Documents, c.1530-1810 - A Transcription Project
This selection of documents was
transcribed by a group of volunteers sponsored by the Kent
Archaeological Society. The objectives were for the volunteers to
develop and practice their palaeography skills; for them to learn
about Kent in the past as shown in the documents; for the transcripts
to be made available to others for education, research and personal
The aim of this introduction is not to describe the
documents transcribed or offer any critical analysis. The intention is
to provide sufficient background and context to allow the documents to
speak for themselves.
We have tried to be consistent in our methods of
transcription, but since the documents themselves vary in their format
this has not always been possible. It has also not always been
possible to reproduce exactly the format and appearance of handwritten
documents on a computer screen.
All words, place names and personal names were
transcribed with spelling and capitalisation exactly as in the
document. If Roman numerals were used in the document they have been
retained in the transcript.
The end of each line of writing in the original document
is indicated with a slash mark / in the transcript.
Where abbreviations have been used, the abbreviated word
has been extended, with the added letter shown in brackets: P[ar]ishe,
If any words were written above a line of text, or as a
marginal note intended to be read as part of the main text, they have
been included <in brackets like this> at the point in the text
where they were intended to be read.
Where words or phrases in the original document are
illegible, this has been indicated. Some of the documents are bound in
volumes and words or figures have been lost in the margins. Where this
has happened it has been indicated.
The primary language of all the documents is English.
Some of the probate records have short passages in Latin. These are
mostly common form and relate to the court process.
They do not contain any information specific to the
individuals concerned. Some probate accounts have Latin passages
relating to the distribution of the estate, which name individuals and
state their relationship to the deceased. These passages have been
transcribed but not translated.
Every document has been checked by two people. It is
hoped that the transcripts are as error free as possible but there is
always room for differing interpretations of handwriting, and for
typing errors to slip through.
Each transcribed document has a front page giving the
record office reference, the type of document (for example, ‘probate
inventory’ or ‘overseers account’), the parish, the individual’s
name, where relevant, and the year the document was created.
Among other subjects, the documents provide information
on the practice of religion, the administration of the Poor Law,
farming, shopkeeping, children and households. The front page of each
transcript includes keywords indicating the principal covered within
The documents transcribed illustrate aspects of the economics and
social history of Kent. The records of which these are a sample enable
researchers to build up detailed pictures of individuals and
communities in the past. The focus is on the middling and poorer
people in their homes and communities rather than the upper gentry and
nobility. There has been no attempt to produce a representative sample
of material. Documents were chosen because of particular points of
interest about their content, or as random examples. Overall, however,
they represent a true enough picture of the lives of people in Kent in
The majority of the documents transcribed relate to
people and places in east Kent, specifically the Diocese of
Canterbury, Many classes of document were originally created by or for
ecclesiastical authorities or administrative units, even if they had
entirely secular purposes, and the Diocese of Canterbury has much
fuller record collection than the Diocese of Rochester.
Most of the people in these documents lived in small
communities. The total population of the ancient county of Kent in
1600 was about 130,000. By 1700 it was about 150,000, or a little
over, In 1811 it was 368,000. For comparison, in 2011 the population
of Kent including Medway and the London boroughs of Bexley, Bromley
and Lewisham, which were formerly part of Kent, was 2.9 million.
In the sixteenth century, Canterbury was the largest town
or city in the county. Its population in 1570 was about 5,000. A
century later Canterbury’s population had risen to about 7,000 but
Deptford was by then as big or bigger than Canterbury.
The principal types of documents transcribed are parish records and
probate records. Parishes are initially defined by the church, for
ecclesiastical purposes. Parish boundaries were established in the
centuries either side of 1066. When the process of parish foundation
was complete the ancient county of Kent had over four hundred
parishes. There was no uniformity in the size or population of Kent
parishes. They ranged in size from the small downland parishes of only
a few hundred acres to Tonbridge, which had more than 15,000 acres.
For most of the period covered by the transcripts the population of
most of Kent parishes was between a few hundred and a few thousand.
Some were even smaller; Burmarsh in 1811 had a population of only 96.
When Tudor monarchs began to establish systems of local
government they used the parish as a convenient unit of administration
with which people were already familiar.
