parliament mentioned, relating to the Poor of the Parish of Whippingham in the Isle of Wight made and assessed the 25th day of July 1845 being the Second Quarter Rate at Seven Pence in the Pound, for the present year 1845.
John Roach (1 only signed Church wardens
Wm Suguitt (?), John Roberton Overseers of the Poor
C. Whitmarch ast.
Occupier Owner Property
H.M. Queen Victoria H.M. Queen Victoria Osborne House and land, Newbarn (140 acres), Osborne Coppice (90 acres), Barton Farm and Coppice (420 acres).
Auldje, Messrs Messrs Auldje Store in East Cowes
Barrington, Miss Miss Barrington House (milliners) and Land (6 acres 2 roods)
Bouverie, Revd Revd Bouverie House (Whippingham rectory) and 35 acres land
Bull, William Henry Dashwood House in Shamblers
Dashwood, James James Hunt House in East Cowes
Dashwood, Henry Henry Dash House in Whippingham


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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