The St Neots parish chest, seen above sketched by local St Neots doctor Joseph Rix (1803 -1878) has been on display in the museum since we opened in 1998 after being restored and preserved is a long-term loan from the parish church. It is an object of curiosity and for over 450 years occupied a vital place in the parish church.
In 1583 Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General, laid down that all parishes were to have a sure coffer — in other words, a secure chest, to provide a safe place in which to keep records of each christening, marriage and burial. These records were written up each Sunday after they the specific occasion with a churchwarden as a witness. Some accounts state that two or three keys were held by different people, the parson and churchwardens so that the chest could only be opened with at least two people present.
The earliest church records were written on sheets of paper, but in 1598 Canterbury directed that all records were to be kept in parchment books, which became known as the parish registers. Old records were to be transcribed into these books, and in future, the churchwarden had to make a copy of that year’s entries (within a month of Easter) and send it to the Diocesan Registry. These copies were known as the Bishop’s Transcripts.
Until the registration of births marriages and deaths became compulsory in the nineteenth century the parish registers were the main source of information about family history and until the mid-twentieth century, most were still kept in the parish church. Most records are now stored at County Record Offices.
The parish chest was also used for storing money, accounts, wills, relics, vestments, documents, and the church plate. They were strongly built, usually of oak and as well as the two, if not three separate locks they also had metal bands around them.
With so much of value likely to be stored in these chests, it is not surprising that they would become the target of thieves, and this is what happened into the St Neots chest. Although many parish chests were made of oak, often from a single trunk, the St Neots Chest is actually made of pine, and was imported from Scandinavia and has three locks.
According to several sources, the church was broken into in 1848 and the chest and all the records taken only to be found the next day in the brook with all it contents still inside.
This report leaves many questions unanswered. How did the thieves get into the church, how many of them were there and why did they abandon the chest in the Hen Brook?
The parish chest, after the records had been moved to the archives in Huntingdon, remained at the back of the church until 1998 when an audit of the church found the chest to be in bad repair and a more adequate home for the artefact was looked for. The museum was the ideal place to store the item and after restoration and preservation was moved to where it is now. You can visit the museum and see the chest on display in the village hall gallery.