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]


Dr Richard Palmer reports that during October and November the project focused on the librarianship of Claude Jenkins, 1910-1952. A clergyman and scholar, Jenkins was celebrated both for his learning and his eccentricity.

His vigorous early years at Lambeth are documented in his letter books and his reports to Archbishop Davidson. During this time the printed books in the Great Hall were re-arranged, and a new catalogue of the pamphlet collection was compiled. Extensive work was carried out on the muniment room to render it fireproof. In the Great Hall, which served as the Library’s reading room, four of the projecting bookcases were shortened to accommodate the Lambeth Conference and other smaller bookcases were introduced.

The Lambeth Conference in the Great Hall in 1930, with the truncated bookcases visible (LC 171/3)


Funding for the Library remained insufficient throughout Jenkins’ librarianship despite increases in provision by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Archbishop Longley had predicted in 1868 that the inadequate funding for the Librarian’s salary would necessitate the appointment of either a person unqualified for the post or a scholar who would supplement his income with additional employment. In 1918 Jenkins was appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical History at King’s College London and from this time he provided, at his own cost, an assistant, Irene Churchill, for the work of the Library. After 1934, when Jenkins became Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, he ran the Library by post from Oxford. The correspondence between Jenkins and his devoted assistant is amongst the more unusual files in the Library’s records (Irene Churchill addressed Jenkins as ‘Most dear Chief’, while Jenkins’ replies tended to lapse into Latin). Irene Churchill provided access and all public services in the Library with the assistance only of a boy to fetch and carry, though Jenkins complained in 1929 that the Library could not afford a boy old enough to carry the heavier books.

These arrangements were scarcely adequate to deal with the challenges of the Second World War and the bombing of the Great Hall, although Jenkins did offer his advice in the task of post-war reconstruction. It was said of Jenkins that he was not of a retiring disposition; on being winkled out of office as Librarian at the end of 1952 he secured the title of ‘Honorary Librarian’, so that, as his successor put it, ‘there were two of us’.

The project, funded by the Friends of the Library, has now catalogued 70 boxes and volumes of Library records, completing the cataloguing of this series to 1952. A guide to the records and other evidence for the history of the Library 1785-1952 should be accessible on the Library’s website early in 2017.

Disappearing Christmas Trees

Today, the catalogue of the papers of the Secretary to the Church Commissioners opens, and from it emerges a vivid picture of the Church adapting to the challenges of a post-War world. The papers cover the range of the Commissioners’ activities from their creation in 1948 to the 1980s: addressing the conditions of the clergy, interacting with other religious or government bodies and transforming the way the central Church worked. What pervades the material, however, is the Commissioners’ desire to go beyond the Church to contribute to building a better society after the destruction of the Second World War.2016-09-15-cc-sec-est-agr-2

‘A Pair of Rural Cottages’, 1946 (CC/SEC/EST/AGR/2)
A key way to influence wider society was through the management of the Commissioners’ assets, and property development was a particularly useful tool in this respect. The Commissioners’ substantial South London estates feature heavily in this archive as the aftermath of the second world war offered an opportunity for major redevelopment: discussion of the location of the public house on new estates, accessibility of accommodation for the elderly and the rules governing Sunday play on sports fields owned by the Commissioners all reflect a desire to build lasting communities that would nurture the moral character of society.

Beyond the cities, the Commissioners wrestled with bringing agricultural estates back into profitability after energy was diverted to the war effort. The difficulties facing the sector posed by shortages of material are evident in the records but, undeterred, the Commissioners drew up plans to build 600 farm cottages on their northern estates in the late 1940s and an architectural plan for the model dwellings survives in the archive. The management of forestry in particular comes through very strongly in the records, down to listing the species of tree proposed for each estate and a reflection that “it was not desirable in Durham to attempt afforestation near colliery districts because of trespass and the fact that young trees disappeared in a wholesale way at Christmas. No suitable variety of tree was immune from this raiding.” (January 1944, CC/SEC/EST/AGR/1).

Any new ventures needed to be resourced and efficiently run. The Secretary’s papers reveal the Commissioners’ growing confidence in embracing the stock market as they controversially relinquished much of their traditional land assets in favour of stock exchange securities in the 1950s. Revenue generation was one way to resource the church, but establishment expenditure also needed to be scrutinised. The need to improve office efficiency reoccurs throughout the papers right from the creation of the Church Commissioners to the questions of computerisation in the 1980s.

The archive of the Secretary to the Church Commissioners continues the story of this central Church body from the work of its two predecessors who were amalgamated to create it: the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and Queen Anne’s Bounty. The archive is held at the Church of England Record Centre and the catalogue can be searched via Lambeth Palace Library’s website by entering CC/SEC in the OrderNo box. http://archives.lambethpalacelibrary.org.uk/CalmView/