English parishes date from Saxon times and can be defined as a geographical area with a church and a priest responsible for the 'cure of souls' of the people living within that area. The parish priest made his living from the payment of tithes (made compulsory in the 10th century) by the parishioners.
The earliest churches were the minster or mother churches which served a large area. A great many lesser churches were founded in the late Saxon and early Norman period by wealthy lay landowners to serve their own estates. Where the landholding was in two or more separate parcels of land the result was a parish with detached portions. Kent only has a few parishes with detached portions but in some parts of the country a map of parish boundaries is very complex.
In general terms northern England retained the minster system with very large parishes subdivided into vills (townships) most with their own chapel-of-ease church whilst in southern England the parish was often identical to the vill. The vill was the basic unit of medieval local administration responsible for royal tax collection, care of its poor and from the 14th century for peacekeeping. Thus the ecclesiatical parish and the civil parish were in most cases synonymous. Over the years some tiny parish churches became ruined and parishes merged whilst the huge 19th century population growth resulted in the division of many ancient parishes to create new ones.
The Papal Taxation of England and Wales in 1291 provides the earliest extant list of parishes, and when compared to the parish listings of the early 19th century censuses the 9,000 or so parishes remained remarkably stable during the intervening five centuries. Maps showing all the parishes covered by North West Kent Family History Society and Kent Family History Society combine to show all the 19th century parishes in Kent. Minor changes to parish boundaries came about with the General Inclosure Acts of 1801 and 1845 when boundaries across shared common land were established, by the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 which confirmed ill-definedor disputed boundaries and by the Divided Parishes Act of 1883 which placed many small detached parts of one parish into another parish which surrounded it.
Whilst the vill or civil parish was the local basis of day to day administration there was a structure of larger groupings above. The county or shire emerged in the late Saxon period as the administrative unit with a direct link to central government with the principal representative to the royal courts being the Sherriff (shire-reeve) who's role was financial, military and judicial. The countyof Kent was based on the old Jutish Kingdom of Cantium.
Below county level an intermediate grouping of vills/parishes into hundreds (in the south) and wapentakes or wards (in the north), primarily for judicial purposes, was established before the Norman conquest although the hundred boundaries were less stable than were the county boundaries. Kent was already divided into lathes which were again divided into hundreds. See map of Kent lathes and hundreds. Towns and cities with Borough status were independent of hundreds because they had their own judicial structure. Some parishes, lay partly within a borough and partly within a hundred. Strood is an example of this, Strood Intra was within the city of Rochester whilst Strood Extra was in the hundred of Shamwell.
Modern county councils were established in 1889 and were responsible for education, social services and highways. Below that were borough councils in some town areas and urban and rural district councils together with parish councils.
Care of the poor was a major part of local government; the new Poor Law of 1832 required parishes to work together in Unions and if one was not already existing each Union was to provide a workhouse rather than paying outdoor relief to its poor. When civil registration was introduced in 1937 the Registration Districts were the same as the poor-law groupings of parishes.
The 1974 re-organisation of local government created a number of district councils within a county plus unitary authorities (in major connurbations) that are independent of the county council, see map of Kent districts, and rural areas still have parish councils responsible for local amenities such as playing fields, street lighting and a village hall. See the link to Kent Parish Councils.
Although the civil parish and the ecclesiatical parish are often synonymous the organisation of ecclesiastical parishes is different. There is a nested hierachy of parishes grouped into rural deaneries which in turn are grouped into archdeaconries, then dioceses and then provinces. Kent is unusual in that it contains two dioceses whilst most other dioceses cover more than one single county. Canterbury diocese, which is the premier see in England, covers the eastern two thirds of the county and Rochester diocese covers the western part of Kent and extends into London.
For family history purposes the major, non-theological, rôle of the church authorities was in the proving of wills, pre-1885. If the testator held property in just one archdeaconry then his will was probably proved in that Archdeaconry Court or if he had property across two archdeaconries in the next higher court, the Consistary (diocese) Court. If he held property in two dioceses his will was proved in the Prerogative court of Canterbury (PCC) or York (PCY) with the PCC being the senior of the two. This is a very simplified overview of early probate; many wills were proved in higher courts than strictly necessary for a variety of reasons. Also there were many parishes which were exempt from archdeaconry and diocesan jurisdiction. In Rochester diocese 38 parishes were in the exempt deanary of Shoreham whilst Cliffe was a 'peculiar' parish able to prove its own wills.
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