The parish as a unit of local government generated a
variety of records relating to its different functions. These were
supposedly kept in a lockable wooden box in the parish church or
vestry. The term ‘parish chest’ is used to refer to these records
Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials were
first ordered to be kept in 1538. They are concerned with religious
ceremonies and therefore part of the ecclesiastical function of the
parish. None are included in this project, but anyone wishing to
research family history, or the history of population and disease in a
parish, should consult them.
The body which had overall responsibility for the
government of the parish was the Vestry Meeting, which consisted of
the more substantial ratepayers of the parish. It was known as the
Vestry because it traditionally met in the church vestry, although in
practice these meetings were usually held in one of the parish inns.
The Vestry had two principal duties. One was the election
or appointment each year of the six officers who carried on the day to
day administration of the parish. These were two churchwardens, two
overseers of the poor and two highway surveyors. The duty of the
vestry was the setting of the church rate, the poor rate and the
The office of churchwarden pre-dates the Tudor period.
Some churchwardens’ accounts survive from the Middle Ages. As the
name suggest, the first responsibility of the churchwardens was the
repair and maintenance of the church fabric. Churchwardens’ accounts
may include sums of money spent for this purpose. They were also
responsible for ensuring that the clergyman had everything he required
in order to conduct church services as prescribed by Parliament.
Churchwardens also acquired various secular duties. They
were responsible for relieving the poor who were passing through the
parish. They were also responsible for making payments for the killing
of birds and animals regarded as vermin which destroyed crops.
A church rate was levied on owners and occupiers of land
in the parish to provide funds for the churchwardens. We have
transcribed examples of churchwardens’ accounts showing how the
church rate was disbursed.
The most onerous duty of the parish was the relief of the
poor belonging to the parish. This responsibility had developed in
piecemeal fashion during the sixteenth century, culminating in two
pieces of legislation in 1598 and 1601 which became known as the
Elizabethan Poor Law or Old Poor Law. This legislation remained in
effect until 1834.
Under the Elizabethan Poor Law, the Vestry was required
to set a poor rate. Like the church rate, this was based on the value
of land in the parish and paid by owners and occupiers of land. The
rate might be anything from a few pence in the pound up to two
shillings or more depending on the need at the time.
The parish was also required to appoint two overseers of
the poor. It was the duty of the overseers to collect the poor rate
and disburse it for the benefit of the poor belonging to the parish.
The poor might include the elderly and infirm, the sick and orphan
children. The overseers kept accounts of the money they collected, and
how they spent it. The documents transcribed include examples of
overseers’ accounts. Readers may form their own opinions, based on
these documents, of how efficient and how compassionate the system
Many parishes and towns attempted to prevent immigrant
poor from settling within their jurisdictions and becoming an
additional burden on their poor rates. In 1662 the government tried to
impose some uniformity by means of a Settlement Act, which laid down
where a person could claim poor relief. A man or woman could only
apply for poor relief in the parish where he or she had a legal
settlement. For a man this would be his place of birth or the last
place in which he had been hired for a year, or been a ratepayer. A
married woman’s place of settlement was that of her husband. If a
widow remarried, she took her new husband’s place of settlement, but
the children of her first marriage retained their original places of
There were numerous disputes between parishes over
questions of settlement, which involved parishes in great expenditure
on legal fees arguing the case at Quarter Sessions. There is an
example of a settlement dispute here.
Under the 1555 Statute of Highways, parishes were
responsible for the repair of roads within their boundaries. Two
unpaid surveyors of the highways were chosen each year. The duty of
the surveyors was to assess what work needed to be done on the roads
and see that it was carried out. Initially the inhabitants of the
parish were required to work for six days each on the roads every
year; this was known as statute labour. It was naturally very
unpopular, and acts of 1654,1662 and 1691 gave the Surveyors the power
to raise highway rates instead of demanding statute labour.
Local government at parish level was not something with
which noblemen would normally be concerned, beyond the fact that they
were ratepayers in respect of their land. Parish offices were held by
farmers, tradesmen and minor gentry. It was an offence to refuse to
serve as overseer, but clergymen, doctors, lawyers, army and navy
officers and magistrates were exempt. Parish Officers received no
formal training, although a man who served for a number of years would
build up a certain amount of experience.
There were also books published to assist parish
officers. William Lambarde, Justice of the Peace and historian of Kent
in the Elizabethan period, wrote Eirenarcha principally as a guide to
the work of a justice of the peace, but it also contained passages on
the duties of parish officers. It was first published in 1579, went
through several editions over the next few decades and remained the
standard work on the subject for many years.
