Researching the history of parsonages

St Mary's Rectory, Newington, Surrey by John Chessell Buckler (British Library)The house built for or used by the incumbent of an Anglican parish can be called a rectory or a vicarage. For the difference between a rector and a vicar see rectors and tithes. The term parsonages nowadays covers both.

Parsonages in rural parishes are generally sited close to the church. The parsonage stood on glebe land, probably given to the church by the initial patron in Saxon or Norman times, so the site may have remained the same for centuries, though the parsonage may have been rebuilt several times.

In the Middle Ages, the parish priest could lodge in a room over the church porch, but by the 12th century a separate parsonage house was more usual. Those few example of medieval parsonages that survive were probably the most solidly-built, rather than typical examples. Yet, together with the very few contemporary descriptions of such houses, they do convey an impression of a standard of living comparable with lords of the manor and prosperous yeomen.

The parsonage house developed over the centuries in line with other houses, reflecting gradually increasing expectations of privacy and comfort. Yet by the early 18th century, many parsonages were in disrepair, as we can see from comments in bishops' visitations.

In 1776 the Clergy Residences Repair Act (usually known as Gilbert's Act after its promoter, Thomas Gilbert) enabled the clergy to raise money for the repair or rebuilding of their parsonage houses by mortgaging the income from their benefices; Queen Anne's Bounty was empowered to make loans at low rates of interest. This facilitated the building of many substantial and elegant Georgian parsonages, and even more early Victorian ones. By 1847 some 1,500 loans had been made under the Act.

From the nineteenth century we see new parsonages on new sites. The Glebe Exchange Act 1815 and the Church Building Act 1818 permitted sales of land to an incumbent, or in the latter case the church Building Commissioners, as a site for a parsonage house. Then the Parsonages Act 1838 permitted an incumbent to sell his parsonage house; the purchase money was to be paid to the Governors of Queen Anne's Bounty who would use it to erect or purchase a new parsonage. Some new parsonages were for incumbents of the many new churches required in Victorian times to serve the rising population of towns and cities.

A burst of parsonage-building followed the Pluralities Act of 1838, which reduced the number of livings that could be combined.

After the First World War the Church of England recognised the impracticality of maintaining large parsonages suitable for big Victorian families with servants. In 1925 at least a fifth of parsonages were considered oversize. During the 20th century some 10,000 parsonages were sold, to be replaced in some cases by smaller ones. In other cases livings have been combined.

Diocesan records

Diocesan records will often contain the mortgage deed permitted under Gilbert's Act, as well as surveys of the old parsonage, architect's reports, plans, elevations, accounts and correspondence. Conveyances of glebe land and parsonages should also be in diocesan records.

Glebe terriers (first ordered to be made in 1571) are surveys of parochial church lands and tithes and sometimes give useful information on the parsonage. Some survive among parish records, but the copies in diocesan records are more likely to survive. Some have been published by local record societies: to track them down, use the bibliographies of texts and calendars.

Archdeacons were supposed to inspect church buildings, including parsonages. Few pre-Reformation records of archdeacon's courts survive; they become more common from the 17th century onwards. Original records will be in diocesan records. For the handful in print (and secondary sources) see Nottingham University's bibliography of published works relating to Diocesan and Archdeaconry court records. Archdeacons later became slack in their inspections of parsonages, so the Dilapidations Act of 1871 required archdeacons to inspect all benefice buildings every time there was a vacancy. Queen Anne's Bounty Board then supervised necessary repairs.The visitation books of bishops may also note the state of the fabric of parsonages.

Somerset Record Office helpfully lists online the sources for parsonage houses within the county that it holds.

Sources for the clergy

See the introduction to the general section on ecclesiastical records.


And see general sources for houses.