The ancient parish of Barking: Local government and poor relief

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.

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'The ancient parish of Barking: Local government and poor relief', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 219-222. British History Online [accessed 18 April 2024]

In this section


Only one medieval court roll of Barking manor has survived, that for 1440–1. (fn. 2) This recorded transfers of copyhold tenements, fines for breaking the assize of bread and ale, and for selling badlytanned hides, and the activities of 'le Watergang', which was a special session of the manor court to deal with drainage offences. (fn. 3) The appointments of several officials were also noted. A bailiff was chosen for the abbess's farms of Gayshams Hall and Newbury, one for Eastbury and another for Westbury. Two constables were chosen for Chadwell ward, one for Ripple, and apparently two for Ilford. (fn. 4) An aletaster was appointed for Ilford. These are the first known references to the division of Barking into wards. The manor was too large to be administered conveniently as a whole. In the 15th century it was divided for some purposes, shown both in the 1440–1 court roll and in the 1456 rental, (fn. 5) into a 'south side' equivalent to the south of modern Barking and the whole of Dagenham, and a 'north side' equivalent to north Barking and the whole of Ilford. The division into wards was a further refinement, which became permanent and, as will be shown, was later used in the parochial administration of Barking. Although only three wards were mentioned in the court roll, Chadwell, Ilford, and Ripple, there can be little doubt that then, as later, there was a fourth, Barking town.

The manor court continued to meet until about 1900, but probably played little part in local government after about 1700, by which time the court house and the town wharf, which had formerly belonged to the lord of the manor, had become parish property. (fn. 6)

Barking parish records form a fine collection starting in 1694. (fn. 7) In the 18th century vestry meetings were usually held once a month except in the summer, when they were less frequent. Attendance figures were not systematically recorded before 1773–7, when they averaged 13. In the 19th century an attendance of 40 was not uncommon. (fn. 8) When the vicar was absent the chair was taken by a churchwarden or by the 'lecturer' (curate). During the incumbency of Peter Rashleigh (1781–1836) this often happened. (fn. 9)

In 1819 the parish vestry adopted the Second Sturges Bourne Act and set up two select vestries, one for Barking and Ripple wards, the minutes of which survive for 1826–30, and the other for Ilford and Chadwell, which has left no records. (fn. 10) In 1826–9 the Barking select vestry met fortnightly, but during the first three months of 1830 there were additional meetings. (fn. 11)

The Barking Workhouse Act of 1786 transferred most of the responsibility for poor relief from the vestry to a new body called the directors of the poor. (fn. 12) The directors were, in the first instance, six persons named in the Act, together with the Vicar of Barking and all justices of the peace resident in the parish. Vacancies were to be filled by co-option from persons occupying premises in the parish rated at £200 a year or an estate for life worth £100 a year. The directors were to meet at least once a quarter. They were empowered to appoint a treasurer, a clerk, and other officers and to pay them. It was also provided that the parish vestry should each year appoint four 'guardians of the poor', one for each ward, who were to carry out the provisions of the Act, under the orders of the directors. Overseers of the poor were still to be appointed, as laid down by general statute, but the only functions left to them were levying the poor rate and relieving the casual poor and even in these they were under the directors' control. When the poor rate had been collected the overseers were to pay two-thirds of it to the directors' treasurer within six weeks, and the balance within three months. The overseers were allowed to pay out small sums for casual poor relief, but such expenditure had to be confirmed by the directors. The Act required the directors to provide a workhouse and gave them powers to raise money for this purpose by borrowing on the security of the poor rates or by selling annuities charged on the rates. They could make by-laws and, if churchwardens, overseers, constables, guardians, or other parish officers were uncooperative, the directors could compel them to explain their conduct. The Act also gave the directors control of all parish charities for the poor in general, including the school founded by Sir James Cambell, and of the Town Wharf. (fn. 13)

The directors of the poor exercised all the functions laid upon them by the Act until 1836, when their responsibility for poor relief was transferred to Romford Poor Law Union and Cambell's School was absorbed by Barking National School. During the early years of their existence they met often, sometimes two or three times a month, but after 1792 rarely more than once a quarter. (fn. 14)

