The many historic parishes of Norwich (and other fine cities)

Years ago, someone told me Norwich had 52 churches (one for each Sunday of the year) and 365 pubs (one for each day of the year).  An interesting fact I probably would have thought no more of, had it not been for discovering my own ancestral roots in that beautiful city.

My 3xG grandfather, Thomas, was from Norwich, and it was there that he met and married my 3xG grandmother (not a local).  They had five children before moving to Yorkshire, where a further nine children would follow.  In the 1861 census their daughter Emily, now in Leeds, gave what at first I considered a strange response to the question about place of birth: ‘Norfolk St Martin Norwich’.  A church…?  Why on earth would she give as her birthplace the name of the church where, presumably, she was baptised?

I suspect some of you will already know the answer – particularly if you have ancestral or other connections to historic towns like Winchester, York and Exeter.  But to me it was a puzzle; and to find the explanation we first have to go back to the 11th century.  It seems towns which developed at that time tend to have many small parishes, while those developing just 100 years later are more likely to have one large parish.

Norwich dates from Saxon times.  At the time of the Norman Conquest it was one of the largest towns in England with a population of over 5,000.  When the city walls were built (1280-1340), enclosing an area a little over one square mile, the population had increased to 10,000 people.  And yet, records show that there were around 58 churches – far more than required to accommodate the worshipping needs of a population that size.  A fascinating map, created using contemporary documents, shows the original churches of Norwich existing during the 13th century or earlier.

This was of course before the English Reformation.  The Church of Rome had taken hold, but the old ways of thinking were not yet forgotten.  This preference for many parishes may be explained by the practice of cults of specific saints, each bringing protection in the event of specific circumstances.  Hence the greater the number of saints venerated, the greater the protection.  Note too, the number of churches dedicated to Anglo Saxon or Celtic saints – e.g. Edmund, Etheldreda and Ethelbert (actually East Anglian), Cuthbert, Swithun.  There is comfort and strength in familiarity.

Those pre-13th century churches are not the same buildings that exist today.  Their present-day counterparts were mostly built in the 15th century.  I’ll say more about them in a later post, but an 1819 map shows that they were built on the same sites and tended to retain the same dedications.  As you can see, as at 1819, only 36 churches are shown.  Several had been demolished in the 16th century.  Prior to that there had at one time or other been as many as 63.  The number of pubs given in that old local saying is inaccurate too: there were, at one time, more than 500.  So, for balance, I give you an 1892 Drinker’s Map!

Of course none of this explains why my 3xG aunt Emily felt the need to record the scene of her baptism on the census.

The answer is all connected with the topic of my last post: the parish.  If I had only known it back then, Emily was flagging up that, at the time of her birth – 1829 – it was the parish that had responsibility for recording the population, and in so doing it exercised not only spiritual but also secular control.  In Norwich, as in Lincoln and York (47 parishes each), Oxford (20 parishes), Exeter (29), Thetford (22), Winchester (57), Canterbury (17) and the City of London (a whopping 126 parishes in the square mile!) it really would have mattered which parish you had been born in, or had in some other way since birth achieved legal ‘settled’ status.  It was the parish where you had settlement rights that had a duty to provide if you fell on hard times.  Even though my 3xG aunt Emily had long since left Norwich, it would have been natural to think of her origins not in the city as a whole but in the Norwich parish of St Martin at Oak.

That list of towns in the paragraph above is not exhaustive.  You may have ancestral ties to another town with a similar parish arrangement; and if so, what follows applies to your research too.

For us as genealogists, there are two points to come out of this:
The first is a bit of a pain.  It was the individual parishes that kept records, and these records are still arranged at county record offices by parish.  Therefore if you find yourself in the local archives looking for 18th century records relating to an ancestor from Norwich, York, Lincoln, Exeter, London, etc you may have to look through many sets of parish records before you find them.  (I do indeed have an ancestor known only to have been born in ‘London, Middlesex’, circa 1816….. horrors!)  Even if you have information, if your ancestor moved around within the city, you may have to look at the records of several parishes.

The second point is much nicer.  Clearly, these parishes covered a very small, if densely populated, geographical area.  In the absence of records with street names and addresses, through these various sets of parish records we can see more or less where our ancestors lived at different stages of their lives.  Hence I can use baptism, marriage and burial records to see that my 4xG grandmother, Hannah, was born in Norwich in St James Pockthorpe, was living in St Peter Mancroft when she married, and thereafter lived in a total of five parishes all within a quarter of a mile of that, eventually dying in the parish of All Saints.

