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Parochial Registers And Records

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 29 November 1977

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3.55 p.m.

rose to move, That this House do direct that in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Parochial Registers and Records Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am sorry that I have again to occupy your attention, but it is better to deal with these matters together rather than divide them up.

We have had important debates already in this House on the preservation and availability of national records, and I have already expressed the opinion that the ecclesiastical records and registers of the Church should be preserved and protected as national possessions, for in many instances they are the sole existing sources for historical research. Yet, they are frequently in great jeopardy. They can, when under parochial care, easily get lost. They can be harmed by damp or carelessness, and they can be alienated. Often the remoteness of a parish can make access to scholars very difficult indeed.

The Church of England is very conscious of its responsibilities. There are already a number of legislative enactments safeguarding registers and records. But there has been considerable pressure from responsible bodies that these should be strengthened. So this Measure both consolidates certain enactments and also tightens the regulations with respect to diocesan record offices, the depositing of documents and their care. As will be observed from paragraph 4 on page 5 of the comments, these issues have been carefully debated ever since 1968, and the General Synod has patiently studied the matter in detail for a very long time. Professional and other interested bodies have been consulted, and I know that the General Synod is particularly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for his help and advice.

As regards the Church, there have been two particularly controversial issues. One concerns the proposal in the Measure that register books which are more than 100 years old and which have been completed must be deposited in the diocesan record office unless the diocesan bishop is advised that they can be kept satisfactorily in the parish. This is strengthened by Clause 9 which gives very considerable powers to the bishop to examine the records and to satisfy himself that they are being kept as the Measure requires. In plain language, all this means that it will be quite exceptional for these old records to remain in the parish since only rarely will a parish be able to satisfy the high standards of care which are laid down in Schedule 2 to the Measure.

Some clergy, particularly in country parishes, naturally feel considerable regret at losing their records, for they are an important element in local inheritance, but the considered view of the Synod is that in the wider public interest these records and registers should be deposited in a place where they can be properly cared for, where they can be alongside other records, and so scholars can do their work much more easily.

This Measure follows the 1929 Measure in providing that each diocese must have, or, as this Measure makes plain, must designate, a diocesan record office or offices. In fact in all but three cases, dioceses have been appointed their local county record office as the diocesan record office for the purpose of the 1929 Measure, and hence for this one. In some cases where the diocese spans more than one county, the diocese has arranged for the allocation of the parochial records to the appropriate local office. These record offices are provided and maintained by local authorities in accordance with the Local Government (Records) Act 1962. In three cases—Canterbury, York and Oxford—an independent body has been designated as the diocesan record office: in Canterbury it is the Canterbury Cathedral Library, in York the Borthwick Institute and in Oxford the Bodleian Library.

The other controversial issue relates to the charging of fees. While the Measure was being considered by the Synod, and subsequently when the Measure came to the Ecclesiastical Committee, various individuals and bodies representing scholars and others who need access to records expressed their concern about those parts of the Measure which provide for the charging of fees. Some of them at least would have liked to secure that a bona fide student should not be charged a fee when he himself makes a search. Particular concern was expressed because the Measure set no limit to the fees which diocesan record offices could impose.

Before the Ecclesiastical Committee, witnesses from the Synod made clear that the Synod, for its part, saw no reason to impose any limit on the fees charged by local authority record offices. Indeed, the advice given to us by the Synod's draftsmen was that it would be improper to make such a provision affecting local authority record offices in a Synod Measure. As regards these three independent or private offices, the Synod thought it was unrealistic to suggest that they would make unreasonable charges; indeed, the Bodleian has never charged at all. The Ecclesiastical Committee, while finding the Measure expedient, referred to the anxieties that had been expressed about this matter.

Following the meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee, there were further consultations between the Secretary-General of the Synod and representatives of the record users, and it was decided to take advantage of a miscellaneous provisions Measure which is now before the Synod to test opinion on a compromise, mainly that the Measure should expressly provide that in the matter of fees local authority record offices will be subject to the provisions of the Local Government (Records) Act 1962 and that in the case of the three independent offices it will be for the General Synod, by fees orders, to prescribe upper limits for the fees which are to be charged.

The Synod has incorporated this provision in the miscellaneous provisions Measure, which has now passed its revision stage. It provides as follows:

"In Section 20(2) of the Parochial Records and Registers Measure … searches et cetera of registers, books of baptisms or burials deposited in a diocesan record office, for paragraph (b) there shall be substituted:
'(b) the authority under whose control that office is, not being a local authority, may charge such fees, if any, for the making of searches in any such book and the provision of copies of entries therein as may be prescribed by any Order for the time being in force made under the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1962'."

