The Parish Chest

The Parish Chest

Long before the establishment of the Church of England and the parish as it was established by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Incumbents were required to store their important records (e.g., accounts) and wealth of riches contained in their churches (silverware, parish alms etc) in a secure place. Often used for this purpose was a chest, “ark”, “coffer”, or “hutch”. At various times statutory requirements were introduced as to the properties of these chests which can still be found today in some churches.

In terms of family history, the importance of the parish chest must not be overlooked. Parish records became increasingly important with the developing of the parish as an autonomous local government entity from the start of the 16th century following the demise of the manorial and feudal systems in the 15th century. The existence, varieties and styles of the parish chest can help understand the survival (or not) of many of the parish records which can be so important to researching our ancestors before the start of civil registration.

Most of these records concern the upkeep of the poor of the parish under the ‘old’ poor laws with many coming to an end in or about 1836 following the introduction of the ‘new’ poor laws. The old poor law system introduced in 1552, required every parish, at the expense of the parishioners, to be provided with a strong chest and three keys to hold the alms of the poor. The chest was required to have a hole in the upper part. This requirement which was reinforced by Elizabethan legislation and confirmed in canons of 1603. It was not always the case that new chests were provided, but the old medieval ones adapted to serve the purpose.

In his book “The Parish Chest” (Phillimore 1983) W.E. Tate describes the varieties and styles of chests used. The oldest chests dating from pre 13th century with the “dug-out” which comprised “of a substantial log, having its center hollowed out, and its sides roughly squared with the axe”. The wood would often be oak, but examples of chests made from elm (in Eckington, Worcestershire) and cedar and cypress (Swaffham Bulbeck and Cheveley, Cambridgeshire) have been found.

From about the early 13th century chests were more commonly like a box “made of substantial boards fastened with great wrought-iron nails” generally made from thicker material at the ends than the back and front “and the bottom is grooved into the ends and sides”. As carpentry improved through the 13th century, so do the parish chest, with late 13th century chests having fronts made “of a great solid slab of wood” and they were “sometimes fitted with plain iron bands, or chains were fixed round them” presumably to strengthen the chest.

Decorations also began to be introduced. Some 14th century chests boasted carvings of figures “generally of a military or chivalrous nature” on the large front panels. A 14th century chest from York Minster boasts a carving of St George and the dragon.

As carpentry techniques improved so did parish chests. Chests from Tudor times onwards are “more or less characteristic of their time” often boasting carvings of the Tudor rose for decoration. They are more likely to be dated and if a new chest was purchased the name of the churchwarden purchasing it may be inscribed.

Over the centuries since Tudor times chest became increasing ornate, with classical and semi-classical details, such as rosettes and even plump cherubs. Oak was traditionally the wood of choice, however increasingly the use of other woods began to be used as inlays, overlays and decorations, such as walnut, mahogany (after the removal of the mahogany duty in 1753).

Given the lack of heating in these old churches, these wooden chests would have been affected by weather, neglect, vermin attack, and pilfering over the course of time.

More common in our parish churches today are iron boxes, following the requirements of Rose’s Act 1812.

So, what records, which may be of interest and use to the family historian, could be found in the parish chest? Essentially the records of the parish officers and other records relating to the local administration of the parish:

  • Parish registers
  • Vestry minutes
  • Churchwarden accounts
  • Overseers accounts inc. poor rate and relief records
  • Parish apprenticeship records
  • Constable accounts
  • Settlement and removal records
  • Bastardy records and bonds
  • Militia relief records
  • Charitable funds
  • Glebe terrier records
  • Records of the surveyor of highways

These records will be explored in more detail in my forthcoming weekly blogs.

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