The Otley vestry meetings

My ancestor, John Hearfield, had been Surveyor of the Highways for Otley in about 1800. This title sounded very grand, and I set out to discover what it meant.

The volunteers in Otley museum's local history room were delighted to help. The Surveyor's appointment appears in the Order Book for the Otley vestry meetings, which covers the thirty years from 1797 onwards. The Order Book turned out to be a fascinating record of how the community had governed itself two hundred years ago, and tells much about the day-to-day problems facing the ordinary people who lived there:

Otley parish church England had been divided into parishes since well before the Conquest and, as people naturally identified themselves with the parish in which they had been born, the parish church became the natural centre for the discussion of local matters. Regular meetings of the principal inhabitants of the parish took place there, usually in the vestry - the room used by the priest for putting on his vestments. Originally, the meetings were held to make decisions about the goods and fabric of the church itself, but by the 16th century they had evolved into the beginnings of true local government.

The vestry was a forum in which the concerns of the citizens were given a focus, and where something was done about them. For example, in 1797 two members were sent to discuss with the Leeds Post-master his terms for delivering letters to Otley. And in 1798 five parishioners were appointed to represent the interests of Otley in discussions with the Otley Waterworks and the Act for enclosing the commons of Otley and Newall-with-Clifton. And in 1812 a committee was formed to consider

the most effectual and best means of destroying the great and almost innumerable quantities of Rats and other Vermin within the Township.

They agreed to spend up to 20 out of the Poor Rate to try and solve the problem. The rats returned in 1816, though, and in 1831 the township was ravaged by a plague of moles (yes, moles!).

Though public health was not directly part of the vestry's remit, they did try to help people who were sick. A committee was formed in 1819 to organise and manage a subscription for residents who were 'afflicted with the Typhus fever', and in 1831 another committee (which unusually included the Vicar as well as three other clergy) tried to decide what precautionary measures should be taken in consequence of the introduction of the Asiatic Cholera into Sunderland.

But the vestry was more often concerned with mundane matters - particularly, how best to exercise their power, and their duty, to deal with the Poor.

The Otley Parish Order Book

Meetings were usually announced on the previous Sunday by a notice displayed in the church. This one is typical.

The Principal Inhabitants of the Town are requested to meet in the Vestry on Friday next for the purpose of Electing a proper person to serve as Overseer of the Poor, Surveyor of the Highways and Constable of the Township of Otley with a Salary, and all persons willing to serve the above Offices are requested to attend in the Vestry on the said Day Five o'Clock in the afternoon with their proposals.

Novr 28th 1805
J Dinsdale } Otley
Danl Forster } Elect
Wm Maude }
Benj Beck }


At first sight, the notice is confusing. Who were the Principal Inhabitants? What was an Overseer of the Poor? Was just one Constable responsible for the whole of Otley parish? Why mention that the person chosen will be paid?

In fact, the Principal Inhabitants knew very well who they were. They were the farmers and shop-keepers. They were the ones who paid the local taxes, known as the rates. There was the County Rate, the Church Rate, the Highway Rate - and most important of all, the Poor Rate, which grew steadily bigger every year.

Fortunately, even in a small town like this, there were plenty of ratepayers. Baines' Otley directory for 1822 lists well over 300 people by name. They were mainly the owners of businesses (no less than 16 butchers, who supplied enough raw material for three tallow chandlers - candle makers - to make a living) and included a sprinkling of gentry. But, predictably, no more than a dozen men usually came to the meetings.

Like vestry meetings up and down the land, I imagine, Otley's embryo parish council had to wrestle with three continuing vexations - how to catch law-breakers, how to keep the roads from becoming totally unusable, and what to do about the poor. They appointed members of the vestry - who were, after all, the Principal Inhabitants - to look after each separately. The Constable dealt with offenders, a Surveyor kept an eye on the roads, and Overseers of the Poor collected and distributed the money given to support people who would otherwise be begging in the streets. Members of the vestry were obliged to take turns in these offices, and although they carried a certain prestige, they were time-consuming and sometimes stressful part-time jobs. They were unpaid, too. Amateurs don't get paid.

