What can we glean from the Five Figure Files about the Ecclesiastical Commissioners?

By Arthur McLeod

As a postgraduate student studying at Queen Mary University, a facet to completing my course was to carry out a six-week placement in an archive. Lambeth Palace Library would house me for this period, where I worked with the archiving team on projects relating to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners were the forerunners of today’s Church Commissioners and were responsible for the finances of the Church of England. The projects consisted of cataloguing material relating to the development of Millbank No.1, the Commissioners’ home for the 20th century, and the dinners the Ecclesiastical Commissioners held for their tenants.

My experience at Lambeth was important to the building of my personal character, but also in understanding the role and power the archivist has. The archivist has the power to privilege or marginalise our memories of the past, and swiftly I was taught the code of practices an archivist must abide by. Alongside this, I was taught to catalogue, a job that despite its repetitious nature carries great importance accompanied by a considerable amount of care. The role was one I found stimulating and intriguing, and I thoroughly enjoyed understanding the social histories linked with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. 

The project and papers I catalogued are part of a larger series of Five Figure Files. This is the main series of records the Ecclesiastical Commissioners produced, which covers their core activities, with documents relating to property, benefice property and Ecclesiastical organisations. Histories of both a business and a social nature can be gleaned from this series, and my projects in particular conveyed this in abundance. The development of Millbank No.1 and the Commissioners’ dinners for their tenants provided a plethora of information, from petitions of residents asking the Commissioners to not support the Victoria Embankment Bill (ECE/7/1/76989/1), to conspicuous red lights above Commissioners’ doors that one Commissioner believed could be mistaken for something quite different (ECE/7/1/97172).

Minute of the Estates Committee regarding Japanese Navy
Extract of report regarding Japanese navy

Sifting through the documents is where I found the most joy; I cast a delicate eye through the collection to ensure that relevant information would be captured on the catalogue. A useful tip for any archivist is to understand the context of what you are cataloguing. I was recommended a text from Steven Hicks, titled Around 1 Millbank: A History of the Area, which provided me with the platform to best articulate what the documents were portraying. Some papers provided simply interesting information, such as documenting records relating to Captain Yoda of the Japanese Navy renting an office, and the ungallant nature it was left in (ECE/7/1/83000/1, see images above). However, other documents and files carried a contemporary tone to them. These depicted a cost of living crisis due to the Second World War and the hardships of ordinary people during this time (ECE/7/1/83173, see image below). Occasionally, it showed the empathetic nature of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners through their responses to requests, where the Commissioners would ensure the wellbeing of their tenants and staff at Millbank No. 1 (ECE/7/1/83000/2). One example of this is the Commissioners decision in 1929 to give a payment of £30 to the lift operator following his retirement (ECE/7/1/83173, see image below).

Extract from Letter regarding Millbank House cleaners asking for a wage increase
Extract from Estates Committee Minute regarding payment to lift operator.

This is just a glimpse into my placement, but also a drop in the ocean of the files I catalogued. From the architecture behind Millbank No. 1, to issues with modern technology of the time (ECE/7/1/83000/2) and the Commissioners’ avoidance of Stoke-on-Trent as a venue for their tenants’ dinners (ECE/7/1/96411/1), these files provide us with insight to how the Ecclesiastical Commissioners operated, thought and behaved. I learned and gained much from this experience, and I hope one day you will too.

Further reading:

Hicks, Steven. Around 1 Millbank: A History of the Area.

Schwartz, Joan M. and Cook, Terry. ‘Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory’, Archival Studies, 2002: 1-19.

Stenson, Jane. The modern archivist: working with people and technology. July 7, 2012. https://blog.archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/2012/07/07/the-modern-archivist-working-with-people-and-technology/. [Accessed 17th May 2023]