Sussex shopkeeper and parish officer Thomas Turner owned
‘The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer’ published in 1755,
by Richard Burns. Other works, their authors unknown, were the
Universal Parish Officer, published 1759, The Modern Parish Officer,
1774 and The Parish Officer and Parishioner’s Counsellor, published
Records relating to the settlement of a deceased person’s estate are
a valuable source for historians. We have transcribed a selection of
these. The procedure for dealing with an estate has been largely
unchanged for centuries. The only major change has been that until
1858 matters of probate were dealt with in the church courts, rather
than being seen as a secular matter. Anyone who has been responsible
for winding up a deceased person’s estate will have gone through
much the same process of obtaining probate or letters of
administration, compiling an inventory of the deceased’s assets,
settling his or her outstanding debts and distributing the residue.
Wills could be simple or complex, depending on the
deceased’s assets and family circumstances. In Kent the disposition
of the freehold land could be complicated by the custom of gavelkind,
which required land to be equally distributed among the heirs. A
discussion of gavelkind is beyond the scope of this introduction, but
it should be borne in mind when considering inheritance in Kent.
Probate inventories were a statement of the
deceased’s moveable assets, including clothing, household goods and
furnishings, crops, livestock and leasehold property and money owed to
him. They were normally compiled within days of a person’s death.
The appraisers were normally people known to the deceased, either
neighbours or men who were engaged in the same trade and would know
the value of his stock.
After a probate inventory had been compiled, it was
submitted to the appropriate ecclesiastical court which retained a
copy for its own records. It is these court copies which are now
available in record offices for use by historians. The Diocese of
Canterbury has a particularly good collection of inventories surviving
from about 1560 to 1720.
It was the duty of the administrator or executor to
gather in any outstanding moveable assets of the deceased, such as
money owed to him, and pay debt owed by him at his death. The
administrator also settled any expenses incurred since the deceased’s
death, such as the cost of the funeral, or of harvesting crops which
had been sown in the deceased’s lifetime. Until the estate was wound
up, the administrator was also responsible for maintaining any
dependents of the deceased, such as young children or apprentices who
had not yet found new masters.
The executor or administrator was required to keep
account of money laid out from the estate. When the business of the
estate had been concluded and legacies paid, this account was
exhibited in the court and the deceased’s remaining assets, if any,
distributed to his heirs. In the Diocese of Canterbury these accounts
were kept and are now available to researchers. Smaller collections of
accounts survive elsewhere in England, but no other county or diocese
has such a large number of surviving accounts.
We hope that everyone who reads these transcriptions will enjoy
discovering the story of Mary Harris, of the Hirst children of the
people of Biddenden, and all the many others who appear in these
documents, who once lived in Kent.
We would like to thank the Kent Archaeological Society and the Kent
History and Library Centre for their support for this project.
Transcribers: David Carter, Mary Cooley, Sue Moore, Joy Sage, Peter
Titley, Diana Webb and Pauline Weeds
Latin: Diana Webb
Kent Archaeological Society’s website: Ted Connell
Consultant Dr. J. Bower
Suggested further reading
Kent Hearth Tax 1664
Population of Kent Parishes from the census 1801 to 1921
Introduction to Probate Accounts
Many of the books dealing with the economic and social history of
early modern Kent are out of print or otherwise hard to come by.
Copies in the county library system are often reference only and
cannot be borrowed.
Shirley Burgoyne Black Local Government, Law and Order in a Pre-reform
English Parish, 1790-1834 (1993)
C.W.Chalklin Seventeenth Century Kent (1965)
Bryan Keith-Lucas Parish Affairs (1987)
David Killingray (Editor) An Historical Atlas of Kent (2010)
David Vaisey (Editor) The Diary of Thomas Turner, 1754-1765 (1994)
(Sussex, not Kent, but an excellent insight into parish
Retha M. Warnicke William Lambarde: Elizabethan Antiquary (1973)
The Kent History Project published by
Alan Armstrong (Editor) The Economy of Kent,
Frederick Lansberry (Editor) Government and Politics in Kent,
Nigel Yates, Robert Hume, Paul Hastings Religion and Society in Kent,
Michael Zell (Editor) Early Modern Kent 1540-1640 (2000)