|Layer Breton Vestry - 1820 to 1861
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - November 2008
Vestry is defined, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, as "a room or building attached to a church and in which vestments are kept and put on". Why then would one find, in the Essex Record Office, a book entitled "Layer Breton Vestry Minutes 1820-1861"? A fairly thin book it has to be admitted but, nevertheless, full of information about how the Parish was run for 40 years in the nineteenth century.
In a historical context Vestry meetings are recorded as early as the fourteenth century and became a type of local committee which ran the parish, appointing various officers and raising a church rate. Parish officers were required to submit their accounts for approval, and payment, and as things developed the vestry took on the character of a "social welfare" committee.
The first record is of a meeting held on 26th May 1820 chaired by the Rector J F Benwell, with Messrs E Gripper, I and D Barrett attending to receive the accounts of B Bradbrook, Churchwarden, and Jno Tiffin, Deputy Overseer of the Poor.
The business dealt with was similar to the following:
"Mrs Keys came to beg something for Wm Turner's lodging at her house about 3 months - agreed to give her 8 shillings (40p)"
"Mrs Wire was granted 3 shillings for shoes, one tie and one frock"
Also on this occasion Mrs Howard, S Willsher, Henry White, Saml Reeve, and H Howard received amounts for various items of clothing. John Porter, however, received, in addition, the promise of "some allowances now and then".
Rent was occasionally paid to tide families over bad times but one can see an element of "means testing" creeping into decision making. For example, although Saml Reeve was successful in May a plea, the following April, made on his behalf by John Bundock (was he Reeve's landlord?) for payment of rent was refused. In November 1821 Samuel applied himself but with the same answer.
Lydia Bumby applied for calico but a decision was deferred for enquiries. In December 1821 James Bundock was granted a pair of shoes, a piece of flannel for a coat, a shift and one gown, for his daughter who had gone out to service at Mrs Larkins.
An unusual case is that of W Finch who was granted 3 shillings for 4 weeks at the request of authorities in Norwich - presumably Finch hailed from that city and had fallen on hard times before he could return there. John Bundock applied, in October 1824 "for Old Robin's rent of £2. 12 shillings and the fee of Willshire's funeral of 5 shillings". In May 1826 "Thos. Hyams wife was allowed 6 shillings a week - her husband gone".
In addition to social welfare the Vestry was involved in the upkeep of the Church building itself. The Layer Breton Vestry approved the action of the Rector, R W Sutton, in 1830, as noted "It was proposed by R W Sutton and agreed to by the Vestry that he (RWS) would effect the repairs ordered by the Archdeacon at the last visitation; he, the said RWS having consent of Parish to alter the situation of pulpit and do such other alterations as may be to better the accommodation of persons assembling in the Church. He, the said RWS undertaking that no Church Rate shall be called for repairs of Church for 4 years from this date unless such become required by effects of storm or tempest or any further order of the Archdeacon."
Medical expenses appear rarely in the accounts but in April 1830 a memorandum of agreement between Roger Nunn MD of Colchester and the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor whereby: "Roger Nunn agrees to supply the poor belonging to the aforesaid Parish of Layer Breton with all necessary attendances and journeys; giving such attendances personally on written application from either of the overseers or the Minister as soon as he conveniently can and subsequent attendances on the same parties either by himself or an assistant. Such of the poor as are sent by any of the above named parties; are also to be seen by Dr Nunn at his residence in Colchester between the hours of 9 and 10 in the forenoon. Dr Nunn further agrees to supply the poor with the requisite remedies, with the exception of leeches and the churchwarden and overseers aforesaid agree to pay the annual sum of ten guineas for the purposes aforesaid. This agreement not including cases of labour, fraction, dislocation or mortification".
In an earlier issue of the Chronicles the sale of the Layer Breton Workhouse was referred to. In the Minute Book it is noted that after disposal by tender proved fruitless it was agreed, on 19th January 1837, that the occupant, James Littler who paid a rent of £5 per annum should be rated at 6d. The property was to be viewed by Thomas Powell and William Wheeler and be sold - the purchaser, for £10, is recorded as William Wheeler.
Such records as these leave one wondering just what life was really like for the poor. In a worst case scenario your employer could sack you and then be sitting in judgement as to whether you were entitled to claim on the Parish. On the other side of the coin, most of the Church Rate fell to be paid by local employers who would be anxious to reduce their outgoings. To fall sick was an additional hazard and the thought of obtaining a letter which, at the very least, required you to be in Colchester "between 9 and 10 in the forenoon" was a journey too far for many, especially in winter. Allowing for the fact that travel was far more difficult than it is today there is no chance that a Monday morning headache would be eased by obtaining a sick note!