Churches and family history

Blog Pam Smith08In a guest posting, professional genealogist Pam Smith  writes about the importance of churches for family history.

Discovering your forebears, where they originated from and what they did for a living is a fascination held by many. The popular BBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in which celebrities trace their ancestry, has stimulated many people to research their family history, making it an extremely addictive and popular hobby.

Television programmes such as these give the impression that it is very easy to find your ancestors with a few clicks of the mouse on a computer, and indeed it can be a reasonably straightforward process to trace back to approximately 1770 and more using both free and subscription websites.

However, it is worth reflecting upon the important role churches and chapels have had and continue to play in keeping the information needed by anyone interested in discovering their family history.

Parish chests

The Anglican church kept parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials since 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Vicar General ordered parishes to keep these records in a triple locked parish chest such as this fine specimen currently resident in St John of Beverley at Salton.

Parish chest at St John of Beverly at Salton (c) Pam Smith

Parish chest at St John of Beverly at Salton (c) Pam Smith

The incumbent was responsible for keeping the records secure although these wooden chests were often prone to damp and vermin. Today, any of these registers or parish records such as vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts, in which the earliest entry is over 150 years old, must be deposited in the Diocesan Record Office. North Yorkshire is mostly covered by the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. If you are lucky it is possible to see a sexton’s book of burials which literally marks the spot. You can imagine the scope of name-rich sources contained within these documents, recording all the significant events in a person’s life, which had the parish church at the very core.

After 1837, the state took over responsibility for recording births, marriages and deaths both locally and centrally. However the practice of recording baptisms, marriages and some burials (where the churchyard is still in use) still continues to the present day. Some vicars and church wardens are amenable to these records being viewed and some charge a fee.


The churchyard and the interior of the church contain valuable information in the form of a memorial or monumental inscription. Most people were buried in their local parish and a headstone may be found there. Some graves were filled with unrelated people who could not afford a headstone so the occupants were not commemorated. A higher status ancestor may have a monument inside the church. Both internal and external memorial inscriptions (MIs) offer rich detail of the life of a family member. This MI in the St Andrew’s Church in Rillington (pictured below) gives not only the date of death and age of Laurence Stratford, but also his occupation and details about his father, helping the researcher back a further generation.

Many churches hold a roll of honour commemorating the local people who fought during the Great War and the Second World War. Often you can find a list of incumbents which is an ideal starting point for researching clerical ancestors.

 St Andrew's Church Rillington - MI for Laurence Stratford inside porch  (c) Pam Smith

St Andrew’s Church Rillington – MI for Laurence Stratford inside porch (c) Pam Smith

My main area of research is in North Yorkshire and the former North Riding of Yorkshire. We are very fortunate that most rural churches are left unlocked for visitors during the day. I find them an invaluable source of research. An interior photo can help bring life to a set of genealogical data when one can imagine where an ancestor was christened, married and had their funeral service.

I have a collection of leaflets from different churches which, for a small fee, have produced details of the history of the building and a guide to the churchyard. Parish magazines hold a depth of information about community life including names and significant dates of the inhabitants together with snippets of local life presuming that a churchwarden has kept a copy of each one.

Pam Smith is a professional genealogist and a family history tutor based in Harrogate, North Yorkshire who also manages the Rillington One-Place Study.  For further details please contact Pam Smith on 0790 485 6099 or email

National Maintenance Week 2014

In a special post to mark the upcoming National Maintenance Week, guest author Kate Streeter Project Manager of SPAB Maintenance Cooperatives tells us about their plans for launching the week and encouraging ongoing maintenance.


What do a ladle, rubber gloves and a pair of binoculars all have in common? They are all part of our cheap and cheerful essential maintenance kit, and this November we are going to show you how they can help you to take care of your place of worship at the very first Maintenance Co-operatives Project national conference: From Gutter to Spire. The conference is in York on Friday 21st November and tickets are free from

A stitch in time saves nine, and nowhere is this more true than for our places of worship, where we estimate that for every £1 not spent on planned preventative maintenance will likely cost £20 in emergency repairs.  This is where the Society for the protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) Maintenance Co-operative Project steps in.

clearing gullies at sgrawley.jpg largeThe project team are working hard in four regions (Cumbria, The North East, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and Dorset and Somerset) to bring together places of worship with volunteers who would like to assist with their upkeep, to form Maintenance Co-operatives.

Each co-operative is supported by a dedicated SPAB member of staff, offered tailor-made training and access to an array of resources.  The training begins by taking participants through the process of carrying out a condition survey and using this information to write an annual maintenance plan.  It also covers topics such as working with architects, dealing with damp and when to bring in professional help.

