The Parish Chest – Vestry Minutes and overview

What was/is a Vestry?

The Vestry was the governing body of the parish, akin in some ways to the parish council of today. They had both an ecclesiastical role and civil role. Vestries do of course still exist in todays Churches, albeit their function are now ecclesiastical only.

The vestry was made up of solely male members of parish. In the early years, every male parishioner was in theory required to undertake a role in the vestry. Over time however, increasingly the roles became concentrated amongst the more prominent members of the parish, these became known as select vestries.

The Vestry meeting

Vestry meetings dealt with every aspect of parish life and the community. These may have been established as early as the fourteenth century (certainly by the time church/parish officers had been established – see later blogs), but became increasingly important from the sixteenth century, with the decline of the manorial courts. Manorial courts continued to exist (at least to some extent) alongside vestries for several centuries to come in respect of land holding in particular.

The vestry discharged may duties such as the management of the church and related ecclesiastical matters but also managed parish matters such as the upkeep of the fabric of the Church, local highways and bridges, law and order, the poor rate etc, appointing (annually) and supervising parish officers such as the Churchwarden, Waywarden, Constable and the Overseer of the Poor (these will be looked at in more detail in later blogs). The incumbent would of course be a member of the Vestry.

The Vestry had overall control of the church rate, parish rate and poor rates and payments of poor relief and essentially dealt with anything which may touch upon the church, the parish and its parishioners.

What are their records and why should family historians use them?

When vestry meetings were held vestry minutes would record the details of the meetings.

They list all those who attended the meeting, the parish officers and their roles.

They can contain details of almost anything which may touch upon the parish and its parishioners. Agreements maybe recorded as to almost anything which touched upon the church, the parish and its parishioners and can include things such as:

  • when and in what manner the sacrament should be administered
  • not to hold meetings on sabbath days
  • who and where the dead can be buried (or not buried) within the church/churchyard.
Extract from Vestry Minute for the Parish of Cranleigh 1821 (Surrey History Centre Reference P58/1/1

The parish officers reported back to the vestry. However they also created their own records (particularly the Churchwarden, Constable and Overseer) which will be discussed in later blogs in this series.

The minutes can contain such details as the names of:

  • Those assessed as eligible to pay the poor rate and the amount they had to pay
  • Those who would be excluded from paying the rate
  • Those who had failing to pay the poor rate
  • Those who were to be paid poor relief, provided with clothing, medical expense etc. (where the parish was too small to require a separate overseer the vestry minutes may contain similar details as would be found in the overseers accounts (see above))
  • Emigrants and any provision made for their passage through the parish
  • Apprenticed children
  • Illegitimate children, particularly if there was concern that they may become a burden on the parish
Extract from Vestry Minute for the Parish of Cranleigh 1839 (Surrey History Centre Reference P58/1/2

Vestry minutes can be an important source where they have survived. Not only can they name ancestors but they can also provide a picture of the day to day life of the parish. Relationships between parishioners may also be deduced from information recorded in these minutes.

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