HL Deb 30 April 1929 vol 74 cc263-9

My Lords, it is my duty to move to resolve, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, 1929, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent. It is not likely that the duty which I am about to perform would have fallen to me had we known that we should have with us this evening, returned to us in full health and vigour, the most rev. Primate himself. In his anticipated absence it fell to me to undertake the task because it happens that for some time past I have been engaged on the Commission of the Church Assembly which examined this question of parish registers and documents and prepared this Measure. The Measure has had a very prosperous passage through the various stages prescribed for Measures of the Church Assembly. There was no dissentient voice in the Assembly. The Ecclesiastical Committee, over which the noble Earl, Lord Clarendon, presides, and which, as you know, scrutinises each Measure in respect of its possible interference with the constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects, not only failed to detect any such possibility, but went so far as to say that, in addition to its ecclesiastical advantages, it was actually expedient in the public interest that its object should be attained. I do not think that has ever happened to any Measure of the Church Assembly yet and we must make sure that the Assembly does not feel too proud.

Last night in another place the Measure was approved, as far as I know, almost without discussion. Therefore, it is conceivable that your Lordships would forgive me at this late hour if I were to take it at that and say no more about the matter. But I have the feeling that this would not be quite respectful and, therefore, I will tell your Lordships what it is that the Measure deals with. Its purpose is to protect certain ancient and historic documents and records, which are of two classes. I will take first the records which have come down from generation to generation in the parishes of England—church-wardens' account books, minute books of parish vestries, tithe-maps, manor rolls, charters of land, briefs and what not. Some of these have passed by recent legislation into other control. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Hanworth, the Master of the Rolls, whose help and interest in this Measure I desire very gladly to acknowledge, can now deal with much that was hitherto in the care of the parishes concerning the tenure of land, and a section of this Measure is careful to recognise his Lordship's powers in that respect. The same is the case regarding the various tithe documents which belong now to the central authority on tithes—namely, Queen Anne's Bounty. But there remain a number of very precious historical documents in the keeping of the parishes, and hitherto no ecclesiastical authority and no civil authority, so far as I know, has had full legal rights to supervise the parishes in respect of the care of these documents; so that in the past—it is no use making any bones about it—there have been losses and misplacements, and even actual destruction.

I pass to the registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths, which have at the back of them a long legislative history dating from the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The "short and simple annals" of "the rude forefathers of the hamlet" are enshrined in these volumes. There are instances—alas, too many—of the total disappearance of a member of a series here and another there in times past. It is a dead loss where it has happened and is irreparable. The wonder is that the losses have been so few, for it is legal to keep the prescribed safe, which the ancients called a "sure coffer," in the vestry of the Church or in the parson's house, and there are not a few cases where in defiance of legislation much better protection for them has been found in the strong room of the lord of the manor or in the cellar of a bank. It has even been whispered that lords of the manor have liked registers so much that they have refused to give them up.

There are two theories held as to what it is best to do. On one side it is held that all this historical matter should be collected in some central place or at least in a limited number of central places, in order that the documents might be adequately cared for and suitably housed for the purposes of study. On the other side, you will find that this Measure is inspired by a belief that the parishes of England have a natural inherited right to retain the sources of their local history and their local genealogy, if only they will prove themselves trustworthy custodians of their particular treasures. It is only where they fail in this that a modified scheme of centralisation of these documents is to be brought into action.

Briefly, what is actually done is this. For the first time in their long story both registers and records are brought directly under the supervision of the Bishop. It is strange that the registers were not so brought when they were first ordained, but so it is. If either by personal inspection or through official information the Bishop is satisfied that due care is taken of the registers and that they are suitably rebound when they need it, then all is well The parish retains them as hitherto. In the other cases, the few where protective action is needed, he may establish a central repository in his diocese and order the removal of the imperilled books, to be kept in the diocesan repository, of course with due provision for their being consulted or even reproduced by responsible persons. Even so, your Lordships will find in the Measure a locus penitentiae; for the incumbent or the parochial church council who have been negligent may easily be succeeded at no great interval by more provident people, and if the Bishop is satisfied to this effect, the Measure allows him to permit the return of the volumes to the parish. I have to ask your Lordships to deal with the real hazard of registers getting into wrong hands—say through the sale of a man's effects after his death. This Measure makes them incapable of assignment whether for value or otherwise. That ought to have been done long ago. The purpose of this Measure is to ask your Lordships to assent to it to-day.

Moved to resolve, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, 1929, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of Worcester.)


