Sussex Clergy Inventories 1600-1750, ed. Annabelle Hughes (2009)

W. M. Jacob

Citation Information

To cite this review: W. M. Jacob, ‘Review: Sussex Clergy Inventories 1600-1750, ed. Annabelle Hughes, Sussex Record Society Vol. 91, 2009.’, CCEd Online Journal Reviews 1, 2013. http://www.theclergydatabase.org.uk/review_one/

Sussex Clergy Inventories 1600-1750, ed. Annabelle Hughes, Sussex Record Society Vol. 91, 2009.1

Clergy are the largest and most distinctive occupational group for whom extensive documentary evidence survives from the Reformation onwards, as The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835 well illustrates. The Database is enabling clerical careers to be traced in a detail that has never been possible before, so that education, moves, income, pluralism, residence, attendance at episcopal visitations can be traced, and one can begin to build up a picture of the professional lives of individual clergy and groups of clergy.

Diocesan archives also provide opportunities to build up a picture of the personal lives of clergy. Copies of parish terriers list the land [terra = land] with which benefices were endowed, which provides information about land available to an incumbent’s use, and sometimes an account of the parsonage house. Substantial alterations to, or rebuilding a parsonage house, required the consent of the patron and the bishop, and a faculty from the consistory court, which means that sometimes plans and drawings survive, ideally of what the parsonage house and its accompanying buildings were like before the alterations or rebuilding were undertaken, as well as what was proposed, (which, of course may not have been completed, or even started) and information may be included about the costs of the project. This can help to give a sense of the social standing of clergy, especially if information about or studies of buildings in the locality or region has been published, which puts clergy households in context.

Clergy were one of the most literate occupational groups, and significant quantities of archival material beyond episcopal and diocesan records make it possible to begin to flesh out the lives of some clergy, for example diaries and letters may give a limited picture of what they did and thought, and their relationships with family, friends and parishioners. However it needs to be remembered that this may be only a limited picture, for, occasionally when the diary or letters of another member of a family or circle of friends also survives, a rather different picture of a person and his activities may emerge. Some clergy kept account books, which sometimes were restricted to what they received from fees for marriages and burials, and collected in tithes from their parishioners, and spent on cultivating their glebe. All being well they placed these with the parish’s papers, in the parish chest, for the benefit of their successors, so they would know the customary payments of the parish, for sometimes, when a new incumbent arrived, parishioners discovered they had short memories about payments due to him. Account books throw significant light on the sources of income of an incumbent, especially in relation to how many weddings and funerals he conducted, whether he farmed his glebe himself, and the agricultural practices of the parish. Some account books are very full, recording, so far as one can tell, all the household expenditure, as well as income. These are very useful in giving a clearer picture of life in a parsonage house, of the extent to which a household was self supporting, and what had to be bought in, what was given in charity, or as loans, what the major items of expenditure were, what was spent on transport and travel, and about luxuries, including holidays, or their absence. One can see how standards and patterns of consumption changed over time, as someone matured, or became better off. James Woodforde’s diary, which begins as an account book, and in which he continued to record much of his expenditure shows him buying basic furniture for the first parsonage house in which he lived part-time as a curate in the 1760s, and then in the mid 1770s papering the ‘Great Parlour’ and ‘Study’ and buying curtains and carpets and beds for his rectory at Weston Longueville at the considerable cost of £41-19s, and buying from a cabinet maker in Norwich ‘a handsome mahogany wardrobe’, a bureau and bookcase and a sideboard. In the late 1780s he began to upgrade his furniture and bought ‘two large second hand double flapped Mahogany tables, also one second hand Mahogany dressing table with drawers – also one new Mahogany Washing Stand, for all of which I paid £4-14s-6d. I think the whole of it to be very cheap’. Four years later in April 1793 he bought at an auction in Norwich ‘a very handsome Mahogany Sideboard for £3-6s’ and ‘a very good Wilton Carpet paid £6-0-0’ and a cellaret. In December he replaced the tables, recording that he bought ‘new Tables ….secondhand  three in number all of the best Mohogany and new, the middle one is a very large on and very wide, the other two are half round ones to add to the middle Table  – I am to give for them seven guineas [Sudbury, the upholster of Norwich] took my two very large Tables and a smaller one in part exchange for the others, and he is to allow me for the three only £2-18s. He also bought silver cutlery, when he was passing through London on his way back from holidays in Somerset, and in Norwich.2 Account books and diaries throw considerable light on how local economies worked, in this case the furniture trade, and how a consumer society developed, meeting the needs of customers.

