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]

Item of Interest: Home Words and Homely Dogs

This month’s Item of Interest post comes from former library intern Alex Keane, who has sniffed out a shaggy dog tale.

Within the Lambeth Palace Library collections, there are countless references to some of the most famous people in history, including Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer, and Mary Queen of Scots. However, as it turns out, Lambeth Palace Library represents not just famous humans, but also famous canines. We present to the reader, Oriel Bill.

Dog 1

Home Words, Standon and High Cross, 1898, p. 156.

Oriel Bill was Oriel College, Oxford’s bulldog at the end of the 19th Century. The first photograph (above) shows Bill after passing an exam, and the second (below) unfortunately depicts a later failure. While we are not sure what grade Bill ultimately achieved, there are more pictures of him to be found online dressed as a judge, so it can be assumed that this particular failure didn’t set him back too much at least.

Dog 2These photographs were found in the Standon and High Cross edition of Home Words for Heart and Hearth, published in July 1898. Lambeth Palace Library is currently in the process of cataloguing a huge collection of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century parish magazines from across the UK. Each one contains a fascinating insight into rural religious life, with beautiful illustrations to help convey a message of family values, agricultural education and new technology, reflecting the intended readership. For more information on this project, please look at the previous Item of Interest blog post: Local perspective – parish magazines, their writers and readers.

The photographs of Oriel Bill were taken by James Soame, who once lived where the Oriel College Rhodes Building now stands in Oxford, before becoming one of the founding members of the Gillman & Soame photography company. As a model for Soame, Oriel Bill stands in the illustrious company of the royal family – not too bad for a dog.

Home Words, Standon and High Cross, 1898

Item of Interest: A local perspective – parish magazines, their writers and readers

This month’s Item of Interest post comes from Niamh Delaney (Library Assistant), who has been working on the parish magazines collection.


Thanks in large part to the generous donations of a good friend of the Library, Cliff Webb, Lambeth Palace Library boasts an enviable collection of parish magazines. Dating largely from the late 19th and early 20th century, these brief publications were produced monthly for and by the members of a parish. Whilst content differs from one parish to the next, in general the style and substance of each reflects the character and concerns, as well as the resources, of the areas in which they were produced. Most routinely they include details of births, marriages and deaths within the parish, as well as religious articles, calendars, church and other local notices. The collection covers the full length of the country, with parishes from Aberdeenshire to Cornwall – as well as churches in Ireland, Ceylon, America and Hong Kong. As hinted by a contributor to the January 1890 edition of the Abbotsham Parish Magazine, it is not hard to see how these publications offer a rich resource for researchers in a variety of fields:

Kept, as they may very easily be, and bound up at the end of the year in a handy little volume, these magazines may, in years to come, prove of the greatest interest. They make up in fact, a simple history of the life of the parish, and many amongst us, who may be spared to live, will often turn over the leaves of such a book, and recall, we trust, with ever-growing thankfulness, memories of the past…

Often just a few pages in length, the survival of these publications owes much to the fact that they were regularly bound together into more durable annual volumes at the end of the year. In many instances these volumes were further bolstered by the inclusion of national ‘insets’: more substantial, nationally circulated monthly magazines, which contain a wider range of general interest material – from recipes and gardening tips, to poetry and stories, clergy biographies, church history, and articles on wildlife and foreign lands.

From this combination of local and national content it is possible to garner much about the parochial life of the readers and the wider interests and values that impacted upon those lives. This glimpse into past lives is made all the more intimate by the marks these readers left behind. As well as written inscriptions and hand-coloured images, the parish magazines within the Lambeth collection have been found to contain a range of objects laid-in – from postage stamps and pressed flowers, to cut-out images and programmes.





Judging by the inscriptions, parish magazines were most often owned by women and children, and were regularly given as gifts or Sunday school prizes, often years after their original publication. These marks then, might suggest that these were highly valued possessions, perhaps because they offered their owners a means by which to identify themselves as readers and members of a community, whilst simultaneously opening a window on the wider world.

Library staff are currently in the process of cataloguing and processing these items to make them more easily accessible. In the meantime, we encourage anyone interested in learning more about our parish magazines collection to email at archives@churchofengland.org.


Platt, Jane. Subscribing to faith?: the Anglican parish magazine, 1859-1929, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.