The Churchwardens' Accounts of England and Wales
A. How to use this database
I. For identification of locations and ecclesiastical / regional organization: load up the parish list / county list / diocese list / archdeaconry list to see which towns and villages are (or will be) covered in this project and which secular / Church units they belonged to;
II. To find years covered by churchwardens' accounts in particular parishes go to the county list from where you can click on the required name to access its full data spreadsheet. Once this has loaded, click on the "survival list" tab (bottom left on your screen), highlight the respective row (by clicking on its number on the extreme left) and then use the scrolling facilities on the bottom / right margins of the spreadsheet to identify the years with surviving accounts (marked by the symbol 'O' for original document).
III. To access further information for individual parishes (such as details on their church, total expenditure amounts for each surviving year, any editions or transcriptions of churchwardens' accounts) click on the respective tab at the bottom of the full data list for each county (accessible from here). For parishes lower down the alphabet, turn to the small box with four horizontal lines in the bottom right-hand corner of each county spreadsheet. Clicking on it will call up a scrollable alphabetical list: simply select the appropriate place name to access the data. For each parish with surviving accounts, all original documents are listed with the document reference and location. Each year that an account survives is listed together with the total expenditure. Where the expenditure information has not been collected, for a variety of reasons (see below), an ‘O’ denotes that the original accounts survives. In some instances manuscript extracts and / or transcripts are available and the reference and location for these are given together with an ‘E’ (for extract) or ‘T’ (transcript) against the year. Likewise, the ‘E’ and ‘T’ are used for printed sources.
B. Reading the database contents
Survival List: where all the parishes in the pre-1850 county are listed.
Parishes highlighted have either original documents surviving between the years listed OR they have printed or manuscript extracts or transcript surviving for the years indicated.
By highlighting the parish line and scrolling right all the years with a surviving account are inbdicated by ‘O’.
Dates in italics against a parish indicate that accounts may survive but have not yet been checked.
For further details move to the parish page (on how to access this see A.III above).
The document reference and location is given, followed by a list of each surviving year and the total expenditure in £.s.d. Where this information has not been collected then an ‘O’ is shown. The total expenditure may not be listed because the data was collectd before the decision to include the expendituire was made or, normally with earlier documents, the total expenditure is unclear because of accounting systems.
If the document is damaged in any way and the total has been lost from the page, then ‘lost’ is given. Where the churchwardens have failed to total their expenditure in the document then ‘no total’ is given.
Where the accounts clear cover more than one year this is indicated by the number of years followed by ‘yr a/c <’.
Manuscript extracts or transcripts are listed under original documents but clearly identified.
Printed sources are any publication identified and located with lists of extracts or transcripts.
If you return to the Survival list and scroll to the bottom you will find a total number of churches with total number of thos with surviving accounts, the number of years of accounts that have been found and a total number of accounts surviving for each year from 1500 – 1850. Earlier accounts are just listed as a total number for each parish because there are relatively few surviving.
I am not sure what use this last data is, except that it is interesting in the overall survival discussion.
C. Churchwardens' accounts and some of their uses
Here is a short survey of just some of the uses that churchwardens’ accounts have been put to by historians over many years, including some comments on common pitfalls. It is designed to provoke thought and stimulate interest in this database.
First and foremost, we should take churchwardens’ accounts at face value and note why they were produced, how, and for whom? They were not a full account of everything spent on churches in a given year, for they concern only those matters for which churchwardens collected and spent funds.
The churchwardens were responsible for the naves of churches, churchyards and other parish property; rectors and impropriators, often leading laymen in the area, were responsible for the upkeep of the chancels. Private benefactions might or might not be recorded in the annual accounts presented at Easter each year. Some work might be recorded under payments, but, as today, much voluntary work might go unrecorded.
Churchwardens were elected annually and were responsible for financial affairs in the parish for which they had to account at the end of their service. This could entail receipt of rents from properties, production of an inventory of church goods, and accounting for routine and non-routine expenditure such as the running costs of the church, provision of communion bread and wine, visitation costs, cleaning and repairs, protection against pests such as moles in the graveyard, maintenance of bells, walls and fences, etc.