Another major, but little used, source of information about clerical lives and households held in diocesan record offices are probate inventories, which record a person’s possessions at death. Ideally items were recorded room by room, and information about cash in hand and loans and debts was noted at the end. Inventories were required to be prepared to be produced alongside a will, when probate for the administration of a will was applied for from a consistory court.

Sussex Clergy Inventories 1600-1750 is a transcript of 181 surviving probate inventories of clergy from Chichester diocese, comprising East and West Sussex, that Annabelle Hughes has edited with an introduction for the Sussex Record Society. It is helpful to have these in an accessible and legible form, with biographical notes about the various clergy, provided by John Hawkins who was the principal contributor for the Chichester Diocese entries for the Clergy of the Church of England Database, a glossary of archaic words, and a helpful introduction about the production and interpretation of inventories. In addition there is an analysis of rooms in parsonages, noting the deceased’s name, the year, the number of rooms, the parish, listing the rooms, whether there were any books, the valuation of the property, and whether there were any stock or crops. There is also a helpful bibliography, showing this is the first transcript of clerical inventories to be published, two maps showing the parishes represented, a list of inventories noting the deceased’s name, the parish, the year, the value, his title as recorded on the inventory, (ie curate, vicar, minister, parson, rector), and in which court probate was applied for (the consistory court sitting either in the archdeaconry of Chichester, or the archdeaconry of Lewes), and an index of persons and places.

Dr Hughes, is an historian of buildings, who has used Sussex probate inventories  for studying buildings as a social historian. Clerical inventories are particularly interesting for clergy form, as already noted, a cohesive social group, and their parsonage houses are identifiable, if they survive, and also, as we have noted, there may be additional information about the buildings in diocesan archives.

In her introduction Dr Hughes describes the process of securing probate, including the complexities of the peculiar jurisdictions in Sussex, and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury where wealthier people’s wills and the wills of those who held property in more than one diocese were proved. She notes that in Chichester, as in many  dioceses, few probate inventories survive after 1750, and that the survival rate for the period of 1600-1750 from Lewes archdeaconry was poor, only nineteen usable documents, perhaps indicating a ‘clearing out’ of documents at some stage. She also notes that numbers of inventories dropped between 1640 and 1650 perhaps reflecting the turmoil of the Civil Wars.

She notes that inventories normally only record ‘movables’, that is personal property although they may list cash, and debts, bonds, and loans, but do not include real estate, in the form of land, so they may not reflect the true value of a clergyman’s estate, if he owned land in addition to his life-time freehold of the benefice property. Supplementary sources of information are noted, including the diocesan surveys of 1686 and 1724, which provide brief information about parsonage houses (or their absence) and valuations of livings, and the amount of glebe, as well as terriers and faculties.3 However, Dr Hughes notes that it has proved difficult to positively identify parsonage houses featured in the 1724 survey and those described in these inventories perhaps, because, as she notes elsewhere, clergy did not always live in their parsonage house, so inventories may list rooms in a house other than the parsonage.

The inventories are put in context by a brief summary of recent studies of religion and society in post-Reformation Sussex, which should have included Jeffrey Chamberlain’s Accommodating High Churchmen.4