Yet the officers - particularly the Overseers of the Poor - were responsible for handling quite large sums of money. In 1802 local taxation across the country amounted to 5.4 million, of which 4.3 million - about 80% - was spent on the relief of the poor. By 1818 the tax burden had nearly doubled, but the amount going to the poor had doubled too. With around 10,000 parishes, this meant that in the early 19th century each parish was having to find several hundred pounds a year, and most of it passed through the hands of the Overseers. The meeting notice I quoted above proposed that the three offices of Overseer, Surveyor, and Constable should be rolled up into one neat package, with one individual paid to do this work. It must have seemed a tidy way to farm out the chores nobody particularly wanted to do. But on this occasion the vestry meeting chose the wrong man. Thomas Stephenson, elected in December 1805, had to be fired two years later in consequence of his 'general neglect of the Parish Business', and his repeated failures to produce his accounts. He was replaced by one Michael Gambling, and having learned from its mistake, the meeting insisted that its new officer should put up a bond of 100, which would have been an average farmer's yearly income.

The idea of actually paying an official to do the work was quite new. Somebody had to take on the responsibility. The Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 had instructed parishes to elect two Overseers of the Poor every Easter, but it said nothing about paying them. And the very first entry in the Order Book involved a gift of 26 that had been

paid into the hands of John Fox and James Dawson Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the Township of Otley in the month of May 1792

so at that time the roles of Churchwarden and Overseer were combined. This entry was dated March 1797, and I can't help wondering whose account the money had been 'resting' in for the previous five years - or, for that matter, why it took five years to decide what to do with it. (In the end, they built a cottage, and gave the rent to the poor at the Christmas Dole.) The title of Overseer, like that of Surveyor, was purely honorary. It meant that the person elected had to do the work whether he wanted to or not, fitting it in around his day job as best he could. Since he was chosen from amongst the Principal Inhabitants, he was expected to pick up the necessary skills as he went along.

People were chosen as Overseers (or Surveyors) from a short-list of ten names prepared by the vestry a few days beforehand, presumably on the principle of Buggins' turn. They were responsible to the vestry, which in turn was accountable to the magistrates, or Justices of the Peace. Otley had two magistrates in 1822, according to Baines' directory (the earliest I could find). They were William Vavasour, Esq. who lived at Weston Hall, about two miles west of the town, and the Rev. Thomas Fourness Wilson of Burley Hall - Lord of the Manor of Burley - a mile or so further on. They didn't attend the vestry meetings.

In those days the gentry were supposed to set an example to their social inferiors. There is a story about a former Vicar of Sheffield of around this time who asked his veterinary surgeon, "Mr Peech, how is it that you have not called upon me for your account?" "Oh," said Mr. Peech, "I never ask a gentleman for money." "Indeed," said the Vicar, "then how do you get on if he don't pay?" "Why," replied Mr. Peech, "after a certain time I conclude that he is not a gentleman, and then I ask him."

Since it was taken for granted that everyone wanted to work (except, naturally, those whom God had chosen to be landowners) society had a problem with those people who for one reason or another could not earn their own living. They couldn't just be left to starve in the streets. The Bible clearly told Christians to feed the hungry. The Poor - that is, people who were literally destitute, not just those who were a bit short of cash - were therefore officially divided into categories. The contemptible 'idle poor' could obviously work if they wanted to, and must be punished until they realised that society did not owe them a living. On the other hand, there were the unlucky 'deserving' poor - they had to be found some work, or given just enough food to keep them alive. The remainder were the 'impotent' poor who were too young or too old to work. They were looked after separately, in the Poor-house - but only as long as they behaved themselves. There is an emphatic note in the Order Book, dated 1817, saying that the Overseers are 'to cause Harriet Whatmough to leave the Work House', though what she did to deserve this is not recorded.

