Originally the parish was more a collection of rights than a specific area. Before the seventeenth century the parish existed for ecclesiastical purposes as the area under the jurisdiction of a clergyman with the cure of souls. With the establishment of the Elizabeth Poor Law in 1597, the parish began to acquire secular functions, in this case the relief of the poor. Parishes which existed before 1597, and which thereafter had secular as well as ecclesiastical functions, were called ‘ancient parishes’.
‘Civil Parishes” were administrative units which only had secular functions, and were commonly defined as areas for which a separate poor rate could be assessed. The existence, alteration or abolition of these units had no effect on the ecclesiastical arrangements of the locality. Many civil parishes were areas at first subordinate to a mother church which had come in time to enjoy independence, such as hamlets, tithings, townships, chapelries and liberties. If a separate Poor Law rate was levied in the subordinate unit, it could be called a ‘hamlet’, ‘township’, and so on, and/or a ‘parish’. In order to avoid confusion the 1866 Poor Law Amendment Act required that these areas should be called ‘parishes’. Many extra-parochial places had already become civil parishes in 1857.
From 1597 onwards ‘ecclesiastical parishes’ were established for purely ecclesiastical purposes. They were more numerous than civil parishes, especially when efforts were made to build new churches in urban areas where the population was increasing. Many ecclesiastically subordinate areas within parishes, such as chapelries, were raised to parochial rank, and many formed which had no previous status. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of statutory provisions allowed the creation of many different types of ecclesiastical or ‘new’ parishes. It was not unusual for a parish to be refounded to gain privileges and rights conferred by newer statutes.
Making Sense of the Census Revisited by Edward Higgs. Published by University of London in conjunction with TNA.