HL Deb 20 April 1971 vol 317 cc607-28

6.40 p.m.

LORD TEVIOTrose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would consider introducing legislation for the better preservation of parish records and for the purpose of establishing a central indexed copy of all parish records at the General Registry Office or somewhere similar. The noble Lord said:

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before I proceed, I should declare an interest, because I sometimes receive fees for searching parish records. I am most grateful to the noble Lords who have been kind enough to wait to speak and to listen, and in particular to my noble friend who is going to answer. I thought that to-day would be one of the last opportunities that we might have this Session of having a debate on the subject of parish records, one which has been too often brushed aside in the past, and I believe has not been discussed in your Lordships' House for a great many years. I stand to be corrected, but I think the last occasion was in either 1904 or, at the latest, 1929.

There are more than 12,000 ancient parishes in England and Wales. In some cases the registers for christenings, marriages and burials start as early as 1538. I should have liked to give a rather fuller historical background, but, alas!there is too little time. I must ask your Lordships to remember that monumental inscriptions inside and outside, and collections of records found in parish churches (especially redundant churches) should also be regarded as of great importance. One cannot emphasise too strongly that these records form a very large part in our country's heritage. They surely are the history of our people. Records from every village and town, from every corner of our land, for five and a half centuries (or 443 years, to be precise) many of which are being allowed to rot, to be stolen, burned or blown up, may be lost for ever.

This evening I should like this to be an exploratory discussion, and while I am very eager to hear what my noble friend proposes, I am not getting over excited or thinking that much progress will be made. A call for better preservation is by no means a new cry. A valuable opportunity for central preservation at the Public Record Office was missed in 1836 when the Civil Registration Bill was passed, and all the registers of nonconformist denominations, including the Roman Catholic churches and the Quakers, were sent in to the Public Record Office, where they can be seen to this day.

After many years of fighting for legislation there seemed to be a good chance in 1882 that Parliament would take action. A Parish Register Preservation Bill provided that Every existing register of an earlier date than July 1 1837 and every transcript there of those remaining in any diocesan registry, shall after the passing of this Act be under the charge and control of the Master of the Rolls and be removed by his warrant to the Record Office". That Bill was never passed, and others seemed to have shared the same fate. In 1887 and 1894 the Parish Councils Bill transferred to the custody of parish councils all documents hitherto deposited with the parish clerk, but parish registers were specifically excluded. An Amendment to remove the 1837 registers to the Public Records Office after parish councils had made authenticated copies was ruled to be beyond the scope of this Bill. Finally, in 1904 even Lord Salisbury failed in your Lordships' House to secure the passage of the Local Records Bill which included parish registers.

Between 1905 and 1916 the Joint Committee of Convocation of Canterbury produced no fewer than four Reports on The Collection and Custody of Local Ecclesiastical Records which achieved little, and in 1927 the Registers Commission of the Church Assembly produced a Report. They felt that parishes would prefer to remain custodians of their registers and would be against any centralisation. They expressed their belief that: existing conditions, though susceptible of much improvement, indicate almost universal alertness on the question of the value of old registers. Nevertheless, in order to prevent loss, neglect, or misuse, they made recommendations for signatures on changes in incumbencies and for regular inspections, and wherever there was any evidence of neglect, to order their removal to the diocesan register or other central repository.

Few of the Registers Commission's recommendations were implemented. However, the Bishops were empowered to establish one or more record offices at which incumbents could deposit registers. This has prevented many losses. In many dioceses county record offices have been approved as diocesan record offices, and the 1962 Local Government (Records') Act made it clear that record offices could accept non-public records, and in some counties, for example, in Warwickshire, there has recently been a very vigorous policy of centralisation, and further losses of registers are unlikely. Centralisation has its dangers, to which the destruction of the Four Courts of Dublin in 1922 and the bombing of Exeter Record Office bear witness. The importance of the safe custody of registers cannot be emphasised too strongly. Every year fresh losses are reported, and large numbers have come to light as a result of the excellent work done by Mr. Donald Steel in compiling the National Index of Parish Registers.

