St Martin-in-The-Fields: the Accounts of the Churchwardens, 1525-1603. Originally published by [s.n.], [s.l.], 1901.
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The earliest recorded use of the word "vestry" or "revestry" as describing the body charged with, or at least exercising, the functions of parochial government in this parish is found in the Minute Book under date 1576, from which time it is used apparently at haphazard, as an alternative to "the masters." The "Titles" of the Accounts until March 1546 (p. 111) show that the churchwardens were elected "by the consent will and agreement of the whole body of the parish"; from that time until 1583, they are simply described as "chosen and appointed." In December, 1583 (p. 352), the wardens for the following two years were elected "by the whole assent and consent of the masters of the parish. From the year 1561 (p. 196), the Churchwardens had been accustomed to render account to the "masters" of the parish, but earlier (March) in the same year (p. 180), a balance was handed to the new officers "in the p'sens of the hole p'ish," on which occasion (p. 178), nine parishioners signed the accounts of the outgoing wardens.
There is nothing definite to show how the government of the parish passed from the hands of the full parish meeting to a smaller body of "masters." The process may have been gradual and natural, a case of the survival of the fittest, in which men who were insignificant in position and attainments simply ceased to take an active share in business about which they did not greatly care. Or, it may be permissible to trace the origin of the Vestry to the committee of 1553 (p. 150), whose appointment was apparently due to the unsatisfactory methods of audit which obtained before that date.
No effort of the imagination is needed in order to realize that this committee might easily retain its powers long after the immediate purpose of its appointment had been fulfilled. On this point no evidence is extant, but from 1594 onwards, we find persons referred to in the Register of Burials as Vestrymen; whilst an entry in the Minute Book shows that by October 1598 (Appendix D), the Vestry was, if not limited, at least self electing. The Select Vestry ruled the parish from this time till 1834. During the eighteenth century, five attempts were made, twice by petition to the House of Commons, and three times by lawsuits, to eject the Select Vestry and once more to put the government of the parish in the hands of the whole body of the parishioners. All these attacks on the corporation in power failed through lack of evidence which might disprove that corporation's plea of "immemorial custom."
Such evidence was to be found nowhere, save in the Churchwardens' Accounts which are now printed; through ignorance or design they were not brought into Court until the suit of Simpson v. Holroyd in 1834, when, thanks to the entries in them, the hopelessly corrupt Vestry was dispossessed, and the really immemorial custom was re-established.