England Churchwardens (National Institute)

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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 ($).


The churchwardens are the guardians of the parish church, dating back to the 12th century and elected annually by the vicar and parishioners, but sometimes by the vestry. In many places one was appointed by the vicar and the other by the parishioners, so one sees reference to the vicar’s warden and the people’s warden (Chart 11). Larger parishes could have more than two churchwardens. The position was unpaid but expenses were re-imbursed, as seen in the churchwardens accounts. Their main concern was with the upkeep of the church and church property and thus paying the various tradesmens’ bills for these services; the management of parish charities; and for christening foundlings and burying strangers who died in their parish. They arranged seating in the church, including collection of pew rents and payment of pew openers, often elderly poor who did a number of menial tasks in addition to guiding people to their pews and locking the old box pew doors in church; Jerrold paints a wonderful description of this type. They assisted the vicar in record keeping and had to fill out the annual presentments to the bishop on the state of affairs in the parish. At this time they would record offences such as libel, blasphemy, illegitimate births and non-attendance at church (since attendance was compulsory up until the 17th century). Churchwardens’ duties varied considerably and they sometimes acted as overseers of the poor and parish constable. Assistants to the churchwardens were called questmen or later, sidesmen.

Lists of Churchwardens

At Great Bookham, Surrey the following list has been preserved:

List of Churchwardens at Great Bookham, Surrey 1663-1675

William Browne and Robert Mower chosen Church=wardens for the yeare of the Lord 1663

And continuing with the same wording each year:
Will: Browne and Rich: Mower 1664
Tho: Wood of Bagd and Edward Richbell 1665
Tho: Wood of Bagden and Edwd Richbell 1666
Geo: Miles and Miles Marter 1667
Geo: Miles and Henry Ellis 1668
Richard Jeffery and Will: Ellis 1669
Richard Jeffery and Will: Ellis 1670
Richard Jeffery and William Ellis 1671
William Stobbell and Robert Sheires 16??
William Stobwell and John Boughton 1673
Robert Blundell and Thomas Wood 1675

There is also a note for 1633 regarding the choice of churchwardens, one by the minister and one by the parishioners, as frequently was the custom.

Choice of Churchwardens at Great Bookham, Surrey 1633

In the Easter weekJohn Hibbard of great Bookham was Chosen Churchwarden for this yeare 1633 by me. Sa: Chewie vic:
And in the sd Easter week Thomas Wood was Chosen Churchwarden for this sd year 1633 by the pishioners of the sd pish hereunderwritten.
Here follows one signature and a further 16 names with an interesting assortment of their marks.

Churchwardens or Church Rates

The parish church and churchyard, (also called the church hay), were maintained from the Church Rate, also known as the Church Cess, or on the Welsh borders as Leawans, which was levied by the churchwardens on all householders, whether or not they attended the Established church. This was naturally resented by nonconformists, Catholics and others and the right of the Church of England to levy compulsory rates was abolished in 1868, however later examples are found; perhaps they only included Church of England parishioners?

The term scot and lot is sometimes seen, and John Richardson (The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia) and Terrick Fitzhugh (The Dictionary of Genealogy) explain that this refers to the parish rates; scot being for the poor and lot for church maintenance.

Rates are taxes applied against property for various reasons and the lists usually include both owners and occupiers of the land or buildings. Rates were noted as so many pence in the pound, there being 240 pence in £1 a rate of 6d in the pound was 2.5%.

Church Rate 1810-1811 Whippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire Film 1526198

Parish of Whippingham, Easter 1811.
A Rate of four pence in the Pound for sundry Repairs and other Expences incurred on Account of the Parish Church from Easter 1810 to this date.
North Quarter

Abraham, Abrm
Palmers Farm

Tithe of ditto


Tithe ditto


Tithe ditto

Abraham, Abrm
Padmore Farm

Tithes ditto

Auldin, Thos esq



Thorolds Brick Store

Loft over ditto

Large Brick Store

Loft over

Butchers Store

Thorolds Wooden Store

Loft over

Large Wooden Store

Counting House Store



Arnold, Mrs.




