Church Briefs

If you’ve been delving through lists of parish deposits in your local record office, you may have come across a reference to ‘briefs’ or ‘church briefs’ before. Now, this has nothing to do with holy underwear, and everything to do with monetary collections towards a worthy cause.

We’ve been collecting for worthy causes for centuries, and briefs were a way for people to raise money for the rebuilding or repair of their church, or for damage after a natural disaster. In his book ‘The Parish Chest’, W.E. Tate states that briefs originated in the 13th century, but the most prolific period for collections was the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, when mentions are found in parish registers or separate brief books.

In order to obtain a brief, you had to apply to the reigning monarch, who, if successful, would grant Letters Patent for the appeal to be made. The brief would then be read out in churches, and a collection made after the service. The money would be given to an authorised travelling collector or handed over during the Bishop’s visitation.

Individually, the briefs themselves are detailed and give information about the reasons which led to its creation. This one, for example, is from the parish records of Hapton in Norfolk, and tells us of a fire in Little Waltham, Essex. We’re told about unfortunate widow Elizabeth Surry and her son James, who “by which dreadful Calamity they were reduced from comfortable Circumstances to great Difficulty and Distress” as a result of a fire that broke out in their yard and consumed a barn, goods, chattels, effects and property. This printed example is from 1815.

PD 236-34 - LW Fire top

Norfolk Record Office (NRO), PD 236/34

St George Tombland in Norwich is one parish who had its own Brief Book, begun in 1757. On the first page, the title ‘An Account of the Money Collected upon Briefs in St George’s Tombland Parish, in Norwich’ heads the page, and there follows a list of places in need, including Salop (Shropshire), Cheshire, Caernarvonshire, Sussex, Staffordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.

PD 106-54 - Front page St Geo Tombland

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

It’s interesting, although perhaps not too surprising, that payments to churches in other parts of the country generally collected fewer donations than those for natural disasters or causes closer to home. This is nicely demonstrated on the page below, where the biggest payment by far is for a fire at Palling in Norfolk. The hash sign next to the word Palling, as seen below, indicates that the collection was made door to door.

PD 106-54 - Palling fire

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

The system of briefs was far from perfect. It was open to corruption, with letters patent sometimes being forged, and the monies collected not always making it back to the original cause. People also became weary of being asked for donations, and Samuel Pepys commented on this in his diary entry of 30 June 1661, where he wrote “To church where we observe the trade of briefs is come now up to so constant a course every Sunday, that we resolve to give no more to them.”

This ‘register of briefs’ from the parish of St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich covers some of the same period as the aforementioned book for St George Tombland, and it’s interesting to note the collections from around the same, for the same events. In these examples, a fire in London in the Savoy district, which started in a printer’s warehouse in 1776/7, and payments to colleges in America around the time of the start of the American Revolution in 1763.

Savoy fire

NRO, PD 499/33, St Mary in the Marsh. NRO, PD 106/54, St George Tombland

Colleges in America

NRO, PD 499/33, St Mary in the Marsh. NRO, PD 106/54, St George Tombland

The Church Building Society was founded in 1818 and continued the work that had been formally financed by briefs. However in 1828, an act abolished the brief system. Collections were still made for worthy causes, and sometime noted in the same register, as shown in the St George Tombland example below.

PD 106-54 - No longer brief - Distressed families of soldiers and sailors - 19 pounds

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

The Norfolk Record Office holds a number of brief books, registers of briefs and briefs themselves in many different collections, and these can be found by searching our online catalogue, NROCAT.

Compiled by Claire Bolster, NRO staff member (written May 2017).

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