UK Research Guide | Parish Chest Records
Traditionally, parish registers were kept in a locked chest, known as the “Parish Chest”, in churches for safekeeping.
Prior to the Victorian era, the English parish church was a major secular institution. It also provided poor relief, local charities, and even local roads and law enforcement. Consequently, the parish chest contained far more than just baptism, marriage and burial registers. These records are known as “Parish Chest Records”.
Parish Chest Records include:
Vestry or Parochial Church Council Minutes – The Vestry was the committee who oversaw the church and parish. Vestry minutes included a record of appointments of parish officers and newcomers to the parish.
Churchwarden and Overseer Accounts – Churchwardens were in charge of maintaining the church and its grounds. Their ledgers record both money raised and money paid out. The Overseers of the Poor were in charge of providing poor assistance such as money, food, and clothes. The Overseers’ accounts frequently contain details of payments to named individuals for rent, clothes, medical and funeral expenses. Payments to the elderly are included in the accounts, as are registrations of apprenticed pauper children.
The Overseers of the Poor were also engaged in the issuance of settlement certificates, removal orders, and the enforcement of bastardy orders. Additionally, from 1722, the overseers were in charge of the parish workhouse.
Settlement Certificates/Examinations and Removal Orders – From 1662, the Overseers of the Poor were required to verify eligibility to poor assistance through the issuance of Settlement Certificates. The certificates established which parish a person belonged to, and hence which parish was legally obligated to give poor relief whenever it was required. The certificate granted a person the permission to live and receive benefits in their parish of legal settlement. If the parish officials discovered that a person was likely to become a financial burden and charged to the parish, such as illegitimacy cases, those taken ill, suspected illegal immigrants or vagrants, they conducted a Settlement Examination. The examination was conducted under the supervision of the Overseer of the Poor and a Justice of the Peace to establish if the individual had a valid right to dwell in the parish. Examination Papers contain the outcomes of an examination. Following the findings, a guilty individual would be served with a Removal Order and, if required, forcefully removed from the parish. These processes were part of the “Old Poor Law.”
Bastardy Bonds – As parishes were eager to avoid having to pay for the care of illegitimate children, if a putative father refused to accept responsibility, the authorities would order an examination to determine the identity of the father. This was conducted by either the Churchwarden and the Overseer of the Poor or the Quarter Sessions. If the likely father’s name was supplied, a bastardy bond or maintenance order was drafted to secure payment by the father. The range of documents found in the Parish Chest, include Bastardy Examinations, Bastardy Warrants And Summons, Bastardy Orders, Maintenance Orders and the Bastardy Bonds.
Pictured: Wensley Dale Knitters, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814), George Walker (1781-1856)