Church records

We’re often asked if we can provide archive information about churches and churchyards, such as deeds:

Unfortunately, the DAC is not a record office and we only hold old faculty application and quinquennial inspection reports, generally going back no further than the 1980s. The Property Department may hold relevant information, but this usually applies to properties outside the boundary of the churchyard held by the Diocesan Board of Finance on behalf of the PCC.

If you can’t find the answer you need in your church’s own records, you may need to approach the Suffolk Archives in Ipswich, which holds more extensive information about parishes:

Further information is available from The Church of England Record Centre in London – usually for cases where the Church Commissioners have been involved.

Parish records

There is no substitute for maintaining good records at a parish and this is one of the responsibilities of a Churchwarden. Whatever may have happened in the past, it’s never too late to start!

  • Make sure that everything is filed away clearly and properly labelled, whether it’s in hard copy or digital form (if digital please ensure it is backed up regularly to guard against failures of digital hardware.
  • It is helpful when a person leaves their Churchwarden post that they hand over the records to the successor promptly.

Dealing with disputes

Queries about records commonly arise when there is a dispute over the course or ownership of a boundary, or whether the church or a neighbouring property has responsibility for its maintenance, or else who owns a plot of land. Ownership of a boundary structure carries responsibilities. If it is causing damage to an adjoining property, then the PCC will be liable if the damage was reasonably foreseeable. That also applies to roots causing heave, falling branches or entire trees, piles of spoil in the churchyard that encroach across the boundary line and so on.

  • In the first instance, if it’s possible in the circumstances, ask the owner of the adjoining property to produce his/her deeds and get copies.
  • You may be able to get documents without involving the owner by searching the Land Registry, but only provided the land in question has been registered.

In many cases boundary disputes can’t be resolved conclusively by reference to deeds because such documents seldom exist for parishes that go back to medieval times. Instead, the starting point is a number of presumptions in property law, the first being that churches historically put up walls around their churchyards for their own benefit and to satisfy an historic duty in canon law fence off burial grounds. There are other presumptions that may be relevant eg where the boundary takes the form of a hedge and a ditch, it is assumed that the boundary line is on the edge of the ditch furthest away from the hedge.  

More modern churches and extensions to churchyards may have deeds and, where they exist, they can resolve such queries.

Detective work is often necessary to get a conclusive, legally authoritative answer, and for this you may need to engage a solicitor. The Diocesan Registrar is available to help, but will need formal instruction from the PCC to begin a search and you will be charged for the time, since this falls outside the scope of services ordinarily provided to parishes by the Diocese. You’re under no obligation to use the Diocesan Registrar,  and are free to approach any other firm willing to carry out the work.


Page last updated: Friday 17th May 2024 2:42 PM
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