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]

The Archbishop as Visitor

The ‘Archbishop as Visitor’ subfonds (Order No: ‘VV’) is a rich resource as to the government of institutions—such as universities, colleges, schools, hospitals or charity foundations—from the 16th to 20th centuries. Descriptions of its contents are now available online for the first time on our online catalogue, CalmView: VV online.

A ‘visitor’ is appointed to an institution to ensure it is administered according to its foundation charter or statutes. They are the ultimate authority for deciding disputes within the foundation and amending the statutes if necessary. Archbishops of Canterbury have been appointed visitors to institutions, sometimes individually or by reason of their office (ex officio), different examples of which can be seen below.

The series is divided into 4 parts, each representing a type of institution: universities (VV I), schools (VV II), clergy training colleges and missions (VV III) and hospitals (VV IV).

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Universities

The majority of the records in VV concern the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, where the archbishops’ duties are often concerned with the appointments of college officials (such as wardens, fellows and scholars), and appeals made against their decisions.  

Red wax seal of All Souls College in metal skippet, detached from document. The images on the left and right show the seal in raking light (VV I/4/8/13)

All Souls College in Oxford, for example, was founded in 1437 by Archbishop Henry Chichele, who named his successors as visitors of the college. The Library’s records concerning All Souls span across three centuries of archbishoprics (1636­-1952), which is reflected in their material diversity. Many still maintain their original red wax seals, in which Archbishop Chichele (right) kneels in the company of Henry VI (the college’s co-founder) to the left, before the Christ of the Last Judgment, as can be seen from the souls of the deceased scrambling in the lower central portion.[1]

One of the most attractive parchment items that falls within the All Souls subseries is the pedigree of William Harrington (dated 1681), which features a portrait of the reigning monarch, Charles II. The document certifies that Harrington was related to Henry Chichele meaning that, as the founder’s kin, his application to the college would be looked upon more kindly.  

A charter with red seal at the bottom, with a portrait of Charles II

Pedigree of William Harrington, 1681 (VV I/4/2a item 5)

Some college papers include information on appeals and Visitations that record troubled times in their histories, including details of their financial mismanagement. The collection of papers tacked and rolled together below concern a Visitation of Exeter College in 1674-75. No longer in the tangled and illegible state they were when first presented for cataloguing, they are now reading room ready thanks to the work of our collections care team. The Visitation was called at a time of severe financial trouble for Exeter, and concluded that too much was being spent unnecessarily whilst the accounts were not being kept to a high enough standard.[2] Further details of the scandal are contained within.

Papers concerning a Visitation to Exeter College, 1674-75 (VV I/6), before cleaning (left, closed) and after (right, open)

The Archbishops’ other roles

Not all of the records in VV concern the archbishop’s exercise of his visitorial powers. Some relate to his duties from another role, such as trustee or elector. VV I contains application materials for Oxford Professorships to which the archbishop has been an elector, namely the Chichele Chair of Modern History and the Savilian Chairs of Geometry and Astronomy. A printed notice calling for applications to the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy from 1861 (below) includes minimum requirements that are in high contrast to the recruitment specifications of today’s academic posts.

Notice of the Advertisement for the Savilian Professorship of Geometry

Advertisement for the Savilian Professorship of Geometry, 1861 (VV I/11/4)

VV IV: The Archbishop as Visitor to Hospitals

As with the University materials above, the other three subseries contain a great deal of information on appointments, admissions, appeals, and Visitations to their institutions. One of the most substantial bodies of records in VV IV, however, comes in the form of petitions for indweller’s places at hospitals founded by archbishops: St John Northgate and St Nicholas Harbledown in Canterbury, and Whitgift’s Hospital of the Holy Trinity in Croydon. In the hundreds, most are printed petitions that leave spaces for the applicant’s personal information to be filled in by hand. Some only include their name, parish and age, but the later examples are more extensive (see below), including information on their familial ties, occupation, income and the length of time they have been attending Communion. Together, these extensive details provide a rich resource on the lives of the lay community in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury with handwritten answers

