In the Parish Chest: Churchwarden & Poor Rate Records

ParishChestPoorLawIn the Parish Chest – Churchwarden and Poor Rate Records is the fourth and final post of the In the Parish Chest series. The other posts discussed Bastardy Bonds, Settlement Certificates, Examinations and Removal Orders and Apprenticeship records.

As early as 1572, Overseers of the Poor were appointed in each parish in England. Their job consisted of caring for the poor and keeping an account of the relief given. The Poor Law Act of 1601 gave Overseers the right to collect a poor rate from members of the parish who were considered wealthy and to disburse those funds to those needing help.

Churchwardens were expected to present any wrongdoings in the parish to the local magistrate or bishop. This would include such things as drunkenness, failure to provide for the poor or to attend church.  Those serving as Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor are mentioned by name in the records.

By 1834, when the Poor Law Amendment Act came into being, parishes were grouped into Unions. A Board of Guardians was elected and were responsible for the care of the poor across all the individual parishes.  It is through these Poor Laws that our ancestors received help. Often money would be given out but the relief also consisted of providing food, clothing and work.

Who will you find named in the Churchwarden/Poor Rate Records?

  • Your ancestor if he/she was poor, elderly, orphaned, unemployed, sick or a trouble maker
  • Your ancestor if he was elected a Churchwarden or Overseer of the Poor.
  • Your ancestor if he/she was considered wealthy and was a rate payer

Examples of Poor Law records

Churchwarden Accounts – Muggleswick, County Durham.1

On Easter Monday of 1801, the inhabitants of the parish of Muggleswick, Durham, met together to elect the new Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor. This is a common entry in all Churchwarden accounts, followed by an accounting of the disbursement of funds to the poor. The outgoing and incoming Churchwardens were named as were the new Overseers and other principal inhabitants of the parish.

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Overseers of the Poor Account Book –  Helland, Cornwall.2

Thomas Pearce and William Brior were Overseers of the Poor in the parish of Helland, Cornwall in the year 1766 to 1767.  The page below shows an account of what was paid out that year. Included among the items like a pair of shoes or meat are the names of some members of the parish who received help.

record-image_S3HY-61PP-GNOverseers of the Poor – Grampound, Cornwall.3

If a person wanted to improve their property in a way which may affect the town or parish, there would have to be an agreement made between them and the Overseers of the parish. In the document below, Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Michael Croggon, Overseer of the Parish of Grampound, Cornwall, have come to an agreement regarding Mr. Nicholls request to build a drain that would go from his dwelling across town property to another garden. The request is approved subject to Mr. Nicholls paying sixpence annually to the Overseers and keeping the drain free of “any annoyance whatsoever on the property of the Town, in default of which refusal or neglect of payment of the annual sum…the drain shall and will be subject to be torn up or otherwise destroyed.” If Mr. Nicholls was your ancestor you have just been given a glimpse into his life!

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Relief Committee minute books 1832-1851, Norwich, Norfolk Poor Law Union.

On 6 October 1801, John Mordy of Saint Peter of Mancroft paid twelve pounds to the Poor Law Union, being his responsibility for the “female bastard child” of Susanna Baxter. He had previously been charged with a Bastardy Bond and this is the record of him settling that responsibility.4 More information on Bastardy Bonds can be found here.

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On the same day, the Mayor’s request for an arrest warrant for John Malster was granted. John had left his wife and family without support and they were now relying on the parish.5

JohnMalster

Orders for placing young boys in apprenticeships were common in these Poor Law records. Below, James Berry, 14-years old, was being apprenticed to Richard Cropley, a cordwainer, until he reached the age of 21. More on apprenticeship records can be found here.6

cordwainer

Details of daily life are reflected in the Poor Law records. Most of these records are not indexed so it helps to have an idea of which parish your ancestor lived in. However, even if you don’t know exactly where they may have lived, reading through the Poor Law records of any parish will give you valuable insight into what life was like in the parishes of England during this time period.


  1. Durham, Muggleswick, Parish chest records, Churchwardens Accounts, 1801-1858, Easter Monday 1801; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939N-F43C-SK?i=5&cat=978581 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004024471, image 6 of 1114. 
  2. Cornwall, Helland, Poor law records, 1753-1851, Easter 1766; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-61PP-GN?cat=502005 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004476779, image 1295 of 1679. 
  3. Cornwall, Grampound, Poor law records, 1671-1894, agreement between Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Croggon; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-61PL-NT?cat=502005 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004476779, image 993 of 1679. 
  4. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, John Mordy; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8S7?i=2228&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2229 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 
  5. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, warrant for John Malster; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8S7?i=2228&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2229 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 
  6. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, apprenticeship of James Berry ; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8G4?i=2229&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2230 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 

In the Parish Chest: Bastardy Bonds

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Bastardy Bonds can be a great resource when trying to locate a birth date and place when vital records may not exist or in placing someone in a specific area at a specific time. In England, these records were created on a parish level before 1834 and on county and poor law union levels beginning in 1834. They are part of a collection of records falling under the title of Parish Chest records. Parish chests were literally chests where the parish kept their records. Ranging from Vestry Minutes to Churchwarden and Poor Rate accounts, to Bastardy Bonds and Apprentice records, these documents recorded the daily workings of the local parish.

Parishes were concerned with not being held financially liable for the birth and upbringing of a child born to an unmarried woman. By the laws of the time, that child, born to an unmarried woman, was considered illegitimate. An unmarried mother faced substantial social stigma in addition to financial hardship. Through a prescribed path, the parish ensured that the financial responsibility for the child would fall on the father. This was especially so in cases where the putative father did not or would not take responsibility.