The situation in England contrasts very unfavourably with that in Scotland, where by an Act in 1854 all registers of the Church of Scotland prior to 1855 were collected and deposited with the Registrar General in Scotland. There is no doubt that extremely valuable work in preserving and copying registers has been done by private organisations such as the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies at Canterbury, the Society of Genealogists, the National Institute of Archivists and the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. These registers are used for a variety of purposes by historians, demographers, sociologists, geneticists and lawyers as well as genealogists.

There is no doubt that genealogy plays an important part in our invisible exports, especially with respect to English speaking countries. Not only are there inquiries, but more and more people come from the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere to trace their family history. A central indexed register, as suggested in the second half of my Question, would rule out any possibility of total destruction, by fire or otherwise, and would make it much easier for people to search. I am not suggesting that this would not cost money, and of course a fee should be charged, although I hope a more realistic one than that contained in the 1962 fees measure currently in force. The cost of this work would come to something like a quarter of producing the decennial census, and it would be of immense value to posterity, both intrinsic and contributive to the national income. I am not suggesting that parishes should not retain some of their records. I am pleased to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle here with us to-day; I am sure he can make a useful contribution.

I feel sure that if the Government were disposed to take steps on the lines that I have suggested, a valuable contribution towards the future study of the history of this country would be achieved, for the records of individual families of the past are part of the history of this country.

7.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are very grateful to the noble Lord for having asked this Question this afternoon and allowed us to consider a subject that has not been discussed in your Lordships' House, or indeed in another place, for a great number of years. The noble Lord has referred largely to parish registers, and in particular parish registers before the 1837 Act, subsequent to which there is a complete record of every birth, marriage and death at the Public Record Office. I want to bring up the question of the other records which are found in parishes throughout the country, because they are probably a little less well known than registers.

I might weary your Lordships with a little personal experience when I was a younger man and was doing what almost every backwoodsman Peer or country squire tries to do—that is, to find out something about the history of his parish. My investigations led me into the tower of our parish church and I found a wooden chest filled, higgledy-piggledy, with a mass of parchment, papers, silver fish, mildew and only escaping mice nests by the glory of God and not through the care of the parson or successors to the overseers of the poor in whose charge they really were. In point of fact, these had been neglected by a whole series of disinterested parsons for a very long period.

When I looked in I found there was nothing of any great importance—nothing earlier than the beginning of the 17th century. The parish registers, of course, were downstairs in the church chest, the safe in which modern law demands they should be placed. It was probably just as well there was nothing earlier than the beginning of the 17th century because had there been I could not have read it easily. There were such things as overseers' accounts, churchwardens' accounts, the parish surveyor's accounts, apprentices' indentures of paupers who had been apprenticed to neighbouring farmers and tradesmen, justices' orders returning paupers to the other end of the country in case they should become chargeable to the parish in which they then were, and returning them to the parish of their birth. In fact, it was really the poet Gray's "short and simple annals of the poor"; and in a very neighbouring parish there was in fact a "mute inglorious Milton" in the shape of a 17th century parson who wrote, in a couple of spare pages of the parish register in 1620, a rather touching little elegy to his dead wife who had died in childbirth. That is the kind of material which exists in every parish throughout the whole of Great Britain.

In my parish there was no "mute inglorious Milton", but there were some quite nice little sidelights on history. There was an account paid to a local doctor for inoculating the paupers in the village workhouse against smallpox some twenty years before Jenner introduced vaccination. There was a prosecution of an unfortunate woman who had tried to poison her faithless lover's new mistress with arsenic which she stole from the foreman of a neighbouring farm who was using it to treat seed wheat against seed-borne diseases. It may be interesting to your Lordships to realise that pollution of the countryside by poisonous seed dressings was taking place, certainly in my own part of the world, a hundred and twenty years before the introduction of dieldrin and aldrin.

