Ewell Vestry

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History

From Tudor times until the coming of modern local government, the public business of Ewell was carried out by a body called the parish Vestry. Ten or twelve local men would meet once a month after the morning service at St. Mary's. Usually they sat in the old Bray chantry chapel, but if it was a fine day they would stroll out into the churchyard and talk things over among the tombs. The Vestry was an unelected body; you qualified for membership by paying rates, in theory, and in practice by being willing to spend time on community business. Although the Vestry comprised a wide range of men from small farmers to landed gentry, it seems to have got on with business in a harmonious way. Ewell was a small village, and the class of employers and landowners had a lot in common.

St. Mary's old church
St. Mary's old church
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In its early days, the Vestry met to appoint the various parish officers whose role was set by government legislation: overseers of the poor, surveyors of highways, churchwardens and constables. Officers whose work involved handling money were required to keep accounts which were reviewed annually by the Vestry in order to prevent malpractice. The Vestry, in turn, was supervised by the Quarter Sessions of Surrey Magistrates (for more on Quarter Sessions, see [Surrey record Series]). In practice, however, the Vestry acted as a kind of pocket Parliament, deciding any issues as it thought fit. Although it was the predecessor of local government, its remit was far wider and included things that we would now think of as the responsibility of the national state, such as benefits, health, conscription, highways and policing.

At first the Vestry did not keep a record of its meetings; the earliest surviving entries, made between 1769-72, are accounts only. Minutes seem to have begun as a formal record of the more important decisions which had been made, and it is not until the 1810s that they all meetings are reported. In 1823 George Brooker Stone took over as Vestry Clerk, and continued in office until 1848. The minutes survive in three volumes, now held at Surrey History Centre (SHC: 3831/1/1-3). They cover the years 1773-1829, 1830-66 and 1866-95.

The chair used by George Stone as Vestry Clerk, 1823–48
The chair used by George Stone as Vestry Clerk, 1823-48
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Early Years

Click here for a full transcript of the Vestry minutes 1773-1895.

The roots of parish administration lay in the Middle Ages, when parishioners took responsibility for maintaining their church. Under the Tudors, these church meetings and officers were given more and more responsibilities until they developed into modern local government, but they never quite lost their original character. Almost always, the Ewell Vestry met at St. Mary's church; they did adjourn to the George in 1784 and 1806, and to the Green Man 1800, but this was exceptional. (Epsom Vestry normally met at an inn, but Epsom was a larger parish and needed more room for its representatives). The last Ewell meeting in licensed premises was in 1800, when they booked the Bulls Head, but this was effectively an open meeting to discuss the impending Enclosure Act, and there had to be room for everyone to attend.

The old church of St. Mary's needed frequent improvements as well as the standard process of repair. A gallery was put in in 1780; repairs, including the churchyard wall, were undertaken in 1807; in 1810 there were new railings and a refit of the chancel. In theory the chancel was the responsibility of the lay rector, Sir George Glyn, but he does not appear to have been consulted. In fact the Glyns played very little part in village life at this time.

Though the Vestry spent a great deal of time and thought on the church, they were not much bothered with the clergy; it is not until 1819, seventeen years after he had been instituted, that the vicar James Maggs seems to have taken the chair at a Vestry meeting. Generally the vestrymen were united when it came to church business, although the organ seems to have been a bone of contention. They voted for getting rid of it in 1789, but it remained in use. By 1814 it was ready to give up the ghost and they have to pay for repairs, but then there was a dispute about whether it was right for the organist be paid out of the church rate. That suggests some degree of dispute between low-church men who didn't think music was proper for services, and high-church opponents who did. By 1817 the music-lovers had evidently won, since the whole Vestry proposed a vote of thanks to Mr. Monger the organist, who also played for St. Martin's in Epsom from 1822. His son, William R. Monger helped out at Ewell and succeeded to the post on his father's death in 1825.

St Mary's Church Organ
St Mary's Church Organ
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Ewell was a growing village; the population had increased by more than 50% during the period of the first Vestry minutes, and it was not easy to fit them all into a small medieval church. In 1823 the Vestry called in the support of the Society for Enlargement & Building of Churches & Chapels; a grant was approved, which can be seen in the Lambeth Palace archives (http://www.churchplansonline.org/). They removed the font to make sittings in its place - a very Georgian prioritising of audience management over the sacraments. Repairs and enlargement were needed almost immediately, in 1826.

The survival of medieval arrangements left the Vestry with another problem - the liberty of Kingswood. In the remote, pre-Domesday past this had been a stretch of managed woodland where the peasants of Ewell could graze cattle and cut fuel and timber. From 1200 onwards the land was cleared for agriculture, and became a hamlet in its own right on the road between Banstead and Reigate; it covered 1,800 acres, about three-quarters the size of Ewell, though with a much smaller population. They still remained parishioners of St. Mary's, however, and were liable to pay rates towards the provision of services from which they didn't receive much benefit. Kingswood poor were admitted to Ewell poorhouse in 1784 by a kind of treaty, withdrawn in 1808. The Kingswood ratepayers, who were of course always outnumbered at any Vestry meeting they attended, went seem to have gone on strike three years later, but Ewell got legal counsel and made sure they carried on paying at the same rate as the villagers. Only Benjamin Hayler held out, and the Vestry took out an injunction against him. This state of things went on until 1838, when Kingswood was at last recognised as an ecclesiastical district in its own right. There were evidently similar problems with Cuddington, which although still formally existing as a parish had no church nor any public services. The poor of Cuddington (meaning, in practice, sick or elderly workers on the prosperous estates at Nonsuch Park and Worcester Park) must have had the highest level of benefits in the country; the Ewell Vestry finally accepted, in 1805, that they might be admitted to the parish Workhouse subject to 'a Proper Indemnifaction'.

In theory, the administration of Ewell should have been divided between the manorial court, which took care of worldly matters, and the parish Vestry, dealing with church affairs. In practice, however, the Vestry took on responsibility for anything which didn't seem to belong to anyone else, and as manorial functions were in decline, they stepped in here as well. They were quite ready to combat or condone encroachments on common land, as they did in 1797, even though it was technically the common of the manor. The Common Driver seems to have been treated as a vestry official, since in 1807 a solicitor is called in over his impounding cows. A special meeting of 1800 agreed to have the open fields and common land of Ewell enclosed. Enclosure remains a debated topic. Was it, as some have suggested, a robbery of the poor and smallholders by the rich and powerful? The situation was different in different parishes: all we know is that Ewell took the decision in an apparently quite democratic way - it was 'carried by a Great Majority in favour of the said Question (that is to say with only two Dissenting Voices)' - and so they sent off to Parliament to get a Bill drafted.

The vestry also supervised highway repair; in 1819 Mr. Dowdeswell is congratulated for doing a good job in his term of office. Two years earlier, Thomas Barritt of Bourne Hall had been ticked off for allowing his trees to overshadow Spring Street; the Vestry were no respecters of persons. They authorised road diversions - there are instances in 1799, 1800 and 1817 - though they did go through the routine of asking consent for this from Quarter Sessions. In 1819, they did a land-swap for road enlargement and in 1820 they were in favour of stopping up Ox Lane, with keys to be given to the occupants of the land adjoining when they wanted to take a shortcut. This was a trade-off for a new through route to Cheam, to be paid for by Thomas Calverley of Ewell Castle, which he would have made made by projecting Vicarage Lane across the brickyards. The scheme collapsed when Calverley withdrew his offer of funding in a tiff after the establishment of a small mental asylum nearby. The Vestry had opposed the opening of this asylum, in an early instance of local government nimbyism, but this time they met their match. James Lucett, the proprietor, wrote back explaining that licence applications were assessed on the basis of how the institution was run, not on whether the neighbours wanted it.

