Alnwick, History Society

The Barbican of Alnwick Castle
The Barbican of Alnwick Castle

Treasure chests

The July talk of the Alnwick Branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society was given by Wendy Stafford on the Parish Chest, its contents and the fascinating insight it offers into our ancestors’ lives.

Her talk was illustrated by examples and her own experience of finding more about her ancestors through parish chest records.

It is probable that every church kept its treasures in a strong box or coffer, or chest.

Monarchs such as Henry II and John ordered chests to be placed in churches for the collection of alms and donations towards their projects and battles.

Chests also held church plates, vestments, precious books and alms boxes.

In 1538, the great administrator Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII, ordered all parishes to keep records of births, marriages and deaths.

Early parish chests were often made from a single tree trunk that had been hollowed out.

Later examples had iron bands and chains for security.

Elaborate locks, sometimes with three keys, would require the different key holders – church wardens and clergy – to be present for opening.

The contents of a parish chest are of great interest to family historians as it helps to put their ancestors in the context of the period they lived.

It can offer information about ancestors’ lives, and there may even be references to them in documents contained within.

Even if ancestors are not named in records, chests still paint a detailed picture of the community in which they lived.

A chest may hold not just registers of births, marriages and deaths, but also vestry minutes, church wardens’ accounts, bastardly bonds, settlement papers, removal papers and tithe awards, along with poor and church rate books.

A ‘Glebe Terrier’, if present, is also an interesting document as it is an inventory of the church land, property and possessions.

The chest may also have contained school records, pew records, hearth tax records and constable accounts, along with vaccination records and local censuses.

Today, unless records are in use, they are deposited in the County Records Office or Archives Collections, where they can usually be accessed.

Wendy’s enthusiasm and fascinating talk was well received.

The next talk is by Professor Michael Morris on September 6, describing the project on Victorian professionals in Alnwick being conducted in conjunction with Oxford University. This is an open meeting, with all welcome.