Stanford Rivers: Parish government and poor relief

Pages 218-221

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

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Records of the courts of the manor of Stanford Rivers exist for the years 1324-5 and 1327-9 and also for 1534 (fn. 1) but they are continuous only from 1560. (fn. 2) Between 1560 and 1624 the court met annually, usually between July and November. (fn. 3) No court appears to have met between 1624 and 1659. The fact that constables began to be chosen by the vestry in 1637 seems to confirm that no courts leet met about this time. From 1662 courts were held regularly about Eastertide until 1690. (fn. 4) There was a court leet in 1710, another in 1714, and then no more.

Twelve to seventeen men were usually sworn as a jury, the same men serving year after year. They were chosen as tenants, (fn. 5) not necessarily resident within the manor. (fn. 6) The jurisdiction of the court extended over all residents within the manor. (fn. 7) Each court leet also transacted court baron business, and courts after 1667, although described as 'of the View of Frank-pledge' did no true leet business except the election of constables. The primary duty of the court-to view frank-pledge- was occasionally discharged by early Elizabethan courts. (fn. 8) The immediate extension of this duty-a general surveillance of manners-frequently occupied courts about this time. (fn. 9) But the commonest subjects of presentment were failures to maintain roads and bridges by those bound ratione tenure to do so. Statutory offences presented in Elizabethan courts included defaults under the first Highways Act (2 & 3 Philip &Mary, c. 8). (fn. 10) Disrepair of the stocks was sometimes presented.

Most courts elected two constables and swore them if they were present. In 1561 a constable was not sworn because he was absent, and this, uncommon at that date, became usual as the court declined. Of the seven appointments made after 1675 three were made in the absence of one or two of the men elected, who were ordered to take their oaths before justices. (fn. 11) The only reference to the constables' work is their presentment for not punishing vagabonds, made in 1567. The orders of the court were directed to the bailiff. The court had one weapon, the amercement, which was assessed or 'affeered' by two jurors appointed as 'affeerors'. It does not seem to have been very effective.

A principal cause of the decline of the court leet was the rise, chiefly as the result of the Poor Law of 1598, of the vestry. (fn. 12) In 1634-44 five courts (one court leet and 4 courts baron) were attended by a total of 17 jurors. Of these 7 had served parish office during the same 11 years. The man who served parish office most frequently (5 times) attended 1 court. The man who attended all courts served parish office 3 times.

The court and the vestry had a specific common interest-the appointment of constables-and their activities were closely co-ordinated. From 1637 constables were nominated in the vestry while courts leet were not being held. (fn. 13) After 1662 the vestry appears to have nominated only when it knew that the court was not to be held for some time. When the court was to meet soon after the vestry (fn. 14) the vestrymen doubtless knew this from the bailiff's summons and did not nominate constables in the vestry. As late as 1734 constables were still being noted in the vestry book as 'chosen by Wm. Petre esq.' (lord of the manor and an active vestryman) although no court leet had met for 20 years. (fn. 15) Occasionally the tenants in court were able to assist themselves as parishioners in vestry, as for example in 1684, when the court ordered John Combers the younger to pay 2s. 6d. a year to the poor for a gate in Bowyers Lane. (fn. 16)

The earliest surviving vestry record is a brief churchwarden's account of 1592. (fn. 17) Notes of the appointment of officers begin in 1604 (f. 5) and are defective at first. The earliest summary account signed by the vestrymen as approving it is dated 1619 (f. 35).