Petition of William Swain for an indweller’s place at Whitgift’s Hospital of the Holy Trinity, Croydon, 1906 (VV IV/9/2/136)

Similar in subject are the applications to Bromley College, founded in 1666 to provide accommodation for the widows of clergymen. Alongside the manuscript applications are some unexpected items, including a touching letter to Archbishop Moore dated to 1793 in which the widows thank him for the comfort of their housing. Underneath the carefully written note are the elegant signatures of 14 widows, providing a rare moment in early archives where so many women’s names feature together, independent of a male counterpart and in their own hand.  

A manuscript letter from the Widows of Bromley, with a list of signatures

Letter from the widows of Bromley College to Archbishop Moore, 1793 (VV IV/2/5/13)

[1] A full description of the seal is found in ‘All Souls College’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H. E. Salter and Mary D. Lobel (London, 1954), pp. 173-193. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol3/pp173-193 [accessed 22 February 2023].

[2] The results of the Visitation are summarised in the Register of Exeter College, Vol II, entry dated 9 January 1675 (Exeter College Archives, reference EC/2/1/2).

Francis Carolus Eeles

Francis Carolus Eeles (1876-1954) was an Anglican liturgical scholar and ecclesiastical historian, contributing throughout his life to the preservation of British churches and their contents. He was also a significant donor to Lambeth Palace Library, leaving the institution around two thousand printed and manuscript books. (Portrait of Eeles in 1944, FCE/MISC/11)

Portrait of Eeles in 1944,  FCE/MISC/11

Eeles demonstrated his interests in ecclesiastical history throughout his long and active life. He was born in London in 1876, the only child of his parents Francis and Isabella. The elder Francis supervised Eeles’s early studies, which involved many trips around the country to look for noteworthy antiquities; Lambeth Palace Library holds many of the resultant drawings and writings in its archives. This juvenilia, which Eeles created between the ages of nine and thirteen, demonstrates a precocious interest in ecclesiastical and architectural history, and a similarly precocious artistic and scholarly ability.

Left image: Illustrations of medieval crosses in Cornish churchyards, 1888, FCE/JUV/7/1. Right image: Illustration of St. Dubricius in the parish of Porlock, c. 1887, FCE/JUV/2

Eeles and his family settled in Kincairdshire during his mid-teens, and he intended to enrol at Aberdeen University as soon as he was able. However, despite his obvious academic prowess, Eeles was unable to pass the mathematics sections of the multi-disciplinary entrance exams required for universities in the late nineteenth century. Regardless of this initial disappointment, he was determined in his work and studies. Amongst other scholarly achievements in Scotland, he became the Honorary Librarian of the Aberdeen Diocesan Library in the late 1890s and delivered the Rhind Lectures for the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland in 1915, his chosen subject being “The liturgy and ceremonial of the medieval church in Scotland”, which was subsequently published as a book. He also participated in church life more directly, having been licensed as a Lay Reader by the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney in 1903.

Advertisement for Eeles's Rhind Lectures, FCE/MISC/12/11
Advertisement for Eeles’s Rhind Lectures, FCE/MISC/12/11

Eeles moved with his wife Mary and widowed mother Isabella to London and joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum, cataloguing liturgical manuscripts and vestments. During this time, Eeles participated in discussions with Bishop Gore, Dean Ryle and Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, who was then the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, about creating a new protective system for English churches. Eeles had long been passionate about the preservation of church buildings, having watched some renovators unknowingly destroy a medieval mural painting in a church in Selworthy when he was 13 years old.  The resultant organisation would go on to become the Central Council for the Care of Churches (CCCC), and Eeles would channel his enthusiasm into his role as Secretary from 1917. This organisation still exists today, although it has been named the Church Buildings Council since it merged with the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England in 2007. Since its inception, it has worked with and advised churches and dioceses on the care, conservation and development of church buildings. Eeles was incredibly active as Secretary, visiting all corners of England by train and bicycle to attend committee meetings and offer advice. He worked on a completely voluntary basis until 1926, when he accepted a salary.

