The Vestry

(This is taken from a typewritten and untitled document, loaned by Mavis Brown-Humes.)

In the 18th century, there was no Parish Council; the unit of government was the Vestry, sometimes called the Twelve, consisting of twelve men, who dealt with the matters now dealt with by the County Council or by some higher authority, such as roads and bridges. The Churchwardens still administered the Poor Law, rates were levied locally for these purposes and we have one or two precious scraps of information bound up with the Parish Registers, thus:

‘We all of us do unanimously agree to make a bye law in the township of Hamsterley, that if any person, persons or landlord do continue any tenant that hath not a legal settlement in the said township after 3 May 1734 he shall forfeit five pounds, which five pounds being levied according to law shall go forward to the maintenance of the poor in the said township, except he cause his tenant to bring a certificate to the overseer of the township of Hamsterley from the township where he or she hath their legal settlement and to this our bye law we all of us unanimously agree, as witness our hands this 27 day of March and in the year of our Lord 1735.

John Barclay, Minister, William Sponton, Churchwarden, John Green, Robert Waltoj, Thos. Walton, Michael Garthorn, Thos. Emerson, W. Blenkinsopp, John Ritson, Christopher Walton, George Marshall, James Auckland X his mark.’

Here we see the Vestry trying to prevent people who might become a charge on the Poor Law from coming into the parish, because the Poor Rate was levied on and by the parish for the benefit of people living in the parish. It is not clear as to what is meant by a ‘legal settlement’; it could mean the tenancy of a farm, it could also mean a hind who had hired himself out to a farmer for a year. We might notice, incidentally, that 11 out of 12 men who made this bye-law could at least write their names.

They seem to have enjoyed themselves at the annual Vestry meeting. In 1747 appears the item: ‘Eating and Drinking 10/-‘. This item appears annually. In 1814, out of a total expenditure of £7. 14. 2d., Dinner Bill and Ale amounted to £2. 8. 10d. We are not told where these meetings were held; we should remember also that these were the annual meetings of the Vestry, which dealt with all sorts of matters, not purely Church affairs.

Sometimes we find items to reveal prices to us; in 1783, ½ lb. of candles cost 31/4d., in 1785, a new cask for wine cost 1/6d., in 1786, a shovel for the church cost 3/6d., in 1780, William Charlton was paid 2/4d. for two day’s work at the road to the church and 9/8d. was paid for a new Prayer Book for the church.

There is an interesting resolution passed at the annual Vestry meeting on May 6th 1905, to the effect ‘that a heap from the churchyard in Salter’s Close be spread and any bones found be taken back to the churchyard’.

A further entry states:

‘It was resolved by the Vestry Meeting held on 6 day of April 1847, that Rev. J. G Milner, Chairman, be instructed to consult with G. F. Elliott, Esq., and R. L. Surtees, Esq., upon the steps to be taken for securing the appointment of a Police Officer at Hamsterley in consequences of the damage that has been committed in the churchyard and the outrages which have been perpetrated upon the property of various inhabitants who feel aggrieved although they pay heavy Police Rates they are and have been deprived of the protection of an officer for nearly 2 years. They therefore are very desirous that a Police Officer be reappointed.

J. G Milner, Chairman, Wm.? William Burns & Edwd. ? – Churchwardens, John Handy, Michl. Garthorn, Ralph Heron, AVL Rathman, Thos. Watson, John Greenwell, Joseph Gibson, George Pattison, Thomas White.’


(Frank Sanderson from Liverpool writes: Many years ago at Durham County Records Office I came across an account of Vestry meetings at  Hamsterley and noted the meetings which had been attended by my great great grandfather John Sanderson (1782-1865). I thought this would supplement the information you already have from Mavis about the vestry meetings.)

The Hamsterley Vestry Men

Although he was born in Stanhope, John Sanderson had moved to Wolsingham Parish with his parents in the 1780s. After his marriage in 1812, he was first at Ravensford Farm on the outskirts of Hamsterley and then at High Shipley. He was present at Hamsterley Church Vestry meetings on Tuesday, 9 April 1833, and on Friday, 17th October, 1834. The October 17th meeting was particularly bad tempered with the “Vestry Men” in open conflict with the Curate, the Reverend J.G. Milner. The 2nd Resolution stated:-

“That this meeting cannot separate without protesting against the vexacious and illegal interference of the Rev J.G. Milner, Curate, in endeavouring to break through the immemorial custom of this Chapelry in choosing their own churchwardens and sexton, by appointing – in the face of our appointment, of a churchwarden in 1833, for which he subsequently apologised and is now endeavouring, persevering in his interference by himself appointing a sexton in opposition to the man of our appointment.

“Moved by Mr Thomas Hodgson, seconded by Mr Joseph Atkinson and carried unanimously.”

It seems that there were limits to the respect and deference enjoyed even by Anglican clergymen. It is interesting to see representatives of the parishioners acting collectively against ‘authority’ in a way which the labouring class had not yet imagined was possible against their paymasters.

The 4th resolution stated that:-

“as the flue of the stove interferes with the vestry chimney and renders it useless, the churchwardens shall put it and the fireplace into the same state as they were before the alteration.”

Moved by George Bell and seconded by John Sanderson, the resolution was carried unanimously. It is likely that George Bell, a local farmer born in about 1795, and John Sanderson, linked together in this resolution, were friends. John Sanderson’s son, Frank, and George Bell, probably the son of this George Bell, were involved in a double wedding at Hamsterley in 1855 to Eleanor and Ann Alderson respectively.”

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