Chipping Ongar: Parish government and poor relief

Pages 167-169

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 4, Ongar Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.

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Vestry books for Chipping Ongar survive for the periods 1743-75 and 1780-1863. (fn. 1) The business of the parish seems on the whole to have been conducted efficiently and honestly. From 1743 to 1759 meetings took place at Easter, for the approval of the accounts of the overseers, churchwardens, and constables, at Christmas for the approval of the surveyors' accounts and occasionally for other purposes. New officials were nominated when the accounts were passed. From 1759 monthly meetings were the rule, mainly for matters relating to poor relief. Attendance at the Easter meetings was sometimes 15-20 but was usually about 12. At the other meetings it was rarely more than 8. Thomas Velley, rector 1733-50, usually attended meetings and signed the minutes first. After his death the clergy rarely attended until 1792, when W. Herringham became curate. He soon took his place as chairman of the vestry and when he left the town in 1806 he was given a silver cup worth 25 guineas. From 1806 to 1828 the clergy again played little apparent part in the vestry. For some years after 1828 Joseph Stanfield, the curate, acted as chairman. In the absence of the clergy the churchwardens presided.

The vestry clerk, who also acted as caretaker and cleaner of the church, was voted an annual stipend of 40s. in 1770. This was increased in 1805 to 5 guineas. In 1819 the office of clerk was amalgamated with that of permanent overseer, at a salary of £15 for both duties.

In 1823 the public vestry set up a select vestry under the second Sturges Bourne Act (59 Geo. III, c. 12). The select vestry contained the minister, churchwardens and overseers and fifteen other members. It functioned only for about three years. In 1836 the public vestry adopted the Lighting and Watching Act, 1833 (3 & 4 William IV, c. 90).

All types of parish business were transacted at the same meetings of the public vestry. A distinction was usually maintained between rates for different purposes, but there were frequent adjustments between the accounts of different officers. In 1743 a rate of 1s. 6d. in the pound produced about £60. By 1783 a similar rate produced £83. A new rating assessment was made in 1832, when it was recommended that the rateable value of the parish should be fixed at £1,460 10s. (fn. 2) This was not the final assessment at this time, for in 1837 the rateable value was fixed at over £2,960. A rate of 4d. then produced £39 4s. 2d. (fn. 3) The rateable value rose steadily to £3,043 in 1842 (fn. 4) and in 1849 was £3,856. (fn. 5) It then remained steady until 1858, when evidence from the ratebooks ceases. There can be no doubt that these increases in rateable value had as their main cause the growth of the built-up area of the parish. (fn. 6)

The general policy of the parish vestry was to ensure that burdens were fairly shared. Thus in May 1800 it was resolved that 'every householder of sufficient ability shall in his turn either take an apprentice or yearly servant a boy or girl from the parish or shall provide a reputable master for such child'. In the following June it was decided to hold a ballot to decide the first allotment of pauper apprentices. In 1803 the vestry introduced an insurance scheme to assist those who had been selected in the ballot for the Army of Reserve.

All the normal parish officers were appointed until 1819, when, as noticed above, a salaried overseer was appointed. This arrangement, however, only lasted for about six years. The offices of parish constable and beadle were sometimes held by the same individual, but in April 1805 William Ainsworth was dismissed from the two posts and it was resolved that George Archer be appointed constable and John Burrell beadle. Burrell was to receive an annual salary of 2 guineas arid he was to be allowed a laced blue coat and hat once every four years. In 1813 the parish constable was allowed 5 guineas. In 1842 it was decided that a paid constable was no longer necessary. (fn. 7) An entry of 1756 shows that the 'hamlet' of Greenstead was being assessed along with Chipping Ongar to the constables' rate. If this refers to Greenstead parish (q.v.) it means that the Ongar constables were also acting at Greenstead; but it may refer to the houses south of Chipping Ongar Bridge, on the Greenstead boundary. In the vestry minutes for 1792 there is a reference to the town crier.