There is a helpful discussion of the chronological analysis of names of rooms in inventories. Of the 144 properties for which rooms were mentioned, twenty-five had up to five rooms, seventy-two had between six and ten rooms, thirty-six had between eleven and fifteen rooms, and eleven over fifteen rooms. Many of these rooms, however were work rooms, for example buttery, pantry, milkhouse, brewhouse, bakehouse, wash-house, cheesehouse, as well as ‘entry’ and cellar. These illustrate the complexity of the domestic economy of a parsonage house, and most households in early modern England. Dr Hughes notes the changing names and uses of rooms over the 150 years of these inventories, including the diminishing importance of the ‘hall’ as the main room of the house which served as dining room, reception room, and even bedroom for some of the household, and the increasing mention of ‘parlour’ and ‘pantry’. Until the beginning of the eighteenth century ‘loft’ and ‘garret’ were used almost interchangeably, but ‘loft’ disappeared after 1706. There was a marked increase in mention of ‘cellar’ from the 1690s. These changes probably reflect adaptations of existing buildings, as well as newly built houses and, new fashions in the use of space. However, it should be remembered that inventories only record rooms containing items belonging to the deceased. Empty rooms were not mentioned. Not many of these houses were really palatial in terms of numbers of rooms for sitting and relaxing: of sixty-nine houses between 1619 and 1690 for which ‘parlours’ are noted, only two had two parlours, and of the forty four where ‘parlours are noted between 1691 and 1741 only five had two parlours. Thirty-one in the first period mention studies, and twenty-six during the second period. She notes that ‘chambers’ were usually first-floor rooms, often identified by the ground-floor room below. Fireside implements may indicate there was a hearth in the room, and she refers for comparison to the surviving Hearth Tax returns for 1662. Given the limited literature available on parsonage houses, it would have been helpful to have had a reference to V.M.Chesher, ‘The Parsonage House’ on houses in Cornwall, which suggests there was a significant rebuilding and upgrading of parsonage houses in the early eighteenth century.5

The typical parsonage house for most of the eighteenth century, usually had one, or possibly two, parlours and a study and kitchen on the ground floor, with dairy, washhouse, brewery, etc in a back extension, and chambers about the parlour(s), study and kitchen, used as bedrooms by the ‘family’ and perhaps over some rooms in the back extension, and perhaps garrets above the chambers for servants. Some houses were much more humble. Apart from provision for a study, parsonage houses were very like farm houses and small gentry houses. Only from the 1770s were parsonage houses significantly extended or rebuilt. Many ‘Georgian’ parsonage houses date from the 1840s.

It would have been interesting if Dr Hughes, with her extensive knowledge of the building history of Sussex had compared parsonage houses, or at least houses occupied by clergy, with houses occupied by small to medium sized farmers, and minor gentry, or better-off tradesmen and merchants in market towns, with whom it seems likely clergy can be compared in terms of their levels of income and possessions. It is also a pity that the farm buildings and barns associated with parsonages or houses occupied by clergy, which presumably were included in the inventories as containing crops and implements and livestock, were not also listed, which would have helped to relate clergy to other socio-economic groups, and indicated to what extent the complex of parsonage buildings resembled farm complexes.

Dr Hughes notes that before 1680 fifty-four out of ninety-one inventories (over a half) record livestock and crops, but after 1680 only twenty-nine out of eighty-two (just over a third) do so, and speculates whether the time of year when the inventory was taken influenced whether these items were recorded, or whether clergy increasingly leased out their glebes after the 1680s. If there was a decline among Sussex clergy in cultivating their glebe from the 1680s, this did not happen in Norfolk, in sixty-one inventories of clerical goods among the Diocesan Registry’s surviving probate inventories between 1700 and 1739 forty-four record agricultural equipment and stock and crops, often on a large scale,6 and there is much evidence that some Norfolk clergy at the end of the eighteenth century continued to cultivate their glebe and keep livestock, not least James Woodforde, but others on a much larger scale.7

The inventories of the vast majority of Sussex clergy record books, which is likely to  be the most marked distinction factor between clergy and similar socio-economic groups, like small and medium sized farmers. Dr Hughes emphasises that the valuation placed on books should be treated with care, for laymen who made the inventories, may have had little idea of the value of books. The few instances when books are itemised, or summarised, suggest that some clergy had wide interests: Robert Waters of Shipley, who died in 1617 had ‘Divers books of divinity and physicke and surgery’, and Samuel Fowler of Earnley, who died in 1669 had ‘ a Parsell of books as dixenaries sermon books mathematickes Arethmaticke some Latin for Prayers some for Gardening some Geographie some manuscripts some Playe books some old some young’ valued altogether at 15 shillings. Seventy-two inventories note a ‘study’ and four a ‘library’  In Norfolk although nine of the sixty-one inventories do not mention any books, in some inventories books form a significant proportion of the total value of the goods listed, for example John Echard of Ashwellthorpe’s books were valued at £20, out of a total valuation of his goods of £23-13s-1 1/2d. There seems little correlation between the value of a clergyman’s goods and the value of his books; John Jessop of Raveningham in Norfolk who died in 1719 had an inventory valued at £1,604 – 15s – 4d, of which £1,428 – 4s – 10d was in ‘Bills, Bonds and other Securities’, but he only had ‘A parcel of old Books’ valued at £2.8