Ox Lane, Ewell
Ox Lane, Ewell
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

It is clear from the early accounts that the Vestry were responsible for emergency services. They bought the fire engine, and built the Watch House to accommodate this on one side, and on the other any prisoners held awaiting the magistrate. After this, fire and policing services seem either to have run themselves or to have been handled directly by Quarter Sessions. The Vestry did subsidise some vigilante policing in 1811, and were occasionally vexed by anti-social behaviour - by boys behaving in a riotous manner on Sundays in 1807, by 'much Disorderly conduct in the Public Houses and Streets and especially on Sunday' in 1815, when they despatched the churchwardens and constables to deal with it, and by disorderly conduct in the Grove, which was dealt with by a stern notice in 1822. That seems to have done the trick. Of course, most of the disorderly youths knew that their only chance of getting a job lay with the local farmers - who were on the Vestry - while their only hope of getting benefits was from the Overseers of the Poor - who were Vestry officials. So an official reprimand carried some weight. By way of designing out crime, they oversaw the parish's first street lighting, a lamp placed opposite the Kings Head in 1807.

Ewell Fire Engine
Ewell Fire Engine
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Vestry took action to follow various government demands, such as the legislation for vermin control; this is mentioned once, in 1828, when the rate for sparrows was set at 2d a dozen. They managed the raising of taxes, such as window duty in 1811, and found recruits for the Napoleonic wars. Many of these duties were probably seen as aspects of a wider programme of social management; even the sparrows' heads were paid for, not just to keep them from grazing on the wheat, but to create employment for the underpaid. The 1790s were hungry years. In 1800 the vestry agreed to, and elaborately minuted, a scheme of retrenchment in which all the well-to-do of the village curtailed their consumption of bread and forswore wasteful practices such as the use of flour for powdering wigs. How much economic difference this would have made is doubtful, but it sent out a powerful message to the poor, on the lines of 'we're all in this together'. In 1809 came the Golden Jubilee of George III, the first Jubilee to be celebrated in England and one which was organised by the Vestry with the same community spirit that would animate their successors. The context was very different, though; the 1809 equivalent of a street party was giving away of bread and beer, plus small cash donations, to 'sundry poor persons', meaning the working classes, in the hopes that the French Revolution wouldn't put any dangerous ideas in their heads.

How did the Vestry manage all these responsibilities? It had staff, and there was no regular payment to officers - in fact ratepayers were supposed to take on roles such as constable or overseer in rotation year by year, although by the nineteenth century arrangements seem to have been in place to keep the more competent men in post. Only the parish clerk was paid, which meant that the Vestry's quarrels with him (as in 1811) usually ended in a humble apology, though not necessarily in reform. Most work was done by contract. From the 1770s the carpenter/ builder Henry Kitchen, who seems to have been everywhere like Figaro, fitted a new gallery to the church, built the poorhouse, and turned the elm and walnut trees on parish land into hard cash to defray expenses.

The controls on Vestry business, or lack of them, would make today's town clerks tear their hair out. In 1810-11 George Barnes, who was holding office as churchwarden, needed a builder to repair the chancel, so he awarded the contract to himself. Barnes, as builder, then presented Barnes, as churchwarden, with a bill to be paid by the Vestry, but this turned out to exceed the funds which they had available, so they got a loan to pay it… from George Barnes. Who then proceeded to charge interest, so that the issue of payment was still rumbling on in 1815. No wonder Surrey contemporaries like William Cobbett waxed indignant about Old Corruption.

There may have been some ratepayer resistance to this cosy way of doing things. In 1817, for the first time, it is minuted that the Vestry had been held following public notice given in the church, and while this might just be a variation in wording by the clerk, it may reflect unease on the part of some villagers about the unrepresentative nature of the body. Two years later Parson Maggs was invited to take the chair, the first sign of church involvement. None of this made the Vestry any more democratic, and around this time its decisions seem to be more influenced by the local gentry than they had been before. In the 1820s most major business seems to have been sorted out between Thomas Calverley and Sir Thomas Reid, the two largest landowners in the parish after the (mostly non-resident) Glyns. The death of Sir Thomas Reid, in 1824, receives a tribute worthy of a tombstone to 'the respect which they universally felt for departed Virtue and Benevolence'; it is noticeable that in these later entries Vestry minutes take on more of the phrasing of an official record, whereas the earlier ones are shorter and more businesslike.