Relations between the directors and the parish vestry were usually good. The two bodies were linked not only by the provisions of the Act of 1786 but also by the fact that many of the directors were prominent vestrymen. Another strong link was provided by the practice, which prevailed from 1787 to 1833, of appointing the same person as vestry clerk and clerk to the directors. (fn. 15)

For the purposes of parochial administration Barking was divided into four wards, Town, Ripple, Ilford, and Chadwell. (fn. 16) The first two together were roughly equivalent to modern Barking, the others to Ilford; their boundaries are shown on a map of 1805–6. (fn. 17) Each ward was separately rated. The total rateable value of the parish rose from £9,782 in 1745 to £15,629 in 1805 and then, more rapidly, to £41,551 in 1854, and £72,048 in 1874. (fn. 18) Rates for different parochial purposes do not at first appear to have been clearly distinguished, but from 1745 there are separate figures for poor rates and church rates, and from 1770 also highway rates. The vestry seems to have been reluctant to prosecute those who failed to pay rates, but in 1769–72 it was involved in a struggle with the vicar over his assessment.

Each ward had its own set of parish officers. Before 1830 there were four churchwardens: two for Barking, one for Ilford, and one shared by Chadwell and Ripple. From 1748 one of those appointed for Barking was chosen by the vicar. (fn. 19)

Until 1834 there were four overseers of the poor, one for each ward. From 1834 four were appointed for each ward. (fn. 20) A woman was overseer in 1703. From 1819 the Barking Select Vestry appointed two salaried assistant overseers, one for Barking and Ripple, and the other for Ilford and Chadwell. (fn. 21) The four guardians of the poor, one for each ward, appointed under the Act of 1786, have already been mentioned.

There were six surveyors of highways, two for Barking ward, two for Ilford, one for Chadwell, and one for Ripple. (fn. 22) In 1809 the vestry appointed in addition a salaried inspector of highways for the whole parish, but the surveyors continued to be responsible for the financial side of road repair.

The appointment of constables by the manor court in 1440–1 has already been mentioned. In and after the late 17th century there were four constables, one for each ward. The vestry paid their expenses but was not responsible for their appointments, which must have been made either by the manor court or by the justices of the peace. (fn. 23) The vestry minutes also refer to the office of head-borough, which may not have been identical with that of constable, in Barking and Ilford wards. (fn. 24)

The vestry appointed two beadles, one for Barking and Ripple, the other for Ilford and Chadwell. They received wages and uniforms. (fn. 25) In 1808 a salaried rate-collector was appointed for the whole parish, but after his death in 1811 the vestry had great difficulty in recovering the money which he owed and no successor was appointed. (fn. 26)

The parish owned property of various kinds. From the end of the 17th century the vestry had control of the town wharf and the market-house. (fn. 27) Under the Act of 1786, as described above, the wharf, and some of the parish charities were placed under the control of the directors of the poor. There were almshouses in East Street, Barking, and various other charities, in the administration of all of which the vestry took a more or less active part. (fn. 28) In the late 17th century the vestry sometimes presented almsmen to Ilford Hospital; there is no evidence that they did so after 1700. (fn. 29)

Until 1722 there appears to have been no parish poorhouse or workhouse and the poor were relieved mainly by the payment of pensions. Between 1699 and 1722 there were usually about 60 regular pensioners in Barking ward, 18 in Ilford, 10 in Chadwell, and 2 in Ripple. Paupers were sometimes given clothing. Their children, from the age of 8 or 9, were put out as apprentices, sometimes against the parents' wishes. (fn. 30) The vestry contracted with a local doctor to tend the sick poor and sometimes hired persons to nurse them. (fn. 31) Paupers were badged in accordance with the Poor Relief Act of 1697. (fn. 32)