Technically some of these were civil and technically some of them were ecclesiastical records, and the county council is responsible under the 1933 Act, as indeed it was under the 1894 Act, for surveying the parishes in its county and has the power to make orders for the proper preservation of such records as it finds if it is thought necessary. Bishops, of course, have similar powers, under the Parochial Measures Act, over ecclesiastical records. They can indeed meet the noble Lord. Lord Teviot, already if he is prepared to pay the cost, because a Bishop has the power to authorise the copying and printing of all registers in his diocese if the person who wishes it done is prepared to pay the cost.

Since the time when I found that mess in our own church my own county council, with the co-operation of the Bishop, has made a survey of every parish in our county. We have looked into every parish. A great many of the records which we have there found have been deposited at the county record office. But that is the kind of survey which can be made and financed only by an authority large enough to pay the technical staff needed, to provide the repository necessary, and to meet the continuing expenditure of cleaning, cataloguing and curating those records when they are finally brought into the local record office—which in our case, as in a great many others, is recognised by the Bishop of the diocese as being the record office of the diocese.

The trouble is that present legislation is largely permissive. A county council is under no obligation to make provision for parish records; and I think I am correct in saying that not more than 50 per cent. of them have done so. If manorial records are being neglected, the Master of the Rolls can give instructions that they are to be kept properly, on where they are to be kept and how they are to be kept—a power which is given to him, I presume, because that was formerly necessary in order to protect the rights of copyholders and commoners whose rights were to be ascertained only by reference to the manor rolls. Recent legislation has made that no longer necessary, but still the Master of the Rolls has that power, even over documents which are privately owned, to ensure that they are properly preserved for the sake of historians and for posterity.

It seems to me that when we are dealing, as we are, with parish registers, whether civil or ecclesiastical, we are fundamentally dealing with something which does not belong to private individuals, although there is such a thing as the parson's freehold in registers; and of course in days gone by, and indeed to a certain extent to-day, the parson can get fairly considerable fees from searches in his records. That, I should have thought, is something which is hopelessly out of date. It ought not to be necessary for a parson to have to draw fees from searching through his records; his stipend ought to be such that that is not necessary. These registers, although in theory they belong to the parish, whether an ecclesiastical parish or a civil parish, fundamentally belong to the whole nation, and the Master of the Rolls or some other such person ought to have the right to insist that both the ecclesiastical authorities and the civil authorities do their duty and look after the registers properly.

Fundamentally the civil authority, I suspect in co-operation with the ecclesiastical authority, is probably the best repository—that is to say, the county is the best repository, and better than the Public Record Office—for most of these things. But it must be a large authority; it must be an authority which can employ the technical staff concerned. Technical staff in the way of archivists are in relatively short supply to-day, and the experienced staff need to cover a fairly large area. The continual cost is fairly substantial and can be borne only by the larger authorities; but a good many of them are continuing to neglect what I look upon as their duty. I am pretty certain that the same sort of higgledy-piggledy mess of parchment paper, silver fish and mice nests is to be found all over the country if only we looked for it, and it really is time that legislation insisted that this material be properly looked after.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, the subject of this debate is parish records generally, but I shall confine myself to the most important of these: the registers.

I do not wish to overpaint the case for parish registers. From the time of their inception in the reign of Henry VIII, the record which they provide is seldom a continuous one. Some of our parishes no longer possess registers of any time before the end of the 18th century. No more than half the registers of the ancient parishes in this country extend further back than about 1600. In those registers which go back to 1600 or even further there is likely to be a break during the Commonwealth. Often the civil registers of the Commonwealth were filled in by an illiterate; sometimes they were ignored altogether.