Dr Hughes in her analysis of the inventories by house sizes (by room and function) and relative valuations, concludes that the clergy included the very poor and the relatively wealthy. It would have been interesting if she had drawn on her wide knowledge of Sussex inventories to set the valuation of goods in clerical inventories alongside, for comparison, inventories of a range of farmers and minor county and urban gentry to show where, socio-economically, clergy fitted in Sussex society. In concluding her introduction she helpfully suggests further matters for investigation, including comparative values of livings and how these might reflect the living standards of the clergy shown by their dwellings and possessions, the value and extent of glebe land and changes over the period, variations in the numbers and values of books owned, and how these may have reflect the quality and ‘colour’ of clerical ministry.

When the total values of the personal estates of the clergy are analysed the enormous range of society that clergy ranged across, becomes clear, from the rather poor, to the rich, with a high proportion in the range of £100 to £300, which, discounting their real estate, would have put them in terms of personal possessions, in the range of modest county gentry

Total values of goods valued in probate inventories in the Diocese of Chichester

-£5 £5-£10 £11-£20 £21-£50 £50-£75 £76-£100 £101-£200 £201-£300 £301-£500 £501-£1,000 £1,000+
1613-1690 3 3 7 14 12 15 33 15 9 4 2
1691-1741 3 12 7 3 12 4 5 6 4

However, it should be remembered this is a random selection of the clergy in Chichester diocese during the period, and that a significant proportion of clergy, who left possessions worth less than £50 may be missing from the sample.

David Hey suggested that though the income and value of the possessions of clergy may be somewhat similar to small to medium sized farmers in the villages they served, their inventories reflect a more cultivated taste and greater refinement of social standards than the inventories of most farmers.9 This may reflect the fact that many clergy were Oxford or Cambridge-educated sons of prosperous urban professional men and tradesmen who might be expected to have more sophisticated tastes than their village neighbours This may perhaps be seen in these Sussex inventories: forty-eight of the sample between 1613 and 1690 and thirty between 1691 and 1741 owned some silver ware, twenty-five in the earlier period, and twenty-three in the later period had looking glasses, including John Prosser of Winchilsea, who died in 1723 who was recorded as having a ‘glass’ in every chamber, the same number possessed clocks or watches, one in the earlier period had a coffee pot, while eleven in the later period had a coffee pot or tea kettle, or rather nine, for Charles Spencer of Westbourne, who died in 1705 had three ‘coffey pots’ in the kitchen, as well as a modish ‘Wallnutt Tree Table’, nineteen in the earlier period had desks, and six in the later period, nine in each period owned pictures, and four in the later period owned ‘weather glasses’. Nearly all houses had large quantities of linen, and all had feather beds; cushions and window curtains feature quite often; nearly all have considerable quantities of pewter, as opposed to wooden vessels, including chamber pots; quite a lot have ‘close stools’, a mark of gentility. Thomas Pelling of Rottingdean, who died in 1732 had a particularly well-equipped ‘studdy’ including ‘About 800 books, a pair of globes, i table, 2 Ring Dyalls, 1Telescope, I Speaking Trumpet’, but his goods were valued in total at £1,065 -13s-6d.

Some clergy had money owing to them: fourteen who died between 1613 and 1690, and eight between 1691 and 1741, and in the earlier period fourteen also had tithe owing to them, while only eight in the later period had tithe owing to them. Twenty in the earlier period had money laid out in bonds, securities and mortgages, and seventeen in the later period. Only three died in debt in the earlier period, and one in the later period.