The Overseers were there to administer the system of poor relief. It was their task to work out how much money the poor would need, collect it from the rate-payers, and distribute it as they thought best. The local workhouse (if there was one) came under their direct supervision. It must have been a thankless job, with the rate-payers grumbling at how much they were expected to hand over, and the poor recipients complaining about how little they were given to live on. No wonder the idea of a paid official received such support when it was first mooted. The Order Book for 1800 records that

It is unanimously resolved that John Bucktrout be appointed to Collect the Assessments for the Relief of the Poor, and pay the same into the hands of the Overseers on Wednesday in every Week, that he shall attend the Poorhouse every day to see that nothing improper is done, that he collect the Composition and Assessment for the High Ways and pay the whole of what he has collected into the hands of the Surveyors every week, that he shall regularly attend to the Statute Duty, and Labourers upon the High Ways, and to act as deputy Constable for the Township, to go on all Journeys on the Town's business without recompense except reasonable expenses, and to transact such other business belonging to the Parish Offices as the Parish Officers for the time being shall respectively require.

And he was willing to do all that distasteful and time-consuming work for just 30 a year. The vestry must have thought it had got a bargain.

The experiment was evidently successful, for when the job fell vacant two years later, the vestry elected one of their own members as a replacement. William Mounsey was chosen Overseer of the Poor, Surveyor of the Highways and Constable - not deputy - for the township at a salary of 40, plus reasonable expenses for horse-hire and so on. But this time they also appointed a committee to 'regulate the Poor rates and money collected and received by the Overseers of the Poor, as a check to improper or imprudent management'. In other words, they decided that they should watch the cashflow a little more carefully than they had done in the past.

This seems to have worked. In 1805 Thomas Stephenson took over, and after he left in disgrace it was Michael Gambling's turn, and then James Dawson's. But in 1810, for some reason, the vestry abandoned the idea of a paid official and went back to electing Overseers and Surveyors. They did try once more, in 1817, when John Dawson's brother Joshua was elected Standing Officer to be Overseer, Surveyor of the Highways and Constable, but his appointment only lasted a year. There must have been simply too much work for one man to handle. At the end of his stint he stayed on as Perpetual Overseer, but the other jobs fell vacant. The vestry appointed Thomas Earnshaw (the local auctioneer) as Special Constable in 1818 at a salary of fifteen guineas a year, and there was a proposal to pay the Surveyor of the Highways, too. People must have felt strongly about this, because the meeting held to discuss it (in 1819) was unusually well attended. Thanks to the Order Book and Baines' 1822 directory, it is possible to see who in the town was participating in local government. The voting went like this.

For a paid Surveyor: William Ackroyd [worsted spinner], John Deighton [spirit dealer], Bartm. Thompson, James Tempest [butcher], John Hartley [corn miller], Chas. Yeoman, Walter Bailey [carrier], Joshua Dawson [perpetual overseer], John Dawson [grazier & land valuer], Timy. Roberts [gentleman], E. Barret [clerk to the magistrates and to the association for the Prosecution of felons; secretary to savings bank and agricultural society; vestry clerk], A. Barret [butcher], Joseph Freeman [stone mason], John Walker [worsted manufacturer], William Fairbank [druggist & grocer], Thos. Shaw [surgeon], Thos. Fieldhouse [butcher], Thos. Chaffer & Peter Chaffer [white-washers].

Against: Thos. Stephenson, John Johnson [maltster], Willm. Walker [printer, dealer in music and musical instruments, and fancy snuffs], Robt. Baxter, Thos. Hodgson [butcher], W. Whitaker [tailor], John Mawson [stirrup maker], William Nicholson [shoemaker], William Mounsey [gentleman], John Steal, John Harefield, John Walker [worsted manufacturer], Joseph Smith, John Long [gardener], Thos. Ingle [innkeeper - The Royal Oak], Benjn. Ingle, John Wilkinson [gardener], W. Forster, John Denby, W. Moody [shoemaker], M. Ward, Richd. Colburn [nurseryman], Jas. Mawson, Sam. Hartley [timber merchant], Geo. Freeman, Thos. Calvert.

The meeting finished by voted narrowly against employing a paid official, despite John Walker trying to confuse things by voting for both sides. It was back to Buggins' turn.

