PARISH GOVERNMENT AND POOR RELIEF
Medieval court rolls for the manor of Fyfield survive
for the periods 1385-97,
1401-4, and 1413-43. (fn. 92)
In the 14th century the
number of courts held
each year varied between 2 and 4. Usually two of
them included view of frank-pledge. In the 15th century courts were usually held twice a year, at Easter
and Whitsun, and nearly always included view of
frank-pledge. The homage numbered 12 or more.
The courts were largely concerned with the control
of trade. The commonest subject of presentment was
breach of the assize of ale; the offenders against this
assize were often women, who were presented year
after year on the same charge. Breach of the assize of
bread was also frequently presented. Occasionally fines
were imposed on regrators. Apart from trade offences,
the most common subjects of presentment at the courts
were the failure to scour wayside ditches and the obstruction of watercourses. Small fines were sometimes
imposed for minor assaults.
Two constables and two aletasters were chosen at the
Easter court in most years. Aletasters were often fined
The modern series of court rolls for Fyfield runs,
with some short breaks, from 1509 until 1865. (fn. 93) In
the first half of the 16th century courts were held in
most years and often twice in a year. From the middle
of the 16th century until about 1640 they were held
once a year. They usually included view of frankpledge. After 1640 courts were no longer held annually
and did not always include view of frank-pledge. In
the second half of the 17th century there were 23 courts
of which 13 included the view. In the 18th century
courts which, nominally at least, included view of frankpledge, took place in 1703, 1709, 1711, and, for the
last time, in 1749.
Most of the business transacted at the courts after
1509 concerned minor nuisances and breaches of
manorial custom. In the reign of Henry VIII the presentment of breaches of the assizes of bread and ale
were still common. There were still occasional presentments for assault until 1617. In 1585 a man was presented for 'keeping bad order' in his house. Towards
the end of the 16th century the number of presentments
of nuisances declined markedly. After 1589 there were
rarely more than two or three such presentments at any
one court. From the beginning of the reign of Charles I
there were frequently no leet presentments even when
the court nominally included view of frank-pledge.
In the 17th century, particularly in the latter half,
the jurisdiction of the manor court was yielding to that
of the parish vestry. In 1626 the manor court ordered
that no one should demise any cottage within the manor
to any person living outside Fyfield and no one should
entertain any pauper from outside the parish without
leave from the churchwardens, overseers, and the
parishioners. In 1647 the manor court elected as constables Thomas Gynne and John Church who in 1648
rendered an account to the parish vestry. (fn. 94) Afterwards
the constables continued to account to the vestry (fn. 95)
although they were sometimes appointed in the manor
court until the last decade of the 17th century. A court
appointed R. Church and J. Church as constables in
1654. No appointments were made by the next court
leet which was held in May 1656; it does not appear
what body appointed I. Allam and A. Kent who were
constables from 1657, if not before, until 1661. A
court leet chose two constables in 1661 and one in 1662
'for the parish of Fyfield'. The rolls do not record any
further appointments by the manor court until 1692.
On the other hand, until 1680 the vestry minutes did
not include the constables in the lists of appointments
and reappointments made by the vestry. (fn. 96) In 1680,
however, it was recorded that at a meeting of the parish
on Easter Monday all the old officers, including the
constables, were 'continued for the following year'. (fn. 97)
In 1681, shortly before a court leet, a vestry meeting
chose two new constables for the year 1681-2, (fn. 98) but
the next court leet, which was held in May 1692, chose
two constables. The following court leet, held in
October 1696, also chose T. Luck and E. Havers as
constables for the parish. It may be, however, that the
court merely confirmed appointments made at a vestry
meeting earlier in the year, for in the vestry minutes it
was recorded that'T. Luck and E. Havers were chosen
as constables for the year 1696'. (fn. 99) The rolls record no
later appointments of constables in the manor court.
Two vestry minute-books survive. (fn. 1) The first covers
the period 1648-1732. The second contains overseers'
accounts from 1827 to 1836 and vestry minutes from
1854 to 1890.
During the period 1648-1732 meetings of the public
vestry usually seem to have been held only at Easter in
each year. In only seven years in the whole of this
period was more than one meeting recorded and in only
two of these years were as many as three meetings recorded. If a resolution of 1704 was carried out, however, there must have existed from that time a select
committee which met often in each year: the vestry
ordered 'that there be always three persons chosen by
a vestry at Easter to assist the churchwardens in the repair of the church and that the overseers of the poor and
constables and churchwardens shall not disburse above
20s. without an order of vestry or the major part of the
three persons with the churchwardens'.