Around the time that Eeles was founding what would become the CCCC, his mother became a member of the Church Crafts League, producing traditional embroidery for the church. Images of her work can be found in H5013.C72 [P], where she is included in the Lists of Artists and Craftsmen of the Church Crafts League.

Church Crafts League, List of artists and craftsmen, [1920], H5013.C72 [P]
Church Crafts League, List of artists and craftsmen, [1920], H5013.C72 [P]

Throughout his life, Eeles contributed to an astonishing number of societies and clubs; amongst many others, he was a Fellow of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries; the Secretary of the Henry Bradshaw Society (for editing rare liturgical texts), a member of the College of Counsel of Liverpool Cathedral; a member of the Council of the Alcuin Club (for preserving and restoring church ceremony); and helped to found the Warham Guild (to create church ornaments and vestments according to agreed standards).

Eeles’s work as a liturgist and liturgical scholar ran alongside his work with the CCCC and various Societies. On some occasions, he wrote full liturgies for churches and cathedrals, such as the development of a Holy Communion service for St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 1944. He also played an equally significant role as advisor for others revising their liturgies, engaging in extended correspondence with a huge number of people. His letters, held in Lambeth Palace Library archives and available for consultation on request, reveal his expertise, enthusiasm and generosity on the topic. He advised his correspondents on all liturgical matters, from practical consultation on how to design a church service to the theological and historic implications of various styles of church service. He appears to have by nature been a traditionalist in liturgical matters, greatly valuing the most ancient forms of service as invoking the memory of centuries.

His letters further demonstrate a knowledge of subjects including, but not exclusive to: bibliography; early modern manuscripts; church music; archaeology; natural history; church architecture; and church decoration.

In 1937, Eeles received a Lambeth Degree from Archbishop Lang, and was also honoured with an O.B.E.

Letters patent for Eeles's Lambeth degree, FCE/MISC/16
Letters patent for Eeles’s Lambeth degree, FCE/MISC/16

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Eeles devoted himself to the preservation of London churches and their contents from the destruction of the Blitz, organising the safe transfer of church ornaments and other items to safe locations in Somerset, where he lived. He also stored records of various institutions, plate from some synagogues, and other assorted treasures. In addition, he appealed for photographs of churches in order to organise their repairs in case of bomb damage. Eeles’s contribution to the preservation of historical ecclesiastical monuments in England therefore difficult to truly comprehend.

In his later years, Eeles continued to travel around Britain as much as he could. He was given an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews in recognition of his work for Scottish ecclesiology, which he had continued to carry out in the years since his move to England.

Eeles’s Collections

During his life, Eeles collected a huge number of manuscript and printed books, including incunabula. These books further demonstrate the fascination with all aspects of communal worship in the Anglican church that he showed throughout his life, covering churches and cathedrals, various   forms and styles of liturgy, church music and musical instruments, and ceremonial ornaments and vestments.

The following are some examples of manuscript books from Eeles’s collection:

Left image: Horae (Book of Hours), early 16th century, MS 1508. Right image: Pontificale (A collection of benedictions and other liturgical writings) c. 1522, MS 1509

The following are examples of particularly interesting printed books from Eeles’s collection. The first is a volume titled Tractatus de horis canonicis dicendis, by Johannes Mösch, published in 1489. The title page and text block both show extensive manuscript annotations, including manicules and symbols. Eeles did not remove such annotations, as some collectors tended to, leaving researchers with extra provenance information such as custodial history and an indication of how the book was used.

