Two Hundred Years of James Family Parish Clerks 1682 - 1888

Our James family hold a probably unique dynastic distinction in England. They served as the Parish Clerks of Hebburn (Hebron) in Northumberland for a consecutive period of over two hundred years, from 1682 – 1888. In all there were six James Parish Clerks, all of whom lived to ripe old ages and held office for many years. 

Our branch of this family springs from Thomas James the second Parish Clerk, who was born in 1683 and served the parish from 1718 until his death 1752. His father, also called Thomas James 1638 - 1718 was the very first of our direct paternal line to be the Parish Clerk of Hebburn, serving in office from 1682 until his death in 1718.

The beautiful stained glass window in St. Cuthbert's Church, Hebron, Northumberland
 Dedicated to the memory of the James family Parish Clerks

The office of Parish Clerk was at one time firmly rooted in the religious rather than the secular, where it now rests in the modern age. It is a very old office indeed, going right back to the early church before England existed as a unitary entity, back to the time of St. Augustine and the Saxon King Ethelbert.

The church in earlier ages had a far more influential role in the everyday lives of people and upon the laws of the land. Indeed, the parish church was the very centre of village life. The original Parish Clerks were church functionaries appointed by the local minister, never by parishioners, who were taken into Minor Orders and had certain rights and privileges. They inhabited a kind of twilight world between clergy and laymen, being neither, but at the same time, subject to church law and not civil law.

In fact, in some parishes in the west country after the reformation, and especially when the local minister was responsible for more than one parish, the Parish Clerk was often raised to Major Orders as a Deacon so as to be able to officially undertake baptisms, marriages and funerals.

Such was the social status of Parish Clerks that they also had the right to vote in national elections, regardless of whether they were landowners or not. This right for Parish Clerks even existed prior to the 1832 Reform Act, which brought more people into the franchise. Today casting ones vote is so often seen by people as a tiresome inconvenience, but it should always be remembered that universal suffrage was a right that had to be hard fought for by our ancestors.

The earliest duties of the Parish Clerk on record give us a flavour of what his role was. He was expected to take responsibility for the parish school, so he would by definition need to be a man of letters and learning.  He would also read the Liturgical Epistle in church, and sing the Psalms in Divine Service. These duties were enshrined into canon law in the decretals of Pope Gregory IX in the 13th century.

Whilst England was a Catholic country it was preferred that the Parish Clerk was an unmarried man but in practice, most Parish Clerks were married and even in the 14th century, mention is made in manuscripts by John of Athon writing between 1333 and 1348, of the Parish Clerk’s wife. The office of Parish Clerk was often used as a stepping stone to higher religious office, and those seeking to enter the priesthood would remain celibate. After the reformation, such a restriction was unnecessary.

One very interesting duty of the Parish Clerk pre-reformation, was to go from house to house in the village sprinkling holy water for a fee. This holy service was not considered optional either, and payment was expected. At Trinity Church, Coventy in 1462, the orders for this procedure were written down:

'Item, the dekyn (Parish Clerk) shall bring a woly water stoke with water for hys preste every Sonday for the preste to make woly water. The said dekyn shall every Sonday beyr woly water of his chyldern to euery howse in hys warde, and he to have hys duty off euery man affter hys degre quarterly'

The Dekyn (Parish Clerk) sprinkles Holy Water

In the 16th century there were complaints from certain members of the clergy that some Parish Clerks were taking on functions that were above them, and trespassing onto territory reserved for ministers of the church. In the diocese of Winchester in 1619 the Bishop is observed to ask whether the Parish Clerk "doth meddle with anything above his office, as to church women, read prayers, bury the dead, or such like?"

William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury 1633 – 1645, was so concerned about those in Minor Orders intruding into matters that appertained to those who had taken Major Orders, that he cracked down on Parish Clerks, even to the extent of depriving them of duties that were theirs by right of canon law. Such severe restriction did not last.

During the Civil War period and the following Commonwealth and restoration, chaos reigned in many parishes as incumbent ministers were driven out, and puritan replacements set in the living, only to be replaced themselves as the monarchy was restored.

At that time, many Parish Clerks out of necessity had to perform many clerical functions normally carried out by an ordained minister, including burials. During the tumult of the English Civil War, Parish Clerks burying the dead were threatened with death by the Puritans if they used the Book of Common Prayer. It was a time when fine religious lines had to be trod.

It was traditional for the Parish Clerk to dress in a surplice, indeed, it was a requirement of office. A cassock may also have been worn beneath the surplice.

By around 1770 the religious duties of the Parish Clerk included "responses to the minister, reading lessons, singing psalms, etc." There is no mention of reading the Liturgical Epistle, which had been a right of earlier Parish Clerks. Whilst doing so, these earlier Parish Clerks would be wearing religious garb, which denoted their official position within the church structure.

One very interesting 18th century function of the Parish Clerk during church services was that of ‘Sluggard Waker’. His task was to keep a beady eye upon the congregation and to take note of any parishioners who appeared to be dozing off. These miscreants were unceremoniously rapped sharply on the head with a long straight pole of stout local wood, which was sometimes tipped with either brass knobs, forks, or fox tails. A brass tip or fork would usually be used for waking the men, while the fox tail was used for waking inattentive female members of the congregation.

Nowadays, the duties of the secular Parish Clerk employed by the local Council are many and varied. These include arranging meetings, circulating the agenda, keeping the minutes of the matters discussed, dealing with correspondence, advising on rules, and responsibility for the presentation of the financial accounts – certainly a far cry from rapping the skulls of the sluggards and assisting with the religious services in church. It is such a shame that the Christian church has allowed such an ancient office to lapse, it needs a revival to my mind.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr