The history of yeovil

town administration 

From the 16th to the 19th century; the Parish Clerk and the Vestry


Originally, the Parish Clerk was in minor orders, he was primarily concerned with the worship in the parish church and sometimes, in some places, with the education of its children. The role of the parish clerk changed after the Reformation and he became more obviously a layman. During divine service it was his duty to lead the singing and the responses of the congregation. Under the new dispensation the Clerk had clearly become a parochial officer although his duties clearly included secular duties on behalf of the church as indicated by many payments. The following entry from the St John's Churchwardens' account of 1771 is typical; James Foot, the Parish Clerk was also a rope maker (or at least supplied bell ropes to the church on an annual basis) and his bill for 1771 was as follows

To the Clerks Salary
To washing the Surplices and Linnen
Bread for the Sacrament
Oil for the Bells
Copy of the Register
Three small Bell Ropes
4th Bell Rope
5      do    do
6      do    do
7      do    do
9      do    do
Little Bell  do
Line for the Curtains
To mending the Surplices
To half a yard of Holland

                                              Annual Total
£3 6s 8d
12s 0d
4s 0d
4s 0d
1s 0d
8s 0d
4s 0d
5s 0d
6s 0d
7s 0d
8s 0d
2s 0d
2s 0d
2s 6d
2s 0d

£6 14s 2d


The Vestry was the monthly meeting of 'representatives' of the people of the parish, being drawn from the rate-paying section of the community and therefore tended to be the lesser gentry and yeomen of the parish - invariably the burgesses. The purpose of the Vestry was to look after the people of the parish and also to 'govern' the parish primarily by appointing parish officers who would manage the parish on a day-to-day basis and by setting the parish rate. The officers were appointed annually, usually at Easter, and the Poor Rate was often set monthly and collected weekly. In addition, the Vestry would tackle any subject it thought would affect the community. In earlier times, this might be the interpretation of a new Act of Parliament for the relief of the poor or what to do with the children of the parish poor. Later on, their attention fell on the local enclosures and the confirmation of surveys carried out for that purpose.

Members of the Vestry were generally from the middle classes and included solicitors, glove manufacturers and the more affluent tradesmen. Some notable Yeovilians who served as members of the Vestry - a Yeovil's Who's Who of the 1830s - include William Bide (glove manufacturer), Thomas Busby (glove manufacturer), Thomas Cave (brewer), Thomas Cole (glove manufacturer), Henry Collins (glove manufacturer), James Curtis (draper), William Dicks (glove manufacturer), Edward Granger (chemist), Charles Greenham (glove manufacturer), John Greenham (glove manufacturer), John White Hancock (clockmaker), Josiah Hannam (ironmonger), William Hooper Masters (glove manufacturer), George Mayo (glove manufacturer), John Ryall Mayo (glove manufacturer), Brett McTier (glove manufacturer), Edwin Newman (solicitor), William Porter (bookseller), Edward Raymond (glove manufacturer), Francis Theophilus Robins (solicitor), John Slade (solicitor), William Snook (glove manufacturer), John Swatridge (marble mason and photographer), Nathan Sydenham (cordwainer), Robert Tucker (glove manufacturer), James Tally Vining (solicitor), George Wellington (chemist), Elias Whitby (glove manufacturer) and William Lambert White (solicitor).

Officials of the Parish were appointed annually from among the parish ratepayers and usually comprised two Churchwardens, two Overseers of the Poor, an Inspector of the Highways or Way Warden and, possibly, a Parish Constable. The decisions of the Vestry to appoint Parish Officers were ratified by the local magistrates. The Parish Officials were elected by the Vestry on the premise that every suitable ratepayer should serve in a parish officer role on a primitive rota basis. Although throughout the hierarchy of parish government there were no professional administrators as such, each member of the Vestry and each of the Parish Officers would have been a God-fearing churchgoer striving to be as fair and just as possible. After all, the saying 'There, but for the Grace of God, go I" could apply overnight to the Overseer of the Poor as he distributed alms to the needy!

The only evidence I found of Way Wardens in Yeovil occurs in the Churchwardens' accounts for 1777 when a payment of £2 2s 0d was made for "Mending the Path to Addle Well to be paid by the Way Wardens".

Of the two Churchwardens, one was invariably chosen by the vicar and the other or 'Secular' Churchwarden by the Vestry. The duties of the Churchwardens were essentially to administer the fabric of the church and its environs, to assign pews and keep order during the services. The Churchwardens were also responsible for any parish cottages and, finally, for the administration of any charities.

In 1601, an Act, commonly called the Poor Law, was passed to provide for the systematic relief of the poor and to appoint overseers in each parish to levy rates and arrange for its distribution. The Poor Law would have ensured that regular payments would have been made to the needy, but they were a mere pittance barely adequate for survival at subsistence level even by the meager standards of the day. It was quite common for a fortnightly payment of Poor Relief to be about equal to the daily wage of an artisan. In 1662 the Parochial Settlement Act empowered overseers and churchwardens of a parish to remove any newcomer who arrived and occupied a tenement of less than ten pounds annual value, unless he could give security that he would not become chargeable to the parish. The effect of this act was to pen up the labouring classes in their villages and destroy all freedom of movement.