Johannes Mösch, Tractatus de horis canonicis dicendis [1489] [ZZ]1489.1

The second is a Missale Romanu[m] printed in Venice in approximately 1510. It is printed in red and black and is illustrated throughout with hand-coloured woodcut images. The two images below show a double-paged spread from the middle of the book, which is decorated with scenes from the life of Christ and the Apostles. Again, a manuscript annotation is visible in the middle of the second page.

Catholic Church. Missale Romanu[m]. Venice, [1510]. H2015.A2 1510 [**]

Eeles's bookplate
Eeles’s bookplate, which identifies his books in the collections of Lambeth Palace Library

Eeles gave some instructions for the bequeathing of his collection after his death. However, the correspondence with various institutions, final decision-making, and logistical arrangements were all carried out by his personal secretary, Judith Scott, who also went on to take his place as secretary for the CCCC. Lambeth Palace Library was fortunate to receive the bulk of the collection, but the rest was divided between a further 24 institutions (such as national museums, universities, cathedral libraries and county libraries) and 10 individuals. This required an enormous amount of work from Judith Scott and took her over three years to complete; Lambeth Palace Library and many other institutions are greatly indebted to her efforts. 

An expression of gratitude to Judith Scott from the librarian at the time, FCE/MISC/21
An expression of gratitude to Judith Scott from the librarian at the time, FCE/MISC/21

Eeles and Coronations

Eeles observed four coronations in his lifetime and found them to be of great interest. He collected memorabilia from the coronation of Edward VII, which is now stored in the archives of Lambeth Palace Library:

Left image: One of several photographs of the inside of Westminster Abbey at the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, MS 1545 f. 12. Right image: A service for churches around the country to use on the day of the coronation of Edward VII. Eeles leant this to the Bishop of Liverpool when he was writing a similar service for the coronation of George VI, MS 1545 f. 19.

Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 was the first British coronation in 64 years, and the first in many people’s memory. Appreciating the rise in public interest, Eeles published a book titled The English coronation service: its history and teaching. His last publication, in 1952, was a re-issue of this book for the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II as The coronation service: its meaning and history.

Eeles, Francis Carolus. The coronation service: its meaning and history. London, 1953. KA114.L5E3

As we approach the first British coronation in a record-breaking 70 years, we can only wonder how Eeles might have contributed to, or commented on the ceremony. In modern Britain, perhaps he would hope that a ceremony of this scale would be accessible and inclusive, whilst remaining true to centuries of tradition, and for all those who watch it to recognise its importance.



FCE/C/V/12 – Correspondence with Provost of St Edmundsbury on ceremonial at Bury.

FCE/JUV/2 – Notebook

FCE/JUV/7/1 – ‘Churches and Ecclesiastical and other Antiquities near Penzance’

FCE/MISC/11 – Photographs of F. C. Eeles

FCE/MISC/12/3 – Memoir of Dr Eeles by Judith D. G. Scott – revised and retyped

FCE/MISC/12/4 – Copy of list of Dr Eeles’s committee memberships

FCE/MISC/12/11 – Rhind Lectures in Archaeology in Connection with The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

FCE/MISC/12/14 – Material regarding Eeles’s Lambeth Degree

FCE/MISC/16 – Lambeth degree

FCE/MISC/21 – Correspondence regarding the dispersal of Dr Eeles’s papers, books, manuscripts and other items

MS 1508

MS 1509

MS 1545

Printed books:

Catholic Church. Missale Romanu[m] […]. Venice, [1510]. H2015.A2 1510 [**]

Eeles, Francis Carolus. The coronation service: its meaning and history. London, 1953. KA114.L5E3

Mösch, Joannes. Tractatus de horis canonicis dicendis. [Augsburg], [1489]. [ZZ]1489.1

Reconstructing a medieval volvelle

Within a 15th century almanac in Lambeth Palace Library (MS 454) is a set of rotatable disks sewn together at their centre and attached to a manuscript page. This calculating device is called a ‘volvelle’, a word that comes from the Latin volvere, meaning ‘to turn’. With it in hand, the medieval reader could track the movements of the Sun and Moon and use their relative positions to predict the timing of certain events, such as the lunar phases.[1]

For librarians and archivists, devices such as this – which by definition are meant to be rotated – raise difficult questions about their care. Namely, how can we balance their accessibility while preserving them for future researchers? In 2022, members of Lambeth Palace Library’s archives, conservation and reprographics teams took a closer look to learn more about the volvelle and find a solution.