In another respect our parish registers are deficient. By Continental standards, the amount of information which they were meant to contain is rather paltry. In Spain, details of ancestors are entered. In the baptismal registers of Switzerland the place where the parents were married and the maiden name of the mother are both given. More facts were given in the registers of Austria and Prussia and of France after the Revolution. Our own registers lack even a good deal of the information which should have been put into them. During outbreaks of the Plague, burials were often too numerous to be recorded. A great many marriages were never inscribed in the parish registers. Some of our ancestors did not marry in the church; they merely cohabited with one another and so acquired the reputation of being married. That was especially so among the poorer classes who were drawn into cities by the Industrial Revolution and who could not afford the fees. Other ancestors underwent clandestine marriages, without banns or licence. Those marriages were performed by such clergy as had nothing to lose, especially those who had been imprisoned in the Fleet for debt. Hardwicke's Marriage Act, which put an end to that in 1753, was treated with derision in Parliament because it prevented the younger sons of Peers from abducting wealthy heiresses.

After so much is said against parish registers, however, their great value and importance cannot be denied. In putting together the history of a family a genealogist may prefer to draw on wills. These contain much ancillary information, especially of the kind that is now appreciated. Most people indulge now in a taste for genre, which I suspect would have been despised by our forebears of the 17th and 18th centuries. From the list of chattels in their wills we may form a picture of the interiors our ancestors knew which is too exact. But in the work of constructing pedigrees, wills are often of no use, since the people who concern the genealogist did not have enough property to make them. That may apply just as much to the forebears of families which are established as to those which are not. Compared with some of their neighbours on the Continent, the English have always kept an open society, and it would be hard to construct the pedigree of any established family in this country without coming, in the space of a few generations, to some ancestor the sole record of whose existence is in a parish register. The extent to which our pedigrees cut right across the social scale surprises anybody who does not know anything of genealogy. The most striking instance which our Garter King of Arms quotes in his English Genealogy is the ancestry of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Among Her Majesty's 64 most immediate forebears may be numbered an innkeeper, a toyman and a plumber.

The desire of everybody to draw on parish registers so that they can construct their pedigrees is one which I am sure will increase. The layman may object that hardly anything has been done in this country on descent in the female line. Nearly all pedigrees, he will tell us, are traced through the male line, because that is how property has descended, and for anybody who likes to think that he will inherit property the writing is on the wall. I know that we are moving over all the time to the Left, despite the holding of power by Conservative Governments. But no matter what changes the politicians may like to make to the surface of our society in the names of progress and social justice, they cannot annihilate the desire which most of us have for our roots; and that desire, in the form of an interest in genealogy, increases the more the reality may be denied to them.

A predecessor of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon, said that the Swiss community is governed by utility and not respect. Yet in Switzerland one can litigate for a coat of arms. In the United States of America social standing is governed to an exceptional degree by performance instead of birth. Yet the College of Arms draws most of its business from the United States. The last Prime Minister must acknowledge, reluctantly, that this ancient institution is a good dollar earner. The coming to power of a Labour Government in 1945 coincided, at the College of Arms, with an unprecedented boom in the English side of its business. That Labour Government received much of its support from Wales. Every Welshman knows his ancestors.

The use I have just advocated for parish registers may be regarded as an old one, fashionable in Victorian times when our local archæological societies were founded, with their periodicals which recite the history of individual families. Parish registers are just as important to the practitioners of the present fashion in history. The writers of our Victorian history books were never ashamed of some straightforward narrative; for them history consisted in the bold acts of a few men, who were often the founders or later representatives of our leading families. Now, in our more democratic age, a narrative which describes great men and their deeds is scorned as the child's vision of history. Historians prefer to exercise a dry power of intellectual analysis in sorting out the facts on masses of people which they have collected.

Dr. Wrigley, Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, is just one such historian. He wrote a chapter in D. J. Steel'sNational Index of Parish Registers, from which many facts in this speech are taken. In that chapter Dr. Wrigley recommended various forms in which parish registers might be used for his population statistics. I shall mention some other ways in which the construction of a mass of old pedigrees may help our understanding of the past and, as well as this, be necessary to us in the present time. We could look again at the problems which Professor Sorokin put to us in the 1920s in his pioneer treatise on social space. The kind of conclusions which Professor Sorokin came to have been suppressed in the past few decades because they make us squeamish. Professor Sorokin asked, for instance, to what extent ability is inherited. On the answer to that may depend whether we should inherit privilege, so that we can assume the more responsible tasks in our society before we are past our prime.

