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During the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the power and activity of manorial courts in England and Wales, except in the leasing and transfer of manorial land, faded away. Many of their functions were taken over by the regular public meetings of the clergy, churchwardens and parishioners which for generations had been held in the vestries of parish churches to decide questions relating to the fabric and possessions of the church.
In the 16th century these ‘vestry meetings’ were made responsible for minor law and order offences, the appointment of constables, the upkeep of roads and the maintenance of the poor, the latter, indeed, becoming their main preoccupation.
By established custom ‘the vestry’ raised money with which to maintain the church by taxing the parish householders and landowners (the church rate) but by Act of 1601 it was given power to levy taxes with which to maintain the poor (the poor rate). The monthly meetings, frequently held on the first Sunday of the month after evening service and chaired by the vicar, were held, or at least commenced, in the vestry. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they often adjourned to the greater comfort of some neighbouring inn, taking available inns in turn. If business concerned the workhouse then the meeting might occasionally adjourn there. A meeting on Easter Monday was the ‘annual meeting’ and included the rendering and approval of the annual accounts of the outgoing officers and the election of new ones.
These ‘open’ vestry meetings were by old custom attended by the chief householders and employers of the parish, though in theory any inhabitant might attend. The local gentry were not often seen. In many towns this group of perhaps a dozen people, including the clerk, the churchwardens and the overseers of the poor, often became a self-perpetuating oligarchy, and was described as a ‘close’ or ‘select’ vestry, to which new members were only rarely admitted. In other places an open policy was encouraged in order to attract more people to the meetings.
The vestry retained its importance until 1834 when, with the removal of most of its responsibilities for the poor, a decline set in, many powers, like that to appoint a constable, going to ‘county hall’ to be decided by Quarter Sessions. From 1845 the vestry was not allowed to meet in the church and in 1868 the right to collect a church rate was abolished. Since then the church has had to rely on voluntary donations. In 1894 the Local Government Act transferred the remaining civil functions to elected parish and rural district councils. The problems of church upkeep and finance remained with the vestry and are now decided by parochial church councils (or PCCs, for which any baptised Anglican over 18 is eligible), though an annual vestry of ratepayers, often held in conjunction with the annual general meeting of the PCC, still elects the churchwardens.
Churchwardens, found under various names in every Anglican parish from at least the 12th century, were the guardians of the public parts of the church (the nave, porch and belfry, but not the chancel), the silver, books and furnishings, and of other possessions such as the churchyard and any land. They were responsible for their upkeep and maintenance and for any fund-raising involved.
By the 16th century most parishes had two wardens, one appointed by the vicar (the vicar’s warden) who might remain in office for years, and the other elected annually by the parishioners (the people’s warden), an arrangement approved by Canon in 1603. However, practice varied and in the large or widespread parishes of the north-east four or more wardens are often found. Although election at the Easter vestry was perhaps most common, in some parishes the office of people’s warden was served in rotation by all the householders or by those occupying certain specified houses or land (and so women are sometimes found).
Disputes between the vicar and the vestry as to the manner of appointment and the respective powers of the wardens were not unknown. Access to the records could also become an issue. It was not until an Act of 1818 that the place of deposit of the parish books and papers (other than the parish registers) was clearly left to the parishioners in vestry to direct.
Election as warden was a considerable burden and could only be declined on payment of a fine. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Westminster this was as much as £20. Resignation was not possible until 1921. Very few persons were exempt, even nonconformists, Jews and Catholics (but not Quakers) being eligible, though from 1689 to 1829 they could appoint a deputy. Jews in the City of London were regularly elected wardens and overseers and usually paid the fines, but at St Katherine Cree in 1760 a Jew, Samuel Marquez, served as junior churchwarden, either unable or unwilling to pay. Women, usually widows, are very occasionally found as holders of both offices.
In a very few larger parishes the churchwardens received a small salary for their trouble. In early times, if the wardens were unable to write, a scribe would need to be employed and paid. Later the parish clerk would help with the record keeping.
Their main source of income was the church rate, usually levied on those parishioners owning land or a house in proportion to the value of the property, regardless of their religion, until 1868. Those who did not pay could be proceeded against in the church courts with the threat of excommunication, but as the 18th century progressed that had little meaning and it became more difficult to collect money from those who did not attend church.
The parish was expected to be self-supporting, and in well administered parishes large increases in rate were avoided by regular care of the fabric of the church. An assessment of costs for the coming year was agreed at the Easter vestry. There would be income from pew rents, charitable bequests and the rent of land or houses belonging to the church. At Bishops Stortford a rental of 1530 shows the church owning some 70 tenements in the town, of which 35 were dwellings, perhaps a quarter of the town’s total.
Sometimes in cases of exceptional expenditure (perhaps a stove for heating the church, a new organ, or a school room) a special rate would be levied or a subscription list started, headed by the squire, vicar and chief inhabitants.