Bastardy Examinations

When a father would not step forward, the parish would often put pressure on the mother to name the child’s father. This was done under oath and carried out by the Churchwarden or Overseer of the Poor. Their authority came to them from the Bastardy Act of 1575 which allowed them to question an unmarried mother in order to get her to reveal the name of the father.

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In the example above, Mary Wells, a single woman, declares upon her oath before the Justices of the Peace on the 29th Day of November 1777 regarding her pregnancy. She states that she is with child and names John Daniels, as having carnal knowledge of her body, on or near the 5th day of July and that she is now pregnant and the child likely to be born in bastardy.  She leaves her mark at the bottom of the page.1

With the father so named, the Churchwardens or Overseers of the Poor would exert considerable pressure on the father to take financial responsibility for the child in the form of a Bastardy Bond.

Bastardy Bonds

This bond of indemnification or bastardy bond ensured that the father was responsible for the child. The bond indemnified or compensated the parish against any future costs until the child was thirteen years of age or had been apprenticed out.  Few men could afford to pay the bond from their own resources, therefore most would have friends or relatives sign as surety on the bond.

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In the above example, dated 5 August 1817, Elizabeth Leavers, single woman, of the parish of Radford, has sworn by oath that she is now pregnant with a child by Thomas Greenwood. Thomas Greenwood, and two other men, James Greenwood and William Burrey, all of the town of Nottingham, have signed this bond, indicating Thomas’ acceptance of the charge and his assurance that he will maintain the child. The men have, under oath, sworn that a bond of £100.00 would be payable to the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the Parish of Radford in the County of Nottingham, should Thomas Greenwood fail to take care of the child.2

Bastardy Bond recorded in the Petty Sessions

After the New Poor Law of 1834, the parish authorities lessened their role in bastardy cases leaving the woman the option of applying herself for the bond from the Petty Sessions.

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In this example, Mary Berry, a single woman, has appeared before the Justices of the Peace in the County of the Borough and Town of Berwick-upon-Tweed on 14 March 1850. The bond states that Mary Berry was delivered of a female bastard child within the twelve months previous. She names James Mills Taylor of the Parish of Bamburgh in the County of Northumberland, a laborer, as the father. A summons was issued for James Mills Taylor to appear at the Petty Session. Towards the bottom of the page, an exact date of birth is given for the child, 22 January 1850.  Mary Berry has provided enough evidence that the Justices of the Peace declare they are satisfied and they declare James Mills Taylor the putative father. He is ordered to pay Mary Berry an amount of 5 shillings weekly for the first six weeks from the birth of the child. He is further ordered to pay the sum of one shilling and sixpence to Mary Berry until the child is 13 years of age. There were some conditions to this: should Mary Berry be of unsound mind, or in jail or under sentence of transportation or should she remarry, the payment would go to whoever was declared the child’s custodian. Should the child die before his thirteenth birthday, Mary Berry would no longer receive any monies.  Further, the father, James Mills Taylor, was also to pay Mary Berry, 19 shillings and sixpence, the costs incurred in obtaining the order.3

Where to find Bastardy Bonds

For England records:

Parish chest records are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:

  • England, [county name], [parish name] – Church records
  • England, [county name], [parish name] – Poorhouses, Poor Law
  • England, [county name], [parish name] – Taxation

Most bastardy bonds are kept on the county level in England and are not online. Many county record offices have an online presence that may allow you to determine if they hold such records and what the cost may be in accessing them.

For US records:

  • If you are lucky enough to be researching in North Carolina, they have extensive records for each county.
  • Other states have bastardy bonds, but they are not as extensive. To see what is available on the FamilySearch Catalog, a keyword search of “bastardy bonds” can be used to indicate which counties kept these records. To narrow down the search even more, include the state or the state and county that you are researching in to see what is available. These bonds are not yet indexed.
  • The bastardy bonds are not likely online for every county. They may be found in person at the county courthouses, if still preserved.
  • For FindmyPast.com a search in the A-Z of Record Sets with the keywords ‘bastardy bonds’, ‘parish chest’ or ‘Poor Law’ will locate records.
  • For Ancestry.com search the Card Catalog with the terms ‘bastardy’, ‘poor law’ or ‘quarter sessions’.

Have you used bastardy bonds in your research?

This is the first post in a series on Parish Chest records.
Coming up next: In the Parish Chest: Settlement and Removal Certificates

 


  1. Norfolk County, North Elmham Parish, Bastardy Examinations, 1765-1811, Examination of Mary Wells, 29 November 1777; images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-62T7-ZZL?cat=1013166 : accessed 20 August 2018). 
  2.  Nottinghamshire County, Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace, Bastardy Bonds, 1817-1818, 5 August 1817, Elizabeth Leavers to Thomas Greenwood on bastardy charge; images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSNW-C3Z8?cat=635885 : accessed 20 August 2018, images 719 & 729 of 1934). 
  3. “England, Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, Miscellaneous Records, 969-2007,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L93Y-2HHN?cc=1918635&wc=7VZB-7V7%3A209394801%2C210421601%2C210422501 : 20 May 2014 : accessed 21 August 2018), Northumberland > Berwick-upon-Tweed > Bastardy bonds, 1850-1859, image 2 of 214; Northumberland Archives Service, Ashington.