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date: 02 June 2020

Parish clerkfree

  • Nicholas Temperley

A subordinate official who for many centuries played an important role in the music of an English parish church, in addition to other duties. A similar role was played in German churches by the Küster (Lat. custos). In the Middle Ages parish clerks usually belonged to minor priestly orders, and assisted the parish priest in various functions. Their musical importance was greatest in the century before the Reformation, when in the richer churches they were often at the head of a staff of full-time musicians (‘clerks’ or ‘conducts’) and sometimes were also expected to train the choristers. Something of this organization survived in some churches until about 1570, but from then on the parish clerk was left to lead the congregation alone. He was no longer in orders, he was ill-paid and his standing rapidly sank to that of a menial. The Canons of 1603 still required incumbents to appoint as parish clerk a man who had ‘competent skill in singing (if it may be)’, but this was seldom observed, and John Playford in 1671 lamented that few London parish clerks could even lead a common psalm tune properly ( see Playford family ). With the introduction of lining out the parish clerk had to read out each line of the metrical psalm before it was sung, and in some places this developed into a curious kind of chant. As time went on he was often left to choose the psalms and the tunes as well. He would announce the psalm in the traditional form, ‘Let us sing to the glory of God the –th psalm’, and in many cases the choir would have had no previous warning of his choice. Increasingly the parish clerk became a figure of fun, as Caleb Quotem in many an 18th-century farce, or as Davy Diggs in Hewlett’s The Parish Clerk (1841). Nevertheless, some parish clerks became notable church musicians – Abraham Barber at Wakefield, William Knapp at Poole, John Arnold at Great Warley, Essex, Michael Broome and James Kempson at Birmingham, all of whom published collections of church music. The parish clerk had disappeared in all but the most remote country places long before the end of the 19th century.

The Company of Parish Clerks of London, also known before the Reformation as the Fraternity of St Nicholas, dates back at least to 1233. It was incorporated by charter in 1442; the fraternity was suppressed in 1547, but the company remained, obtaining its last charter in 1640. Its powers included the right to examine every London parish clerk in the ability to sing psalms. Before the Reformation clerks had played an important part in pageants and other entertainments, and they continued to sing at the Lord Mayor’s election. Soon after 1660 the Company acquired an organ, and began fortnightly practices of psalmody which continued to 1822, when the last organist resigned. For most of this period they used Playford’s Psalms and Hymns in Solemn Musick on these occasions. The Company’s hall in Silver Street was destroyed in World War II with most of the surviving records, which are, however, described by Ebblewhite.


  • B. P[ayne]: The Parish-Clerk’s Guide (London, 2/1694)
  • J. Fox: The Parish Clerk's Vade Mecum (London, 1752)
  • L. Milbourne: Psalmody Recommended, in a Sermon Preach’d to the Company of Parish Clerks (London, 1713)
  • J.T.J. Hewlett: The Parish Clerk (London, 1841) [a novel]
  • J. Christie: Some Account of Parish Clerks (London, 1893)
  • J. Wickham Legg, ed.: The Clerk’s Book of 1549 (London, 1903)
  • P.H. Ditchfield: The Parish Clerk (London, 1907)
  • E.A. Ebblewhite: The Parish Clerks’ Company and its Charters (London, 1932)
  • H. Baillie: London Churches, their Music and Musicians (1485–1560) (diss., U. of Cambridge, 1958)
  • R.H. Adams: The Parish Clerks of London (Chichester, 1971)
  • N. Temperley: ‘John Playford and the Metrical Psalms’, JAMS , 25 (1972), 331–78, repr. in Temperley, Studies in English Church Music, 1550–1900 (Farnham, 2009), 21–68
  • N. Temperley: The Music of the English Parish Church (Cambridge, 1979), 1, 7, 44–5, 88ff, 119–20
  • N. Temperley: ‘The Old Way of Singing: its Origins and Development’, JAMS , 34 (1981), 511–44, repr. in Temperley, Studies in English Church Music, 1550–1900 (Farnham, 2009), 69–102
Journal of the American Musicological Society