Wedmore Genealogy Pages
WEDMORE VESTRY MEETINGS. 1728 TO 1850.
There is a dreadful thing that is done to people sometimes, and it is called disestablishing them. The very sound of the word makes one shiver and shudder. When one looks behind one, one sees the ground strewn with the relics of offices that no longer exist. They lie there like leaves in Autumn. Their holders have been disestablished and disendowed. Where is the Constable of the Hundred? Where is the Parish Constable? Where is the Tithingman? We have his plot or his acre still among our fields; but where is he? Where is the Parish Clerk ? Where is the Bellman? All disestablished and gone. Among the latest victims to disestablishment are the ladies of Church Choirs. The flute, the trombone, the base viol, have been sent off first, and the ladies seem like to follow. The introduction of surplices which they cannot put on, and of processions which they cannot join, have caused them to be disestablished in many places; sometimes totally disestablished, sometimes only partially, and still allowed to sing at the back of the organ, where the billises are. It may be some consolation to them to remember that though their Rector can disestablish them, he cannot disendow them. For their endowments, i,e., their voices, are of nature and not of man. The only man who seems safe from disestablishment is the Sexton; for before we can disestablish him we must first disestablish a stronger than he, viz., Death.
There are two ways of disestablishing people. One way is very abrupt, the other way is slower and more merciful. One way is to do it by a single and more or less sudden Act of Parliament, the other way is to do it gradually, piecemeal, little by little, by a series of Acts of Parliament spread over a number of years. When it is done in this way, the party disestablished never feels itself shivering and shuddering because it is like to be disestablished, never finds itself holding on like a bulldog to prevent being disestablished, never feels itself at any one moment to be suddenly disestablished; it can only perceive that it is disestablished when it compares its power and position to-day with its power and position say 50 years ago. The work of disestablishing it has been done so softly and gradually, and spread over so many years, that no one man and no one moment felt it.
Amongst the things which have been disestablished in this more merciful way are the Parish or the Parish Vestry. Formerly the Parish could meet and settle a thing or two ; but now I cannot find that there is anything at all that it can settle. It has been gradually disestablished. It can be called together, it can meet, but only to pass formal or fruitless resolutions, or to vote rates which it does not decide. To DO anything, to settle anything according to its own will and voice and vote, and then get it DONE, is no longer possible. Its roads may be mended (?) with huge jagged pieces of rock; and if one at a meeting suggests that something should be DONE in the matter, the usual answer is, We can do nothing. Or there may be a demand for Allotments, and meetings may be held which unanimously determine in favour of them. But the whole thing may come to nothing if a Board, meeting miles away and in no way interested in the matter, choose that it should come to nothing. The voices of those concerned count for nothing; the voices of those not concerned and living miles away settle the matter. So that you may fairly say that the Parish has been gradually disestablished, and there is no longer a bit of its own business that it can do.
But one of the signs of the times is an alteration of this. County Councils, a step in the right direction, have been already set up; and Parish Councils, or at any rate District Councils, are on their way. So the parish is like to be re-established. It is likely that at any rate some of the affairs of a Parish will be settled not by Parliament, nor Councils, nor Boards, who know nothing of the circumstances of the case; not in London, nor at County towns, nor at Railway Junctions, nor at sea-side mushrooms; but in or near the place which is chiefly concerned, and by the people who are chiefly interested.
Amongst the different books and papers belonging to this Parish and now kept up in the Church Porch room or Parvise chamber, there should by rights be the records of meetings held here ever since the days of King Alfred and earlier. But unfortunately there is nothing of the kind. I have no doubt but that meetings, called together by the Church bell just as they are now, have been held in the Church for centuries. But no record of them remains. Perhaps, of some no record was ever made; of others the record has been lost. At any rate, excepting the Parish Registers, we have got here no parish documents earlier than 1700. It is no use to try and guess how and when the earlier ones have been lost. All one can do is to make the most of what one has got.
