The Intriguing Parish Chest

Parish Chest St Mary’s Church Kempley

The Parish Chest, was literally a strong box, containing all the important documents pertaining to a given parish.

The chest itself would have been made of a dense hard wood, usually oak, strapped with metal and locks. It was necessarily heavy to stop it being lifted out of the church because it also contained the ‘church plate’, the silver and gold of the church.

The sort of documents put into the chest would have been those to do with the administration of the parish

    • Incumbent records
    • Records of those holding a particular office such as parish constable
    • Church warden accounts
    • Overseer of the poor accounts
    • Accounts relating to surveying, construction and care of the highways
    • Bastardy and affiliation orders
    • Settlement and removal orders
    • Apprenticeships
    • Details of the dealings of the petty constables

It’s the luck of the draw whether or not the records survived but where they do, they contain a wealth of important and fascinating details about those who lived in the parish. the real flavour of individuals comes out.

    • Who was ill, who was disabled, who shirked work?
    • Who were victims of crime, who were the criminals, who were the compassionate people in the parish?
    • How did the parish work together for the greater good?

Whilst your own ancestor may not be named in the records they will paint a detailed picture of the community in which they lived.

    • Poor relief records can be used to discover family members before the earliest census records
    • Migration between parishes is sometimes documented, you might be lucky enough to find documents from originating parishes for your family
    • Poor records may also give details of where people went to after leaving the parish
    • Broader family connections can also be made in documents such as settlement bonds
    • Birth, death and marriage records, fundamental to research of family history
Understanding the parish, it’s people, it’s politics, the way it went about it’s business allows you to put into context, the whys and wherefores  of your own family history project
Go to county archives  to search for the contents of the Parish Chest for any given parish. Some parishes have retained many documents, some are sparse.
The documents are not usually indexed for individuals in terms of records such as Overseers books but individual indexing may be available for documents such as settlement orders.
As for the chests themselves, well here is a selection of these incredible artefacts, whose purpose was so fundamental to the running of the Parish.


Parish Chest of Kempsford Gloucs


Parish Chest St Dunstan’s Canterbury

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