In some places the customary fees for burial in the churchyard were passed to the churchwardens and entered in their accounts. These entries may be better spelled and give fuller details than those in the burial register. Similarly, if the overseers of the poor paid for a burial their account book record may well give additional or variant information.
Amongst the myriad expenses were those incurred in attending the visitation of the archdeacon or bishop and at the beating of the bounds of the parish. At Hitchin in 1775 the cost of the latter was £12 3s 6d, a sixth of the year’s expenditure. Small payments were also made for the killing of birds and vermin, for the relief of paupers not belonging to the parish, and to the bell-ringers who enjoyed celebrating a great variety of anniversaries and events. Some examples are given below.
Church Rate should not be confused with payment of tithe on the whole of the produce of the village (the vicar’s main source of income) or with the traditional Easter offerings to the vicar (two pence for every parishioner over the age of sixteen), of which quite separate personal account books may have been maintained, listing in considerable detail the people and properties involved. If the vicar farmed the land belonging to the church (the glebe land) his account books may show payments to labourers, as well as to the servants at the vicarage and perhaps to a privately funded schoolmaster.
Overseers of the Poor
Before the Reformation a third of the income from tithe was supposed to go to help the parish poor. An act of 1572 gave authority for the collection of alms in each parish by an Alms Collector and in 1597 he was replaced by an Overseer of the Poor. The Poor Law Act of 1601 extended the functions of overseers to the Churchwardens and from then on these officials acted together, empowered by that Act to raise through the Poor Rate whatever was needed to support the parish poor from the owners and occupiers of property. In large parishes in the north of England the outlying townships, sometimes in groups, were formed into civil parishes for poor law purposes, and had separate groups of overseers.
The assessments of expenditure and rates collected by the overseers were quite separate from those of the wardens, though they might well be agreed and collected at the same time. In the many places where the churchwardens were also the overseers of the poor, the resulting accounts are often muddled together in the same books. In some parishes it became customary for the poor inhabitants, or ‘settled poor’, to be assisted by the overseers and for poor vagrants from elsewhere to be dealt with by the wardens. One of the overseers was generally made responsible for the funds and from 1691 they were required to keep note of their disbursements.
Their account books show large numbers of small weekly payments or dole in outdoor relief. Payment might also be made for clothes, wood, medical attention and burial. In larger places an official parish doctor might be employed and a suitably isolated building, to be called the Pest House, used as a smallpox hospital. From 1722 the parish could buy or rent a building to be used as a workhouse (the ‘Town House’ or ‘House of Maintenance’). Details of the inmates may not survive but the expenses involved will be found in the overseers’ accounts. Teachers might be engaged to promote some useful trade to the inmates like flax dressing, spinning or straw plaiting. The men might make cheap shoes, beat hemp or break stones for the surveyor of the highways. Pauper children would be taught ‘the rudiments’ and then apprenticed, preferably away from the parish. Apprenticeship in the parish might be settled by drawing lots or, in kinder places, by selection of suitable masters in church on Binding Tuesday (the second Tuesday after Easter). In a small parish subscriptions might be called for to apprentice a poor child or to assist pauper children to emigrate. Those willing to go into the militia, as substitute for someone in the parish, might also be paid from the poor rate.
Parish concern for its poor did not end with the creation of Poor Law Unions in 1834. In some parishes special rates were levied with which to employ otherwise unemployed labourers, perhaps on the roads. Most places continued some programme of assistance to the poorer inhabitants, with distributions of coal, bread, and small sums of money, all carefully recorded, to the end of the 19th century and beyond. Overseers were abolished in 1925.
Much of the work of the parish was carried out for a small salary by the Parish Clerk, an office held for life and commonly passed from father to son. He attended practically every service, keeping dogs out and people awake and collecting pew rents and customary fees. He wrote the accounts if the wardens and overseers were illiterate, made out fair copies of the lists of church rates, assisted officers in their collection, and was capable of dealing with intransigent Independents and Quakers, perhaps assisted in a town by a beadle. He collected tolls on sheep pastured in the churchyard (too sour for cattle), on those who hung their washing there and from those who set up stalls along the path on market days. He collected money also on the approved ‘briefs’ or appeals circulated to assist those who had suffered loss by fire or other misfortune (a system abolished in 1828).
The parish constable had to be a person of some substance else he might be dismissed by the Justices as an ‘insufficient person’ and another put in his place. He was responsible for much of the local administration of the militia and the licensing of inns, serving court orders, apprehending criminals, taking them to court, and escorting paupers on the way to their places of settlement. He collected county and national taxes such as the hearth and land tax and was supposed to superintend ‘the Town Armes’, a stock of weapons kept in the church for the use of the militia in emergency. His duties were taken over by the county police in the mid-19th century.