The vestry minutes were usually signed only when
there was an important resolution. The number of
those attending the meetings, in addition to the churchwardens and overseers, usually varied between one and
seven but on five occasions there were more than ten.
The chairman was never named as such in the minutes.
The rector signed first when he attended the meetings,
but there were some important meetings which he did
not attend. In his absence one of the larger landowners
signed first. Members of the Collins family, of Lampetts, were always prominent at the meetings, and John
Collins often signed first, or first after the rector.
The work of the vestry consisted mainly in nominating parish officers, granting rates, and approving officers'
accounts. There were usually two men in each office.
Until 1672 the overseers sometimes continued in office
for three or more years. After 1672 they often served
two years consecutively but rarely more. The churchwardens and constables usually remained in office for
at least two years and often for much longer. The overseers, churchwardens, and constables were each granted
separate rates for which they accounted separately
throughout the period 1648-1732. Until 1672 the
overseers sometimes presented several years' accounts
at once. After 1672 they always presented annual
accounts. The churchwardens and constables, on the
other hand, occasionally presented two or even three
years' accounts in one until the end of the period covered
by the first vestry minute-book.
In 1662-3 the constables' receipts from rates totalling
6d. in the pound were £28 13s. 2d. This implies a
rateable value of about £1,150. In 1669-72, however,
a 2d. rate yielded £11 12s. 3d. This implies a rateable
value of about £1,394 and this continued to be the
rateable value until after 1690. In the period 1827-36
the rateable value was about £1,750.
In 1835 the parish owned three houses known as the
'Poorhouses' and for which the overseers paid to the
churchwardens £11 a year. (fn. 2) 'Street House' and a house
on the east side of the churchyard were occupied rentfree by poor women, placed there by the parish officers. (fn. 3)
It does not appear how the third house, on Cannon's
Green, was used, but it may have been a workhouse.
There is no doubt, however, that in most cases poor
relief was given, in various forms, outside a workhouse.
In 1813-15 there was no person on 'permanent relief'
inside a workhouse, but in each of those years there were
41-43 adults on permanent relief outside. (fn. 4) Provision
for the poor was made in various ways, including the
binding out of paupers' children as apprentices and the
payment of rents and weekly doles. In 1711 the rents
of 11 poor persons were paid, the total cost to the parish
being £12 14s.: in addition weekly doles, amounting to
£1 0s. 8d., were paid to 10 households of whom 4 also
had their rent paid. In one case at least, early in the
18th century, a pauper was allotted to parishioners on
a rota system. In 1708 it was agreed at a vestry meeting
that if 'Thomas Ashfeld, a poor fellow that is to go
about the parish by a former agreement, should fall sick
or lame in any place that he goes to he shall not lie altogether upon those persons where he is present but that
it shall be at the charge of the whole parish'. In 1721,
when the same Thomas Ashfeld was put on an eightyear rota of some 32 parishioners, there was a similar
resolution to the effect that 'if any sickness or lameness
should happen during these years it shall be at the cost
of the parish and likewise his clothing'.
Under the Commonwealth the total cost of poor
relief usually varied between £15 and £25 a year.
From 1675 until 1693 it was frequently between £30
and £40 a year. No figures survive for 1693-6. From
Easter 1696 until Easter 1701, however, it averaged
about £100 a year. These expensive years were followed by five years in which the cost ranged between
£71 and £85 a year. In 1706-7 it rose to a new maximum of £117. In April 1707 the vestry ordered the
badging of the poor according to law (8 and 9 William
III, c. 30 (1697)) and ordered that an inventory should
be made of every pauper's goods. There was a slight
decline, to £103, in the cost of relief in the following
year and at Easter 1708 the vestry agreed 'that if any
overseer in the parish shall relieve any person by a
weekly collection that does not wear the badge or come
themselves for their collection unless they are sick or
lame, the said overseer shall forfeit the sum of 40s.
Nevertheless the cost of relief, after remaining at £103
for two more years, began to rise again in 1710-11 and
in 1715-16 reached £142. In the next year it fell again
to £103. From 1717 until 1731 it fluctuated between
£69 and £108. No figures survive for 1731-75. In
1776 expenses were £156 and the average for the three
years 1783-5 was £268. (fn. 5) In 1800-1 the cost of relief
was £765. It fell to a minimum of £324 in 1807-8,
and rose to £683 in 1813-14 and £613 in 1816-17. (fn. 6) In
the years 1827-32 it was between £500 and £600 each
year. It then declined to about £350 a year in 1834-6.
In June 1836 Fyfield became part of the Ongar Poor