In the early 17th century the vestry apparently met only at Easter, to pass accounts and appoint officers. After 1673 there was a regular additional meeting at Christmas, at which the surveyors of highways were nominated. Other meetings, rare in the late 17th century, became more common in the early 18th century, and at a meeting in November 1724 it was agreed, as one of ten standing orders, that a vestry should meet once a month, every first Thursday at 3 p.m. (fn. 18) This order was followed and the meeting in February 1786 was entitled, as something uncommon, a '2 month vestry'. (fn. 19) Standing orders enjoined the vestry to meet in the church and prescribed that any expenses incurred if it adjourned to a public house should be borne by individuals. Nevertheless the Easter vestries of 1728 and 1744 charged the parish with £1 and £2 2s. respectively, the latter for dinner and punch. The Easter vestry of 1782 held a dinner 'at Mr. Sammes'. (fn. 20)

In the 17th century the vestry was often attended by fewer than six men. Numbers rose in the next century. In the three periods 1725-7, 1750-2, 1800-2, for example, about 12 attended the Easter vestries and 6-9 the other meetings. The chairman was never named as such in the minutes but members of the Petre family always signed first when they were present, during the first half of the 18th century; in their absence the rector signed first. About 1740 the curate sometimes appears to have written the minutes but did not sign. When neither a Petre nor the rector was present one of the churchwardens signed first.

Committees were occasionally appointed. In 1769 one of five members was appointed to negotiate with a builder for the erection of a workhouse, and in 1805 one of seven was set up to reassess the parish rating. The Easter vestry of 1824 adopted the 2nd Sturges Bourne Act (59 Geo. III, c. 12) and appointed a select vestry consisting of five men in addition to the rector, churchwardens, and overseers. Each successive Easter vestry appointed a select vestry, usually of 10-15 men, until 1834.

The usual officers were nominated and appointed by the vestry. Three overseers of the poor were appointed until 1642, when it was decided that two were sufficient. Before this they were usually called 'collectors'. In 1642 it was noted that the constable should be chosen first. Between 1624 and 1634 there were opportunities for 93 men to serve parish office. (fn. 21) Thirty-nine actually served. In 1750-60 there were 88 opportunities and 30 men served. Allowing for the fact that one churchwarden served throughout the later period it appears that the incidence of office changed little, although in the 18th century the office of overseer was more widely shared than it had been in the 17th century, when the responsibilities were lighter. A paid overseer was appointed in 1810 at an annual salary of £10 10s., and he was reappointed every year until 1822, when he became a constable. Women were twice chosen as overseers in the 18th century. This indicates a rota of substantial landowners from which overseers were picked. A woman overseer's responsibility seems to have ended with providing by her 'substance' financial security for the operations of her male deputy, who attended vestry for her.

It is possible that one churchwarden was customarily chosen by the parishioners and one by the rector, and an explicit statement of this first occurs in 1763.

The standing orders of 1724 provided that an officer with an account to pass who did not appear should be prosecuted. This order was applied capriciously. In 1725 it was resolved to apply for a warrant against a defaulting overseer, who subsequently returned. In 1735 Mr. Webb, a surveyor, came to the vestry without his accounts but declared 'to the best of his knowledge' that he had spent £6. In fact he had spent slightly less, as appeared later, but there is no hint of censure. After 1750 the totals of each overseer's disbursements were recorded monthly and were presumably examined by each monthly vestry.

Income from parish property and charities went far to meet the expenses incurred during the 18th century and rates were not often required. Money was raised for special purposes by loans (e.g. £250 to build the workhouse in 1769), the interest on which was paid from the rates. In 1806 the parish debts were paid by the sale for £120 of parish lands in Shonks Mill meadow and the sale of timber worth £80 'in the field adjoining the workhouse'.

In the 17th century and the first half of the 18th rates were granted to each officer as required. In 1732 the surveyors were ordered to pay the surplus on their account to the repair of the church bells. In 1741 the last separate surveyors' rate was levied. Thenceforth all rates were levied by the overseers who reimbursed other officers. (fn. 22) The product of a 1d. rate in 1731 was £9. By a resolution of 1749 there was a reassessment, probably stimulated by a sharp rise in the cost of poor relief. In 1748 a 1d. rate produced £10 15s., and in 1749, £11 4s. It produced £9 in 1805 and 1817. In 1824, after a new reassessment, the product was £17. (fn. 23)

An entry in the churchwardens' accounts in 1626 'for writeinge 1s. 6d.' is the first surviving record of payment to a servant of the parish. In 1674 Richard Cox bequeathed to the parish a black shroud, directing that the parish clerk should have custody of it and that he and succeeding sextons or clerks should be paid 1s. by each person using it. In 1744 a church clerk was appointed at a salary of £2 a year. A new vestry book was started in 1775 and most of the records of meetings in it are signed by the clerk. Previously, from the mid 17th century, minutes seem to have been written by the best penman present. In 1817 the salary of the clerk was raised to £4 4s. a year.