One final point – and maybe it’s just me – but I love the names of these old churches!  They tell us so much about the history of the place, from the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic saints outlined above; to St Mary Unbrent: properly called ‘St Mary in combusto loco’, or ‘in that part of the city burnt in the great fire of 1004’; to St John Maddermarket – one of my favourites, since it refers to the market selling madder and other natural dyestuffs for use in the local production of woollen cloth.

PS. I’ve started a new category with this post: Intermediate genealogy skills, since I think if you get to the stage of researching parish records in the county archives you’ve definitely moved on from Beginner.  Whatever stage you’re at in your family research – happy hunting!

6 thoughts on “The many historic parishes of Norwich (and other fine cities)

  1. Yes, so interesting. And many of the churches are so close together. In Gloucester, St Nicholas and St Mary de Lode are about 200 yards from each other, and both 300 yards to the West of the cathedral. And St Michaels, St Johns and St Mary de Crypt are about 500 yards from those, 300 yards from the cathedral on the East and South side and again 200 yards apart in a line, all within the medieval city. That is why the parish maps were of so much interest to me, it isn’t always obvious from the position of the church where the parish boundary lay. Whereas in Rowley Regis , where I grew up and most of my family originate (originally in Staffordshire until the mid-nineteen-sixties) there is essentially only one parish church which covers a large area. Pity the parish registers were inside the church when it burned down in 1913! Not quite as bad as it sounds as many of the registers had already been transcribed and I am, right now, privileged to be transcribing for FreeREG from photographs of some of the burned registers, some of which were so badly damaged that they have been locked away for decades. When they were assessed by an archivist to see whether they could be restored the opportunity was taken to photograph them. Not everything is legible but every bit helps. It gave me a fillip to transcribe the baptisms of my great grandfather and his siblings and later his children!


    • Oh my goodness. I hope that most of the records are at least legible in part. So sad for the registers to be lost – as is the case with many Irish records of course. Were all the other parish records in the church too – the historic churchwarden’s accounts and so on? If not, they would provide another vantage point on the people of the parish through time.


      • Using other entries in the Registers for the same families, census returns and GRO records, all so easily available to us now, it has been surprising how much we have managed to piece together, with notes on each entry, of course to indicate what was original and where the additional information came from. Painstaking but satisfying! Some was simply gone, burned away. Alas, I understand that all the other Parish Records were in the same chest and I fear they were lost too. The chest was hauled out of the fire by the firemen with a grappling iron.
        Someone, we don’t know who, has gone through many of the registers and overwritten some of the information. We hope it was the incumbent as he would have known many of the families, But essentially, in those cases we are transcribing a transcription and have noted them as such so that researchers can decide for themselves whether to treat the information as accurate.
        The other thing which has fascinated me about this work has been how many of the family names occurred in my classes at school, especially in the village primary school though the grammar school drew from a larger area, and names also present still in local shops and businesses, really gave me a sense of connection. Looking at old group photographs from the village in this period, I have a sense of recognition of many faces, even though I cannot have known them. Their descendants still carried their faces!


      • It sounds fascinating Glenys. Are the Bishop’s Transcripts available for this diocese/ parish? That would be a great help too. Although there are possibilities for transcript errors in both directions. I take it there is a small team of you doing this work? It will be much appreciated in generations to come. I can’t get any of my Irish ancestors back to their parishes in Ireland for reasons such as this – firstly the fire in 1921, and then the fact that many parishes didn’t keep good records before the mid 19th century anyway.

        I also know exactly what you mean about recognising faces. In my case, not recognising faces as such, but beginning to know a parish so well that you know who was friends with whom and what work they did. I also recognise (unusual) surnames of people I went to school with and wonder if we are related.


  2. Just me transcribing at present, due to my particular interests and local knowledge. It’s not a huge task, I have nearly finished the baptisms, on to burials next I hope. So I feel very privileged. And yes, l use BTs to cross check every entry where they are available
    I started researching forty years ago in the days of visiting libraries and archives and paper records so I am hugely grateful for all the resources at my fingertips now and that images of the records arrive over the internet. Would we have thought this possible even thirty years ago? I remember going to a lecture, maybe sometime in the 1990s and hearing about this thing called the‘ World Wide Web’ and the things the developers thought could be done with it in the future and thinking it sounded a bit far fetched, I was wrong!


    • Haha, yes it’s true. I can usually get a line back to 1800 in an hour now, including all siblings of all generations, even if they have moved around a lot. Forty years ago just that could have been a life’s work. We are very lucky to be able to access so much information online, using indexes, and then target our visits to the archives when we know they will add value. The work you’re doing will be much appreciated by generations to come Glenys.


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