A History of the County of Essex: Volume 4, Ongar Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.
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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. 1) 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.
The modern series of court rolls for Fyfield runs, with some short breaks, from 1509 until 1865. (fn. 2) 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. 3) Afterwards the constables continued to account to the vestry (fn. 4) 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. 5) 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. 6) In 1681, shortly before a court leet, a vestry meeting chose two new constables for the year 1681-2, (fn. 7) 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. 8) The rolls record no later appointments of constables in the manor court.
Two vestry minute-books survive. (fn. 9) 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. 10) '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. 11) 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. 12) 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. 13) 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. 14) In the years 1827-32 it was between £500 and £600 each year. It then declined to about £350 a year in 1834-6.