Then there is a consequential addition to subsection (5). If, therefore, Parliament approves the present Measure it can be assured that before it comes into effect the question of the charging of fees will have been resolved to the satisfaction of all those concerned, subject, of course, to the approval early next year of the miscellaneous provisions Measure when, in its turn, it comes before Parliament.

I understand that this Measure, as it comes to your Lordships' House, has the approval of those who are expert in these matters. The General Synod has expended an inordinate amount of time upon it, and I hope that the House will give it their approval.

Moved, That this House do direct that in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Parochial Registers and Records Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.—( The Lord Bishop of London.)

4.4 p.m.

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the right reverend Prelate for explaining these Measures to us. It is largely, as he says, the consummation of what we were discussing some 21 months ago when his right reverend colleague the Bishop of Chelmsford was leading for the Church. Speaking, as we chiefly are in this House today, as custodians of our national records, I think we all must welcome these positive measures that the Church is proposing to help solve the problem.

There are still problems, with which no doubt my noble friend Lord Teviot will deal. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the records users and the students, who are not too flush with money and are unwilling to part with the little that they have. By and large, of course, the student is not a major user of the minutiae of the parish records: he is usually more concerned with his thesis, which does not need such small records. I feel myself that where the Church authorities and local county authorities—which are mostly the same, as the right reverend Prelate said—are put to expense in guarding and looking after these records, they are morally entitled to recoup some small sum towards that expense. If the expense is thought to be unreasonable, as has been indicated, changes may be made. I submit, my Lords, it is important to remember that.

When we were debating the matter some 21 months ago, we discussed whether the Church authorities would be taking more positive measures towards the microfilming of church records. That was one of the amendments it was thought might be considered, and I think somehow it has got left out. I expect I shall be told it has been nullified by the extra security measures that are being taken and that possibly it would be too expensive: I do not know, and I do not want to anticipate the answer.

I mentioned at that time the sad fate which overtook certain records, owing to the action of a previous bishop of the diocese. The archdeaconry was moved to Richmond and the records were mostly found scattered among the dales of Wensleydale and Wharfedale. As a matter of interest, if old records have to be moved now, what precautions are taken? Are they just allowed to be bundled into the old motorcar of the parish priest, which is all he can afford, and taken to the local county authority? It is possible that he might be bumped into by another car or set alight. I do not see any mention of the precautions that might be taken if and when records have to be moved by order of the bishop.

I think it is only fair that the three private authorities should be enabled, if they so wish, to charge for the showing of the parish records in their custody. I know the Bodleian and the Borthwick Institute fairly well. I cannot confess to knowing Canterbury Cathedral Library; but they are the last people to be money-grubbing or to take an unfair advantage of their ability to charge fees.

I should like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate and the Synod on the excellent annexe to the report. It is self-explanatory and therefore obviates the necessity for many questions to be asked. However, I have always felt slightly worried about one small point. Referring, say to a parish like Burnham-Thorpe in Norfolk, which is chiefly famous for the fact that one of our great naval heroes was born there and his father was the rector. The page and the record of Horatio Nelson's baptism and so on are, I imagine, a very proud exhibit in a display case. All churches have to seek gifts from those who come to visit them and an exhibit of that type will encourage tourists—of whom we have a plentiful supply in this country—to go and look in the church. If a mere extract was to be there it might not have the same meaning, and I hope that the Church authorities will interpret these requirements wisely and not too harshly where they would impinge on a small parish of that sort, where the records could equally well be kept in the local record office.

I welcome Clause 9, which demands a six-yearly inspection. This is very important and useful, because it is no good having one inspection and then no more till the next incumbent arrives. If a local parish is to be left with these goods, it is clearly sensible for the authorities to know that there is to be a six-yearly check.

There is only one other point that I should like to make. I am slightly saddened that the fire precautions have had to give way, although I quite agree that the hygrometer is more important. I said 21 months ago that I suspected damp to be a greater enemy than fire. I still stick to that view, and the Church authorities appear to take that view, too. There is no restriction as regards the kind of metal case, although the lock is specified. I know that expense enters into this enormously. I do not know whether one might have a fireproof safe containing a little compartment with a piece of silica-gel, which could be removed every now and again, in case documents were suffering in one way or another. I am no expert, but I am sure that the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues have taken the best advice. However, I should like to put it on record that I am saddened that we have not been able to guard against both dampness and fire. With those few words, I should like to welcome this Measure and again thank the right reverend Prelate for the way in which he has introduced it.