Lambeth Palace Library’s volvelle (MS 454, fol. 26r)

The volvelle in MS 454, like many others that survive in 15th century almanacs, is a lunar volvelle, named so because when the top disk is turned a circular aperture reveals the shape of a shining, golden Moon that waxes and wanes according to the positioning of the disks. Although it is similar to other volvelles of this kind (see another 15th century English example from the British Library below), our inspection revealed unique features that needed careful consideration before making any decisions about its handling.

First, while there are four functional parts to the volvelle (each of which can be viewed separately here), these together are made up from eight separate layers of parchment. Some volvelles have additional pointers to carry out other calculations, such as the below example in Chetham’s Library which has seven arms that relate to the planets. The extra disks in our volvelle are instead for reinforcement. By layering the parchment components on top of one another, the disks are made more durable.[2]  

Left: Volvelle in LPL, MS 454, showing the eight separate disks (the calendar disk is also reinforced)
Right: Manchester, Chetham’s Library, MS A.4.99 (England, 15th century)

Second, the movement of the disks in MS 454 is limited. Most volvelles are sewn in such a way that the disks can (with care) be turned in a full circle. The method of the disks’ attachment in MS 454, however, means they cannot move beyond a certain point without snapping the string or, worse yet and more likely, damaging the parchment. This is probably due to the replacement of the thread, which seems to be a modern intervention.

We therefore needed to find a way that readers could better understand how the volvelle worked without manually turning the disks. Our team came up with two solutions.

  1. A facsimile. Anyone who comes to look at MS 454 will be offered use of a facsimile where the disks fully turn.
  2. An animation that shows each of the disks moving independently (see below).

In both, the shape of the Moon (seen through the circular window) changes according to the positioning of the disks. Capturing this wonderful feature presented a challenge. In order to show exactly how the shape of the Moon changes we needed to recreate the appearance of the middle component—the ‘solar disk’—which is sewn tightly between two other disks. To do this without taking the volvelle apart required the combination of a few different photography techniques, which Susie Hilmi (creator of the animation) explains on her website: Susie Hilmi – Medieval Volvelle – Project at Lambeth Palace Library (myportfolio.com)

The asymmetrical ‘heart’

The outcome is not only a fun and functional animation, but also a rare glimpse at the appearance of the ‘heart’ of a solar disk – the part of a lunar volvelle used to simulate the phases of the Moon. Whereas we know what printed versions of these disks look like as many were made for the reader to assemble themselves (see examples here), those of manuscript volvelles are only ever seen if the device is disassembled or damaged, as shown by the example below. Through a combination of techniques, we discovered an unexpected asymmetrically to the ‘heart’ of Lambeth’s volvelle, revealing new insights into the manuscript that we would not have gained by inferring its appearance from other examples.[3]

Left: Solar disk of MS 454 with asymmetrical ‘heart’
Right: Volvelle without its top disk in British Library, Egerton MS 2572, f. 51r (© The British Library Board) 

Resources (available online)

Susie Hilmi, ‘Medieval Volvelle – Project at Lambeth Palace Library’ (2022): https://susiehilmi36ae.myportfolio.com/projects

Suzanne Karr Schmidt, ‘Flaps, Volvelles, and Vellum in Pre-Modern Movable Manuscript and Print’, in Proceedings of POP-APP. International Conference on the description, conservation and use of movable books (2022), available online: https://doi.org/10.57579/2022JIB001SKS