The main duty of the Overseers was to look after welfare within the parish. They also collected the parish rate as set by the vestry and arranged for its disbursement. The Corporation also owned several properties in the town, managed by the portreeve and burgesses, and the rents from these were also used for the benefit of the town, including an almshouse in South Street. The duties of the Overseers might also encompass those of the Inspector of Highways, or Waywarden, such as maintenance of roads, bridges and ditches. In Yeovil it is believed that the highways function was not devolved to an Inspector until the early years of the eighteenth century.

Parishioners receiving relief usually fell into one of five categories; the sick; the aged; widows, deserted wives and orphans; unemployed able-bodied inhabitants and destitute wanderers or temporary residents.

Good, typical examples of this administration are found at Siston, Gloucestershire, where four generations of my ancestors were Parish Clerks and members of the Vestry. These examples are cited here as indicative of the type of payments that would have been made at Yeovil.

During the period of the Siston Overseers Book - 1672 to 1715 - there were one or two widows receiving aid in the form of money payments -

        "Item, paid to the Wid..Cay 53 weeks pay ... £3 Is 10d "

or having their rent paid -

        "for her (Mary Gay) house rent... 15s Od"

Sometimes payments would be made in food, such as -

        "half of Barley to Henry Gay... 5s 3d "

as well as cash -

        "May the 21 given him in money ... 3s 4d"

Occasionally there were payments to those who couldn't work through illness -

        "pd Henry Gay in his lameness at Severall times ... £1 15s 4d"

or through the illness of his children -

        "Given to Henry gay at Severall Times by the Order of the pish when his Children wus
         sick in the smallpox ... £1 2s 0d "

The parish cared for its people in other ways such as

       "paid for curing Dinah gays legg... 15s 6d "

or the mysterious entry of 1697 -

        "Paid Grase Gay for to fech home her Chume... 2s 6d "

For distribution to the poor, the parish rate fund paid for

        "Bread on St Thomas Day... 5s 0d "

The poor were looked after even in death. Burials of the poor were not necessarily cheap or undignified and the parish might not just pay for the interment, but also food and drink for the mourners -

        "Charges at ye Burying of ye Widow Brathgood & her daughter paid for Bread & Cheese &
         drinks December ye 6dy ... 10s 6d 16 It(em) paid at ye same time George Gay for Diging
         of two Graves ... 5s 0d"

On the occasion of the burial of a well-loved poor member of the parish, a note may appear indicating payment such as

        "March 15th pd Harry Gay for pushing the bier... of sorry old Pontin to his grave... 1s 6d "

People were encouraged to take in the poor - especially widows and orphans - and to house, feed and clothe them in return for a contribution from the rate fund -

        "July 21 1693 p' Henry Gay for keeping of Widow Powell 10 weeks and a half ... £2 2s 2d "

Finally, payments of the Parish Clerk's annual salary were made from the parish rate fund. In the Gay family were four generations of Parish Clerk; Henry, his son Nathaniel, grandson George and great-grandson John, and many payments of salary are found such as -

        "pd George Gay his Clarkes wages for one yeare Due at Easter... £1 10s 0d."

The Overseers of the Poor collected the parish rate from the parish ratepayers and the Overseers book lays out on the left page who was collected from and how much -

        "Henry Gay for his cottage... 2d"

On the right hand side of the book were listed the payments made to the needy as the examples above. Once the rate was collected it was often used to buy stocks of materiel to set up the poor with work, again as outlined in the Vestry Book :-

        "and also for setting to work all Such p(er)sons, married or unmarried haveing no means to
        maintains them And use no Ordinary and dayly Trade of Life to gett their Living by:... "

        "... a Convenient Stock of flax hemp Wool Thread Iron and other Ware and Stuff to sett the
         poor On work: And also Competant Sums of money for and towards the necessary Releife
         of ye Lame, impotent, old, blind & Such others among them, being poor and not able to
         work, and also for the putting out of Such Children, to be apprentices, to be gathered out
         of ye Same p(ar)ish, And to do and execute all other things as well for the disposing of the
         s(ai)d Stock... "

As indicated above, the Vestry also took on the responsibility for apprenticing the children of the poor.

        "... for setting to work the Children of all such whose parents shall not by the Said
        Churchwardens and Overseers, or ye greater p(ar)te of them be thought able to keep and
        maintaine their Children."

Usually this meant boys were to work as unpaid help on the local farms (called learning 'husbandry') and girls acted as unpaid skivvies 'in service' from the age of fourteen to twenty four. Normal apprenticeships were from fourteen to twenty one, but parish apprenticeships squeezed out a couple of extra years cheap labour from the children of the poor.