Documenting Church Conservation and Repairs

Peter Aiers


  A small redundant church in rural Suffolk
  St Mary’s Church, Akenham, Suffolk: one of around 350 redundant churches now in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. Each church acquired by the trust comes with hundreds of historic documents, many of which relate to maintenance, repair and past alterations. (All photos: The Churches Conservation Trust)

Few organisations will be as acutely aware of the importance of good record-keeping as the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), which has been caring for historic Anglican churches since 1969.

During that time the trust has amassed a collection of 349 churches throughout England, each with hundreds of documents, many relating to its history and fabric. Furthermore, the CCT acquires one or two more churches every year, which it repairs, conserves and opens to the public.

It is vital that all decisions affecting the future of these buildings are properly informed, and the ability to access clear, detailed records about a church’s past and any works carried out to it would be a tremendous asset in this process. However, records come in many forms and the information they contain is not always consistent, obvious and systematic.

Churches close for a number of reasons, but usually there is a significant repair need that the parish is unable to cope with. This failure to deal with building repairs by the parish sets a context for the information and records that are inherited by the CCT. Every Church of England parish church is the responsibility of the parish, via the PCC. There is no central body in the C of E which is responsible for the repair of the church buildings and so it falls to volunteers up and down the country to deliver.

These volunteers are made up of the worshipping congregations and sometimes the wider community who love their churches. Although these volunteers are committed, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds and rarely have expertise in historic building conservation. This results in a wide variation in the type and quality of records kept. The volunteers who look after historic churches have an overriding purpose which should take precedence over the care of the historic church – the ‘mission’ of the church. The combination of complex historic building issues, conflicting priorities and a volunteer-run set-up often results in problems with either the updating of records or the practicalities of how they are stored and accessed.

Records sometimes exist purely in individual memory and are never written down, either on paper or electronically. It is important to try to capture this knowledge, whether its source is a local volunteer or a consultant architect.

  An old church inventory document
  A church inventory dating from the 1930s: the inventory is a list of all the objects owned by a particular church. Land owned by the church is listed in a ‘terrier’ (derived from the Latin terra, meaning earth).

Once the process of transferring the church to the CCT is under way, the trust undertakes a full assessment of the church building, using whatever information can be amassed. This ‘vesting’ report is the baseline of the CCT record of what is known about the building fabric. Some supporting reports are supplied by the Statutory Advisory Committee on Closed and Closing Churches, a committee of the Church Buildings Council which provides independent advice on heritage matters relating to redundant churches. These reports include analysis of the historic value of the church and try to pull together some of the known sources.

Regardless of the quality of the paper trail, there is no substitute for getting inside the building and seeing what is going on. The condition of the rafter feet, drainage, stonework and roof coverings are investigated. This survey work can be quite invasive as it entails opening up those hidden dark places where the rot and the beetles hide.

Once the urgent needs of the building are fully understood, the repair process begins as soon as possible and this is where the CCT record-keeping starts. All professional reports and records of work undertaken are retained, so the trust has amassed a vast archive over the past 40 years. Storage of the paperwork comes at a cost and there are the attendant problems of curating it. The obvious approach would be to keep everything but this is impractical and
unaffordable so any non-essential paperwork must be weeded out.

Inevitably, this approach is not infallible and human error sometimes results in the loss of useful information or in useless material being saved. Recalling information is also complex as although the paper files are catalogued by church, they are stored off-site and there is no index for individual folders. CCT staff are dispersed across the country and so there is a further cost and time factor to retrieving information. There are central files and then files held in the regions, mostly in staff home offices. This leads to another challenge as it is not easy to see where all the information relating to a church is, and there is inevitably a diversity of filing practice.

The dawning of the digital age has helped considerably with record-keeping. In particular all of the trust’s regular inspection reports are held on its servers and the majority of project work is also held digitally. This information is freely available across the CCT, leading to a much speedier and more efficient recall. It is important to remember that despite being digital there is still a considerable cost to storing this information, especially as it includes many high resolution photographs recording everything from stone samples to beetle damage.