The ancient pound, pillory, and cage apparently stood on the east side of High Street, opposite the postoffice. (fn. 8) They were removed in 1786, when the Assembly Rooms were built, to a piece of waste ground 100 yds. north-west of the bridge. (fn. 9) The cottage behind this piece of ground was subsequently bought by Edward Rayner, who persuaded the vestry to move pound, pillory, and cage to a place farther down the road, near the south-east end of the bridge. (fn. 10)

There was a poorhouse in Chipping Ongar in 1748, if not earlier. It then adjoined the rectory. In 1752-4 and perhaps later the duty of looking after the poor (i.e. presumably those in the poorhouse) was farmed out for £4 a year. It was provided in 1752 that three men should take turns at this work, each doing it for a year. A parish doctor was appointed in 1761 at an annual salary of 5 guineas. This was reduced in 1770 to £4. Before 1761 medical treatment appears to have been paid for as each case arose. In 1795 it was resolved that the parish poorhouses should be demolished and that one large building should be erected instead. In the same year it was decided 'that the site of the old building being inconvenient to the rector, the parishioners do agree to exchange the present site for a portion of the glebe of equal extent now offered by the rector'; the rector was to enclose and fence the new site. It is possible that the new poorhouse was built on the glebe immediately to the north of the church. (fn. 11) But this is difficult to reconcile with the glebe terrier of 1810. (fn. 12) It was estimated that the new poorhouse would cost £153 and the vestry agreed that £100 of this should be borrowed on a ten-year term. The building was apparently carried out in 1797. John Crabb of Shelley Hall lent £100 but in the same year required repayment. The vestry decided to meet half the debt immediately out of the rates and to borrow £50 from someone else. By this time poor relief was becoming an urgent problem. The poor rates had risen from £119 in 1744 to £175 in 1778 and about £350 in 1798. (fn. 13) In 1800 they were £454. (fn. 14) In July of that year the vestry resolved to enlarge the workhouse. Whether this was done is not clear, but before April 1802 there was a fire at the workhouse and rebuilding was necessitated on that account. The house had been insured. In May 1807 the vestry approved an estimate of £4 15s. for finishing 'the back chamber at the work house'. A year later it also approved an estimate for a new parish cage. (fn. 15) In April 1809 a Mr. Peake was appointed parish surgeon at a stipend of £7 17s. 6d. for medicine with additional fees of 10s. 6d. for midwifery and 7s. for inoculation. It was laid down that in future the office of parish surgeon should be held in rotation by Peake and two other doctors.

Meanwhile the poor rates were still rising: in 1806 they were £674. (fn. 16) In 1815 a committee was appointed to investigate recent extravagance in the conduct of the workhouse. Its report revealed that in 1813 and 1814 the average cost of maintaining one person in the workhouse was 7s. 2d. a week. In all £407 had been spent, of which £63 was reckoned as the cost of maintaining the 'governess' and her two children. The vestry thereupon advertised for a governor who should contract to look after the poor in the workhouse at a fixed sum. A Mr. Jessup of Epping was given the contract in June 1815. John Heard, who was granted the contract in July 1819, was apparently Jessup's successor. He was paid 4s. 3d. per person per week. Farming out of the poor was discontinued in June 1820.

In 1821 the vestry adopted a long and detailed code of regulations for the relief of the poor, with special reference to the keeping of the overseers' accounts. An audit of the overseers' accounts revealed a debt of £196. It is probable that there was no separate master of the workhouse for some years at this period, but in 1828 it was resolved that one should be appointed, and a month later the vestry drew up a code of regulations for the conduct of the workhouse, and appointed William Wood senior as master at a salary of £10 a year for himself and his wife. Improvements were made in the workhouse during the same year.

In June 1832 the vestry formally adopted the rules laid down in Gilbert's Act (22 Geo. III, c. 83) for the conduct of the workhouse. In May 1835 it was further resolved to join with the neighbouring parishes in a poor law union. The first meeting of poor law guardians for the Ongar Union took place in April 1836. In June 1837 the Chipping Ongar vestry resolved to sell the 'timber built messuage used as a workhouse'. (fn. 17)


  • 1. The book for 1743-75 is at the rectory; the others are E.R.O., D/P 124/8/1-4. Unless otherwise stated all the following information is derived from these minute-books.
  • 2. The entry in the Vestry Minutes gives the name of every ratepayer and his assessment. There are several similar lists for 1758-60.
  • 3. Lighting and Watching Surveyors RateBk. 1837-43, E.R.O., D/P 124/33/1.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid. 1848-58, E.R.O., D/P 124/ 33/2.
  • 6. The population increased from 595 in 1801 to 870 in 1841: V.C.H. Essex, ii, 350.
  • 7. The County Constabulary had been set up in 1840.
  • 8. R. I. Porter, Notes on Chipping Ongar, 23.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid. 24. Perhaps the removal is referred to in the vestry minute-book entry of 1808-see below.
  • 11. See above, Church.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Overseers Rate Bk., E.R.O., D/P 124/11/1.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. The cage was dismantled by the resolution of the vestry in 1853. It stood on the site of the present fire-station.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. In 1846 some of the local paupers were housed in the lower story of the Town Hall: E.R.O., G/On M3.