Misadventures in Parish Magazines – Rosie Denton

In the 1980s, York Minster Library sent a letter to all the parishes in the modern Archdeaconry of York requesting any future issues, and copies of back issues where possible. Eighty-five parishes complied, and the resulting collection of 5,927 magazines span exactly 150 years. The project ceased in 2013, and as York Minster Library no longer has room for such a collection it was transferred to the Borthwick Institute a few months ago. As the Archives Trainee at the Borthwick, it has been my job to sift through this collection; sorting them by parish, weeding out any duplicates, packaging them into archival boxes, and creating a box list as I go.

A comedic magazine cover from 1987

The magazines arrived in the usual array of Amazon boxes and carrier bags without discernible order. Less than a week later, we received a phone call from a researcher asking if we had any parish magazines for Fulford. Naturally I had no idea, so a colleague and I set about finding out. We covered the office in magazines until every available inch of desk space had vanished. An entire day later the magazines were ordered by parish, and we had discovered forty-five items matching the description. About this point, the conservation team asked how many magazines there were. I told them about 1,500 different issues, and that I felt the project would take me about a month to complete on top of my other duties. Four months and 5,927 parish magazines later, I think we can safely say that estimation is not my strong point!

From there I set about packaging and box listing the magazines by parish and year. By early December all the magazines were safely ensconced in 41 archival boxes (plus the five boxes of duplicates occupying my desk!). However, as I set about typing up the box list I realised that some parishes had ended up being duplicated or split. This time it was the Searchroom that I plastered with magazines, ensuring that all the publications were reunited with others from their parish. Once the magazines were finally in order, I took my first dip into the wonderful world of AToM, creating a collections-level description and authority record for our catalogue.

Parish Magazines
Our office covered in parish magazines.

A frequent inevitable distraction was the contents of the magazines. Parish magazines, by their very nature, cover the more quotidian aspects of village life. Details of village fêtes and requests for donations for them came up time and time again. In one particular appeal, the author has specifically requested that ‘pairs of shoes be tied together and clearly labelled with their size’. I’ll leave you to imagine the ‘events of last year’ that caused this instruction to be included.

The editors of these periodicals also liked to reference national events. One from June 1953 contains a ‘Guide to the Symbolism of the Coronation’ to ensure parishioners understood what they were watching. Another magazine from a few years later includes a ‘Guide to Voting in the National Election,’ setting out the major policy points of each party and imploring parishioners to use their votes wisely.

Dalby and Whenby 1903_4
A ‘Household Tips’ page from 1903.

As evidenced here, early parish magazines aimed to educate their readers. Vicars and missionaries were encouraged to supply an article each month. These ranged from the seemingly mundane (watching birds nest) to the more serious (the problem of pornography). Almost every parish magazine had a ‘Household Tips’ page written by a local woman. A particular favourite of mine was the wisdom that ‘a pair of gay striped handtowels makes great bathroom curtains’ as they absorb all the moisture in the air. In Weighton, the author of this page split the article with her husband, who would provide DIY and gardening advice to the men of the parish. Personally I found his tips on how to bleed a radiator incredibly useful!

Along with educating, magazines aimed to entertain. The very earliest magazines contain serialised stories, which were only gradually phased out after WWII. Chapters were published monthly over the course of a year. In older issues, they always star a young country woman who is kind, overly good, and deeply religious. Enter the dark, brooding anti-hero with a secret past. If the heroine already has a love interest, then he prevents them from getting married. Otherwise, they fall in love. Either way, she helps him find Jesus, he becomes a good person, and she gets married. Simple, and yet somehow incredibly engaging. After WWI, the stories became slightly more varied.

One features a rising opera starlet, who has to spend six weeks in hospital following a car accident. Through the hard work of the hospital chaplain she learns about altruism, becomes a Christian, and eventually marries the doctor. My personal favourite, however, is the story of a young lady who must choose between caring for her mother (‘inept at housework of all kinds’) or pursuing a career as a potter. A young man from London appears and offers her a job. Unfortunately, the next few editions of the magazine have not survived, and the next thing we know he is in court accused of a serious crime, and she leaves him after a dramatic scene at a bus stop. The December edition of this story is also missing, but I like to think it has a happy ending!

Micklefield 1937_3 (4)

Micklefield 1937_3 (2)
The synopsis of the potter’s story as well as an illustration of the dramatic bus scene.

As I mentioned, our first researcher came in the project’s first week. Hopefully this is a sign of collection’s future popularity, as they are a fascinating resource of social history for the modern Archdeaconry of York. They cover all the major events of the 20th century, while also providing a glimpse of the everyday life of parishioners, with a few comic scenes along the way. I only hope that others find them as intriguing as I did. In the meantime, I shall continue to peruse the serialized stories during my breaks….

Rosie Denton, Archives Trainee, Borthwick Institute



  1. Great article Rosie, thank you! In one of my roles as the voluntary archivist I’ve worked on

    1. Clearly my strong point is clicking send by accident! I’ll finish that sentence:

      In one of my roles as a voluntary archivist I have also had the joy of sifting through a similar set of newsletters. I would often find myself distracted by the amusing content and stories that they contained. These kinds of resources are great to work with. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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