Parish Records – Churchwarden an overview

The certain origins of the Churchwardens are largely unknown but can be traced back to the 14th century and earlier although few records of their accounts exist from that time. It is perhaps the most ancient office of the church and parish defined as “the proper guardians or keepers of the parish church”.

The role was originally one of upkeep and maintenance of the church building and everything in it. However, over time as government became increasing interested in the population and at the latest from the 16th century (with the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII and the increasingly important role of the church and parish akin to local government) the role of the Churchwarden widened to include certain civil duties.

Two churchwardens were usually appointed to each parish, although there could be as many as four in larger parishes. They were elected from the male parishioners and appointed annually at a vestry meeting, generally at Easter but each parish varied.

Male parishioners were generally expected to serve as a parish officer of one sort or another at some point during the time they lived in the parish, although each parish may have had their own customs for election of parish officers. W E Tate in his book (page 85) “The Parish Chest” states “Service by rotation amongst all householders, or among the proprietors of specified houses or lands, is quite common, as indeed it is for the other offices in the parochial hierarchy”. Nominations for the role (as with others) may have been put forward by the incumbent, the Lord of the Manor, or the outgoing Churchwarden.

Again, as with other parish officer roles, the Churchwarden was generally unpaid although very occasionally it carried a salary, but even then, some nominees attempted to decline the position which would lead to a heavy fine and “until 1921 or, arguably, until 1964, common law compelled any parishioner chosen as warden to serve the office” (Tate, page 87).

As well as the upkeep and maintenance of the church building and everything in it, their civil responsibilities included, amongst other things:

  • Bringing ‘offenders’ before the archdeacon’s court at his parish visitation

That is ‘offenders’ of ecclesiastical law which included such things as:

  • Failing to attend church
  • Adultery
  • Clandestine marriages
  • Clergy failing in his duty

These were reported to the Bishop by the Churchwarden completing “Articles of Enquiry”.   On such record from Bishops Visitation to Winchester in 1764 was a pre-printed list of 13 questions: the first 10 concerned the church property, services, registers and essentially the business and fabric of the church; only the last three concern the parishioners, benefactions, and misconduct of church officials. In a Churchwarden’s presentment from Ewhurst dated 1729, written in English, to the Bishop’s court held at Basingstoke, the Churchwarden reported that the Minister “Does his duty as usual being presented for neglect several visitations past” and that in terms of Parishioners “None presentable as known”

(These will be looked at in a later blog discussing Ecclesiastical Court records more generally)

  • The administration of church funds (church rate/parish rate)

Churchwarden accounts

These are the main records of the Churchwarden to be found amongst parish chest records. They were required to keep proper accounts of the receipts and expenditure with their accounts being produced annually to the parishioners.

Churchwarden accounts can be quite detailed, with a mixture of lists and narrative descriptions depending on the expense. Parishioners are named where they have provided a service or goods, for example (From the Parish of Cranleigh, Surrey History Centre (SHC) reference CRA/7/3):

“Pd Harvey Best as ? bill for Refreshments for Ringers …….1 4 0”

“P Wm Stanton as ? bill for coal for the Church……. – 18 9”

“Churchwardens attending visitation………- 14 -”

Each page has the balance in hand total at the bottom. There are details where the accounts have been audited and are complete from 1840 to 1868. Names of ancestors may appear in the accounts if they contributed to the ‘church rate’ but it is unlikely there would be sufficient information to determine family members. However, they can provide an overview of family life. There may be reference to ancestors who worked for and were paid by the parish, such as tradesmen who carried out maintenance and repair of the church: masons, carpenters, glaziers (and their respective labourers), bakers who provided bread and shopkeepers who provided wine and candles.

A Church Rate book for the Parish of Cranleigh (Surrey History Centre reference CRA/7/4) covering a period of 12 years from 1850 to 1862. This is a bound book of lists of those parishioners who were assessed annually to pay the church rate. There are no details as to the exact expenditure of the church rate. Each year begins:

“A Rate and Assessment for the necessary repairs of the Church of Cranley in the County of Surrey and for other purposes mentioned in the several Acts of Parliament relating to the Rates and Ceremonies of the said Church made and assessed on the Inhabitants and occupiers of Land and Estates in the said Parish this fifth day of May 1859 after the rate of four in the pound”

The lists include the assessment of the value of the property, the name of the land owner or occupier, the “residence or situation of property” and the rate amount due, for example:

“Assessment          Names                    Residence or situation of Property                   Rate

15 10               Austen Sir Henry Bowles Woodland                                                  – 5 2

78 6               Street Thomas               Manning Hill                                               1 6 0

184 5             Tickner Jn              House and Land                                          3 1 5”

For the period these records are available, they are complete and in good condition.

There may also be record containing lists of the Churchwardens, overseers, and other parish officers which were maintained by the Churchwarden, for example, for the parish of Cranleigh, SHC Reference CRA/7/1 is a  book containing lists of overseers, churchwardens and waywardens, and churchwardens accounts [Repaired and rebound in 1930, with cover incorrectly titled ‘Cranleigh Parish Register’] (1648-1737).

Churchwarden accounts and other records per se may be of little value to the genealogist in terms of tracing family members and preparing a family tree.

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