4.12 p.m.

My Lords, I must begin by declaring an interest in that, from time to time, I receive fees for looking at parish records. This is a very great day for me and for conservationists, because at last this Measure has come before your Lordships' House and will shortly receive the Royal Assent. There have been so many attempts through the ages to achieve better preservation of parish registers, and what this Measure does was suggested as early as 1836, in the General Registration Bill, when a valuable opportunity was missed. Non-parochial records were brought in, but parishes were left out. There were several Measures during the last century which ended up as nothing. Now, shortly before Christmas, all will be well.

There was a very interesting Unstarred Question put down in your Lordships' House in 1971, when various opinions were aired. Although there have been rumblings in the other place, this is the first time for at least 50 years that Parliament has drawn attention to this matter. I should like to thank the Synod for this uncontroversial Measure, and it must be very pleasant for the right reverend Prelate to introduce two Measures in one afternoon. This has been a very happy experience. I know that the Synod has been accused of legislative indigestion, but this Measure has taken up a lot of secular time. It is a matter in the public interest, not in the Church's interest; it is not so much a matter of Church legislation as a matter for debate by the Church. I attended the Second Reading in the other place, where they went much further than I had gone in the original Bill which I introduced 21 months ago. There was the question of compulsory depositing unless the parish could provide a very good reason, and of having a proper cover with a hygrometer and so on in which to keep these records.

There is one point here. This was voluntary under the original Bill, but it was made uncomfortable to keep records in the parish. One does not like compulsion and, although, under the 1836 Bill, non-parochial records were deposited with the Registrar-General, a lot of them never got there and still have not got there. They have gone to other places, such as diocesan record offices, the Baptist Union and elsewhere. I should like to ask the right reverend Prelate if he knows whether all these records will have been listed by the time that they are handed over, so that none slip through the net. I do not suppose that that will happen with parish registers, but I hope that other, secular records such as those relating to highways and settlements will be kept, because they are of very great use. These records are of great value to genealogists, and are of great interest to people all over the New World, as well as to demographers.

My noble friend Lord Mowbray talked of transcription and asked for clarification. That is left to individuals to do, and here one must congratulate the Church of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church—a term which they prefer not to use. They have microfilmed at their own expense, and have made a computer file index of those microfilms. I do not want to enter into a controversial matter with the right reverend Prelate, but this is something which is of deep personal concern if it is felt suitable for that Church to baptise the dead. That is one of their purposes, and that is why the Church of Latter-Day Saints are so interested. It is a very personal concern. Quite a number of right reverend Prelates feel that this is all right, and they do not attach great importance to it.

I would quote one example of how useful this computer file index was in furthering a peerage claim which came before your Lordships. There was a rather dilatory, though very famous, Lord Chancellor who had a great many children and, in this peerage claim, two baptism certificates had to be found. He had had his first two children baptised at St. George's, Bloomsbury and I had to find the records of baptism of a child born in 1817 and of another born in 1822. We knew that this Lord Chancellor—he was not Lord Chancellor at the time, but became so 30 years later—had one house in Sussex and another in Lincoln's Inn. There was no record of any baptism taking place in Lincoln's Inn or in the parish in Sussex, so I went to the computer file index which gave the date of December 1831, and those two baptisms were found at St. Pancras Old Church. Without the index, they would never have been found, or it would have taken years, and one does not know whether that peerage claim would have got through. So one must be grateful for all forms of transcription.

My noble friend mentioned fire. This is a matter about which I am concerned, but I believe that damp can be even worse than fire, because, if you protect too much against fire, you will get damp. The wooden chest with iron padlocks of 1538 was rather better than the dry, well-painted iron chest of 1812. Quite a lot of records will have been stuffed into that iron box in a church and, even if it does not catch fire, the records inside will have turned into pulp. So damp is something which we have very much to provide against.

The Church of Wales is not dealt with in this Measure. I hope that arrangements will be made for a Bill to be passed swiftly through Parliament, via the Welsh Office and the Church of Wales, and that it will be similar to this Church Measure.