It was easy to relieve the poor in the 17th century. Income came from Easter communion collections, from Green's Charity, and from casual bequests to the parish poor. In 1617, for example, the first source yielded 8s., the second £2, and the third 10s. Fifteen persons shared this income. They included five widows, and three men who appear from the Register of Baptisms to have been aged 70, 58, and 52. The recipients of poor relief were such old and infirm people as these, some children, and travellers along the London road. Relief was by money doles, boarding out, apprenticing of poor children, providing clothes, and apparently also by providing accommodation. In 1652-3 the sum of £6 17s. 6d. was laid out towards the building of a cottage for the poor. No other reference has been found to the use of this cottage.

The administration of poor relief during most of the 17th century was entrusted not to the overseers of the poor but to the churchwardens and constables. All the examples quoted above come from the churchwardens' accounts except those relating to travellers, which are from the constables' accounts. Records of the overseers handling money appear first in 1670. During the 18th century the duties of the overseers became increasingly heavy as the cost of poor relief rose. Between 1724 and 1754 the average cost was about £130 a year. In 1754-64 it was over £180, in 1764-74 it was £260, in 1774-84 it was £360, in 1784-94 it was £440, and in 1794-1804 it rose to £840. The parish spent ten times as much in 1800-1 as in 1726-7. The poor rate levied between 1801 and 1817 was rarely below £1,000 in any year. (fn. 24)

The two overseers acted independently and rendered separate accounts. When the balance of both accounts had been struck at the Easter vestry the surplus in the hands of the outgoing officers was shared between their successors. Each overseer apparently acted for a different 'end' of the parish, either Toot Hill or Hare Street.

The poor in the 18th century formed two classes. About two dozen received regular weekly doles, and the rest, varying in number with the season and the price of food, received casual aid. The recipients of the regular doles were enjoined by the orders of 1724 and 1732 to wear badges. (fn. 25)

Until the building of the workhouse the expedients of the previous century seem to have been adopted for the relief of the poor. Medical attention was perhaps new. In 1741 an account for medicine of £4 8s. was passed, and in 1746 there was payment of £4 4s. for medical services. Paupers' rents, and from 1764 the cost of their firing, were often paid and in many cases the money went to prominent vestrymen. (fn. 26)

In 1769 a workhouse was built on parish land near the church. From 1770 payments for wool and spindles indicate that the inmates were engaged in spinning. From 1771 this work brought income; the weekly sums recorded were usually greatest in the winter. This income later declined. Another source of income was the hiring of paupers' labour. From 1810 until 1815 regular statements of account between the governor of the workhouse and the parishioners were recorded. The overseers made monthly or fortnightly cash payments and supplied flour to the governor. He kept the paupers at an agreed rate for each person, and received extra for fuel, potatoes, and 'hair cutting, shaving, mops, brooms, thread, worsted, tape, oil &c.' In 1809 there were 12 beds in the workhouse and in 1830 there were 13. (fn. 27)

In 1829 Stanford Rivers joined with nine other parishes in a voluntary poor law union. (fn. 28) The parish raised £300 on £50 bonds at 4 per cent., dated 1830-1, to defray its contribution towards the cost of the new incorporated workhouse, (fn. 29) and in 1831 sold its own workhouse for £420. (fn. 30)

The new incorporated workhouse was built (probably in 1830-1) at Little End in Stanford Rivers, on land formerly owned by Capel Cure. (fn. 31) After the formation of the Ongar Union in 1836 it became the property of the new union and served as its workhouse until the union came to an end in 1930.