A year into the project and we have co-operatives springing up all across the country busily working to ensure the long-term future of their historic buildings.  We are delighted that many of the volunteers involved, places of worship, and representatives from our hugely supportive project partners (who include The National Churches Trust, Caring for Gods Acre, Arthur Rank Centre, English Heritage, and major funders the Heritage Lottery Fund) are coming together in York this November for the very first Maintenance Co-operatives conference.

blocked gully.jpg largeThis is a wonderful opportunity for those already involved to share ideas, and for those new to the project to find out more.  A packed scheduled of speakers from SPAB and our partners will be followed by fascinating York walking tours, the opportunity to put your maintenance concerns directly to our dedicated technical advisor, and of course a sociable drink in the pub to finish the day.

We very much hope that you can join us, tickets are free and there are a limited number of travel bursaries of up to £100 available to volunteers, so book soon!

Kate Streeter

SPAB Maintenance Co-operatives Project Manager

Church exploring with our camera

In this special blog post from one of our Friends, Ros Patrick described the joy she and her husband get from exploring and photographing local churches.

My husband and I moved to England from Australia six years ago. One of the first things we noticed was the beauty of the countryside and the next was the incredible age of so many buildings. We live in Wales so we’re in the perfect place for both.

Within thirty to forty miles of our home we have so far visited over 160 churches and we have found it’s a wonderful hobby to photograph them and read their history. This includes finding them in the first place as many are quite isolated and up narrow country lanes. We’ve walked to quite a few for the last mile or so as driving on a road barely wide enough for one tractor is a bit nerve-wracking.

Whole villages must have disappeared as the size of the church is completely out of proportion to the size of the hamlet where it is. Other churches have been surrounded by buildings and parking can be difficult.

As we’re in the Welsh Marches a lot of the history is pretty bloodthirsty, and some families have a sad reminder in the graveyards of the members who died in battles.

We have been lucky as we only rarely find churches which are locked – I feel we should give a special thankyou to the men and women who must open and lock them each day. Some of the locks require a very large and ancient key.

We have found several churches which have workmen doing repairs and maintenance and it must be very expensive to keep such old buildings in a good condition. We have met a lot of people who enjoy their beauty and history and I hope will do so for many years.

You can explore some of Ros’s beautiufl photographs in their flickr photostream.

Protecting your church during building work

In this guest post from Neal James at Panthera Security, we take a look at securing your scaffolding, building work and church from unwanted visitors. In the light of several thefts and episodes of vandalism at churches with ongoing building projects, this post is particularly timely, and we hope very useful.

Hampshire, FROXFIELD GREEN, St Peter's on the Green (2013) #001

How to protect your project

By their very nature churches are community buildings and we believe they should remain so. We know that most churches are over a hundred years old, and consequently are often in need of reparation works.

We know that most churches have alarm systems now in place and that is fine for normal use.

However, when work to your church becomes necessary you will invariably need to have a scaffold erected to provide safe work at height access to the building.

By providing that safe access to your contractor, you have also provided it to other, less than welcome visitors!

nsi-goldPanthera Security, Part of the Panthera Group have worked with the National Security Inspectorate on raising awareness to this often overlooked problem, and in developing NCP115 the Code of Practice for the Design, Installation & Maintenance of Scaffolding Alarm Systems. Panthera Group is proud to say that after a rigorous auditing process, we are the UK’s first company to become NSI Gold approved installers.

It is important to understand that it is the installer that is approved, and not the equipment, as some are led to believe.

Non-approved installers can still install scaffold alarm systems, but they are not required to adhere to the Code of Practice, therefore they may install an insufficient amount of detectors, thereby leaving access points unprotected.

Using NSI Gold approved installers will negate that problem. We always ensure that all vulnerabilities are covered and will issue an NSI Certificate of Compliance once the installation is complete.

Greater Manchester, STOCKPORT, St Mary (Ian Hamilton 2007) #003Ecclesiastical Insurance already recommends the use of NSI approved companies for all other aspects of security, and we have recently been in discussion over the introduction of NCP115 and have been assured that it is the standard they are looking to set regarding the installation of Scaffold Alarm Systems.

NCP115 compliant systems are now being requested as standard by many Quantity Surveyors, Property Managers and Local Authorities.

Let’s spread the word… Protect Our Churches

Neal James, Panthera Security



Panthera Group Ltd is a member of our Professional Trades Directory, a listing of over 60 companies and services offering a wide range of trades people who can help you with  any part of your church, chapel or meeting house. 
The use of trade, firm or business names in the Professional Trades Directory is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an endorsement or approval by the National Churches Trust of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable.

56 churches in a Ride+Stride day!

