Parish church records and the NRO
The Bishop of Norwich has designated the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) as the Diocesan Record Office for the deposit of parish records in the Diocese of Norwich.
Similarly, the Bishop of Ely has appointed us as the Diocesan Record Office for the deaneries of Feltwell and Fincham in the Diocese of Ely.
We work with the Bishop’s Committee for Books and Documents in the Norwich diocese to advise on the care and preservation of documents from churches.
This guide answers some of the most commonly asked questions about parish records.
Please contact the Diocesan Archivist if you would like further advice or information.
What are parish records?
Parish records are documents made or acquired by the incumbent, churchwardens, PCC and other church and parochial officers in the course of their business. They usually include:
- Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials (which may date from 1538)
- Registers of banns (usually dating from 1754)
- Registers of services
- Registers of confirmations
- Glebe terriers
- Accounts and other records of the churchwardens
- Vestry and PCC minutes
- Papers relating to the church fabric and to the benefice, including the tithes and glebe land
Many parishes also have records of:
- Ecclesiastical charities
- Church schools
- Other parish organisations
- Overseers of the poor
- Surveyors of the highways
- Parish constables
Parish records may consist of volumes, loose papers, parchments, architectural drawings, photographs and maps.
Large maps may be found separately stored in wooden boxes or (particularly in the case of tithe maps) rolled inside metal tubes.
What is the law relating to parish records?
It is set out in the Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 (amended 1993).
This is a measure passed by General Synod which provides for the appointment of diocesan record offices, a regular system of inspections of records in parochial custody and the safe storage of parish records.
How and where should records be kept?
You should keep your records in a dry, well-ventilated place, secure from theft, fire, flooding, rust, prolonged exposure to light, vermin and damage in storage or from handling.
The greatest long-term risk is usually from unsuitable atmospheric conditions.
A relative humidity above 65% (common in Norfolk churches) will encourage the growth of destructive moulds, while a very low humidity produces brittleness.
The temperature should be reasonably constant and ideally not vary more than 10oC (18o F) in any one week.
Parish records should be kept either in the parish church or in the diocesan record office. They must never be stored anywhere else nor lent to anyone to take away.
If you are asked to release records for exhibition outside the church, or for any other reason, consult the diocesan archivist first.
Some parish churches are much too damp and insecure for the storage of records.
The current registers may then have to be kept in the parsonage house or in another church in a group of parishes, but all non-current records should be deposited with the NRO.
Norfolk Record Office: how can we help?
By accepting parish records on deposit
Any registers and other records not in current use may be deposited free of charge with us.
They will be stored securely at the NRO on behalf of the parish in temperature and humidity-controlled strongrooms, with a sophisticated fire protection system.
A professional archivist will catalogue the collection and send a detailed receipt to the incumbent.
Lists of parish records held by us are available via our online catalogue.
Members of the public can also consult the records (or microfilm copies of them) free of charge in our professionally supervised searchroom.
The exceptions are documents which are deemed to be unfit for production (ie, which may be damaged by handling) and any confidential material which has been closed to public access for a specified period. Such documents will not be produced to the public.
Our staff can answer any genealogical and other inquiries, including requests for certificates.
We carry out limited searches (for a fee) for inquirers who do not wish to visit the NRO in person; those wishing to commission extensive research are offered a list of local record searchers.
By inspecting records in parochial custody and advising on their care
The Parochial Registers and Records Measure instituted a system of regular inspections of parish records.
The Bishop of Norwich has appointed the NRO to carry out the initial inspections. These involve listing the documents in each parish and making recommendations for their storage.
As the Diocese has an exceptionally large number of ancient parish churches, this is a slow process.
If you would like advice or information about your records at any time, please contact us without waiting for a first or subsequent inspection.
In the case of severe damage to documents - from fire or flooding, for example - advice should be sought as a matter of urgency.
By preparing exhibitions and loaning showcases
Exhibitions of parish records, perhaps as part of a larger special event such as a flower festival, give parishioners and visitors to a church the opportunity to see a selection of its historic records.
Given sufficient notice, we can select suitable documents, mount them safely and provide labels.
We have a number of portable showcases for loan, free of charge.
See our guide to exhibiting archives in parish churches for more information.
By offering facilities for conservation and microfilming
Our conservation staff can repair damaged or decayed documents, make up protective folders for vulnerable items and give technical advice on archive conservation.
However, parish records which are in a badly damaged state when they are deposited will only be repaired at the expense of the parish or of a third party on its behalf.
Correct storage is the most important factor in preserving original documents.
They should also be safeguarded against the gradual deterioration caused by repeated handling. This can be done by providing a copy to be used in place of the original.
The best method of copying is by microfilming, which is both economical and, more importantly, does not put the original documents at risk of damage (as, for instance, photocopying does).
Many parish registers in the NRO are now made available to the public only as microform copies.
We do not supply facsimile copies of registers to members of the public without the incumbent’s written consent - given either as part of general agreement to microfilming or in response to an individual request for permission.
How and when can records be deposited?
Parish records can be deposited at any time with the agreement of the PCC.
Deposit does not affect the ownership of the records, nor prevent some or all of them being withdrawn at a later date, provided suitable accommodation for them is available in the church.
One of our archivists can collect the documents. If the records have not yet been inspected under the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, they can carry out an inspection at the same time.
The Measure requires the following to be deposited in the diocesan record office unless exacting standards of storage can be met in the church:
- All registers begun 150 or more years ago (with the exception of marriage registers begun from July 1837 onwards)
- All registers and records completed 100 or more years ago
Parishes often choose also to deposit records of more recent date. More than 700 parishes have so far deposited all or most of their non-current records with us.
Can older records be retained in the parish?
Records completed less than 100 years ago may be kept in the parish without special permission.
Records of older date may be retained after an inspection, but only if the Bishop is satisfied that the necessarily high standards laid down by the Parochial Registers and Records Measure can be met in the parish church.
Briefly, these require the records to be stored in a rust-proofed vented steel cupboard with a multi-lever lock.
Such a cupboard is available commercially at a cost of several hundred pounds.
The temperature and relative humidity must also be kept within specified limits.
In many churches, this would be possible only by installing air-conditioning or a dehumidifier.
What provision is available for printed books?
For advice about liturgical and other printed books belonging to parish churches, please contact the Bishop’s Committee for Books and Documents.
The name and address of the secretary for books is listed in the current Diocesan Directory.