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The origin of most English parishes is the same as that of the manors which commonly formed their nucleus and with which they were often coterminous; in an era when money was seldom used and trade an abnormal activity, when agriculture was primitive, when the countryside was nearly empty of inhabitants and largely virgin, and when no effective central authority existed to enforce daily order, the manor was simultaneously a collective farm, a unit of local administration and police and a defensive organisation.

Its inhabitants were the lord and his family, his retainers headed by the steward of the manor, and the free and unfree tenants, and they were bound to each other by a network of obligations and services.

The way in which (the organisation was) regulated was determined by committees or assemblies known as courts and held by the lord or his steward. The most important of these Courts were the Court Baron for the free tenants and the Court Customary for the unfree tenants. The lord was under an obligation to hold the Court Sessions regularly and the tenants were bound to attend. Their principal and, in a moneyless society, all–important business was the management of the land, the rotation of agriculture and the regulation of agricultural jobs.

Sometimes the priest came with the first settlers. More usually, he arrived after the manor was established. Initially, he came as the representative of his bishop and often as a missionary, but he could not live upon the manor unless he was given a holding and he could not have a church unless the manor provided the labour and the materials with which to build it.

The lord’s power rested originally on force restrained by local opinion, which hardened first into custom and then into a local law, which the King’s new circuit courts would enforce. A custom is by definition inflexible and immovable, but agriculture moved steadily forward leaving the customs and the manor courts which enforced them behind. This process was accelerated by the improvement in communication, by increased trade in manufactured goods, by the circulation of money by ever increasing external interference in manorial and parochial affairs, and by the Black Death and the social upheavals which followed it.

As the manor courts declined, the influence of the Church increased. The chancel of the parish church was sacred, but the body of the building was the parish hall and the only sheltered public meeting place of the inhabitants. The Church as an organisation had recognised rights and also obligations of Christmas charity.


The parson was paid by means of the tithe, which was a local income tax levied in kind on the produce of the land. He combined in his person the offices of schoolmaster, registrar and religious adviser. Attendance at church was normal and enforceable.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the inhabitants began to meet together under the parson’s direction for the social and administrative purposes of their religious life. Such meetings were often held in the vestry after which they came to be named. The old civil obligation of the lord of the manor to maintain his starving tenants was matched by the religious obligations of charity.

The Church and, especially, the monasteries came to administer the only generally recognised system of unemployment relief, and it was the parson’s duty to enjoin almsgiving and the succour of the poor upon his flock. Charity, however, remained a virtue and its organisation local in nature and as early as the fourteenth century attempts were made to make vagrancy a crime.

The legislators of 1601 conferred upon the vestries the power to levy a poor rate. In doing so, they were merely strengthening machinery which existed already, and which was in their minds proper to the relief of poverty and the exercise of charity.


But meetings of inhabitants in an expanding population have an inherent disadvantage: they became unwieldily large and so, especially in urban areas, authority tended to slip into the hands of smaller committees called select vestries which claimed a separate existence by immemorial custom and which often were self-perpetuating. These bodies could be administratively more efficient than the open vestries and so their number was increased by public and private legislation, but in the absence of a powerful and impartial auditing system they became notoriously corrupt.

By the Napoleonic Wars, this latter characteristic had become important because the vestries were beginning to administer huge sums of money. By 1819, they were levying rates which in the aggregate exceeded £10 million a year – in real terms about 100 times the total sum precepted in 1966-67. Reform was demanded and attempted.

The Sturges Bourne Act enabled an open vestry, by adopting the Act, to create an annually elected committee also called a select vestry to administer poor relief.

Local government, notorious in the 1820’s for inefficiency and corruption, became notorious half a century later for inefficiency and complication. The confusion was spectacular and it required twenty years of legislation and experiment to straighten out.

The coping stone of the new edifice was the Local Government Act 1894. This Act took a year to pass and excited much controversy both in Parliament and outside. Gladstone’s government had to deal with over 800 amendments to the Bill. It was the proposal to create parish councils which caused the uproar.

In relation to parish affairs the Act of 1894 was based upon two apparently simple principles. Firstly, it created institutions having a civil origin, status and affiliations—the parish meeting and the parish council. Secondly, it transferred the civil functions of the older parish authorities to the new institutions.

As a result, the Church was excluded from formal participation in local government, and the traditional functions of the parish, which had always had a “Christian” complexion, were to be administered by laymen. This caused perturbation and acrimony at the time, and it was expected that the new parish councils would embark upon a stormy career.

Events, however, belied expectations. Parish councils fell rapidly into an undeserved obscurity from which they began to emerge only 60 years later.

In 1894, the squire, the parson and, sometimes, the schoolmaster were the leaders of the village. Their influence depended upon their traditional prestige, their superior education and their relative wealth, and, in a hierarchical society, upon their social standing. The vestries had followed their lead, take their advice or bowed to their power.

The parish councils were regarded as an intrusion. Most of the parish councils began without the co-operation of the influential, and they even had to face their active opposition. This, in an age when higher education was the privilege of a class, was a serious matter.

However the position of the squire, the parson and the schoolmaster in English social life had altered. The sons of the Big House went away to the wars and were killed. Taxation uprooted the squires and impoverished the clergy, and educational policy began to drive the schoolmasters away from the villages.

The powers which are needed for the administration of the new society, have, for the most part, been conferred upon new ad hoc authorities or upon authorities exercising their functions over substantial areas.


From a strictly administrative standpoint, the parish councils remained the repositories of powers appropriate to an earlier stage in the development of society. This did not, of course, mean that parish councils were obsolete since these powers are still necessary now, but it did mean that parish councils, in common with all other types of local authority, had to consider how they, as institutions, could be squared with the requirements of the new age.

In local government, perhaps the most significant single modern development was the creation of local authority associations whose principal function was to consider, formulate and represent policies of national administration from the standpoint of a particular class of authority. These associations were a characteristically modern reaction to the modern situation. The latest local authority association, the National Association of Local then Parish Councils (NALC) was formed in 1947. Individuals and individual bodies in the modern mass democracy have little chance of defending their peculiar interest unless they combine with others of like mind.

The ‘administrative’ parish existed exclusively in the former rural districts. There were about 7,600 parish councils in England and Wales immediately before 1st April 1974 and 3,200 parishes without parish councils. Parish councils had been abolished in Scotland in 1929.

On April 1st 1974, as a result of the Local Government Act 1972, in England and Wales, the local councils became entitled, if they wished, to call themselves a town council and their chairman the town mayor.

the text of this document is reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

Mr. Charles Arnold Baker Q.C.

The Parish Council wishes to acknowledge the tremendous debt owed to Mr. Charles Arnold Baker Q.C. for the granting of his kind permission to use excerpts of his essay on the Origins of Parish Councils on the Cassop-cum-Quarrington Parish Council Website.

Members of the Parish Council and the Clerk to the Parish Council offer their most sincere condolences to the family of the late Mr. Charles Arnold Baker, who died in June 2009.

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