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Kent Archaeological Society's Transcription Group

Kentish 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 interest.
   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,  Will[ia]m
   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 document.

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 past.
   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 collectively.
   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 highway rate.
   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 was.
   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 settlement.
   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 1816.

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

Online Resources
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 administration)
Retha M. Warnicke William Lambarde: Elizabethan Antiquary (1973)
The Kent History Project published by
Alan Armstrong (Editor) The Economy of Kent, 1640-1914 (1996)
Frederick Lansberry (Editor) Government and Politics in Kent, 1640-1914 (2001)
Nigel Yates, Robert Hume, Paul Hastings Religion and Society in Kent, 1640-1914 (1994)
Michael Zell (Editor) Early Modern Kent 1540-1640 (2000)

Jacqueline Bower

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