The Parish Clerks of London

Originally, the Parish Clerk was in minor orders, he was primarily concerned with the worship in the parish church and sometimes, in some places, with the education of its children. In a grant of arms made to the Company in 1482, aspergilia indicates that the sprinkling of holy water was one of his specific liturgical duties.

The role of the parish clerk changed after the Reformation and he became more obviously a layman. During divine service it was his duty to lead the singing and the responses of the congregation. Under the new dispensation the Clerk had clearly become a parochial officer. The change was reflected in a new grant of arms to the Confraternity, Fellowship and Company of Parish Clerks of the City of London on 30th March 1582: gone are the holy water sprinklers and in their place two "Pricksong Books".

Charters were granted to the Company by Henry VI in 1442 and 1448, by Edward IV in 1475, by James I in 1610. Charles I granted charters in 1636 and 1639. The last of these charters, which is in operation today was granted to "The Master, Wardens, Assistants and Brethren of the Parish Clerks of the City and Suburbs of London and the Liberties thereof, the City of Westminster, the Borough of Southwark and the fifteen out-parishes adjacent"

At the time the 1639 charter was granted the number of the parishes was 129, of these 97 were within the walls, 16 without the walls including St. Margaret’s Westminster and 4 in old Southwark. The out parishes stretched along the river from Westminster to Stepney on the north bank and from Rotherhithe to Lambeth on the south bank. The growth of London was reflected in the founding of 21 more parishes by 1824 and before the institution of national registration in 1837. The clerks of these latter parishes were eligible for membership of the Parish Clerks Company. The last of these ‘newer’ parishes was All Saints, Poplar created in 1823 and of which the writer of this article has the honour to be the Clerk.

It was the duty of the parish clerks of the City of London to act as registration officers for the Lord Mayor and Alderman and to complete ‘Bills of Mortality’. All information concerning Freemen, with children under 21 who died, had to be given to the Lord Mayor. These ‘Bills of Mortality’ were for some time printed in the Company’s hall on the Company’s own press. After the returns had been made to those in authority the Clerks were allowed to sell copies in order to raise money.

In the Great Fire of London, 86 out of the 97 city churches were destroyed. The first Church to burn was that of St. Margarets, New Fish Street, where the Monument now stands. London was rebuilt after the Great Fire, but over the years the number of parish churches has been drastically reduced. Although the churches have gone, the parishes remain - this was achieved by a process of amalgamation. St. Vedast, Foster Lane, close to St. Pauls Cathedral is the parish church of 13 amalgamated parishes, each of which is still entitled to have a Parish Clerk

Although the first charter was not granted until 1441, the Company is of greater antiquity. The charter gave corporate status to the Fraternity of St. Nicholas which had been in existence since at least 1274 when there is a record of its members owning property near Bishopsgate. Its first Hall was built on a site now appropiately named Clerks Place; sadly it was confiscated during the Reformation under the Act of 1547 for the suppression of chantries.

In the 16th century , the Parish Clerks declined to take the Livery on the grounds that the surplice was older than the Livery and was the proper garb of members of the Company.

The second Hall of the Company was in Brode Lane and was destroyed in the Great Fire and the third Hall in Silver Street was destroyed by enemy action on 29/30th December 1940. Today the hospitality of other Companies is enjoyed for meetings of the Court and for Dinners at which the Clerks themselves are given to hospitality.

Among the activities of London Parish Clerks in the early years of their corporate existence was the performance of "Holy Plays". John Stow the historian records that in 1390 and 1409 , the clerks assembled at a place, now known as Clerkenwell, "to play some history of Holy Scripture". In 1972 and again in 1990 the clerks performed a masque, during the City Festival and in the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow.

The post -reformation grant of arms (1582) is a clear indication of the responsibility that the clerks had for the music of the Church. The crest of the open ‘Prick Song Book’, with a psalm tune inscribed is clearly to be seen. Stories about tuneless clerks are a legion, but I am sure that most of them performed reasonably well. A small organ was kept in the Company’s third hall. A weekly practise by the clerks of the metrical psalms and hymn tunes was usual, of which , they, aided by a pitch pipe led the singing in their churches.

A custom of the Company is that the Brethren refer to each other by the names of their churches. Imagine dinner in a Livery Hall in the City of London, perhaps that of the Tallow Chandlers or Saddlers. The customary toasts are proposed and drunk and then the peculiar custom of cross toasting begins. A Clerk rises with glass in hand and calls "St. Benet Sherehog" and back comes the answer, "St. Michael Paternoster Royal". A noisy exchange follows with the names of parishes well known to many Family Historians echoing around the hall, St. Benet Pauls Wharf, St. Pancras Soper Lane, Holy Trinity Minories to name but a few.

Today not all members of the Parish Clerks Company are ‘working parish clerks’, but all, in one way or another, serve the parish with which they are associated and also the Church of England in a wider sphere.

The Guildhall Library contains one of the Company’s greatest treasures. It is ‘The Bede (or Prayer ) Roll’, an obituary roll of members of the Fraternity of St.Nicholas between 1449 and 1521 and ‘ of any willing in a devout spirit’ to carry out the objects of the Fraternity. This was to facilitate the offerings of prayers for the departed. The tradition is kept alive by a silent toast at dinners of the Company, to the Sovereigns who have granted it charters, benefactors and to ‘all brethren departed this life’. Amongst those specifically named are William Roper, the son-in-law of Sir Thomas Moore and Richard Hust who was the parish clerk of St. George, Southwark, in the time of ‘Little Dorrit.

Family Historians would I am sure approve of the order made by the Court of Alderman on 14th December 1686. "This day upon hearing the a complaint made to this court against William Hammond, Clerk of the Parish of St. Martin within Ludgate, for burying a child in said parish, who died in the Parish of St. Katherine near the Tower, without any certificate from the Clerk thereof, contrary to several orders made by this Court; and upon the said William Hammond’s promise here made not to do the like again at any time hereafter, the Court doth remit the said offence and doth order that the said rule be carefully observed for the future that no person be buried in another parish, without a certificate first from the parish where such a person died."

Not withstanding this order of the Court of Alderman, breaches of this rule were numerous and in 1690 the Aldermen issued another order seeking to reinforce the rule. Parish Clerks in London, as elsewhere, had a certain independence of mind as those who peruse parish registers are well aware.

I am indebted to a well illustrated history of the Company ‘The Parish Clerks of London’ by R.H.Adams,Phillimore 1971. ISBN: 0900592184

© Arthur Royall  Past Master of the Parish Clerks Company 1991

The Parish Clerks Company

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