The Constable

Mr. Earnshaw (the auctioneer) was made Special Constable in 1818, but it would be a mistake to think that the town Constable was a policeman in the sense that we understand the word today. There was no police force as such. Citizens were expected to deal with their own problems as best they could. In any case, the Constable was appointed from amongst the Principal Inhabitants, so he probably wasn't young and fit (and in some towns, the Constable was occasionally a middle-aged woman). His duties were more administrative than active. He wasn't expected to walk the streets with a whistle, nor to break up pub brawls, but he will have served writs and inspected ale-houses, much as his predecessors had always done. Shakespeare's Dogberry - cunning, cautious and not very bright - must have been instantly recognisable to Elizabethan audiences. Here he is, briefing his watchmen for their night's patrol:

Dogberry You are to call at all the ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.

Watchman How if they will not?

Dogberry Why, then, let them alone til they are sober: if they make you not then the better answer, you may say they are not the men you took them for If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man; and for such kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty.

Watchman If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him?

Dogberry Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company.

Otley in 1800 seems to have been relatively peaceful, with the Constable sitting at home waiting to hear of a crime rather than patrolling to try and prevent one. When a crime did take place, it was everyone's duty to arrest an offender if he could be caught, and to join the hue-and-cry if he ran away. The Constable was there to lead (or at least, organise) the posse and to present evidence at the subsequent trial. He was definitely not there to stop a mob bent on riot and mayhem. That was the job of the militia, which was controlled by the magistrates. Ordinary fist-fights were presumably allowed to run their course without the Constable becoming involved (especially if she happened to be a middle-aged woman). It wasn't until 1825 that the vestry decided that Otley's policing was inadequate, and they tackled the problem by having two householders 'volunteer' to assist the Constable, each night alternately, calling in such other assistance as they may consider necessary.

The Constable did have powers of arrest. The Compleat Parish-Officer (1744) makes clear it that

the Constable may for Breach of the Peace, and some Misdemeanors less than Felony, imprison a Man

and he was certainly responsible for dealing with vagrants, beggars and other nuisances, as well as escorting prisoners to their trials and giving evidence there.

By 1828 the town lock-up was no longer adequate, so the Constable called a vestry meeting to consider where the new one should be built. It was decided to rebuild on the existing site 'and so much of the yard behind as may be necessary'. The remainder of the yard would be used as the pinfold - a space where stray animals were kept until they were claimed - and the existing pinfold divided into sheep pens, using stone reclaimed from the existing wall. A committee (which included John Hearfield) would 'receive Estimates of the Expence of the above Improvements and decide upon them as they think proper'. This seems clear enough, but ten days later a meeting chaired by the Constable announced sternly that

the intended new Prison shall not be erected on any part of the old Sheep Pens and that those who pulled down or authorised the pulling down of the front wall do forthwith build it up again at their own expense.

Shortly afterwards, a builder's plan was accepted, with some modifications, and it was decided that the cost of the work would come out of the Poor Rate. (One man objected to this, but he was massively out-voted.) The owner of the Royal Oak Inn, seeing the new sheep pens being built right next door to his pub, seized the opportunity to expand. He applied to the vestry for permission to extend his cellar under the new pens. The vestry approved, on condition that he paid ten shillings a year rent, and provided he agreed to deliver 'quiet and peaceable possession' of the cellar to the Constable when he finally left the Royal Oak.

I don't suppose the Constable was a very popular man. To many he will have appeared as the embodiment of the state's random and unjust interference in their lives, and classed with the magistrates as just another opponent of their freedom. In 1824 at Stroud, in Gloucestershire, the townsfolk showed what they thought of law enforcement.

It had been their practice to celebrate Guy Fawkes' night by building a huge bonfire at the Cross, near the centre of the town, and sometimes by rolling barrels of flaming pitch down the steeply sloping High street 'to the great annoyance and terror of the inhabitants'. This had to stop, and so as November approached the magistrates hired a large piece of ground outside the town for the bonfire and subscribed money for fuel, whilst letting it be known that there would be no more fires at the Cross. Come November the fifth, the magistrates' bonfire was duly lit, but as it began to die down a large group of people took what wood they could carry and set up their own bonfire at the Cross, as usual. The High-Constable (who lived in the town) gathered his constables, deputised some local tradesmen, and went to the Cross to try to extinguish the fire and arrest the ringleaders.