Churches typically maintain three core records: the terrier, the inventory and the log book. The terrier and the inventory are lists of, respectively, the land and the objects which belong to the church and are sometimes combined into a ‘church property register’.

The log book is a record of the alterations and repairs carried out to the church, its land and its contents. This information has many important uses: aiding insurance claims or the recovery of stolen goods, providing useful source material for local historians and other researchers and, above all, informing and guiding the sympathetic conservation of the church, its surroundings and contents.

The type, detail and quality of records kept will vary widely not just between denominations but from one historic place of worship to the next. From a building conservation perspective, however, the records should include:

  • a statement of significance, if one exists, as well as any architectural plans or technical drawings that are available
  • instructions and schedules for maintenance and inspection regimes along with their results such as quinquennial inspection reports
  • a detailed account of any work carried out on the building and its historic contents
  • the contact details of key people involved in caring for the fabric such as maintenance contractors and the quinquennial architect
  • procedures to protect church fabric and contents in an emergency, for example in the event of flooding.

Finally, it is a good idea to take copies of important records and store them off-site.


The CCT has been working very hard on the most effective method of storing and recalling this information. This is no mean challenge as there are around 50 staff all producing information and trying to ensure that it is consistently filed. The CCT has invested in an internet-based property management system to address this challenge.

Large capital works to the trust’s churches always begin with an assessment of significance. This extremely useful document brings together what we know about a church and also highlights what we do not know. There is a thorough search of the obvious sources of information, records office material, the CCT archives and anything else that can be found. This is sometimes the first opportunity to bring together and compare all the known records for a church and it is essential to understanding how one might go about altering the fabric.

The reports are set out so that whatever documentary evidence is found can be used to reinforce what we see in the actual stones (or brick) of the building. The reports also seek to understand what we call the ‘communal value’ of the church – the value which the local community places on the church, the churchyard or a specific element or feature of either. Establishing communal value is essential as it is very easy for an architectural historian who does not know the local context to understate the significance of an element of a church which the community values highly.

The gathering of all the available information allows the CCT to assess the relative significance of the parts of the church and enables us to make informed decisions about how and where 21st-century additions and alterations might be made. In the vast majority of cases, ancient churches have experienced considerable change over time as successive generations have improved or demolished bits in order to adapt the building to current fashions, politics or practical needs.

For the trust to make its own positive contribution to the ongoing story of these churches, we need to understand all that has come before. With a sound understanding of the development of the historic church it can be quite surprising as to what alterations can be justified and what loss of historic fabric can be borne.

Church records can also simplify the decision-making process especially if they reveal, for example, where previous doorways were positioned. The CCT is opening former doors on two medieval churches, St Mary-at-the-Quay, Ipswich and St Peter’s in Sandwich, Kent. Here the fabric of the building holds some strong evidence, but the justification for the works is held in the documentation that we have gathered.

In conclusion, the more you know about a historic church the better the decisions about repairs and alterations will be. As information technology improves, so does our ability to capture and process data. I look forward to the day when we are recording actions in the trust’s churches in real time in a seamless integrated online fashion. We are not there yet but this is the direction of travel.

It is also important to remember that what is ultimately stored in the records is more than just information – lurking in this technical data are some wonderful stories and mysteries which are waiting to be released.



Further Information

British Standards Institution, BS 7913 Guide to the Principles of the Conservation of Historic Buildings, London, 2013

Chapter and Verse: The Care of Cathedral Records, Cathedral Libraries and Archives Association and the Church of England Record Centre, 2013

S Crofts, ‘Church Wardens and Church Fabric’, Historic Churches 2008, Cathedral Communications, Tisbury, 2008



The Building Conservation Directory, 2016


PETER AIERS is the director of the South East region and head of regeneration at The Churches Conservation Trust, the national charity that protects historic churches at risk.

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