Again, to what extent do the men who rise to the head of our society breed less than those in the lower reaches? It has been the reputation of aristocracies in Rome, Sparta and elsewhere that they should diminish in size. From this it may follow that in order to prevent the exhaustion of talent in society as a whole we should not for ever practise our equality of opportunity: birth should sometimes be a disadvantage, so that talented men of humble extraction do not rise. Such a feudal system of government might explain the spectacular regenera- tion of Japanese society in the middle of the last century.

For both kinds of people, the individual citizen who wishes to establish his roots and the contemporary historian in his welter of statistics, the present state of parish registers leaves too much to be desired. The first consideration is that the information in the registers should never be lost. That end has not been achieved by any insistence that all our parish registers should be put into the best custody. The registers which matter most are those which provide a record before civil registration was introduced once more in the 19th century. No more than one in five or six of these registers have been deposited in our county record offices. Most of the old registers are still in the hands of the clergy, who are not addicted to antiquities like their Victorian predecessors and so have no reason to take any special interest in them.

The second consideration is that the information in the parish registers should be made as accessible to the public as is possible. For several reasons at the moment that is not the case. The researcher may be prohibited by the fees. When the original charges were laid down in 1836, what I have described as the old-fashioned attitude to the registers prevailed. Those who laid down the charges were thinking of the genealogist who wished to construct just one pedigree, usually his own. For this he might need to look up no more than one baptism in tthe parish register. But the modern historian who is interested in population statistics may wish to look through the register over a period of several centuries to collect a great many names. The cost may be astronomical. In his book on Family History, Mr. C. R. Humphrey-Smith has said that the fees due for the search of 100 names between 1540 and 1840 can be between £50 and £60.

If the information in them can be copied, many more people will benefit from the parish registers. But the extent to which, until now, it has been possible to make copies is very limited. At the beginning of this century some transcription work was done by county parish register societies and local archeological societies, but owing to the rise in the cost of printing most parish register societies no longer exist, and not many of the local archæological societies do any more transcription work. Those who wish to make photographic copies have often been forbidden to do so by the Church. According to the notes prepared by the Legal Board of the Church Assembly on the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure of 1962, no incumbent is bound to permit the photographing of his registers. The right to refuse is excused sometimes on the score that any incumbent who allows his registers to be photographed cheats his successor of potential fees. On other occasions permission to photograph the registers is refused owing to differences of opinion about theology, which have nothing at all to do with pedigrees or population statistics. In the security of their granite mountain outside Salt Lake City the Mormons possess the largest collection of genealogical material in the world. Yet owing to disagreements on religious opinion they are unable to add micro-filmed copies of some of our parish registers to their magnificent collection.

Most of our parish registers are without any form of index. Those registers which have never been copied are seldom indexed and many of the printed registers are also without an index. When it is completed, with the help of a loan from the Pilgrim Trust, D. J. Steel's Index of Parish Registers will merely contain a list of parish registers; it will not be an index to the registers themselves. Marriages form a great part of the information in the parish registers and the marriages recorded in Boyd's great Index' which draws also on Bishops' transcripts and marriage licences provides but a fraction of the total. I should therefore like to give the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, my very warm support. I think he is wise not to recommend that we should centralise the registers themselves. The security of the originals lies in their being distributed according to their counties.

The noble Lord reminded us of all the Irish parish registers which had been sent to Dublin and were destroyed in 1922. Only those which had not been sent to Dublin survived. I think, too, that because the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has recommended the copy, the Church might be tempted to back him out of self-interest. The existence of a centralised copy should greatly increase the demand for certified copies of individual entries specifying date and page. For such certified copies a fee could be charged. The compiling of an index should not be difficult. With the help of a computor the Mormons have already made an index of the surnames in those of our parish registers which they have been allowed to microfilm.