My Lords, I am very thankful that the Bishop of Worcester has been able himself to propose this Resolution to your Lordships, for he has piloted this Measure, which is in many parts of a technical and difficult character, with great skill through the Church Assembly, and he is himself a well-known master of ancient documents. I should like, however, to take this opportunity of commending the Measure to your Lordships. After the full manner in which the right rev. Prelate has introduced and explained it, nothing is necessary from me but the fewest possible sentences in, commending this Resolution to your Lordships. The Measure in some respects completes the increasing care which has been given in recent years to the ancient parish churches of our country not only as centres of worship for the people but as centres of their life and history. The care of the fabric of the old buildings has advanced in the last fifty years in a most remarkable way, and, indeed, now far exceeds the power of most of the small villages to do all that they would wish. The care of the furniture of our churches is, I venture to say, something which would have been undreamt of some years ago, and both the fabric and furniture of our churches are largely under the expert advice and supervision of the advisory committees which now exist in almost every diocese.

But there is another sphere of the life of our old English parishes besides the fabric and the furniture of the parish churches, and that is the records which are kept within them. They may be partly the registers of which the Bishop has been speaking, but they may also be such things as the churchwardens' accounts or the minutes of old vestry meetings, which, when I have myself inspected them, have almost in every case revealed points of the greatest possible interest in the social as well as the religious life of the parish. It is only right that similar care should be bestowed upon the records as is being bestowed upon the fabric and furniture of our churches. It has been explained that hitherto the Bishop, as the responsible guardian of these ancient churches, has had no power as regards the control and preservation of these documents. This Measure gives the necessary powers, which are only to be exercised in cases where, after careful inquiry, he is satisfied that the records are being negligently kept. Even when he has ordered their removal to a place of greater safety they can be returned to the parish when there is sufficient proof given that they would be cared for in the future. I can hardly conceive the compulsory powers of this Measure ever being brought into being, and I think the mere passing of the Measure will be itself an incentive to the ministers, churchwardens and councils of all the churches to feel something like the same pride in their records as they are increasingly showing in the fabric and furniture of their churches.


My Lords, as this Measure touches matters akin to those I have myself to deal with, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a word in support of it. It is true that under Clause 5 the old manorial documents, which are specially placed in the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls, are excluded, still the matters dealt with by the Bill are matters in which I personally take a deep and continued interest. I confess I wish it were possible to amend this Measure. It is not, and, therefore, we must accept what we have. But with regard to Clause 3, which provides for the deposit of parochial registers and parochial records in a diocesan record office if, and when, such a diocesan office is established, I am sorry to think that in subsection (2) the words which are selected are so narrow. The words are:— any deeds or documents of value as historical records or as evidence of legal rights. I wish the right rev. Prelate had communicated with me in reference to those words, because we have found it necessary for the purpose of the rules under which we act to have wider words—" also of genealogical or antiquarian use or interest." Further we have had to add to those recently by a new rule the word "scientific." As the Bishops, as the guardians of the diocesan record offices, will probably have to interpret what is meant by "historical," perhaps they may give a wide and generous interpretation to it, and if they do I for my part, will be very glad that they have found such generosity possible.

The other observation that occurs to me is that I should have wished to give the right rev. Prelate who has to consider the diocesan record office fewer definite directions as to what is a proper office, because it seems to me quite unnecessary to tell a Bishop, or indeed anybody else, that if you are looking out for a place which is to be safe and to offer security for documents you must choose some building that provides adequate security against damage by fire or damp. I cannot help thinking that most persons, whether Bishops or not, would have regard to that feature; but, by putting in these words, it appears to me they have rather narrowed the duties to be performed in reference to selecting the place. However, it is not possible to amend the clause. It would be much better to give a general discretion as to the place to be chosen, relying upon the good sense of any person who has to find a diocesan record office that he will choose a suitable place where there is no danger of fire or damp or injury by vermin or anything else. I should have preferred wider words. However, all that I rose to do was to say that I recognise that this Measure is a contribution towards the safeguarding of a number of valuable records, and, as far as it goes, I wish also to commend it to your Lordships.


My Lords, I think I am the only member of the Ecclesiastical Committee present this evening, and I only rise to say—and I am sure I may speak for the House and the Committee over which I had at one time the honour to preside—what a gratification it is to me to have heard those excellent speeches from the Episcopal Bench and especially from the most rev. Primate, whom we are so glad to see again in this House. I feel sure that the conclusion that we came to in the Committee was a desirable one; it has met with the approval of those who are most interested in the matter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.