In the period 1613-1690 twenty-two inventories noted a gun, pistols or a musket, and seven between 1691 and 1741. This may represent the need for arms for protection of oneself and family during the troubled days of the civil wars, and possibly the continuing threat of invasion from the Channel during the first half of the eighteenth century

A significant number of women – wives, daughters and sisters – feature as executors of these wills: sixty during the earlier period from 1613 to 1690 and thirty-five between 1691 and 1741. This total of ninety-five out of 185 wills suggests that clergy had a high level of confidence in their womenfolk’s capacity to manage their affairs. However, it may hint at the personal tragedies the deaths recorded in these wills brought upon clergy families. Clergy only had a freehold for life in their parsonage and glebe land. The moment they died their interest in it ceased, and the income passed to sequestrators, and they were under notice to quit the parsonage. Widows with children, sisters, daughters, households were cast adrift. Nancy Woodforde, having been her uncle’s companion for twenty-three years, at the age of forty-six had to leave her home and friends, see everything sold up, and go to live with her relations in far way Somerset. The invalid Elizabeth Postlethwaite, who had grown up at Denton rectory in Norfolk where her father had been rector, and was succeeded by her brother, when he was tragically killed in a riding accident, intestate, and subsequently suspected of being deeply in debt, described in letters to her sister the arrival of the appraisers to list her brother’s personal effects, within a fortnight of his death, and the break up of her home, and the few things that she takes – the bed in the hall chamber, and the easy chair, for the room she has rented in Norwich, and the disposal of small domestic items, including one of the maids taking the linen lines for herself, for hers were rotten. She reports looking after herself for the first time in her life, and the anxieties she experienced when more and more debts of her brother’s came to light.10 William Jones, the curate of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire commented on the sad fate of the widow and daughters of the rector of Wormley, in which parish he was himself very interested.

His poor wife and three unestablished daughters (the youngest of them not very young) are, I fear, left in distressed circumstances. How must their hearts droop at exchanging their present convenient, beautiful home for a cottage. A rectory or a vicarage is but a caravanserai; for it frequently changes its inmates.11

Perhaps this was why clergy sometimes lived in houses other than their parsonage house. At least their families would be left with a roof over their heads, and would not immediately have to dispose of most of their possessions.

W. M. Jacob

Dr Jacob is archdeacon of Charing Cross in the Anglican Diocese of London. He is the author of many works on the history of the Church of England, notably in the eighteenth century, including The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century 1680-1840 (Oxford University Press, 2007)


  1. Copies can be obtained from the Assistant Secretary, Sussex Record Society, Barbican House, High Street, Lewes, BN7 1YE, at a cost of £20 (post and packing extra). 

  2. Diary of a Country Parson: The Revd James Woodforde 1758-1802, ed. James Beresford, 5 vols (Oxford University Press, 1926-31), iii-iv; for a full transcript of the diary see Diary of James Woodforde 1759-1803, 17 vols (Parson Woodforde Society, 1978-2007), vols vii-ix passim. 

  3. Chichester Diocesan Surveys 1686-1724, ed Wyn K.Ford (Sussex Record Society, 78, 1994). 

  4. Jeffrey S. Chamberlain, Accommodating High Churchmen: The Clergy of Sussex, 1700-1745 (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1997). 

  5. V. M. Chesher, ‘The Parsonage House’, in Calendar of Cornish Glebe Terriers 1673-1735, ed. R. Potts (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, NS, xix, 1974).  

  6. Norfolk Record Office, Norwich Archdeaconry Inventories: NRO, NDR ANW23 Norfolk Archdeaconry Inventories ANF11; Norwich Diocesan Registry Probate Inventories, NRO, NDR INV68-80. 

  7. W .M. Jacob, The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1840 (Oxford, 2007), pp 144-147. 

  8. NRO, NDR INV74/A148 and INV79/E37. 

  9. David G.Hey, An English Rural Community: Myddle under the Tudors and Stuarts, (Leicester University Press, 1974), p. 126.  

  10. See ‘Your affectionate and loving sister’: the correspondence of Barbara Kerrich and Elizabeth Postlethwaite 1733-1751, ed. Nigel Surry (The Larks Press, Guist Bottom, Dereham, Norfolk, 2000). 

  11. The Diary of the Revd William Jones 1771-1821, ed. O. F. Christie (London, 1929), p. 106.