It follows from the above, that used with care and discretion, churchwardens’ accounts can provide historians with useful detail on the life of a parish, insights into the conduct of services, provision and maintenance of interior fittings and furnishings, and relations with external bodies such as the archdeacons and occasionally bishops and their officers on visitation.
Much will always depend on the ability, honesty and conscientiousness of the churchwardens and the detail of their accounts. Their task was an onerous one, often delicate given their other roles in work with the church courts in presenting ‘crimes’ of their neighbours, ranging from non-appearance at church services to sexual peccadillos. The very nature of their annual accounts could be contested, and just as accounts rendered at a modern annual general meeting should be taken with a pinch of salt, so too many churchwardens’ accounts might best be seen as provisional documents presented verbally and subject to minor alterations on the day.
Yet despite these warnings, churchwardens’ accounts do provide historians of many types with ‘treasure trove’. They have been used to identify landholdings in a parish and key bequests, they reveal details of church services and some historians have tried to analyse patterns of expenditure on, say, communion wine. We can pick up expenditure on routine and extraordinary repairs, something used by architectual historians in discussing the impact of the Protestant reformation upon our churches and latter rebuilding campaigns. Specialist debates have been sparked on such matters as bell towers, the placing of ‘altars’ in the 1630s, the programmes of ‘beautification’ of interiors carried out at various periods before and after the Restoration. Economic historians can gain much from the figures taken over a long period and attempts have been made to construct a price index for common building materials in line with more famous retail price indices.
A full understanding of churchwardens’ accounts requires consideration of the work of churchwardens in their parishes. This in turn requires careful local study, for we need more local historians to provide details of exactly who served this role over the years in a given parish. Too often, the focus lies with the clergy and the local gentry, but what about the often illiterate churchwardens who signed with a mark but might have had a canny head for figures?
The database presents us with an opportunity to question the survival of churchwardens’ accounts for different geographical regions, jurisdictions and types of parishes and explore possible changes in patterns over time. A glance at record society volumes produced over many years reveals examples of wonderful sets of accounts, none better than for the city of Bristol, and these need to be set against small rural parishes. Not everywhere has the riches of Morebath.
In Views from the Parish: Churchwardens’ Accounts c.1500 – c.1800, edited by Valerie Hitchman and Andrew Foster, and published by Scholar Press in 2015, articles may be found on the survival of churchwardens’ accounts for Wales and Ireland, and their use in debates about the impact of the Reformation in towns, use for social and economic historians, arcane matters like pest control, and value to historians of the Interregnum when so many elements of parish records, including parish registers themselves, came under threat. Accounts have provided valuable evidence for those studying support for the travelling poor, the changing nature of church music, and shifting patterns in church rituals and liturgy.
Dr Hitchman’s database performs a great and necessary service in revealing to all manner of historians the survival of this important body of records, thus providing valuable context for comparative use, and suggesting pointers for yet further areas of research.
Andrew Foster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent
Author of ‘Churchwardens accounts of early modern England and Wales: some problems to note, but much to be gained’, in K. French, G., Gibbs and B. Kümin (eds), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997), pp 74-93.
D. Project Information
We are creating a searchable national database of all surviving churchwardens’ accounts from the earliest known (c.1300) to c.1850. This resource, although incomplete as yet, will be updated regularly as we continue to collect data. The short url address is http://warwick.ac.uk/cwad.
The listings feature every known church together with any chapels of ease and private chapels, along with the dedication, diocese, archdeaconry, and deanery of each. Wherever possible an indication of the population, will be given, taken from the Hearth Tax Returns and an early nineteenth century census. Further information will be added as it is gathered – this will include bibliographic information for each parish.
The surviving churchwardens’ accounts will be located, examined and each year of survival will be listed with, wherever possible, the total expenditure of each year.
Although the main purpose of this website is to give details of original sources, a search has been made for both modern and antiquarian publications with transcripts and extracts from the churchwardens’ accounts. This information is all shown on the appropriate parish pages.
Why do we need a database?
- Both paper and on-line catalogues generally give only the first and last date for the contents of each documents.
