Church court records at the Norfolk Record Office


Nineteenth century photograph of Norwich Cathedral, held by the Norfolk Heritage Centre (ref. 723621).
Courtesy of

Church court records, more specifically the records of the Norwich Consistory Court, are probably the most salacious at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO). Before the mid-nineteenth century, church courts had jurisdiction over many aspects of life, including matrimony, probate, church taxes, sexual promiscuity, and defamation. In effect they were guardians of a person’s moral wellbeing. For this reason, their archive, especially witness statements, also known as depositions, offer an intriguing insight into everyday life. They are sure to add great interest to family and local history.

The Norfolk Record Office, with the support of its charitable partner, the Norfolk Archives and Heritage Development Foundation (NORAH), has started work to unlock the stories contained within the records, which cover the late fifteenth to the nineteenth century. And because the Diocese of Norwich covered Suffolk as well as Norfolk during most of this period, the records contain entries relating to both counties.

This blog post will introduce the records, explain why they can be so difficult to use and outline how they can be made more accessible. Other blog posts will follow, which look more closely into the records contained in the Norwich Consistory Court archive.

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‘He will have the Dance of Swing’: Norfolk’s Involvement in the Swing Riots of 1830s England

When the harsh winter of 1830 followed a poor harvest and caused reduced wages for labourers, agricultural riots spread across Norfolk and throughout the south and east of England. The labourers wanted to stop the spread of new threshing machines, which they viewed as a threat to one of their few winter employments. They targeted rich farmers, magistrates and clergymen, who received tithes (one-tenth of annual produce or labour given to the church). Threatening letters were sent, signed by a mysterious leader, ‘Captain Swing’, demanding wage rises, reduced tithes or destruction of threshing machines. One such letter, now held at the Norfolk Record Office, was sent to the Dean of Norwich Cathedral in October 1831; the cathedral owned a lot of land in Norfolk at this time. If demands were not met, the letter threatened, crowds of labourers would gather, burning hayricks and smashing agricultural machinery.

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Died in the Line of Duty – The Norwich Baedeker Raids of April 1942

Between July 1940 and August 1941 Norwich had suffered 27 bombing raids.  There then followed eight months of relative calm until Monday 27th April when the city suffered heavy losses as a result of the Baedeker raids.  The German Baedeker tourist guidebooks were used to identify bombing targets which meant that cities of historical interest were targeted.  The first Baedeker raid was on Exeter on 24 April 1942.  Norwich followed soon after with raids on the nights of Monday 27th and Wednesday 29th April.  A raid on Friday 1st May was comparatively uneventful.

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Norfolk’s New Railways: The Arguments For and Against the Introduction of Railways in 19th Century Norfolk

The First Line

The coming of the railways to Norfolk revolutionized many aspects of county life. The first railway from London to Norfolk arrived in the 1840s, when the line was opened via Wymondham and Cambridge and, from 1849, the Great Eastern Railway linked Norwich to London, with shorter journey times.

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Reading from the Archives: Out of the Mouths of Babes

For our next Reading from the Archives session, we have a special Family Friendly theme featuring documents written by children. We have once again delved into our collections to uncover the words of children from the pages of our documents, and bring them to life.

Here is a sneak peek at a couple of the documents we will be looking at during our brand new session.

Around 1855, young Moses Frosdick wrote a two sided letter (NRO, MC 392/10-11, 726X2) to his uncle in his very best joined up handwriting. He opens with a standard formal greeting:

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Cures for all!

Just over 2 years since it was first brought to the public’s attention and for most people focus is still very much on COVID 19. In the past two years we have learnt a lot about social distancing, mask wearing, and testing. Science has also brought in vaccines and new treatments. In the days of all of this advancement in medical practices it is interesting to look back at aliments and cures of the past.

In the seventeenth century people were concerned about plague. The Great Plague occurred in London in 1665-6 and spread across the country. But this wasn’t the first epidemic of plague in this century. Previous epidemics had taken place in 1603, 1625 and again in 1636- though in smaller numbers. In Norwich the outbreak of the 1666 plague could be seen in the burials of the parish register of St John Timberhill, among other Norwich parishes (NRO, PD 74/1).

Parish Register of St John Timberhill. PD 74/1
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A Sound Archiving Experience by Katie Sarginson

Discover the audio archiving journey of Katie Sarginson, who joined Norfolk Record Office’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team in 2021 for a six month internship.

“In September 2021, I was employed by Norfolk Record Office as their Sound Archive Intern for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is a project led by the British Library and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund with an aim to preserve and provide access to thousands of at-risk sound recordings from across the United Kingdom. After volunteering for the project during my final year at university, I was excited to apply and be accepted as the Sound Archive Intern at NRO – uncovering sound recordings from across the 20th and 21st centuries that were at risk of being lost. 

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Midshipman’s Log of Robert Horace Walpole 1870-1: The Start of a Life of Adventure

Robert Horace Walpole was born in 1854 and joined the Royal Navy in 1867.  This blog is an account of Walpole’s Midshipman’s log on HMS Bristol from February 1870 to January 1871.  No great adventures are recorded here; the predominant theme is officer training and the ship’s routine duties protecting British interests on the seas.

HMS Bristol was the name ship of the Bristol class of wooden screw frigates, ships that had both steam propulsion and sail.  It was also a training ship for officer cadets such as Walpole.  Captain Wilson was its commanding officer.

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