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise but I will speak for only a minute or two. I think that from this side of the House we ought to say "Thank you" to the noble Lord for raising this point, and to the noble Lords who have spoken. Originally I was going out of the House—and some of your Lordships will be saying, "I wish he had", because I am detaining you. But, my Lords, I think that a lot of scholarship and a lot of care has been taken in this excellent little debate this evening, and I wish, in the three minutes that I wish to take, to support this appeal that something be done, because in this transitional cacophony of the age in which we live, when M.1s and M.6s are cut through lovely little parishes, we are going to lose much of the tradition of these Islands if it is not kept alive in some of these stories. I am surprised that the television authorities, both the independent and the national, have not at some time cottoned on to the possibility of giving lessons in schools on this subject. They may have done so, but not to my knowledge. Too little attention is paid in our schools to this.

I should like to say, as a Welshman, that we always take great interest in this subject. I had the most amazing experience, when I was lecturing in America and wanted a pint of beer. I said to some people, "I wish you had a decent beer like we have in Britain and Wales". They replied, "We will take you to a place in Seattle". I was "knocking back" a pint of ale there, and singing on the piano, when a fellow came to me and said, "You have a Welsh intonation ". He said, "My ancestors were Welsh. You don't know a little village called Llanover, outside Abergavenny do you? "I replied," Do I know it? I lived there for some years ". He told me, "My grandfather came from there". I did not tell the old rascal who his grandfather was, but in fact his grandfather was the husband of my great-aunt who had run away to Baltimore with four "kids" in the 1850s. He wanted me to trace his ancestry through the local parish church. I got my brother on to it. It is just the human touch. There is nothing from the point of view of material gain, but there is more in the world than material gain.

Finally, I wish parish records also would keep alive some of the wonderful epitaphs. There was a wonderful one at Bushey—I hope it is still there. I will finish with a quotation. This lovely epitaph is inscribed for a poor old widow who died: Here lies a woman who was always tired, Who lived in a house where help wasn't hired. The last words she said were, Dear friends I am going Where washing ain't wanted nor sweeping nor sewing.' In Heaven they tell me loud anthems are ringing But having no voice"— she was English— I'll steer clear of the singing. And where folks don't eat there's no washing of dishes, So everything there is exact to me wishes. Don't mourn for me now; don't mourn for me ever. I'm going to do nothing for ever and ever. On the strength of that little poem alone I think the Minister ought to encourage his Government to take action on the noble Lord's appeal.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, I would make a short intervention, as this Question concerns me. First, a little correction of fact. Under the present arrangement it is in fact within my power to order the removal of ancient records, provided they are under the category of what you might call ecclesiastical records in other words, births, marriages and deaths, in that parish or area. Now why is that not done? It is interesting that there would have been a little hit more edge to this debate—which I welcome, because it is very good to have interest taken in these things—had a single hard case of present abuse of ancient registers been producable. I think a little sympathy on the part of researchers and historians—and I am a historian and therefore can speak with some authority of what I am going to say now—is due, because in fact those who are called to considering the conditions of the Kingdom of God to-day and to-morrow are naturally a little bit absorbed and liable to be drawn off their interest in that which belongs to 300 years ago, although it is still of significance now. I would agree with the noble Lords who have made that point, but I would ask for sympathy.

May I make a practical suggestion. The whole machinery for preservation is in existence—not indeed for a central register with all the costliness of indexing and so on, but the preservation is provided for. If it is not used it is within the power of a bishop in extreme cases to have it used. May I say how much the layman interested in his local conditions can do to have the machinery put into action. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, made a very good point. Probably half the parsons occupying that church did not even know that the stuff was in the belfry. Draw their attention to it and action will be taken, provided that somebody can do the work—and if it costs money somebody can find the money. It is all as simple as that.

Very often the clergy to-day, although they may not be very active as researchers, still have a very great interest in the history of their own parishes, and they welcome researchers and historians and very much appreciate the guardianship of these things. I think on the whole it will be found that the machinery is there. If it is not used, it is up to those who are interested quietly to bring it into operation. I think it can be done quietly. But the official answer will, of course, be given elsewhere.

