Church buildings can often be amongst the oldest, largest or most interesting structures in many areas, especially in smaller communities. They have served as a focal point for community life in centuries past and the history of a locality can be recorded through a variety of monuments, inscriptions and commemorative features (such as windows) that are commonly found in parish churches and private chapels alike.
For the local or community historian undertaking research into their local church or chapel, there are a number of primary and secondary sources that might provide clues as to the origin of particular features or the date of structural changes to the building itself.
It is often worth seeing whether anything has already been written about a church building, as a variety of primary sources may have been consulted and the information collated into a single work. Church buildings with a particularly long or eventful history may have had a specific guidebook written about them, which, if still in print, may be available to buy from the church itself. If the church has an older, out of print guidebook, a copy may be available for consultation from the local studies section at the nearest library or at the William Salt Library, which has a large collection of guidebooks and pamphlets.
Even if there is no guidebook, there may be other secondary sources of use. If the area has been covered by the Victoria County History for Staffordshire, there is usually a detailed description of the main church buildings, giving dates of construction and noting particular features. Village histories may also give some details about local church buildings, as may travel or county guides examples of which may be found at the William Salt Library. For a thumbnail sketch of a local church building – including some building dates – Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series can be a useful (if rather dated) source, a copy of which is held at Staffordshire Record Office.
In some cases, unpublished books in manuscript form or research notes may provide clues, and again there are examples of these held at the William Salt Library.
Where the secondary sources are sketchy or non-existent, then it is worth seeing whether there is any primary source material that may be of use. Records generated by the church itself – often referred to as ‘Parish Chest’ documents – may provide references to events, changes to the fabric (including extensions, demolitions and remodelling), cost of alterations and the erection or dedication of commemorative features and memorials. These records may include correspondence and miscellaneous notes, vestry minute books, parish magazines and service registers. Surviving records vary tremendously from church to church, but where records have been deposited, these will be found at Staffordshire Record Office.
Privately deposited papers
Such as diaries and letters – may contain material that makes reference to local churches, although this might not be readily apparent from catalogue descriptions. Where such material has been identified, it is worth looking on our online catalogue, Gateway to the Past, or in the paper indexes in the Reading Rooms at the archive offices.
Parish churches come under the administration of the local Diocese, which for Staffordshire parishes is that of Lichfield. The Diocesan papers may well provide a useful source for investigating a particular parish church through administrative records generated as part of the official ‘paper trail’. These include faculties for changes to the church fabric, furniture, fixtures and fittings.