I was lucky enough to have some time recently to look around Salisbury Cathedral and in amongst the treasures of that beautiful place of worship I noticed a couple of ancient chests that were being completely ignored by the streams passing visitors.
As a family historian, interested in searching for ancestors in the Parish Records, I am acutely aware that these interesting heavy wooden pieces of furniture also appear in churches up and down the country and at one time performed a vital function in the preservation of documents that we use today in researching our families.
In my English/Welsh family history course, available online at www.FamilyHistoryResearcher.com, I cover Parish Chest records in more detail in lesson 8. If you want to know more about how to tease out your elusive ancestors, from the documents that they were recorded in, then perhaps you may like to join me and numerous satisfied students on an online journey to learn more about the resources and records that you could be using.
As a teaser I am reproducing some of the content of that lesson below:
The Parish registers for baptisms, marriages and burials, were first introduced by Henry VIII’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell in 1538 to the English Church. Cromwell, who supervised the church through his position as Henry’s Vicar General and Vice regent, required that every parish church was to acquire a sure coffer (that is, a parish chest) within which their records could be securely stored.
The parish chest was not a new idea, however, they could have been found in churches up and down the land all the way back to medieval times. Often no more than a hollowed out tree trunk that was secured with three locks. The keys to which were to be kept by the Bishop, the Priest and by a religious layman. What was new, in Tudor times, was the notion that Cromwell dictated that accurate records were to be kept and the responsibility to do so was placed on the parish officials to keep these records safe.
By the mid-1500’s the parishioners in every parish of the land were instructed by law to provide a strong chest with a hole in the upper part thereof, and having three keys, for holding the alms for the poor. Another chest may have been used to keep safe the church’s plate and this or the first chest would also double up as a place where the parish registers and other parish documents could be kept safe. In some places only one chest would have sufficed for both purposes, while in other parishes two or more may have been used.
As can be seen by the pictures above, The Parish Chest was just that; a chest locked and housed in the church that could now only be opened by the Vicar and two officers of the parish.
It was the place for the parish church to keep safe its documents away from mice, dust and other conditions that may have damaged them. But as the chest filled up with records, then the oldest papers at the bottom would have been disposed of to make room for newer documents to go on top. For this reason alone many records will not have survived to the present day.
That is sad as the various account books, bundles of documents of all different sizes, could be valuable information. You may be able to read some fragments of extra information about your forebears and their lives, if your ancestor had dealings with the church in their parish. It could be that your ancestor was an artisan that was paid for some service by the parish clerk.
Perhaps your ancestor was mentioned in Settlement Examinations? Or Apprenticeship Indentures? What about bastardy examinations and bonds? Maybe the Constables’ and Overseers’ account books?
All of these records are what we call the Parish Chest documents as formally they would have lived in such a container in the church.
The reason why these documents may not have survived through to the present day are many. Some parishes would have been poor at keeping good records, anyway. Others may have consciously destroyed their documents while yet more parishes lost their records accidentally – perhaps through carelessness, water damage, fire, fungus, mold, or by being eaten by insects or animals.
As a consequence, when Parish Chest material has survived, for your parish, then you will definitely want to take a look at what has endured the years as it can open up a fantastic insight into your ancestor’s parish.
Other Parish Records
Here are some other records in the parish chest:
- The Churchwardens Accounts
- Glebe Terriers and Tithe Records
- Charity Accounts (possibly not of a great deal of use to family historians!)
- Vestry Minutes
- Petty Constables Accounts
- Rate Books
- Various other miscellaneous records
As I have stressed above, it is by no means certain that these documents will have survived the ravage of time, if they have, however, then the originals should now be stored away safely at the relevant County Record Office for the church in question. You see how the County Record Offices come up time and time again? I love visiting them and I encourage any of you that can to do so too.
In many cases you may be lucky enough to find that a local history society, or a county record society, may have published some of these records in full, if so then do take a look at their publications.
Be warned, however, that it is unusual to find any generally available on the Internet. Despite this caveat, I would still say that it is worth your while doing a search on Google, Bing or some other search engine.
Also it is worth seeing if they have possibly been filmed by the LDS and so made available from your local Family History Centre.
Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources which can be used to find your elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,