The Vestry flirted with various methods of raising funds; in 1810 they invested in five shares in the Sun Fire Office. They owned two plots of land, Parish Close and Chamber Mead, and let them out for rent. In 1827 these were let at a rate pegged to the price of corn - for each acre, the equivalent in money of 3 bushels of wheat - which, if they were calculating rent at a conventional tenth of annual value, means that local farmers were cropping 30 bushels to the acre; about a third of what a modern organic farmer would expect.

Chamber Mead beside the Hogsmill
Chamber Mead beside the Hogsmill
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Most of the revenue, however, came from ratepayers, and the setting of the annual rate at Easter was a tricky business. Most people (apart from the Kingswood contingent) paid up without a fuss, but there were awkward customers. In 1806 the minutes record that 'as John Barber has refused to pay his arrears of church Rates and to clear up his arrears of church accounts and poors Rates, it was unanimously agreed that his name should be blotted out from all public places where it can be done with Propriety'. It says a lot about the closed nature of village life that they thought they could simply shame him into paying; but this didn't work, and a year later he was being threatened with a warrant. As in all small communities, consensus was highly prized. When a rent-payer had got into arrears in 1822, the clerk writes in the softest tones that 'the Vestry expect he will have the goodness to prevent any further delay by immediate payment to avert those measures which the Vestry would be otherwise most reluctantly constrained to adopt' - and this time it seems to have worked.

Another source of revenue were the parish charities. Ewell had been receiving about £15 a year since Jacobean times from Smith's charity, augmented in the early eighteenth century by the interest from White's and Mason's charities. In 1771 Thomas Brumfield left money towards education, clothing for poor widows, and a subsidy for the vicar to preach a Sunday afternoon sermon. One might have thought that preaching sermons was part of a vicar's regular job, but evidently not. In 1816, with the establishment in Old Schools Lane of a National School (that is, one for 'Educating the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church') the Vestry thought it right to transfer part of Brumfield's endowment to this. The poor widows were not forgotten, though it was laid down in 1808 that those who received clothing were to appear at church wearing it as an expression of gratitude. In 1827 White's charity disappeared into Chancery and someone had to be commissioned to start a fictive lawsuit to get it out again; James Andrew, a great man at volunteering for the hard work, was chosen. The vestry took a fairly proprietorial view of charities. Ewell's almshouses at the end of West Street (see Ewell Parish Workhouse) must surely have been built from someone's legacy; certainly those in Epsom were. But in 1826 the Vestry decided they weren't worth the cost of repair, and had them pulled down, transferring people to the Poorhouse.

During this period the Vestry's finances were continually under pressure, caused by the rising costs of (as they put it) 'managing the poor'. For most of the eighteenth century, relief had been granted on a fairly casual basis, but in 1781 the parish took the new step of enlarging the Poorhouse. There is a very detailed list of the furnishings needed for the house, something which can be compared by way of probate inventories with the sort of goods that the old and destitute would have kept at home. The dietary arrangements, also set out in some detail, give an idea of what was considered basic plain feeding at the time. The Poorhouse was soon contracted out to a keeper who ran the regular expenses of food and boarding, with a retainer for a surgeon who doubled as (or subcontracted to) a pharmacist and midwife.