- If a document contains more than just the churchwardens’ accounts, such as vestry minutes or other officer’s accounts the dates may not be relevant to the churchwardens’ accounts. For example a document described as vestry minutes with some churchwardens’ accounts 1666-1724 may only have one or two accounts – the document has to be searched for these.
- Unreliable cataloguing of documents – overseers’ accounts often described as churchwardens, rarely are churchwardens’ accounts described as overseers’ accounts.
- On-line catalogues are unforgiving and restrictive. Errors and variations in data entry and the way that the search engine has been programmed means that many documents are missed and many are listed which should not be. Problems arise if the documents are described as:- churchwardens; churchwarden’s; churchwardens’; or church wardens. Also entries have been found where the document is described as parish accounts, church accounts, general accounts, receipts and disbursements, and expenditure. None of this allows for the occasional spelling mistake / typographical error.
- In some parishes the overseer of the poor is described as the churchwardens to the / of the poor or the churchwardens and overseer of the poor. In the latter case the accounts tend to be only overseer or charity accounts.
- In some cases the churchwardens’ accounts are correctly described in the catalogue but they are only summary accounts giving total income and total expenditure only. Also, these totals sometimes include the income and expenditure of the overseer of the poor, surveyor of the highways, and constable. It is not possible to be sure what is and isn’t included.
- In some parishes the churchwarden and overseer are the same person and the accounts are usually within the same documents and muddled.
- Many documents, especially those covering early years, are volumes created many years later from loose, individual sheets of accounts. These volumes can contain an uninterrupted run of accounts, can contain long runs of accounts with occasional years missing, have several short runs of accounts or have only occasional years surviving. It is a lottery.
- In counties where there are several County Record Offices such as Yorkshire (a nightmare!), Cumbria, Kent, Suffolk, Sussex and London, documents are not always where you would expect to find them. Also, documents are sometimes located in small Local History Libraries or have been retained by the parish. There is also the problem of parishes which have changed county or where the diocese wishes all the parish documents to be held in one location.
- Wales is a particular problem with several changes of policy over the last few years. Originally all documents were to be help in the National Library of Wales. Many documents had been deposited there when ‘someone’ decided that they needed to be ‘near the people’. As several of the Record Offices had closed the re-establishment of the County Record Offices took time and now the National Library of Wales still has a large number of parish documents – mainly those deposited within private collections, and most old Welsh counties have their own Record Office, the exception being Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Brecknockshire as all documents are help in Powys Record Office.
It was the frustration caused by these problems that led to this crazy but much needed project. Following a conference held in Kent in October 2010 the project was born and here, as last, are the first fruits.
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Kent.
E. State of play
Data collection is continuing with regular updates.
The counties where all know location have been checked are:
|Cheshire||City of London*|
|Isle of Wight||Kent|
|Surrey||Sussex, East and West|
|Worcestershire**||Yorkshire, All Ridings|
* Counties almost completed
** Counties where one of several Record Offices has been completed
Can you help with incomplete counties listed above, or with any county not listed? If so, please email Valerie Hitchman.
Dr Valerie Hitchman
University of Kent, e-mail
We would like to hear from you if you have any suggestions or wish to ask a question. While trying to reply as soon as possible, it may take a little while.
Beat Kümin (co-ordinator)
Joe Chick (webmaster)
CORONAVIRUS / COVID-19
Like almost everywhere else, all County Record Offices temporarily closed and data collection for this project was paused.
Following the lifting of restrictions, data collection recommenced.
Meanwhile, for those counties and County Record Offices not yet checked or completed a list of unchecked documents is given for each county within the county spreadsheet. I hope this is of some help to researchers.
Launch Event Canterbury
The CWA Database (Valerie Hitchman)
Using the Resource (Nick Edwards & Beat Kümin)
The project would like to thank the following individuals and groups for their support:
All archival helpers & volunteers
Warwick History Department
A resource which will 'transform the field of parish studies'
John Craig, Simon Fraser, 2019)
'A game-changer for researchers'
(John Reeks, Bristol, 2019)
Map showing counties completed so far. Click on image for larger version.