Church Rate 1827 East Peckham, Kent Film 1752023

An Assessment for the necessary reparations and for other expenses in and belonging to the Parish Church of East Peckham in the County of Kent made and assessed the 21st Day of July 1827 by the Churchwardens and others of the said Parish of East Peckham assembled on usual Notice being first given at and after the Rate of Six Pence in the Pound.

[The three columns give the rateable value, the name and the amount due, examples being:]

90  Twysden, Sir Wm Bart £2 - 5 - 0
14 Allingham, Francis 7 - 0
3 ½
Allingham, Sarah 1 - 9
1 ½ Cheeseman, Aquila 1 - 9
3 ½ Dutnall, John 0 - 9
88 Dutnal, Jacob 2 - 4 - 0
7 “a Cottage
3 - 6
3 ½ Dutnall, William 1 - 9
2 ½ 
Dutnall, widow 1 - 3
2 ½ Dutnall, Henry 1 - 3

It can be readily seen that if faced with two men of the same name in a village it is possible to figure out which was which by looking at a good run of the Church Rates, or indeed any of the other rates mentioned under Civil Records. Say there were two Jacob Dutnalls, one a prosperous farmer and the other a labourer, and one was buried in 1824 with no other information given in the burial register. By looking at the Church Rate over several years it can be seen that the affluent Jacob was still around on 21 July 1827, whereas the poor one had left a widow by then.

Churchwardens Rates 1875 Whippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire

Film 1526198

Messrs H. R. Roach and Wm Dashwood Ch. Wardens from Easter 1875 L s d
Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queen 20 - -
The Canon Prothero 5 - -
The Dowager Lady Gart(?) 3 - -
H. Auldge Esq. 3 - -
The Misses Masterton 2 - -
H.R. Roach 2 - ;-
Wm Sheddon 1 - -
Mr and Miss Dashwood 1 - -
Miss Jolliffe 1 - -
Miss Sheddon 1 - ;-
F. Fryer Esq. 1 - -
W.M. Dredge 1 - -
Miss A. Davis - 10 -
M. Davis esq. - 10 -
Mr. Burfoot - 10 -
To balance deficiency 6 6 4

48 16 4

Tradesmen’s Agreements

Such agreements for repairs to church buildings and grounds give the researcher a fair idea of their ancestor’s skills if he was the tradesman, or his involvement in parish affairs if he was one of the other parties.

Extract from Indenture of Agreement for Repainting Church Fabric Whippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire 1803

Film 1526198

Indenture of Agreement made the Seventh day of December in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and three between the Revd Henry Ridley D.D. rector of Whippingham in the Isle of Wight, the Right Hon’ble Lord Henry Seymour andThos Buckell Churchwardens of the parish of Whippingham aforesaid;James Roach and William Lambert overseers of the said parish; John Ward, Richard Whitmarsh, William Goodrich, John Nash and Thomas Auldjo parishioners and Inhabitants of the said parish of Whippingham for themselves and the rest of the parishioners of the said parish of Whippingham of the one part
James Guy of the parish of Newport in the Isle of Wight carpenter of the other part.

[Summary of first of four pages]
Vestry meeting on 21 Nov 1803 decided to carry out repairs, additions, alterations and improvements of the parish Church of Whippingham, by contracting with James Guy for the sum of £650.
He is to

  • Build a new vestry room at the west end of the church
  • Take down the wall and enlarge the N side of the church

Remove the porch and make a new entrance

  • Raise all the walls to the eaves of the north side
  • Form two gabled ends on the north and south ends on a new roof over the middle of the church
  • Take down and carry back the front of the present gallery
  • Remove the pillar and arches on the inside of the church and form into one gothic arch
  • Build new pews
  • Build two new galleries
  • And so forth ]

Then all of the above sign the document on its 4th page.

Churchwardens Bills

Collections of actual tradesmens’ invoices may survive; these might be slips of papers such as the example below, or handsome engraved invoices.

Organist and Bellringer’s Annual Bill East Peckham, Kent Undated

East Peckham Old Church

To the Churchwardens £      
Playn the Organ 52 Weeks 2      
Chimeing An Ringin'

               The 10 O’Clock Bell 52 Weeks 1      


Paid for John Rogers

R. Ellis


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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.