High Laver: Parish government and poor relief

Pages 95-96

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

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Vestry minute-books for High Laver survive for 1657-1804 (fn. 1) and 1863- 1943. (fn. 2)

Until 1682 vestry meetings seem to have been held only at Easter in each year. From 1682 meetings were held at Easter and Christmas. In 1739 four meetings were recorded and if a resolution of 23 April 1739 was carried out there must afterwards have been at least three meetings a year, at Easter, Michaelmas, and Christmas. In later years meetings were sometimes held at other times also.

Until John Cleeve became rector in 1734 the minutes were brief and rarely signed. Only three resolutions were entered before 1735 and two of these were not signed. Only the appointment of officers and the approval of their accounts were usually recorded. Until the end of the 17th century the totals of officers' receipts and disbursements were usually entered, but from 1696 until 1735 the minutes only recorded the annual balances and sometimes omitted even this. Cleeve exercised an immediate influence on the parish records. He attended vestry meetings regularly and he wrote the minutes. Vestry resolutions were recorded regularly and were always signed by him and the parishioners present. Moreover, from 1735 it was again the practice to record the details of accounts although it did not become customary to sign them. From Cleeve's death in 1777 until 1804 the accounts continued to be minuted in the same fashion, but only once, in 1790, was a vestry resolution recorded.

The number of parishioners attending vestry meetings before 1776 varied between 2 and 7 but was usually between 4 and 7 until 1745 and 2 or 3 after that date. At a vestry in 1771 it was agreed that in future anyone absenting himself from a meeting without a good excuse should be fined 6d. The next recorded vestry, in 1776, was attended by six parishioners. Only once after this, in 1790, were the minutes signed and then there were nine signatures. In the 17th and early 18th centuries the Mashams of Otes evidently took an active interest in parish affairs and attended vestry meetings. Of the five occasions on which minutes were signed before 1735, Sir Francis Masham, 3rd Bt., signed twice, in 1665 and 1667, and F. C. Masham, half brother of Samuel, 1st Lord Masham, and heir of John Locke, signed once, in 1728. Sir Francis signed before, and F. C. Masham after, the rector. When it became the practice to sign the minutes the Mashams were usually not resident in the parish and their signatures never appeared in the minutes. The owners of the capital manor seem never to have attended vestry meetings, but Abraham Thorrowgood, tenant of the estate by 1767, took an active part in parish affairs from 1764 and usually signed the minutes immediately after the rector.

The main work of the vestry consisted in appointing officers and approving their accounts. It evidently became the practice, however, for the poor to take complaints to vestry meetings and for individuals to use these occasions to settle their accounts with parish officers. In 1767 it was resolved that 'for the future no business whatsoever shall be done on the day the accounts are settled but what relates to the parish business of that day only, so that the poor shall bring their complaints on the vestry immediately preceding, and all private accounts between officers and others shall be settled either before or after that day'.

In 1712 it was agreed that 'Henry Marling shall have 20s. a year allowed for church clerk's wages'. In 1735 it was agreed that 'the clerk shall receive 4d. yearly of every householder that does not pay to the poor'. In 1743 it was resolved that 10s. a year should be added to the clerk's wages.

There were two churchwardens in each of the years 1613 and 1614. There were also two each year from 1657 until 1698. During this period they usually served for 2-4 years consecutively. From 1698 there was only one churchwarden, who usually served for many consecutive years.

Until 1672 there were two overseers each year and they usually served for two or three years consecutively. From 1672 there was only one overseer. Until 1724 it was usual to serve two years consecutively, but afterwards the overseers served for one year only. They were evidently chosen on a rota system and once, in 1802, a woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Speed, tenant of the capital manor, was appointed to serve.

Constables were nominated in vestry at least from 1657. Until 1704 there were always two, each of whom usually served two years consecutively. Thereafter there was usually only one. Until 1743 this officer usually served no more than two years at a time, but after that date he usually served for at least three consecutively and sometimes much longer.

Two surveyors of highways were nominated annually. From 1682, if not before, they were appointed at Christmas. The number of years served consecutively varied from one to five. Sir Francis Masham was surveyor from 1672 until 1676.

Until at least 1739, and perhaps until 1743, the overseers, churchwardens, and constables were each granted separate rates for which they were directly responsible to the parish. Occasionally one officer was ordered to pay another officer's deficit out of his surplus. In the churchwarden's account of expenditure for 1692-3 there were four items, totalling 1s. 11d., 'for relief'. These items were passed only after some hesitation and it was resolved 'never to allow any reliefs hereafter paid by churchwardens'. From 1743, if not from 1739, the constables were no longer granted separate rates. Their expenditure was met by the churchwardens who included it in their account. There is no clear evidence that the surveyors accounted directly to the parish until 1743-4 when they received a separate rate for which they accounted to the vestry. From 1744 until 1747 the churchwarden, who was also one of the surveyors, included their expenditure in his accounts, but after 1747 there was always a separate surveyors' account.

There was a workhouse in High Laver in 1767. In that year the vestry agreed 'that the old persons in the workhouse shall have one-quarter of what they shall earn and the other three parts shall go to the governor of the workhouse'. By 1776, however, the house had become a mere poor house where paupers were lodged rent free. (fn. 3) It lay on the north side of the Harlow Road about ¼ mile west of the church. (fn. 4) In 1841, when it was no longer a poorhouse and belonged to George Starkins, it was a cottage, occupied by three tenants. (fn. 5)

In most cases poor relief was given, in various forms, outside the poorhouse. In each of the years 1813-15 there were 20-22 adults on 'permanent' outdoor relief. (fn. 6) Provision for the poor was made in various ways, including the binding out of paupers' children as apprentices, the payment of rent, and the provision of clothes. Parish apprentices were allotted on a rota system. In 1738 it was agreed that 'no poor person's rent should be paid by the parish for any time before he becomes chargeable without a special order of vestry'. In 1753 John Parsons agreed to attend the poor as apothecary and surgeon 'except midwifery and smallpox' for 3 years at 4½ guineas a year.

In 1613-14 the cost of poor relief was £4 9s. (fn. 7) In 1734-5 it was £24. It then rose sharply to a maximum of £104 in 1741-2. In 1776 it was £133 (fn. 8) and in 1783-5 it averaged £165. (fn. 9) In 1800-1 it reached £724, but in the next seven years never exceeded £520 and was sometimes much lower. (fn. 10) In the remaining years of the Napoleonic war the cost averaged £582 a year and in 1816-17 it was £634. (fn. 11)

In 1836 High Laver became part of the Ongar Poor Law Union.


  • 1. E.R.O., D/P 111/8/1 & 2. Unless otherwise stated all the following information is derived from these minute-books. A separate 'Poor Book' was evidently kept but this is now missing.
  • 2. In possession of the rector.
  • 3. Rep. Sel. Cttee. on Overseers Retns.1777, H.C. ser. 1, vol. ix, p. 350.
  • 4. E.R.O., D/P 111/27/1 & 2.
  • 5. E.R.O., D/P 111/27/1.
  • 6. E.R.O., Q/CR 1/10.
  • 7. E.R.O., Q/SBa 3.
  • 8. E.R.O., Q/CR 1/1.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. E.R.O., Q/CR 1/9.
  • 11. Ibid.