May I make one observation which may not be made by anybody else. This is in fact a very useful little debate as a preface to work which is already going on. I am informed, which I did not realise until last week, that the Council for the Care of Churches is at present considering the whole question of church valuables and their use, safe keeping and disposal. Records are within the scope of this inquiry, and the Council is aware that they present a serious problem, no less than the care of other kinds of church invention, in about the year 1850, by the property which is of historic or artistic then director of the ordnance survey, and value.

7.19 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to speak for a few minutes as a churchwarden My Lords, I will not detain you further, and follow the right reverend Prelate the except to make two observations on Lord Bishop of Newcastle in this matter, as Teviot's suggestion. First, I believe that I have a statutory responsibility in ecclesiastical law. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook said that he found a situation which he believed obtained in a number of parish churches. I am quite sure that he is right. In a large number of counties—I do not know how many, because I have been unable to discover—a joint county and diocesan record office exists. Worcestershire is one of the fortunate counties in which such an office exists. Perhaps it may be of value to your Lordships if I recount my dealings with it, both as a churchwarden and also through my responsibilities as a Lord of the manor and previously holding the manorial rolls for approximately 400 years.

I experienced a much more pleasant set of circumstances than my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. Our parish was visited in about the year 1911 by a Crown Commission which went through and marked all the documents; they were parcelled and a special safe was obtained in which to house them. It was extremely easy therefore for me, on inheriting this wealth of documentation, to make contact with our local archivist, and to place in his hands, as the official receiver of local historical documents, a large number of documents dating back to the Elizabethan era and some even beyond.

In Worcestershire, fortunately, not only are these documents preserved, they are also cleaned and restored by a team of assistants, both professional and lay. I would heartily support what the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, said about the value of these documents in education. Moreover, due to the fact that the photocopying system can be applied to this sort of document it is of very much wider application than noble Lords may believe at the present time. For over 100 years, since the inception of the zencograph, it has been possible to achieve a form of copying of documents. We have in this country justifiable pride in that Invention, in about the year 1850, by the then director of the ordnance survey, and a number of documents, including Magna Carta, were reproduced most effectively in that process to the great benefit of archæologists all over the world.

My Lords, I will not detain you futher, except to make two observations on Lord Teviot's suggestion. First, I belive that it would be of great value if the central registry were made available free of charge—although I think my noble friend Lord Sudeley suggested that copyright exists in the case of parish records. I agree with him on that, but there is a need for these records to be available for educational purposes and it would be a disincentive if these were hedged about with legalistic practices or it financial burdens were placed upon those doing research. Secondly, I heartily welcome the idea of a central registry, as opposed to purely local registries, and I emphasise the point made by my noble friend Lord Sudeley, about how important it is that the records should not be moved from where they are.

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and other noble Lords for their contributions on this fascinating subject. I have learned a great deal from listening this evening. I thought at first that most of your Lordships were going to be critical, and it was a great relief towards the end when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle spoke on behalf of the Church; and I was grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, has just said as churchwarden and lord of the manor.

My Lords, in the Government's opinion the present law is adequate and makes sufficient provision for the care and preservation of parish records. The Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1929 empowered Bishops to give directions for the safe keeping and care of parish registers as the right reverend Prelate mentioned. The Measure provided for the setting up of diocesan record offices for the deposit of registers not in current use. It empowered incumbents, with the consent of the bishop and the parochial church council to deposit their registers and further empowered the bishop to order registers to be deposited in any case where he thought registers in a parish were exposed to risk of loss and damage. The right of the public to search the registers and to have certified copies of entries in them was preserved in the case of registers deposited in diocesan records offices.