I go now to 14 various sized volumes, mostly substantial ones and well filled, for the purpose of extracting from them every Vestry that is recorded in them. These volumes contain the Church and Poor Rates and Parish accounts for 150 years. They show every farthing paid and who paid it, every farthing spent and how spent. All through the last century and into the beginning of this one, never, I expect, had the poor been so many, and never had they been so poor. Every single article of fuel, food, and raiment, bought for them and given to them by the Overseers during the space of 150 years, is entered in these books; baby clothes when they were like to be born; a shroud and a coffin, the bell and a grave, when they came to die; and between the baby clothes and the shroud came countless articles, such as ashes, faggots, turves; bread, pertators; coats, shagged coats, wastcoats, under wastcoats, petticoats, bodises, breeches, drill breeches, caps, changes, gowns, bodies of gowns, hosen, jackets, jumps, kirtles, whittles, rugges, shoulder mantles, shirts, shifts, sheets, shoes, smock frocks, tickeling burk, woollen aprons, bedcords, bedmatts, bedtick, coverlids, carsey, linsey, dowlas, flaxen, serge, canvas to line the gowns with, Russia canvas, Hessian, blue shag, and many other things besides. It is not only fine ladies have their changes of fashion in dress; the poor people who dwelt in the Poorhouses that formerly bounded the West end of the Churchyard here, and whose clothing was ordered at Vestry meetings and paid for by the Overseers, they had their fashions too. And as one runs one's eye through 150 years of Overseers' accounts, one sees different articles, jumps and smocks, kirtles and whittles, etc., coming into fashion and going out again, One sees when the first jump or the first smock was ordered, and when the last; and so one can tell how long the day of jumps or the day of smocks lasted. The only difference is that the fine ladies change their fashions about three times every day, while the fashions in the Poorhouses changed about once in 50 years. I am inclined to think that the Poorhouses were the most sensible of the two. Scattered about in the pages of these books, amidst jumps and smocks, whittles and kirtles, shoulder mantles and tickeling burk, are the entries of Vestries holden in the Church; not of all the Vestries holden, but only of those which dealt with the expenditure of the Poor rate; and, perhaps, not all of them. Besides that, there are also a number of the very same slips of paper which the Clerk held in his hand when he read out in Church the notices of meetings to be held in the ensuing week. From these records in the Rate Books and from these notices I have made out as complete a list as I can of all the Vestries that have been holden. Of course it is a very incomplete list, but a crumb is better than no bread. I have only left out those Vestries which were held as a matter of course so many times a year to make a rate and to bind out the ëprentices. I have given each Vestry a number for convenience of reference. I put them all together here in order of time without much explanation; and then when hereafter one deals more fully with any particular matter, one will know where to find what the Parish decided in the matter. It was formerly the custom for all those who agreed with the resolution passed to sign their names to it. From the list of signatures we can tell who were the best scholars at the time. We can also tell what subjects created the most excitement, and caused the largest attendance. And when, as sometimes happened, one Vestry rescinded what another Vestry a week before had passed, we can tell who were those apparently undecided Vestrymen who allowed themselves to be frightened by a little noise, and helped to rescind to-day what they had helped to pass yesterday.
It will be seen that a good many of the Vestries were held about the Poor houses. These houses were the subject of contention for a good hundred years; and I dare say that there has been many a man would not say so much as "Good morning" to his neighbour, because the one voted for their being took down, while the other voted for their being allowed to bide. We must imagine the west end of the Churchyard in the last century looking very different to what it does now. A row of houses stood facing the Vicarage, standing on ground that is now partly added to the road, partly to the Churchyard. Another row, I think, stood at right angles to it, looking up the road to Blackford, standing on ground that is now Churchyard. These houses I imagine to have succeeded the old Church house and Chantry house, which lost their original use by the changes made at the Reformation. But this will come out more clearly when we come to examine the Church and its history. The row facing the Vicarage stood within living memory. They were taken down when the Workhouse at Axbridge was set up. The other row, as we shall see, was taken down earlier. I should like to get hold of an old drawing showing these Poor houses, and have it copied and engraved. Has anybody got such a thing?
The Vestries were always held in the Church till 1828, when the Vestry room, taken down in 1880, was fitted up. Notices of Vestries were given in Church by the Parish Clerk on the Sunday, and sometimes Sunday senit, before. There was no one fixed hour for all meetings: sometimes they were in the forenoon, sometimes in the afternoon. Neither was there any one fixed day. Sometimes they were held on Sunday immediately after Service. At some time within the present century a change was made in the manner of giving out the notices of Vestries. Instead of the Clerk giving them out in Church during Divine Service, he gave them out immediately after Service from the cross, the congregation flocking around him. This change was probably an early result of that more ecclesiastical stiffness and correctness of which the previous century had been remarkably innocent. That correctness came in as this 19th century advanced, it advanced with it, and in many places grew into ritualism and (so called) Popery. The cross at this time stood outside the west end of the Church. It was moved to where it is now in about 1830. There is no sense in its present position; it is neither in the place where its original object caused it to be; nor is it in the place where it would show best; I am inclined to think that it ought to be put back to where it was.
The usual form of calling a Vestry was, when it concerned the Poor Rate, "The Overseers desire the Minister, Churchwardens, and Parishioners (or Inhabitants) to meet them here to consider, etc." When it concerned the Church Rate, the Church wardens desired the Minister, Overseers, and Parishioners to meet them.
The earliest Vestry that I have got hold of was in 1728. George II. was then King of England; Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister; John Wynne was Bishop of Bath and Wells; Mathew Brailsford was Dean of Wells and Rector of Wedmore; Henry Castleman was Vicar of Wedmore. This was the year in which the yew tree was planted which stands, like a sentinel, at the South entrance into the Church. For an important Vestry about Hannah More's Schools, see No. 105. For one that seems to show the dawning of a day of Temperance, see No. 38, rescinded by No. 43, but ultimately prevailing. To understand the different resolutions about the Poorhouses and Workhouse, about intruders and warrants for removal, some knowledge of the different steps and different Acts of Parliament which have brought the Poor law to its present state is necessary. But if I had gone into that, I should have never got to the end of the list of Vestries. So that must stand over. Very few records of Vestries about Church matters will be found. See Nos. 22, 27, 28.