Revelations from the parish records
President Ann Meakin had the starring role for the
second month running when she addressed the meeting
after the AGM business and refreshments were
concluded. Using the “rites of passage” engravings on
the Parish Church font as chapter headings Ann
illustrated how the records, now held safely at the
County Record Office, can reveal insights into the life of Martham people for hundreds of years past.
What most impressed me was how central the Church was to the life of everybody in the parish. The records of births, marriages and deaths kept by the parish church were the only legal documents that proved a person’s very existence and rights. No tax returns, National Insurance numbers, passports or all the other legal paraphernalia of modern life. When, in the 1700s, one notorious Martham vicar died having “lost” thirty years’ worth of parish records, chaos and uncertainty prevailed for a generation.
The Parish Church really acted as the local government. Business and financial transactions were often required to be conducted in the church porch, and it was the Parish Overseers who oversaw the collecting of rates from the richer residents and the distributing of relief to the poor. The records reveal how astonishingly poor most people were a few hundred years ago, but also tell us about people’s achievements as occupations are recorded, and the growth of successful businesses can be inferred.
People seemed no more correct in their moral life than in modern times. Frequent reference is made to “base-born” births, so they had their share of unmarried mothers and absent, often unknown, fathers. In one such record the father actually acknowledges his role, even though he himself is one of the gentry. Let’s just hope that his honesty went a little further and that mother and child were properly cared for – although no record of a subsequent marriage was mentioned.
Thanks and congratulations to Ann - a lot of detailed research and a job well done.