Parish records

The Archives Service holds hundreds of years of parish records. ​The records, that parish churches once kept in great oak chests, give a fascinating insight into how people of the past lived within their local communities.

Registers of baptism, marriage, and burial sometimes date from as early as 1538 and are one of the most important sources for anyone researching their family history. The registers reveal which names were popular in different periods. For centuries, a very large proportion of boys were named John, William, and Thomas. Popular choices for girls were Mary, Elizabeth, and Ann. There are also some names which may sound unusual today, such as Eusby, Emme, Ascanius, Tubalcain, Caius, and Urania.

Parish registers show that a great many children in the past did not survive infancy and childhood. The records for the village of Aynho include the burial on 9 February 1761 of William Gregory, an infant, who died of smallpox. The same document has details of the burial of John Gilbert, whose childhood death was caused by a fall from his horse.

The parish played a major role in people’s lives, looking after those that belonged within its boundaries by means of an early form of the welfare system. This was known as the ‘Old Poor Law’.

There are records relating to the apprenticeship of poor children, such as Mary Whitehead of Duston, who studied the trade of lacemaking in 1802. When the poorer parishioners were ill, unemployed, or grew too old to work, the parish would assist them by providing money, food, and clothes.

In Grendon, in October 1822, William Parker was ill and the parish paid five shillings and six pence for a bottle of port wine to be used as his medicine. In Grendon again, a year later, the records tell us that the parish paid two shillings so that James Brawn could have a new hat, four shillings three pence for a new shirt for Thomas Clifton and five shillings a week to Joseph Clifton, who was disabled.

All these expenses came from the rates paid by the richer parishioners, who did not like poor strangers arriving in their community that might add to the costs. There are a lot of records relating to the control of people moving between parishes. An 1827 document records how Ann Jacques and her son William had moved from Somerset to Wellingborough but were later sent back again.

Parish records contain many surprising details, such as long lists of small sums of money paid for dead sparrows and hedgehogs. These animals were thought of as pests. People had the idea that hedgehogs would drink the milk from cows and that sparrows would eat the crops, so the parish would pay the poor, or children, to catch them. In 1733, Samuel Hide of Norton was paid a shilling and five pence for some sparrows. A year later he was given eight pence for catching two hedgehogs. Many more colourful details like this can be found amongst the records of a parish.

The records held by the Archives Service offer an insight into the abundance of outstandingly rich family and estate collections found in Northamptonshire.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, both the availability of good farming land and the county’s relative closeness to the centre of government and the court at London encouraged a large number of noble and gentry families to establish themselves in Northamptonshire. The records these families produced offer a vivid insight into many aspects of local life from the early medieval period to the middle of the 20th century. Furthermore, the wide-ranging connections and interests of the many family members mean that the collections also contain materials of national, or even international, historical significance.

The Finch Hatton collection, for instance, includes an important group of antiquarian books. One such example is a rare copy of a play called Richard the Third, which predates Shakespeare's version. There are magnificent volumes on heraldry, medieval charters, and seals, together with an exceptional atlas and survey of the Hatton Northamptonshire properties. This atlas and survey is centred on Kirby Hall and was compiled by the Elizabethan cartographer Ralph Treswell.

The Hatton collections contains many documents relating to major historical events, such as the defence against the Spanish Armada of 1588 or the Civil Wars of the mid-1600s. Local events that are not so well known are also captured in this collection. The record of a riot at Brigstock in 1631 reveals the names of those who caused the trouble, including Thomas Barton and 'his man', who wielded a pikestaff and sword.

Much can be learned about early lifestyles from these collections. The Hatton collection includes many bills and accounts that reveal the food and drink people consumed and the possessions they acquired for their houses or gardens. A bill of 1728 shows that Lord Hatton spent six pence on two dishes of chocolate, two pence on a dish of tea, and a shilling on a pint of cherry brandy, all of which were drinks that only the rich could afford at that time. When the same Lord Hatton stayed at an inn, his bill included regular meals of eggs and bacon, mutton chops, venison, veal cutlets, mulled wine, brandy, beer, and cider. Lady Hatton’s dress bill, from an earlier period, mentions a coat laced with gold, a flowered waistcoat and a mohair petticoat with lace that cost two shilling sixpence to make.

Another collection of outstanding interest and importance is the Westmorland of Apethorpe archive. This includes papers signed by Oliver Cromwell, together with other documents relating to politics and war. There are intriguing recipe books and volumes containing medical remedies, such as that to cure a ‘cough of the lung’, which involved making a syrup of roses and violets. There was also a remedy for cramp, which required the boiling of a sheep’s head, calves’ feet, camomile, and other flowers.

The Westmorland collection also captures the flavour of daily life on the estate, which was based around Apethorpe Hall. In 1881, a tenant named John Ingram paid an annual rent of twenty-four shillings, whilst Henry Jelley was paid over ten pounds for timber to repair the mill at Yarwell. The same year saw payments of one pound and fifteen shillings for oats to feed the donkey in the estate garden, six pounds to repair the mower and eight pounds for plants and seeds.

From the northernmost part of the historic county, covered by the Fitzwilliam of Milton collection, to its most southerly tip, where the Cartwrights of Aynho were the influential family, there are fascinating stories to be learned about almost every part of Northamptonshire, thanks to these family and estate archives.