England Ecclesiastical Records in the Parish Chest (National Institute)
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 records of christenings, confirmations, banns, marriages and burials kept in the parish registers form the bulk of the bound volumes in many parishes; St. Giles-in-the-Fields, Westminster, Middlesex, for example, has 75 large books still kept in a huge safe in the vestry, but happily now being microfilmed.
The Vestry has been called the ‘parish parliament’ and was the forerunner of the village or town council. It had various ecclesiastical functions and also assumed some of the civil responsibilities of the manorial court, such as upkeep of the roads, and care of the sick and the poor. During the course of the 19th century these civil duties were gradually transferred to other bodies, and in 1894 all civil functions were transferred to the new parish councils and parish meetings. The Church of England tended to resist any change that transferred power from ecclesiastical to civil authorities since it undermined their influence over the population. Increasingly during the 19th century people were freed from having to obey church edicts in order to qualify for temporal assistance, and there was a concomitant shift to nonconformity and even atheism.
Vestry membership was of two types:
- A Closed or Select Vestry comprised the parson, churchwardens and often 12 (sometimes up to 24) invited leading parishioners. Some select vestries were committees chosen by open vestries.
- An Open Vestry consisted of the parson, churchwardens and all male ratepayers who could all attend and vote, thus evidencing a more democratically run parish, but sometimes producing long and raucous meetings.
The room in the church in which they met (if it had one) was also called the vestry. At first all vestry members were unpaid except the parish clerk, whom Prendergast so aptly describes, and there could be a number of assistants with various duties. There was the sexton who dug graves as well as caring for the vessels, vestments and churchyard. Another was the typically officious beadle who summoned parishioners to vestry meetings, whipped vagrants, kept children in order with his cane etc. and may have doubled as the parish constable; his type has been well described by Cornelius Webbe in The Beadle of the Parish in Portraits of the English - Vol I Parish Characters.. However, it was not uncommon for the meeting to open in the vestry, then adjourn and promptly re-open in the comfort of the local inn with vittles (victuals of bread, cheese and ale) appearing later in the churchwarden’s accounts!
Records of Vestry Members
The items encountered were as variable as the individual parishes. There are nominations of officers for example those for Kelvedon Hatch, Essex 1736-60 are still extant; notices; and minutes of vestry meetings.
Vestry Minutes Whippingham 1810, Isle of Wight, Hampshire
Mr. Nicholas Gerrans was declared Church Warden in the place
All the parish business was discussed at the vestry before any action was taken by the overseers, churchwardens or constable, so they are a fruitful hunting ground for paupers’ problems. Items discussed include:
- Sabbath observance.
- Instruction of psalm singers.
- Repairs to the church.
- Fees for burial in the church.
- Boarding and lodging of the poor. A shocking report of the vestry’s annual boarding out of pauper children at Hellingly, Sussex referred to by the author as ‘the auction of cheap farm labour’ is given by David Packham’s article Parish Children at Hellingly.
- Provision of clothing for paupers and their children being sent out in service.
- Pauper apprentices.
- Grants to assist pauper emigration.
- Medical treatment.
- Disposal of nuisances.
- Payments for meals, drink heat at vestry meetings.
- Establishing a school and hiring schoolmasters. Read William Howitt’s The Country Schoolmaster in Portraits of the English - Vol I Parish Characters, for a good description of a country schoolmaster.
- Repair of roads and bridges.
- Construction of parish lock-ups (gaols).
- Water supply.
- Setting parish rates, (taxes based at so many pence in the pound of property value), for various purposes as needed, for example, poor rate, paving rate, highway rate. Tonbridge had a gaol rate 1817, and a lighting rate 1857-1871 indicating when gas street lights were installed.
Some minutes are curt and to the point, whilst others reveal why certain actions were taken and can therefore be a real gold mine for family historians. The decisions can be followed up in the churchwardens’ and overseers’ accounts. To quote Tate, No subject was too great, and none too small, for the attention of a really keen vestry!
Most parishes provided their poor with clothes (often secondhand) or cloth to make them, food, wood for fuel, and with the services of midwives or nurses when needed, and parishes usually had a contract with a local doctor to care for the sick poor. A moving case of a family’s plight over many years discussed in the vestry minutes of Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire is well-told by Goddard. Keith-Lucas mentions various allowances in kind to paupers which attempted to let them fend for themselves:
- The vestry of Old Romney, Kent gave Widow Chillenden a fat hog in 1748.
- In the villages of Pluckley and Lamberhurst in Kent, the vestry gave sacks of beans to feed the paupers’ hogs—’obviously more economical than letting the pig die, and then having to feed its owner’.
- The overseers at Wye, Kent provided Stephen Rains with a horse and cart so that he could carry on his trade in 1801.
The following are examples of items found in vestry minutes.
Fire Needed in July 1796 Vestry Minutes East Hendred, Berkshire
FHL film 0088257
| At a Vestry held at the Crown Inn at Hendred the 8th Day of July 1796,|
the evening was so Cold that the Company then Present Viz: Thomas Wilkins and Francis Dembridge (Overseers), John Allin Senior, John Allin Junior, John Robey, James Cowdery, John Weston, William Appelton, William Wyatt and Avery Hobbs,
Desired and accordingly had a Fire made in the Parlour.
