The Story of the Parish Clerks

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, the 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.

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. Margaret’s, 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 - a process of amalgamation achieved this. For example 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 1442, 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 appropriately 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 offer hospitality to the members and their guests.

Clerks Place, the site of the first Hall

Hall in Silver Street

Master's Chair

Letter describing the bombing of the Hall

Edgar S Underwood FRIBA Architect and Surveyor

7th February 1941 The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks 

Dear Sirs, Parish Clerks’ Company’s Hall, Silver Street It is with profound regret that I have to report to you that the premises of the Parish Clerks’ Company, including the hall, which was restored to its original condition in 1938, were entirely destroyed by fire following enemy damage on the night of the 29th December 1940, Sunday. I endeavoured to go to the premises on the morning of 30th December, the day after but could not approach within eighty yards distance from it because of the debris in the street and still smouldering buildings. I reported this to the Clerk.

On Wednesday, January 1st, I was able to go on to the site and found that the whole of the premises, including those occupied by the tenants Messrs Fry Binns & Co (Monks Brothers successors) were destroyed to the pavement level, nothing remaining except the East party wall of the Clerk’s room, the three other walls of No 25, and the West wall of the premises, the party walls of the General Post Office building and No 23 Silver Street, and the front wall of No 24 Silver Street. While I was there the East wall of the premises over the party wall with No 82 Wood Street was felled by the Royal Engineers who are employed to assist the Engineer of the Corporation to take down all dangerous walls or buildings upon the site of this great fire. This thick wall about 12’ 0” wide and 20 feet high fell vertically into the basement of Messrs Fry Binns & Co’s premises. Practically nothing now remains above the pavement footway level of the premises that were Nos 24, 25, 26 & 27 Silver Street and Nos 82 and 83 Wood Street, and the basement of these was filled with broken bricks, iron and debris, except the four walls of No 25 Wood Street, a shell.

A fortnight later the front wall of No 24 Silver Street had to be taken down in the general removal of unsafe buildings. The two safes from the Clerk’s room had fallen to the pavement level. All this I reported in a letter to the Clerk. I arranged to meet the Clerk at Silver Street on the 13th January to examine the safes, and took with me two men, and ordered a man to be there from Hobbs, Hart & Co, the Safe Makers. When we examined the safes which were old and of a weak type it was found they had already been opened and there was nothing inside but burnt papers, everything in the nature of paper inside them had been entirely destroyed. I examined as far as possible the debris but could see nothing of value, but, of interest, there are the front gates partly buried. The small cooking range in the front attic remains fixed in what is now the face of the party wall with No 83 Silver Street. This high wall is split vertically from top to bottom. Recently negotiations have been carried out by me with regard to the possibility of the purchase of the small properties Nos 25, 26 and 27 Silver Street, the consideration of this being deferred and I have verbally told the owner’s Architect, Mr H.E.Matthews and her Solicitor, Mr Boult, of 27 Silver Street, that their premises have been destroyed.

On December 30th, anticipating your wishes, I gave notice of the damage to the District Valuer informing him that a claim would be put in both for the premises and the contents and asked for an extension of time beyond the statutory 30 days; it has been granted and I received definite instructions from the Company at the Quarterly Court on 15th January. I am proceeding with these and shall send to you as requested a copy of the claims as sent in, and a copy of the priced schedule of contents. In the preparation of this letter I have been greatly assisted by Dr Ebblewhite, the Clerk, Mr E.F.Mills and the Father, Mr H. McClintock Harris. In putting in this claim I have taken the whole of the premises as a total loss and for the part cost of any rebuilding of the Party walls. As regards the contents, in 1928 I prepared a very complete inventory of all the Furnitute, fittings, plate and general contents and have a copy of this which has enabled me and will assist me to consider every item. On Wednesday the 1st January I met in Wood Street the Manager of the Westminster Bank. He was then, the Bank having been destroyed, taking out from the strong rooms the Bank books and the silver and other things of this Company deposited there, and he told me they were all safe and were being deposited in the Strong Room of their Branch bank in Cheapside. Later this building was destroyed by enemy action, but before the meeting of the Company on the 15th January I called that morning at the Cheapside Bank and saw the Manager and he told me everything is safe, and had been seen by your Clerk since its removal there.

As regards the moveable property, the silver and other things, the leases and other documents are in the strong room of the Bank, and the seven pieces of old stained glass from the windows I had removed previously to safe keeping in the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow Church. I have recently examined these as covered up and they are as secure as they may be in these days. With reference to the claim for the rebuilding of the premises, this has to be based on values existing in March 1939. The value of the site does not come within the scheme for compensation but it might be enhanced by the possibility of obtaining possession of other sites in Silver Street, such as Nos 25, 26 and 27, thus giving a long frontage on to Silver Street. Legislation is contemplated to fix generally all site values. When the General Post Office was rebuilding Nos 83 & 84 Wood Street etc, in 1925, I carried out negotiations with their Surveyor and was able to sort out the tangle of the party walls between the buildings as they then existed, and the Company now has a right to use the whole length of the South wall as a party wall in a straight line without restriction or payment. This in rebuilding will mean that the South wall of the Staircase can be pulled down and the space occupied by it thrown into the building enlarging the depth of the building on plan at that part by about two feet. When the use of the new party wall was agreed with the General Post Office it was not as a whole use immediately in connection with this property, and the South wall of the staircase remained, this still stands against the party wall and not being needed and also being now insecure will have to be pulled down. At present the position is that the whole site up to the footway level has been filled in to the pavement level by demolition parties and nothing remains above this level but the South wall of the staircase, and the East wall of the Clerk’s Room, both of which will have to be pulled down.

I remain, Your obedient Servant, Edgar Underwood FRIBA

Among the activities of the 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 legion, but 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 and aided by a pitch pipe they led the singing in their churches.

The Clerk sitting in his chair below the pulpit

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 intended for liturgical use during intercessions and mass and to facilitate the offerings of prayers for the departed.

The page illustrated shows the first entry to be that of Henry V followed by Thomas, Duke of Clarence. John, Duke of Bedford. Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. (The father and uncles of Henry VI who granted the first charter to the Company). The top entry in the middle column is that of Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.

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, when Charles Dickens was writing ‘Little Dorrit’. 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 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.

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