1796 was a hard winter and extra money was voted for the increased numbers in the Poorhouse. Getting a competent keeper was not as easy as it had looked at first, and in 1800 the contract was awarded to Bracey Wiggins who came over from running one at Halstead in Essex. Tenders for supplying the workhouse in 1810 ranged from £370 to 420; significantly, the Vestry didn't take the cheapest. They must have recognised a suspiciously low estimate when they saw one. In the upshot, Mr. Bunn the new keeper put in a revised contract for £450 not £400 as agreed; then a year later in 1813 he quit. In 1814 the Vestry set up a special committee for the relief of the poor, consisting of the vicar, Calverley and five principal inhabitants. Then in 1814 the new contractor for the workhouse (he'd taken it on at the higher rate of £450) wanted to revise the contract and in despair the Vestry wondered if they should go back to running it themselves. The new contractor then quit in 1815 (they seldom lasted longer than a year) after a row over not being paid for sending a family off to Hereford where they belonged, and there was only one tenderer for the next year's contract. The new tenderer dropped out after only six months (instead of making a profit he reported a loss of £35 on the annual figure, now settled at £450) and at this point the Vestry gave up, like many a local authority before and after, and took the whole business in-house. Rather desperately, this was done by the half-year in the hope that 'the price of flour and many other articles may be cheaper at the expiration of that time' and meanwhile it was agreed to buy cheaper flour and reduce the food. The poor were expected to grow some of their own food on Poorhouse land, and in 1817 they were farmed out to the waywarden as a source of free labour for mending the roads. The accounts at the end of 1816 are revealing of the state that things had got into, but after that the management seems to improve; at all events, it takes up less Vestry time. Probably having some continuity of administration helped. In 1817 they paid a salary of £30 to the keeper (now an employee, not a contractor) and added a bonus of £5 to one of the Overseers, who had agreed to take on the job as a standing post and not as part of an annual rotation. Since the standard rate of out-relief was between 2 and 4s per individual per week, the bonus represented something under a year's support diverted from the actual paupers, but no doubt it seemed worthwhile.

The Vestry's problems (and the considerably more urgent problems of the poor people themselves) need to be set against the state of things locally and nationally. The population of Ewell was growing but its resources remained the same; there was no industry in the village and little chance for agricultural expansion. It seems unlikely that the enclosure of 1802-3 had the devastating effects seen elsewhere, if only because most land had been locked up in a small number of hands for generations already, so that there were few smallholders left to lose out by the changes in property. More suffering was caused by the national depression of the war years, 1793-1815, which coincide with the period in which the Vestry experienced its greatest difficulties in running the Poorhouse and supplying out-relief.

They responded, as governments big and small often do, by turning their attention to issues of who belonged and who did not. Ewell was always prepared to be fairly generous to its own people, provided that they maintained the accepted networks of support. A girl with a baby in the Poorhouse was expected to receive regular remittances from the father and in 1822, the vestry enforced this with an order of filiation. In 1805 a runaway husband was advertised 'in one of the London Papers' for leaving his wife and family chargeable. Two years later, John Reason had taken advantage of the wars to join the 70th Regiment of Foot, leaving his family to be supported by the parish, and the ever-willing James Andrew was despatched to the Isle of Wight to ask Reason just what he thought he was doing. That hardly seems value for money (after all, there wasn't much the Vestry could make him do about it) but it exemplified the golden rule enforced by the laws of settlement: Ewell people, wherever they might happen to be in Europe, were responsible for their own. Contrariwise, immigrants, however much they might have got embedded in local life, were outsiders and as soon as they showed signs of dependency on the parish, they were to be sent back to wherever they belonged. Of course the receiving parish might take a different view. Most disputes over removals of poor were local affairs; there is a case with Croydon in 1811, followed by another the next year when it turned out that William Trigg, though to all appearances a resident of Ewell, had his settlement in West Horsley. Nobody had thought about this until Trigg broke his leg, on which Ewell paid for a surgeon to fix it but sent the bill to West Horsley. Then news came from Tooting that William Caslake, who might or might not have settlement in Ewell, had been called up for the militia and someone was going to have to support his wife and child, on which Tooting naturally tried to fix the bill on Ewell and Ewell on Tooting.

The cost of these disputes escalated when officers had to be sent to contest the removal. Tooting and Croydon were not too far away, but in 1813, someone was despatched to Hants Quarter Sessions to contest a removal from Aldershot, and in 1815 James Andrew (again) was sent all the way to Hereford to confirm that John Parlar's wife and family can ought to be delivered to the city parish of All Saints there, and not St. Peter's, which was where they had ended up. The costs of all this travelling must have been horrendous for a body with a limited budget , but the Vestry stuck to its rights: 'the churchwardens and overseers of this Parish are Authorised to resist the Threatened Appeal'. And yet, at the same meeting they were happy to agree to send out of 181½ bushels of coal as a unexpected charity to the local poor. It all depended on whether you were inside or outside the tightly guarded circle of benevolence.

Jeremy Harte © 2012

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