In 1694, the first year for which figures are known, the poor rate for the parish produced a total of £521. (fn. 33) It rose sharply during the War of the Spanish Succession and in 1714 was £923. The vestry tightened its administration of poor relief in 1711 (fn. 34) and the opening of the workhouse in 1722, described below, was part of the same policy. In 1734 it was decided that out-pensions should cease and that all those receiving relief should go into the house, but this order does not seem to have been enforced: out-relief, in cash and in kind, continued in addition to relief in the house. (fn. 35) The rate remained steady for the next 20 years and in 1752 sank to £554, but in 1758, during the Seven Years War, it rose to £1,548. Even that figure was soon passed and in 1772 the rate was £1,915. In 1774 the vestry began to consider building a larger workhouse. (fn. 36) No effective action was taken at that time, and in 1779 the rate rose to £2,058. The Act of 1786, the provisions of which have already been described, was intended to improve the efficiency and economy of poor relief, but these aims were not achieved. A new workhouse was opened in 1788, but much out-relief seems still to have been necessary. (fn. 37) In 1790 the rate reached a new peak of £2,436. The increase was partly due to the heavy loan-charges incurred in building the house. In 1791 the directors of the poor kept down the rate by borrowing £550 to pay tradesmen's bills, and they used the same method in an attempt to evade the difficulties created by the long war with France, which broke out in 1793. (fn. 38) Eventually, of course, the capital borrowed, as well as the interest, had to be found from the rates. As late as 1810 the rate was only £2,864, but in 1813 it was £4,254.

Two factors enabled the directors to escape the worst consequences of their financial policy. One was the expansion of the Barking fishing industry after 1815, (fn. 39) which provided much employment for the poor. The other was the great increase in rateable values. In 1830 the poor rate produced £4,783 but this represented a lower poundage than the rate of 1790. The ratepayers of Barking fared much better than those in some Essex parishes. At Abbess Roding, for example, between 1824 and 1833, the rate averaged about 10s. in the pound. (fn. 40) At Barking during the same period it was usually under 2s.

The first workhouse, opened in 1722, consisted of four leasehold tenements in North Street, Barking. (fn. 41) From 1764 to 1788 the inmates were farmed to a succession of masters at 3s. a head a week. Payments made between 1771 and 1788 indicate that about 50 were then accommodated. They were sometimes put to work on winding silk, picking oakum, or on making mops or cloth. (fn. 42)

The building of a new workhouse, under the Act of 1786, was put in hand by the directors of the poor at their first meeting. They bought land in North Street, adjoining the school, employed Charles Wilmot, surveyor, as architect, and Thomas Barnes as contractor. The building was completed early in 1788. (fn. 43) It was one of the largest parish workhouses in Essex. In 1828–30 the average number of inmates was about 250 and at some other periods it was probably larger. (fn. 44) The directors usually maintained immediate control over the house, but for just over a year, in 1831–3, they farmed it to a contractor named John Polly at 3s. 9d. a head a week. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory and was not repeated. (fn. 45) The workhouse was normally run by salaried officials: a master and mistress, assisted by a book-keeper. It included a factory where at first the paupers made sacks under a manager employed for the purpose. This never made a profit and was closed in 1804; a later attempt to manufacture cloth also failed. (fn. 46)

From 1836 to 1838 the workhouse was leased to the newly-formed Romford Poor Law Union. In 1841 it was let on a 99-year lease and was converted into shops. (fn. 47) Part of it later housed Barking's first public library. (fn. 48) It was demolished in 1936. (fn. 49) It was a large building of two stories with basements, consisting of a central block with side wings. (fn. 50) A copy of the Latin inscription placed on the building at its erection is preserved with the borough records.