Timothy J. Mitchell, Binding the Heavens: Deconstructing the Lunar Volvelle (2018):http://astrolabeproject.com/downloads/volvelle/deconstructing_the_lunar_volvelle.pdf
The project includes an interactive volvelle simulation : www.astrolabeproject.com/sim/lunarvolvelle/sim.html

Sarah Werner, ‘Constructing volvelles’, Folger Shakespeare Library website (2014): www.folger.edu/blogs/collation/constructing-volvelles/

Other volvelles shown

Like what you see here? Why not  take a look at Newberry Library’s exhibition ‘Pop-Up Books through the Ages(March 21—July 15, 2023)

[1] For different uses of the lunar volvelle, see Timothy J. Mitchell, Binding the Heavens: Deconstructing the Lunar Volvelle (2018): http://astrolabeproject.com/downloads/volvelle/deconstructing_the_lunar_volvelle.pdf

[2] For other examples of volvelle reinforcement using parchment, see Suzanne Karr Schmidt, ‘Flaps, Volvelles, and Vellum in Pre-Modern Movable Manuscript and Print’, in Proceedings of POP-APP. International Conference on the description, conservation and use of movable books (2022), available online: https://doi.org/10.57579/2022JIB001SKS

[3] For the two shapes used to simulate the phases of the Moon in lunar volvelles, see Mitchell, Binding the Heavens: Deconstructing the Lunar Volvelle, p. 10.

Back to the future: the Church Commissioners’ first computer

The mid-1960s saw huge developments in computing, as technology moved on from vacuum tubes and discrete transistors to the integrated circuit, allowing the development of what became known as mainframe computers. Combined with ‘Moore’s law’ – the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles around every two years – these developments meant that the capabilities and possible applications of computers exploded from this time onwards. It was in this environment in 1966 that the Church Commissioners decided to purchase a computer, the process of which is recorded in the meeting papers of the General Purposes Committee recently added to the online archives catalogue.

Tenders were received from International Computers and Tabulators (I.C.T.) and National Cash Register Company for a suitable system, with the I.C.T. tender proposing the implementation of work being carried out on the computer proceeding in three phases, starting with payroll before progressing to estates and then fund accounting. A British I.C.T. 1901 model was ordered from International Computers Ltd (I.C.L.) and installed on 1st January 1968, at a cost of £64,900 (equivalent to £875,000 in 2022).[1] An introductory guide for staff describes how the computer consisted of five units: a Paper Tape Reader (speed 300 characters/second), a Central Processor (16,000 words of core storage; ‘consists of transistors and a very large number of wires’), a Four-tape Magnetic Tape Unit (speed 20,800 characters/second), a Line Printer (speed 300 lines/minute), and a Typewriter Console. The first four of these units were each 5’ high and 5’ long, and as can be seen in the photographs (these are currently accession number C-2014-18), early third-generation computers filled a whole room.[2]

The British I.C.T. 1901 computer in operation

Despite this, the guide describes the computer as ‘a comparatively small installation, but nevertheless highly efficient and capable of carrying out all the accounting and statistical work that we have. It will affect our work in varying degrees, largely by eliminating much that is routine and tedious …  How does it work? Basically, in exactly the same way as we do, except that it works very much faster, uses binary code, very rarely makes a mistake and never gets tired.’

There were five elements to the computing activities:

  1. Input – reading punched paper tape and converting it to magnetic impulses using binary code.
  2. Processing – taking the converted data and performing defined processes.
  3. Storage – on magnetic tapes, each 2,400’ in length and holding 16 million characters; one reel held the equivalent of 25 novels and could be read and recorded by the Magnetic Tape Unit in 12.5 minutes; it was anticipated 100 reels would be needed.
  4. Output – the Line Printer.
  5. Control – a master program Executive occupied 2,000 words of core storage on the Central Processor and allocated memory and peripherals as needed.