I should also like to mention that parishes might feel reluctant to deposit their records at record offices. Diocesan record offices are most excellent places; they are extremely welcoming and professional persons of a very high standard look after the records. There are certain town parishes which have little of their records or their heritage left. I am not speaking of beautiful Georgian towns but of towns which were massacred in Victorian times and which have nothing left. Ancient parishes take very good care of their records, but, when they have to deposit their records at record offices, I should like there to be a special Measure directed towards them so that they may be looked after; perhaps a transcript could be kept in those parishes.

I have found the Synod Office to be an agreeable body to deal with, and I regret that this Measure will not give me an excuse to 'phone them or be in touch with them. However, I feel that one has found friends and that this has been a pleasant experience right the way through.

4.22 p.m.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the two noble Lords who have spoken. They have put one or two questions and I shall do my best to reply to them. First, both noble Lords referred to the question of microfilming and especially to the efforts of the Church of Latter-Day Saints to do this. I had not expected to have to indulge in a theological disquisition on this occasion. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, pointed out, the Church of Latter-Day Saints asks that this should be done in order that the microfilms can be taken back to Salt Lake City where some rite, of which we know nothing, is performed upon the names of those on the register. I have always taken the line that I shall not permit this, because I regard myself as guardian of the documents and of the names contained in those documents. I believe that I have no power to allow the names of those people, their memory and their persons to be subjected to something about which I know nothing and about which they would doubtless not have known or would have disapproved. It is for that reason that this rather difficult choice has to be made. As noble Lords have pointed out, it is very attractive to have all these registers microfilmed for nothing.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, referred to the shortcomings of one of my predecessors at the time when the great diocese of Chester was cut up into bits and at the time of the distribution of the documents of the Archdeaconry of Richmond. I can only say that, in the Measure, the bishop is responsible for giving orders both for the inspection of the registers and also, in certain circumstances, for their immediate removal to a record office. I think, therefore, that he would have to accept the responsibility for seeing that they were transferred under safe conditions from one place to another.

The exhibiting of interesting documents belonging to a parish is something which parishes certainly like to do. Obviously, a parish will be very proud of its records if, for example, it is the place where Lord Nelson was baptised. However, I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate the great danger which these interesting documents are in, when they are exhibited, unless somebody is present the whole time. In these days when vergers are very expensive and when very few Churches can have a whole-time custodian, not only can parishes not exhibit interesting things but very often, reluctantly and against their will, they have to keep the church locked because, more often than not, objects are taken simply because people can get in.

As regards the danger of fire, there is a paragraph in Schedule 2 which lays down that:
"The place in the church or other place of worship in which the cupboard is kept shall be the place where there is least risk of damage to any such book or record in the event of a flood or an outbreak of fire".
It is quite true that the safe does not have to be fireproof. I do not know what the reason for that is; it may be that it would be exceedingly expensive to install. However, this would be a factor which the bishop would take very much into consideration if he were to allow the register books to remain in the parish. However, if they were in a place where they could be destroyed by fire, he might very well say that this was a factor which must persuade him that the documents should go to other custody.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, mentioned the listing of documents. There is mention of this in Section 5(2):
"The person carrying out an inspection under this section shall compile a list of the register books and a list describing the records which have been inspected by him under this section".
I hope, therefore, that under this section the person whom the Bishop instructs to examine the records will list everything that he finds that is of interest and of value. As regards the Church of Wales, the noble Lord will appreciate that Measures of the General Synod cannot apply to the Church of Wales. Therefore, it will need a special Bill in Parliament.

I know that all who have been concerned with this Measure will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for the gratitude which he has expressed. I am sure they will hope that the fact that this will no longer be an outstanding matter will not mean that he will not visit Church House from time to time. May I ask this House to agree to the Measure.

My Lords, there is just one question which I should like to ask the right reverend Prelate; it is of great interest to our local historical society. May I ask the right reverend Prelate whether it is intended to publish the list which is compiled as to where the documents of particular parishes are deposited? Hardly a week goes by in our village without somebody from Canada, Australia, New Zealand or America coming to inquire about their forbears. It would be good if such a compilation could be deposited in all of our British Council offices in English speaking countries overseas.

My Lords, I cannot answer that question immediately, but I shall try to find out the answer and will write to the noble Lord. I very much appreciate the point, because constantly I receive letters from people in Australia and elsewhere saying, "My great-great-grandfather was baptised in a church called St. Mary's, somewhere in London. Could you please find out when it happened?" Then I have to write back to that person and say that he had much better apply to a skilled archivist in order to get the information which he requires.

On Question, Motion agreed to.