ID: WMC_CST / Chris Kirkman

TitleThe Parish Chest
AbstractHave you ever wondered about the large wooden chest in the Lady Chapel at the church?

It is the Parish Chest.

It is thought that the system of parishes was set up as early as the late 600s by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. Many parishes would have had a 'chest' of sorts, often a hollowed out log, in which were kept important church items. In 1297 the Synod of Exeter required each church to provide a chest for storing books and vestments.

Then in 1538, at the time of the reformation, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials were introduced and an act was passed requiring each parish to provide a 'sure coffer' in which to keep these documents. From medieval times the chests were secured by three locks with the keys being held by three different people; in early times by the Bishop, the Priest and a layman and later by the Vicar and two church members, often the churchwardens. The Poor Law Act of 1552 also specified that, as well as the three locks, the chest should have a hole in the top for alms for the poor. The chest in our church does not have a man-made hole in the top, although old age has created gaps in the wood. This chest is one of two that were stored in the church tower for many years and when removed were found to be in a poor state. The second one was so decayed and its leather covering was so badly infested that it had to be destroyed so we are left with one. Why no hole in the top? Maybe it pre-dates the 1552 Act, this is, after all, a very old church; maybe there was another with a hole for alms (although those who remember the chest that was destroyed think that did not have one either); maybe there was a third that we do not know about. We will probably never know.

Next time you are in the church, go and look and touch an object that is around 500 years old and wonder what it has seen and heard in that time.

Written by Chris Kirkman for Friends of West Mersea Parish Church.
The Friends of West Mersea Parish is a non-religious charity that raises money to keep the church and its treasures in good condition for future generations.

Published in Courier 13 Feb 2020 page 13.

AuthorChris Kirkman
SourceMersea Museum