Friday, 24 August 2012

The value of the vestry

Parish records are much more than baptism, marriage and burial registers.  Up until the mid 19th century the parish was responsible for the organisation, administration and care of the parish and its parishioners - the result of this was a lot of paperwork, some of which (where it has survived) is very valuable to the genealogist.
One example of documents which can provide all sorts of useful information are the vestry minutes.  Those involved in running the parish were known as the vestry because traditionally they met in the vestry room of the church.  Here they would appoint the officials needed to run the parish such as the overseers, the surveyor and the constable.  Many of these roles were undertaken on a rotational basis for a year.
For vestry minutes to be useful they have to have survived, a search of a selection of Sussex parishes finds that the parishes of Polegate, Etchingham and Southease have no surviving vestry records whilst those for Heathfield only survive from 1820, those for St Mary in the Castle, Hastings (known as Castle parish) survive for the period 1753 through to 1908 whilst those for St Nicholas Brighton survive as early as 1683 through to 1856.
In addition to surviving they also have to contain useful information for genealogists.  The vestry records for the Castle parish in Hastings between 1774 and 1794 only record the accounts submitted by the overseers but later records for the period 1823 to 1851 provide far more detailed information.  The records for Brighton between 1789-1799 include the decisions made at each meeting but don't list all the applications which were turned down.  The vestry book for West Grinstead 1833 to 1842 is a record of the myriad of applications for relief.

In a time before  pensions and the NHS each parish took care of its elderly population:
Mrs Gallop the wife of William applies for some more relief, her husband being incapable of doing anything being imbecile.  Ordered that she be allowed 7s 6d per week.  [1st December 1825 - Hastings]
old George Laker wants Relief Ill Lost 11 Days [work - given]  6 shillings  [15th October 1833 - West Grinstead] 

The vestry also provided healthcare (such as it was):
Ordered that Application be immediately made to get Lucy Ovett into St Lukes or Bedlam   [27th Mar 1793 - Brighton]
Ordered that Mrs Brand be paid fourteen Shillings for nursing the man that dyed at Mr Hobdens   [16th May 1796 - Brighton]
Reuben Eason applied for a nurse for his wife.  Allowed   [14th April 1825 - Hastings]
Edward Dinage wants Relief has had the Misfortune to be run over with A very heavy Load of Coals, near Billingshurst Street, has not been Able to do any Work since, Doctor Evershed attends him   [20th August 1833 - West Grinstead]
The wife of George Ransom Tailor applies for a nurse to be allowed her in her approaching confinement and also a pair of Blankets.  Allowed  [2nd Oct 1833 - Hastings]

The vestry might help to find work for those in need of employment, this benefited the parish as people were less likely to need help from the vestry if they were working:
At this Parish Mr Benjamin Lingham agrees to take James Hook and Charles Chapman two poor Boys for the year ensuring upon the parish finding them in Clothes   [29th March 1824 - Hastings]
Ordered that Thomas Wellsted a poor Boy of this Parish be put apprentice to Mr John Russell of the Parish of Saint Clement in this Town, Baker  [14th April 1825 - Hastings]
John Gates has got A place [job] for his Girl at Brighton wants the Parish to give her som Clothes, Sarah Gates Age 14    [1st October 1833 - West Grinstead]

Much of the work of the parish would be taken up with care of the poor, often supplementing their income in times of need  or finding ways to move them elsewhere:
Ordered that Jane Brand (wife of Richard Brand now serving in the Sussex Militia for the Parish of Saint Michaels Lewes) be allowed one Pair of Sheets one Blanket and one Rug   [23rd Oct 1797 - Brighton]
Ordered that Mr James Pounse be requested to enquire what will be the expense of repairing James Shrivells Boat    [12th Feb 1798  - Brighton, presumably if his boat is repaired James Shrivell will be able to support himself again]
John King of Rye applies for relief [–] ordered to be allowed two Shillings a week for himself and his wife   [16th June 1831 - Hastings]
Ordered that provided James Holt is willing to go to America with his wife and child he shall be allowed the sum of £7 and that their passage and victualling on board shall be paid by the parish and a decent suit of clothes shall be provided for himself and wife.  [28th March 1833 - Hastings]

The administration of the poor law was considerable, especially when the person living in the parish belonged to another parish and vice versa:
Ordered that the Parish Officers of Godstone be wrote to concerning Pullens Daughter now with child  [30th Jan 1793 - Brighton]
Ordered that the Parish Officers of Clapham near Arundell Sussex be written to and acquainted that Mrs Wiseman has become chargeable and desire their Answer what Steps the Officers should persue as they are under Certificate    [13th June 1796 -  Brighton]
Edward Gallop now living at Newhaven applies for assistance to bring his family home to Hastings.  Ordered that it be left to the Overseers to manage as they can with him   [28th March 1827 - Hastings]
Eliza Smith [living in] Brighton wants Som Clothes Age 16   [1st April 1834 - West Grinstead]

Bastardy was a big issue, illegitimate children and their mothers often became the responsibility of the parish so the vestry were keen to offset the costs by identifying the father.  Parents who ran off and left their children were not popular either:
Ordered that William Warburton Newman be advertized for running away and leaving his wife and Children chargeable  [20th Mar 1797 bri]
Ordered that the overseers shall take such course as they may consider most adviseable to apprehend James Stilwell for bastardy with Ann Kemp  [23rd May 1832 - Hastings]

But of course the vestry was not always helpful to its residents:
Sarah Shoesmith a little Girl 12 years old applied for some Clothes.  Not allowed    [4th August 1825 - Hastings]
John Gates wants Work [to which the response was] Go in the [work]House    [13th October 1833 - West Grinstead]

East Sussex Record Office: Brighton St Nicholas HOW 34/17 Minutes of Vestries 1789-1799
East Sussex Record Office: Hastings St Mary in the Castle PAR369 12/2 Vestry notes 1774-1794
East Sussex Record Office: Hastings St Mary in the Castle PAR369 12/3 Vestry notes 1823-1851
West Sussex Record Office: West Grinstead PAR95 12/1 Vestry minute book 1833-1842

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