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View of St Saviour, Southwark, 1811.

​St Saviour, Southwark, 1811.

William Ingram, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, and Alan H Nelson, Professor of English at the University of California (Berkeley), have created a database of the sacramental token books of the parish of St Saviour, Southwark. Listing the names of all heads of household in the parish between the 1570s and 1643, these documents are unique, and this electronic resource is a must for anyone interested in early London history.

I. The Parish of St Saviour

With the dissolution in 1540 of the Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie, on the south bank of the Thames across from London, the priory church was newly dedicated as St Saviour and leased in 1541 (and later sold outright) to two small Southwark parishes, St Mary Magdalen (a parochial chapel attached to the priory church) and St Margaret (at St Margaret’s Hill on the High Street), both of which were dissolved.

The new parish included within its bounds the Manor of Paris Garden, the bishop of Winchester’s Liberty (‘Clink Liberty’), and the western portion of the Borough of Southwark. It was home, in the later 16th century, to brothels, to bull and bear baiting, and to such playhouses as the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe. John Harvard, who endowed Harvard College in the US, was baptized there; Lancelot Andrewes is buried there; so is William Shakespeare’s brother Edmund.

Like other parishes, the new St Saviour was expected to enforce the requirements governing communion, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, namely that everyone age sixteen or older should partake of communion three times a year, specifically at Easter and also at two other times. Names of communicants, and of non-communicants, were to be noted, for presentation at episcopal visitations. Churchwardens had to be ready with such lists, though practice seems to have confined itself to the keeping of names for the Easter communion only.

II. Lists of Communicants

No doubt every parish kept such lists of names; but the lists at St Saviour appear to be the only ones to have survived. They run from the 1570s until 1643, in 144 books, listing each year – with some gaps where books appear to be missing – the names of all heads of household in the parish, along with the number of communicants in each household. In some years the names of the other communicants are also entered.

The books – comprising in total some 130,000 entries – are called ‘token books’ because the practice at St Saviour (as at other parishes) was to sell tokens to every parishioner age sixteen or older, initially for 2d each, then 3d, finally 4d. The books were originally intended as a record of token sales each year, though their value for us is as lists of names and what those names tell us about family reconstitution.

The importance of such a resource, for demographers and social historians as well as family historians, cannot be overestimated; but, though they have been quarried many times by scholars seeking individual entries, until now the books as a whole remained untranscribed and unindexed.

The St Saviour token books are now available in full transcription, with accompanying images. These books may be searched on a number of vectors: surname, forename, title, trade, status, location within the parish, etc. The site is still being edited, but is usable in its present form.

Published:
26 June 2013
Last Modified:
11 September 2013

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