Stanford Rivers became part of the Ongar Union in 1836.


  • 1. DL 30/116/1762; SC2/173/81.
  • 2. E.R.O., D/DP M 1127-40. For later court rolls (to 1923) see E.R.O., D/DTc M3.
  • 3. These records are not quite complete. A file of original jury presentments, draft court rolls, and miscellaneous court papers (D/DP M1140) is stated, in the paper which begins the file, to have been assembled and handed over in lieu of certain court rolls (which were missing) upon conveyance of the manor in 1615. Hence any statement about irregularity of meeting of the court must be suppositious: the court may have met regularly but some of its records may have perished.
  • 4. The longest gap between courts was four years.
  • 5. e.g. D/DP M1127, 4 Apr. 1560: 2 jurors attended in right of their wives.
  • 6. e.g. ibid. 3 Sept. 1573: John Grene of Navestock was sworn.
  • 7. e.g. ibid., 4 Apr. 1560: 'tenants and inhabitants of the manor . . . to amend the buttes within the manor'. Cf. another order that 'no one neither tenants nor inhabitants within that manor, shall permit their servants and sons to break hedges within the manor'.
  • 8. e.g. ibid. 4 Sept. 1566.
  • 9. e.g. ibid. 29 Sept. 1562: Wm. Mylborne presented for keeping a woman suspect as a whore. On 4 July 1564 he was presented as a common barrator, an'inhuman' man among his neighbours and a 'public enemy of the common wealth'(rei publici inimicus publicus) and the bailiff was ordered to move him from his tenement.
  • 10. e.g. ibid. 4 Apr. 1560: default of William Wood.
  • 11. As enjoined by Poor Relief Act, 14 Chas. II c. 12 (1662).
  • 12. The loss of pecuniary interest by the lord may have contributed. The 'common fine' of 6s. 6d. became increasingly inadequate as an incentive to the lord to hold the court.
  • 13. E.R.O., D/P 140/1/1. The vestry had no power to swear the constables; that power lay, at common law, with the leet or a justice.
  • 14. e.g. 1675: leet 8 Apr., Vestry 5 Apr.
  • 15. E.R.O., D/P 140/8/1.
  • 16. Ibid. D/DP M1131.
  • 17. Ibid. D/P 140/1/1. All vestry information down to 1724 is from this source, which is also the earliest parish register. Later vestry minutes are D/P 140/8/1-7. Unless otherwise stated references below are to vestry minutes.
  • 18. This, of course, was an hour when only a fairly wealthy employer could attend.
  • 19. E.R.O., D/P 140/8/2.
  • 20. Sammes kept the 'Green Man': cf. E.R.O., Q/RLv 36.
  • 21. Eleven pairs of churchwardens and of surveyors; 11 trios of overseers; 8 pairs of sidesmen.
  • 22. The levy of a special church rate in 1817, for extensive repairs to the church, is the only exception.
  • 23. A dispute with 3 ratepayers over the new reassessment was settled by arbitration.
  • 24. E.R.O., Q/CR 1/9.
  • 25. This was under Poor Relief Act, 8 & 9 Will. III, c. 30.
  • 26. This is, of course, not surprising: they were of the class which owned cottages and had timber to sell.
  • 27. E.R.O., D/P 140/18/4.
  • 28. The union was under Gilbert's Act (22 Geo. III, c. 83 (1782)). The other parishes were Abbess Roding, Bobbingworth, Greenstead, Little Laver, Shelley, Stapleford Abbots, Stapleford Tawney, Stondon Massey, and Great Warley. All were in Ongar hundred except the last, which was in Chafford hundred. For a copy of the agreement see E.R.O., Q/RSw 1.
  • 29. E.R.O., D/P 140/8/8. The bondholders were all London men.
  • 30. Ibid. 140/18/3.
  • 31. E.R.O., D/DCc T33.