The division of Barking and Ilford in 1830 was for ecclesiastical purposes only. For civil purposes the Barking vestry continued to govern, and to appoint or nominate parish officers for the whole of the ancient parish. From its creation the parish vestry of Ilford appointed two churchwardens for church duties, but since the churchwardens of the ancient parish had civil as well as ecclesiastical functions the Barking vestry continued to appoint an Ilford warden. The constitutional difficulties inherent in this situation were avoided by the practice, usually followed from 1836 to 1888, of appointing one of the St. Mary's wardens as the Ilford warden in the Barking vestry. (fn. 51) When Barking became part of Romford Poor Law Union in 1836, the parish vestry and the directors of the poor ceased to be responsible for poor relief. One of the main functions still remaining to the vestry was the repair of highways, but in 1867 this became the responsibility of the Romford Highway District. (fn. 52) The vestry was also concerned with public health. This was becoming an urgent problem. Between 1831 and 1881 the population of Barking (including Ilford) rose from 8,036 to 16,848, and throughout this period more than half the inhabitants lived in Barking town ward where many of the houses were in 'low and close alleys', in which disease, such as the cholera of 1831–2, spread quickly. (fn. 53) Drainage was bad, pigs roamed the streets, and by 1850 loads of manure were being constantly carted through the town. (fn. 54)

The vestry did little to remedy these conditions and resented attempts by others to do so. In 1846, at the suggestion of Bishop Blomfield, it appointed a committee to investigate drainage and refuse disposal in the town. Some action was taken against nuisances as a result and the vestry appears to have considered that there was no further cause for concern. (fn. 55) Some of the inhabitants, however, thought otherwise, and in 1853, after a public enquiry, the General Board of Health ordered that a local board of health should be set up for the parish of Barking. The vestry opposed this measure and appears to have resisted its enforcement for some months. (fn. 56) In 1855, under the Nuisances' Removal Act of that year, the local board was abolished and its powers were given to the vestry, which exercised them through two nuisance removal committees, one for Barking and Ripple, the other for Ilford and Chadwell. (fn. 57)

Under the Public Health Act of 1872 the guardians of Romford Union became the rural sanitary authority for all the parishes within their area not having local boards, and payments from Barking vestry to the sanitary authority are recorded from 1873. (fn. 58) In 1882 a local board was formed for the town ward of Barking and in 1885 this was given jurisdiction also over Ripple Ward. (fn. 59) Ilford was still under the control of the rural sanitary authority but in 1883 it was given partial autonomy through the creation of a parochial sanitary committee, which functioned until 1890. William Temple was chairman of this committee from 1883 to 1889, when he was defeated by Edward J. Beal. The committee met at first at the Angel Hotel, but in 1884 it set up offices in a rented house in Brandon Terrace. Its principal duties were to carry out a sewerage scheme and to ensure good sanitary arrangements in the new houses being built at Ilford. From 1885 it employed a resident surveyor. (fn. 60)

In 1887 the Barking vestry promoted a bill to divide Ilford and Barking for civil purposes; it is said to have been drafted by Edward J. Beal. (fn. 61) It became law in the following year; the Act provided that Ilford and Chadwell wards of the ancient parish should be constituted the civil parish of Ilford, and those of Barking and Ripple the civil parish of Barking. The government of Ilford, so far as this was still a parish responsibility, was vested in three overseers, elected annually, with an assistant overseer and a vestry clerk. (fn. 62) Beal became chairman of the overseers as well as of the sanitary committee, and in 1889 was also elected Ilford's first representative on the County Council. (fn. 63)

After 1836 the only function retained by the directors of the poor was that of controlling the town wharf, and in 1853 they changed their title to 'directors of the town wharf'. (fn. 64) Their meetings became irregular and infrequent; the last recorded in the minute book was in December 1854. (fn. 65) It is not known whether they met after that date. (fn. 66) In 1888 their powers were transferred to six 'conservators' of the wharf, who were to be elected annually, three from Barking and three from Ilford. (fn. 67)

The whole of the ancient parish of Barking became part of the Metropolitan Police District in 1840. (fn. 68)

A Burial Board was formed for Ilford in 1880 and one for Barking in 1884. (fn. 69)