They were badly out-numbered. Anyone arrested was promptly rescued by his friends, and some constables were beaten up. Eventually the forces of the law retreated, and the yelling mob rolled its usual barrel of flaming pitch down the hill. It broke up, and they scattered the burning remains. Then they advanced on the High-Constable's house and proceeded to break his windows and do whatever damage they could. Eventually, around three in the morning, they drifted off home to bed. Of course, the ringleaders did not get away with it. At the next quarter sessions they were convicted of 'riot, and obstructing the peace officers in their duty'. Some of them got three months in jail. The magistrates had won - there were no more bonfires at the Cross.

John Hearfield, Surveyor

This article began with John Hearfield, Surveyor of the Highways, and until now I haven't described what the Surveyors actually did. The Order Book hardly mentions the roads, so I suppose the generally accepted view - that the Surveyors did as little as they had to - was as true in Otley as it was in many other places. In theory, they were supposed to inspect all the roads in the parish to ensure they were sound, free of obstruction, well-drained, and sign-posted. Any holes were to be repaired (but only with stones found lying about) as a Statute Duty by people who owned carts or wagons. In theory, the local Justices could be asked to fine those who refused. In practice - well, one writer commented that

... the maintenance of the public highways was the responsibility of a host of incompetent, unpaid and effectively powerless men whose activities were regulated by an almost equally numerous and equally inept body of conflicting statutes. The power of the parish and the local justice to demand reports from their surveyors and to enforce statutory labour was largely ignored. [Hindley]

The Surveyors did manage to arrange (in 1797) that

the whole of the Highroad leading from Guiseley and Menston down to the upper Gate opening into the allotment belonging to Mr. John Stokes, occupied by William Waddington, be let unto Martin Hall to maintain and keep in good repair in all respects from this time for the term of three years at the price of Ten Guineas a year to be paid quarterly, besides having all the stones necessary for the same led to such places as shall want the same, and the stones which are now on the side of such road given to him

as well as getting some obstructions removed by the threat of legal action, including 'the removal of a Plantation on the West End of Chevin', 'the removing of a Fence on the road leading to Burley' and 'the removing of a Wall on the West End of Chevin encroaching on the High way'. They also prepared a plan showing how to 'divert or ease the hill' up the Chevin - the main road to Leeds, at the time.

Paying people to do the work may have worked better than begging or threatening them. In the nearby parish of Tong, the Surveyor's accounts for 1809-10 show that the blacksmith John Oddy was paid 18s 1d (about 90p) for his work on tracks and gates (plus repairing his tools afterwards - the most expensive item). The spelling is individual, so I've also included my own interpretation of what was written.

John Dalby's accounts
John Dolby to John Oddy De(bi)t
for work don(e) for hi(gh)wayes
November 1809
31 cros(s) track laid1s 6d
291 cros(s) track (t)hickening1s 10d
February 1810
131 new (h)edge & mending1s 4d
12irons for new gate post at 6d3s 3d
142 new cro(o)kes for gate1s 4d
22 new cro(o)kes for gate1s 4d
11 ham(m)er ste(e)l'd10d
61 ham(m)er mending8d
1 cros(s) track laid1s 6d
for tools sharpening4s 6d
0 18s 1d

But my favourite item comes from 1831. A meeting called by the Surveyors, and including John Hearfield, decided unanimously that

no drinkings shall be allowed by the Surveyors to Either the Workmen on the Roads nor those men employed to do Statute Duty.

Maybe someone had made a fuss about finding the road-menders in the pub, or perhaps these Surveyors were fervent advocates of Temperance. John Wesley had been a regular visitor to the town, which still boasted a Temperance Hotel.

Incidentally, my ancestor occasionally signed his name in the Order Book, rather more legibly than I sign mine. His looked like this in 1827:

John Hearfield signature

Other sources

Copyright © John Hearfield 2012