To operate the new computer the Church Commissioners were aware of the need to recruit new staff and retrain others. To be recruited were a Systems analyst, to get down on paper in complete detail and correctly in sequence every stage of the operation, and a Programmer, to write out the instructions for the computer to carry out its operations using the COBOL (common business-oriented language) programming language. Staff being reassigned to computer work were to undergo training courses lasting up to four weeks to provide another Systems Analyst, two more Programmers, and two or three Computer Room Operators, as well as Punch Operators and Verifiers required to convert figures and information onto paper tape, and a Clerical Section for checking, editing, and control of documents to be fed into computer.

The records show that by December 1971 the computer was already being used for a wide range of functions, but the General Purposes Committee was asked to approve the purchase of discs (considered more flexible and offering faster processing and access to information, as well as access to new programs), a fast printer (the existing printer was said to be ‘extremely slow’ and insufficient for future needs, while a new printer would eliminate the need for shift work), and a more powerful central processor.[3]  These upgrades were estimated to cost £75,000 in 1971 – equivalent to £835,000 in 2022.

However, a July 1975 report notes increasing trouble with the computer’s central processor and the magnetic tape units, and given that ‘most of the financial and statistical work of the office is now handled by the computer and it is no exaggeration to say that this aspect of the work of the Commissioners, particularly the work connected with clergy stipends and pensions, could not be undertaken without the help of a computer’, it was considered necessary to seek a major upgrade.  This was to include using discs rather than magnetic tape to allow ready access, and the possible introduction of Visual Display Units (VDUs) to show information contained on these discs.  The report recommends upgrading to a 1901T system (60,000 words core storage), a three-disc unit (capacity of 180m characters), a two-magnetic tape unit (80,000 characters/second), VDUs and a printer, and a new input system to replace the hole punching paper tape system.[4]  The cost of this major upgrade in 1976 was said to be £270,000 – equivalent to a staggering £1,603,000 in 2022.

Magnetic tape reels being arranged for use in the computer

By 1980, the list of work handled by the computer was impressive:

  • Clergy and Staff pay, involving PAYE and National Insurance contributions.
  • Register of clergy incomes from all sources.
  • Clergy and Clergy Widows’ pension payments.
  • Church property and investment mortgages.
  • Parsonage building and improvement funds.
  • Corn Rents.
  • Records relating to each of the Commissioners’ c.17,000 properties.
  • Clergy Register.
  • Diocesan stipends funds.
  • Preparation and recording of cheques issued and cashed (c.200 per day).
  • Renting use of computer to Investment Office.

However, following a 12-month review, a report concluded the computer was reaching the end of its useful economic life: it was no longer able to handle the workload (due to age and lack of processing power), new computers offered better access and editing functions via VDUs (known as an ‘on-line system’), heads of department viewed a new ‘on-line system’ as offering savings in manpower and stationery costs, and the systems originally designed were out of date and needed to be re-written.[5]

Rather than upgrade the existing computer, the decision was made to purchase one of the new, more advanced models from the varied range offered by ICL by this time. It was thought that this would limit the need for error-prone batch processing of data, allow immediate access to information via VDUs and make it possible to have VDUs in multiple buildings, lead to improved job satisfaction as the perceived control of data resides with the user rather than the computer, and, since data would be easier to update, eliminate reliance on out-of-date information. This would cost £346,000 in 1980 – equivalent to £1,308,000 in 2022.

The Church Commissioners commitment to information technology at an early date is admirable, even if the sums being spent seem outlandish today.  In a modern office, where everyone works on a laptop accessing shared drives and connected to the internet, it’s easy to forget how far computing technology has come and to take for granted the ubiquity of computers now.

[1] Equivalent prices throughout have been calculated using: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator [Accessed 14/02/2023].

[2] CC/GPC(68)MTG2.

[3] CC/GPC(71)MTG8.

[4] CC/GPC(75)MTG7.

[5] CC/GPC(80)MTG6.