An intro to Faculties @ WSRO

By Imogen Russell, Searchroom Assistant

Though it is more the norm to write blogs on individual documents, I thought I’d talk about a series of records listed under our Episcopal collection, known as faculties. Faculties are permissions from the Diocese for parish churches to alter the fabric of their buildings. As the Diocesan Record Office, we not only hold faculties for West Sussex but also for East Sussex and some Kent and Surrey border parishes as well. Most will relate to internal and external repairs, redecoration and various other alterations to the building itself, including the movement or sale of furniture, the creation of side chapels and electrical or heating installation. But they can also include reservation of grave spaces and the installation of memorial tablets.

There are several runs of Faculties in WSRO strong rooms.

This series of documents can contain other items of interest including ephemera relating to the companies involved with providing equipment or services and deeds relating to the transfer of lands involving the parish church.

I first encountered this series during closed fortnight in about 2012 when we’d taken a delivery of faculties from the Diocesan Registrar. The searchroom team began boxing them by parish (but not listing them). Largely under used, this series was mainly consulted by NADFAS or the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (otherwise the Arts Society) who would look through the papers and create a report on what sort of decorations and artwork each church had. Indeed, a few parishes have faculties relating to designs by sculptors, stained glass makers and the restoration of medieval wall paintings. A collection of the Arts Society reports have been deposited within the Record Office and references can be searched for using our online catalogue.

To provide greater access to this undervalued resource in 2017, during our closed fortnight myself and a colleague began listing uncatalogued faculties.  We are only a fraction of the way through listing the ones from 1947 – 2002 but they have already proved to be a fascinating collection to explore, not only from a church building and administrative history point of view, but also as a stepping stone for exploring family and social history.


For the family historian little gems such as reservations of grave spaces, internments of cremated remains and memorial tables can help to identify where an ancestor may have been buried. These in turn can confirm exact dates of birth and death as well as familial relationships or even the occasional character profiles of the person being memorialised such as Charles Cousens of Coldwaltham, who was described by the Churchwarden as a “Good Caretaker” looking after both the church hall and two churchyards, never missing a day for thirty years except when his wife died.

From a social history point of view it can be an intriguing exploration of events that impacted the parish or the UK as a whole. For example, the restoration of a stained glass window at Brighton St Pauls was designed as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the 1984 Brighton bombing.  The Compton war memorial references a particular incident in Irish and UK National history when it features the name of Herbert Richard Westmacott who was shot on 2nd May 1980 during an encounter with the IRA.

Sometimes faculties can be a springboard to research other historical topics for example a memorial tablet in Heathfield mentions Reverend Robert Hunt, who was the chaplain to the first colony set up in 1607 at Jamestown Virginia.

It can also be nice to see which parishes are inclusive in remembering their war casualties such as the war memorials in Battle St Marys, Boxgrove or Colgate, who mention both the men and women of the parish who lost their lives during the war. Colgate not only includes the active service personnel but also those on civil defence.

The project to list these Faculties is an extensive one, but will ultimately help to provide researchers with a valuable resource for all kinds of historical topics.

Of all the faculties listed so far, the Bosham Second World War memorial faculty is the most interesting as it highlights the idea that not all war memorials were welcomed. This particular memorial (a clock on the tower) was objected to on the grounds of its position and its relation to being viewed from the ground as well as the impact it would have had on the fabric of the Norman church. What’s interesting is not just the idea that a war memorial was objected to but that the names of the objectors were not representative of the parish as a whole, and also seems to reflect the issues that a few of the First World War memorials had; as illustrated in Keith Grieves’ chapter in Great War West Sussex (Lib 18,554).

Objections made against a parish’s faculty can tell you a lot about the way a faculty was considered. Two lever arch files for Arundel relate to one man’s objections to the churches iconography being too Catholic. The argument put forward by the parish is that the church was established in the 13th century and bound to have Catholic iconography. The objector felt he had to defend the Church of England faith as his ancestors had done before. While this seems an unusual thing to be objecting to, the seriousness considered by both parties regarding the objection gives us an insight into the process behind the churches administration. The objection would have been treated like a law case with the Chancellor, as a Judge of the Consistory Court, hearing both sides of the argument from various witnesses and eventually providing his decision regarding the outcome.

Our project is still on-going, but whether it’s family, social or church administrative history, faculties can be a useful source of information and worth considering for future reference. However, it is also worth noting that each faculty application is unique and will not always provide the same detail as the previous parish, paperwork may be missing and names may be omitted. But we can at least guarantee that they will always follow the same procedure.

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