Charity Apprentice 1807 Vestry Minutes Whippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire
At a vestry legally called and held this Day, It was resolved in pursuance of the Will of the late Mr. Mann that Richard son of Hannah Cook of East Cowes, and George, son of Martha Newman of Coppins Bridge be put apprentices to such Trades and Masters as may at another Vestry be agreed upon.
School and Shoolmaster 1808 Vestry Minutes Whippingham, Hampshire
At a vestry legally called and held this Day, It was agreed that the Minister and Churchwardens should be authorized to pay our of such money as may be in their Hands for charitable purposes, unto George Ryall, recommend[ed] as a proper person for establishing and keeping a School in this Parish, any Sum not exceeding Ten Pounds.
Setting Poor Rates 1810 Vestry Minutes Whippingham
The late Churchwardens, Jas Roach and C.F. Morgan settled their Accounts with the parish.
Disposal of Paupers’ Dogs 1825 Vestry Minutes of East Peckham, Kent
FHL film 1752023
To the Overseers of the Poor of the Parish of Tonbridge
I am directed to inform you that your Parishioner Michael Homewood has one or two Dogs in his keeping and this Parish has determined not to relieve any pauper who has any Dog in his possession, the reasons are obvious when we consider that what is given to their Dogs is in a manner taken from their poor Children, and what does a Dog benefit a poor Man unless he uses it unlawfully?
If you would use some preventive to hinder Homewood’s having Dogs (as his having Dogs is a bad precedent to our Paupers) you would much oblige the Parish Officers of this Parish.
East Peckham 18 Dec 1825 [Copy of letter sent ]
It seems that the local landowners objected to him trying to augment his poor relief with a little poached rabbit or fowl for his family!
Infirmary Recommendation 1830 Vestry Minutes of Potton, Bedfordshire
| To the GOVERNORS of the INFIRMARY, BEDFORD
a proper object of the Charity with regard to the disease, being convinced she is so as to circumstances, the Bearer, Ann Bonass of the Parish of Potton to be an In Patient; and you will oblige,
||Your obedient Servants|
|| Rr Whittingham|
| How long ill
|| John Edwards, George Smith|
|| Church Wardens|
|| Jeremiah Lee, Overseer|
THE PATIENT must attend with this letter on a Saturday or Wednesday, at the hour of ELEVEN precisely.
IN-PATIENTS must be provided with a proper change of linen, and one guinea must be deposited with the Secretary as caution money, to answer the expense of the funeral, in case of the death of the Patient.
OUT-PATIENTS are requested to be provided with a quart bottle on application at the Infirmary for Medicines,
Details of Pauper Families 1826 Vestry Minutes, East Peckham, Kent
A List of the families who receive parochial relief taken Easter 1826.
The five columns list Parents’ names, Residence (if out of village), Names and ages of children, Allowances of cash and flour.
| Acoll, John, -, John 17 and Richard 13, both employed by parish breaking stones, probably for highway; Amy 11, Maria 9, James 7, Thomas 5, Caroline 4, Robert 1 (dead),No cash, 5 flour|
Ashton, widow at Bullen, no children, £1, no flour.
Poor Relief in 1830s Vestry Minutes of East Peckham, Kent
FHL film 752023 Dec 4th 1830
Single men above 18 yrs of Age to have 1/- per day
|DO from 17 yrs to 18 yrs||10d per day|
|DO from 14 yrs to 17 yrs||8d per day|
|DO from 12 yrs to 14 yrs||6d per day|
|Married man and wife||8/- per week|
|DO and one child||9/- per week|
|DO and 2children||10/- per week|
|DO and 3 children||11/- per week|
At each fortnightly meeting there were several requests and the decisions were noted by each, as in the following example. Sometimes the request was repeated for several months before it was granted.
Dec 18th 1830
| George Pattenden’s wife and child more pay
|| Allow 2/6|
| Joseph Luck’s wife £2 for lying in month
| John Sevenoaks boy 1 pair shoes
| Edward Catt’s boy in service at Mr. Durtnall’s as mate has 7/- per week, boards himself. Wants clothes.
|| Mr Allen to enquire|
| Thos Pearson, Barming rent
|| Allowed £2|
| Robt Cole one change [of clothes]
| Wm Groombridge’s Dr at Mrs Walker’s, Wateringbury. [his daughter is being sent to work and needs clothes]. 1 change, 1 flannel petticoat 1 pr stockings, 2 aprons (blue), 1 pr pattens, 1 piece calico nightcap
| Thomas Collins, a truss
| Harriet Acott at Service at London. 1 gown, 2 petticoats, 2 shifts, 2 pr stockings
|| X |
- 25th February 1832
| The Overseers are respectfully requested to visit the Cottages in the Parish to see that they be cleaned and if necessary white washed with Hot Lime, that rubbish, filth, stagnant water etc be forthwith removed to prevent if possible that terrible and malignant desease the Cholera Morbus among us.|
In the poor and populous London east end parish of St. George in the East, Middlesex there is an account book in with the vestry minutes which includes payments to the churchwarden for pauper burials. There were 568 in the two-and-a-half year period 1 Jun 1830-Oct 1832 at 4/- each, a total of £113.12s.
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