The Mayflower Log

by Philip Jones

(1897) Probate 208

This seems to be the only reported case concerning ecclesiastical records.

The consistory court of London ordered that a Log recording the peregrinations of the pilgrim fathers be delivered from the London diocesan registry to the perpetual custody of the Governor of Massachusetts, USA.

The order was concerned only with custody, not ownership.  It was not known how the Log had come into the diocesan registry’s possession in the first place (pp.213-14).  Nor was it suggested that the Governor of Massachusetts was the rightful owner of the Log.  The reason for the order was simply recognition that the Log was ‘of the greatest importance and value to … the USA as one of the earliest records of their national history’ (p.209).

The order was made by analogy with the statutory procedure for transferring diocesan records on a reorganisation.  The equivalent statutory provision to that referred to in the case is now found in the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007, schedule 2 (15). 

Before 1776 the American colonies were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.  After independence, they ceased to be subject to this jurisdiction.  The Log obviously related to the former colonies.  It was therefore appropriate to transfer the Log, just as if the former colonies had been transferred from one diocese to another when they became independent.

Thus the USA was treated for the purposes of the case as if it was a new diocese, carved out of the diocese of London.  The Log, being a record pertaining to the new ‘diocese’, should be transferred to it.

Despite the analogy, the order to transfer the Log was made on the court’s own common law authority, not any statutory authority.  

The Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 defines ‘records’ as ‘materials in written or other form setting out facts or events or otherwise recording information, other than register books’ (s.25(1).

The Mayflower Log was, of course, decided a long time before the 1978 Measure, and the Log was not a parochial record.  It is unlikely that an outright transfer of a parochial record to another country would be permissible under the 1978 Measure. 

S.17 permits a parochial record to be transferred from the diocesan record office to a ‘suitable and safe place’, for the purposes of ‘exhibition or research’.  No territorial limit is imposed, but deposit is only allowed for up to one year, though s.18 suggests that a one year temporary deposit might be renewed annually ad infinitum

The decision to allow the transfer of a parochial record under s.17 is taken by the chief officer of the diocesan record office, not by the ecclesiastical court.  The consent of the relevant parochial church council is also required.