The Local Government (Records) Act 1962 enables local authorities to accept the deposit of records which appear to the authority to be of general or local interest. Consequently, arrangements have been made in many areas for the county or city records office to act as diocesan records office for this purpose. Not all parish records, even in these areas, have been deposited with the local authority records office. Many incumbents take pride in their old registers and have the facilities and are willing to continue to bear the burden of looking after them. Noble Lords will see from what I have said that if in any parish the records appear to be in any danger, either because of inadequate storage facilities or because a busy incumbent has not the time to devote to looking after them, the remedy appears to lie in an approach to the bishop and the local authority archivist.

The second part of my noble friend's Question suggests that an indexed copy of all parish records should be deposited at the General Register Office or at some other central location. It may assist consideration of this suggestion if I deal first with those parish records created after the introduction of the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837. The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836 provided that marriage registers kept by the clergy under the Act should be kept in duplicate and that, when filled, one of the duplicate registers should be deposited with the local superintendent registrar. The Act also required certified copies of entries in marriage registers to be sent quarterly through the superintendent registrar to the Registrar General. The Registrar General and the superintendent registrar respectively were required to index the certified copies and the deposited registers and to make the indexes available for searches. It will be seen that, so far as marriages from 1837 onwards are concerned, there is provision for both a central copy, and a local duplicate original record in the custody of officials.

No similar provision was made for copying parish registers of baptisms and burials, because the new registers of births and deaths contained fuller information than the parish registers and, of course, included all people born or dying, not merely those who were baptised in the Established Church or buried in the parish graveyard. Quarterly copies of entries in birth and death registers are also sent to the Registrar General. The central deposit and indexing of conies in parish registers of births and deaths would generally provide no more than a partial duplication of information already available. It is true (and this is the point which I think mainly concerned my noble friend, Lord Teviot) that there is no central copy of any parish records created before 1837. The total number of entries in these registers is not known, but it is beyond doubt measured in tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. The cost of providing copies, and indexing them individually, would be very high indeed, and I wonder whether such an enormous undertaking is really worth while. A small number of people would use them to try to construct their family trees, and a handful of professional genealogists would no doubt find useful employment in assisting them.


My Lords, I apologise for interrupting. I am afraid I do not agree with the noble Lord's last remark. It is not just a handful of genealogists, as I explained in putting my Question. It is the historians, demographers and other people who search these records, and they are of immense importance.


My Lords, I quite take the noble Lord's point. I was going on to mention historians and social scientists who would find value in these studies. The only point I am questioning is whether the effort of copying this vast number of records is really worth what would come out of them when the records themselves are there. Those who wish to consult them can do so, and what we are discussing is merely the potential benefit of a central copy, which I respectfully suggest would not justify the likely cost, nor would it justify the vast number of staff that would be required for the operation.

My noble friend mentioned the case of Scotland, where these registers have been centralised. I understand that it is true that they are centralised, but they are not indexed, and I wonder whether there is a great advantage if they are not in fact indexed. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook drew attention to records—and I was most interested in what he said—other than the registers, and I agree that everything we can do to preserve these other records should be done. However, like the right reverend Prelate, I feel that the present legislation, which I agree is permissive, is as far as we ought to go at present, and that pressure on Bishops and on the local archivists is the best way of ensuring the preserving of these records. I hope that when the local government reorganisation is enacted the authorities will be that much bigger and better able to cope with the problem.

I listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Sudeley, who made one point that particularity appealed to me. It was the fact that we pay such tremendous attention to our descent through the male line and little to our mothers, whereas in fact I should have thought that we owed just as much of our heredity to them. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, joined in as a Welshman. We are always glad when he joins in, when he is in order, and I apologise for having found him slightly out of order earlier on. He spoke of Welsh records, and I personally have had very happy experiences with the Glamorgan Records Office. He did us another service by putting on record an epitaph from one of the churches which he knew. Perhaps that is one way in which these epitaphs could be preserved—by the noble Lord writing them into Hansard.

I do not suppose that I have satisfied my noble friend, because I think he is anxious to have some central register of the records from before the 1836 Act. I can only say that we feel that the permissive legislation which exists is adequate at the moment, and that, between the Church authorities and the State authorities we ought to be able to preserve the records that we need by using the available powers.