  • 1. This section is based mainly on the much more detailed account contained in: J. E. Oxley, Barking Vestry Minutes and other parish documents.
  • 2. E.R.O., D/DP M187. For extracts, concerning tithes, from court rolls 1349–1469 see S.C. 2/171/22.
  • 3. See p. 238.
  • 4. The wording is ambiguous.
  • 5. Trans. Barking Arch. Soc. 1936 and 1937.
  • 6. See pp. 187, 217; J. E. Oxley, Barking Vestry Minutes, 1–2. For the revenue of the manor in 1728 see E.R.O., Sage Coll., Hist. Barking &c. i, f. 182. Court books of the manor, 1679–1703, in the possession of the Hulse family, have not been used in this article.
  • 7. For description see E. J. Erith, Essex Parish Records, 48–49 and Oxley, Barking Vestry Minutes, passim. Some further records have been discovered since this account was written.
  • 8. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 36.
  • 9. Ibid. 31.
  • 10. Ibid. 30, 269.
  • 11. Ibid. 269–72.
  • 12. 26 Geo. III, c. 115.
  • 13. See pp. 187, 233, 246.
  • 14. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 215.
  • 15. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 23–24, 218–19.
  • 16. See above.
  • 17. Oxley, Barking Vestry, f.p. 9.
  • 18. For rates see Oxley, ibid. 44f, 291f.
  • 19. Oxley, ibid. 9–12.
  • 20. Oxley, ibid. 9–12.
  • 21. Ibid. 30.
  • 22. Ibid. 15–18.
  • 23. Ibid. 13, 150f.
  • 24. Ibid. 14.
  • 25. Ibid. 25.
  • 26. Ibid. 29.
  • 27. See pp. 187, 217.
  • 28. For the parish charities see p. 233.
  • 29. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 97.
  • 30. Ibid. 90–92.
  • 31. Ibid. 141, 90.
  • 32. Ibid. 92.
  • 33. The figures in this and succeeding paragraphs are based, unless otherwise stated, on Oxley, Barking Vestry, 291–6.
  • 34. Ibid. 91.
  • 35. Ibid. 91.
  • 36. Ibid. 112–13.
  • 37. Ibid. 97.
  • 38. Ibid. 248.
  • 39. See p. 240.
  • 40. V.C.H. Essex, iv. 196.
  • 41. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 108f.
  • 42. Ibid. 109, 113, 199.
  • 43. Ibid. 220–3.
  • 44. Ibid. 236–7; cf. 306.
  • 45. Ibid. 236–8.
  • 46. Ibid. 229–43.
  • 47. Ibid. 114; Barking Borough Council, Century of Progress in Local Govt. 28.
  • 48. V.C.H. Essex, Bibliography, 328.
  • 49. Inf. from Town Clerk.
  • 50. Oxley, Barking Vestry, f.p. 81; Ilford Borough Libr., watercolour by A. B. Bamford, 1905.
  • 51. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 10, 317–27; cf. the original Vestry Minutes.
  • 52. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 171.
  • 53. Ibid. 146.
  • 54. Ibid. 146; see also p. 216.
  • 55. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 146–7.
  • 56. Ibid. 147; Barking Borough Council, Century of Progress in Local Govt. 43.
  • 57. Century of Progress, 43; Oxley, Barking Vestry, 192.
  • 58. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 297.
  • 59. Century of Progress, 43.
  • 60. E.R.O., G/RS 2 and 3 (Mins. of Ilford Parochial Sanitary Ctee.).
  • 61. Century of Progress, 41; Tasker, Ilford, 43.
  • 62. Act for the division of the Parish of Barking, 51 & 52 Vict. c. 46 (local Act).
  • 63. Tasker, Ilford, 43, 53.
  • 64. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 215.
  • 65. Ibid. 268. For the wharf see p. 187.
  • 66. But cf. Oxley, Barking Vestry, 206–7.
  • 67. Act for the division of Barking, 51 & 52 Vict. c. 46 (local Act). The Barking Workhouse Act of 1786, to which the directors owed their origin, was formally repealed in 1950: E.R. lx. 75.
  • 68. Lond. Gaz. 13 Oct. 1840, 2249.
  • 69. Century of Progress, 39, 45; Oxley, Barking Vestry, 148–9.