On Ride+Stride Saturday, 13 September 2014, Barney Leeke of  Littleport cycled the length of the Cambridgeshire in aid of the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust. He rode for 94 miles and visited 56 churches in a ride which lasted over 7.5 hours. Below he writes about his amazing achievement which has already raised over £500 for the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust.  Donations are still being accepted at Barney’s Just Giving page 

As a fairly experienced cyclist I thought I should try something challenging for this year’s Ride+Stride, particularly as my parish church of St George, Littleport has received a couple of grants recently. Living to the north of Cambridgeshire I had the idea of cycling the length of the county, from north to south, picking up as many churches as possible on the way. In order to get home again I added on the return leg to Cambridge, finishing at my parents’ parish church of St Martin, Suez Road where I hoped to get a shower and hearty meal before catching the train home.

Barney Leeke - Tydd St Giles

Barney Leeke – Tydd St Giles


The weather forecast for the day was perfect, light cloud and a north-easterly (tail) wind was about as good as conditions could get. I had estimated that the 80 mile route would end up closer to 100 by the time I had detoured to nearby churches on the route, and while I was confident I could manage that in the eight hour time window, collecting over 50 churches was going to add a significant time element. Even a one minute stop at each church would add almost an hour to the journey time, and I wanted to include taking a photo of each main door as a memento. The drive to my starting church was therefore rather apprehensive as 10am rolled by and we were still following slow tractors through the fen roads.

Day in the saddle

Tydd St Giles, the most northerly parish in the county (by my reckoning), and my starting point, was also perhaps the most unusual. The tower of the church sits aloof in the corner of the graveyard, creating its own majestic monument quite apart from the main building. I unpacked my kit from the car and set off for my next stop of Newton in the Isle; such evocative names would be a feature of my day in the saddle.

Bolstered by my wife’s astute purchase of pork pies and a squeezy bottle of honey, the miles rolled under my wheels as I headed south. Churches were few and far between in the sparsely populated fen around Wisbech and I struggled to find them all in the town itself. Cutting my losses I made the decision it was better to complete and pushed onwards. The best haul was in Cottenham where I picked up Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Salvation Army without ever leaving the main road. Histon was one of the most difficult to find, but I had to stop and ask at the pub in Shepreth so perhaps that should take the accolade of Best Hidden.

Barney  Leeke- St Martin

Barney Leeke- St Martin

St Andrew,  Impington was perhaps the most architecturally stunning, with a beautiful oak and plaster porch, containing a delicious apple pie for cyclists (which has in no way prejudiced my decision). That is of course discounting such novelties as the Round Church and Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, world famous landmarks which found their way onto my list as I flitted through the city on my mission to the most southern parish in the county.

Processions and dog fights

I had to dodge a procession of Elizabethan re-enactors coming through the city, so it wasn’t just the churches which provided the entertainment on the ride. Barton parish church was just waving off a happy wedding couple as I arrived, so I squeezed past the guests to quickly sign on and take my shot. Haslingfield were in the middle of their Scarecrow Festival which included scarecrow Shrek, scarecrow Gruffalo and numerous others on benches, in hedges, up poles or in barrows. Barrington is only a short ride away, but the hill in between is famed for its ferocity and sapped my already weakened legs. They were launching teddies with parachutes from their tower, but the cool church contained the fresh drinks and biscuits I was now craving to keep me going. There were dog fights between antique planes in the skies over Duxford as the air show was in full swing, the roads lined with spectators.

I slipped out of the county for a few miles in order to stay on the quiet roads which were now rolling hills rather than the pan-flat of the fens, slowing my pace considerably. I felt slightly sneaky as I signed on to the Hertfordshire Trust’s sheet in Barley, but just at the top of the next hill I was back in Cambridgeshire, or so the helpful person manning the church assured me, despite the fact they have a Hertfordshire postcode and I was recording my visit on an Essex Trust register!

This was also the high point of my ride, not just because I had completed my mission to ride the length of the county, but because I was at the physically highest point. I had risen nearly 150m from my starting point at sea level, so the ride back to Cambridge was going to be, almost, all downhill. I had a few more churches to collect on the way so stopped at Heydon where a brief history of the church is inscribed above the door, Shelford with its porch-cum-conservatory and Whitlesford’s hidden gem with most cheerful, welcoming helpers.

Journey’s end

I arrived in Cambridge with a little time to spare so I continued collecting, now picking up less architecturally distinctive places of worship as I headed to journey’s end. At five minutes to six I rolled up to St Martin’s, Cambridge to resounding cheers from the young families’ group which were meeting there and my own waiting family. I had completed 94 miles and collected 56 churches in a ride which lasted over 7.5 hours. I’m still collecting sponsorship, but it looks like I will pass the £500 mark by the time it is all in, a figure I never would have thought possible as I started out on this adventure. The only regret is that my headlong rush left so little time to appreciate the beautiful buildings; there are many I will be returning too with more time in my hands.

Barney - Littleport


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