Also appointed annually from 1555 was a Surveyor of the Highways with power to levy a rate for their upkeep and to supervise the labour on the roads which householders were obliged to give for four days a year (increased to six days in 1563 and not abolished until 1835), much evaded even in the 16th century. Widows were occasionally appointed. Their account books rarely survive, but may be found for the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The vestry minutes and the account books of the churchwardens, overseers, constables and surveyors, as well as sometimes providing the names of those from whom money was collected, more often name innumerable people that they dealt with in the course of their activities, both within the parish and in the neighbourhood, being packed with information on every aspect of parish life.
Although time-consuming to search (they are rarely copied or indexed) the books and associated filed documents, where they survive, are an important source for the history of the parish and may throw light on any family that lived there. In a very few parishes the churchwardens’ accounts survive from the 14th century and over 300 parishes, mainly in southern England have accounts dating from before 1550. The vast majority of all these records are to be found in county record offices but survival varies enormously from place to place.
Examples from the records
- 1502 Received from the wife of Robert Trayneham for the waste of ‘lez torches’ burning on the day of his burial, 12d [Bishops Stortford]
- 1557 Item to William Crabbes wife for wasshynge, 8d [Bishops Stortford]
- Item pad to Robert Hore for mendynge the belles, 6s [Bishops Stortford].
- 1558 Payd unto Wylliam Barnard for wrytyng heareof, 3s 4d [Bishops Stortford].
- 1608 Wyllam Chambers, Rychard Hobbes and John Audlye, overseers of the poor of the towne of Hitchin [followed by ‘Sessment’ of 138 named individuals; expended on ‘outdoor relief’ at 6d a week; Hitchin].
- 1610 To Goodwyfe Wells for salt to destroy the fleas in the churchwarden’s pew, 6d [St Margaret, Westminster].
- 1690 Payd to Widow Dickin towards the keeping of her cow, 15s [Gnosall].
- 1697 Pd Mr Samuel Fowke for fetching Thomas Lightwood to Church from Knightley he being dead in the snow, 1s 6d [Gnosall].
- 1704 Paid James Newman’s bill for painting the Commandments, £7 5s [Hitchin].
- 1714 Laide owte on crownation daie for vittailes for the ringers, 12s [on the anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth I; Hitchin].
- 1733 Received of Copps for the Bastard child begotten on the body of Sarah Corck, £6 1s [Stevenage].
- 1740 Gave Ephraim Fairfreckle when he went to look for work, 2s 6d [Hitchin].
- 1745 Gave a poor man who had been a Turkey slave and had his tongue cut out, 1s [Hitchin].
- 1755 To a bolt for Mrs Hildesley’s pue, 4d [Hitchin].
- 1757 Paid for enoculating Seymour’s wife with the Cow Pock, 3s [Hitchin].
- 1757 To expenses taking up John Page for a bastard child; attending justices and a guard for him; to expenses making up the marriage of him to Ann Lodge; for a dinner and cash, 6d; total £3 11s [Hitchin].
- 1760 Officers Chosen for this Ensuing year are as Follows. Mr Farindon, William Laker, Churchwardens. Francis Killick, Robert Head, Richard Agate, Charles Kember, Overseers [Lingfield].
- 1765 Paid Richard Whittington for going to Redbourn and bringing James Rowley to justice about his natural child, 6s [Stevenage].
- 1769 Paid Wm Earl’s wife for cureing Wharton’s Boy’s head, 10s 6d [Stevenage].
- 1772 Paid Mary Gregory to go away, her child having the Small Pox, 7s [Hitchin].
- 1782 Paid Elizabeth Martin and Sarah Ashbe laying out Hanah Begwell, meet, drink, wood, washin, giving the oath and soap, 4s 6d [Great Sampford].
- 1786 Paid Easter Hawkins for nursing Mary Dawkins 3s 6d per week [Great Sampford].
- 1801 Paid Daniel Joyner for 3 Tabels for the Benny Factions, 10s [from which to dole out relief; Hitchin].
- 1803 For John Halls for digging a grave in the Rode for Mary Morgan who hanged herself, 3s [Great Sampford]
- 1811 I promise for the time to come not to be in a state of intoxication on the account day, on pain of forfeiting three bottles of wine, John Buckberry (Overseer) [Threekingham].
- 1830 James Body for playing the Organ one year to Easter, £3 [Westmill].
- 1847 Paid Bunce for Cuting of old Church Rails in Firewood for Church, 4s [Westmill].
W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (3rd ed. Chichester, England: Phillimore, 1983) [FHL book 942 K2t].
This article has been adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; http://www.family-tree.co.uk) from Anthony Camp’s article ‘Records of Parish Administration’ in Practical Family History, no. 55 (July 2002) pages 52-54.
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