Appendix 5. Parish Administration

Appendix 5. Parish Administration


The main responsibilities of parishes had for long been looking after the poor and the parish roads.

Poor Relief: [Note 1]
1555: The first legislation about highways which placed responsibility for maintenance under the Parish and overseen by the local Justices of the Peace.

1601: Elizabeth’s Poor Law consolidated a series of Acts over the last 37 years where the Church was authorised to levy a compulsory poor rate and for the creation of ‘overseers’ of relief , and provision for ‘setting the poor on work’.
The parish remained the basic unit of administration. There was, however, no general mechanism through which this could be enforced, and the Poor Law’s operation was inconsistent between areas.

1662 Settlement Laws. These laws were based on the recognised practice of returning paupers to the parish of their birth. Subsequent laws were variations on this theme. Residence of a year and a day was required for a person to qualify for relief.
The Elizabethan Poor Law, which had aimed to provide social stability, to alleviate discontent and distress and to prevent riots and disaffection through outdoor relief, actually created a vast and inefficient social welfare system. After 1750 more extensive adjustments were needed because of

  • population increase
  • greater mobility
  • price changes

The changes of the industrial revolution led to the development of the towns, rapid population growth, and the first experience of modern unemployment and the trade cycle. All this caused increasing poor rates. The parish as the unit of government, had only unpaid, non-professional administrators. Parishes were small and their finances were feeble. By the Napoleonic Wars, however, the select vestries, especially in urbanised areas, were beginning to administer huge amounts of money in 1819 the rate levied in the aggregate exceeded £10 million a year (in real terms about a hundred times the amount precepted in 1966-67). Parishes had a more democratic tradition of life but by the 1820s this was breaking down. Since the ratepayers were the ones who provided the money for poor relief, they were able to change the rules. At the same time, the countryside was becoming transformed by inclosures and private ownership spread as commoners of the manor were compensated for their extinguished rights with small-holdings and allotments for food, stone and recreation.

1834 Poor Law Amendment Act: Overseers, Justices of the Peace, contractors and Vestrymen might have been petty despots – this was remedied by the Act but the old Poor Law was more humane because those responsible for the administration of relief knew the recipients personally. The Poor Law Commission Report emphasised two principles:
less eligibility: the position of the pauper must be ‘less eligible’ than that of the labourer
the workhouse test: no relief outside the workhouse.

1868: The Church Rate was abolished, thus reducing parish administration to a minimum.


Parish Roads
Concerning the roads, we have some interesting accounts from the (Road) Surveyors for 1871-1872. One main labourer on township roads was Benjamin Ashworth who worked 33 days at 3s..0d per day (15p) [Note 2] Others were paid less but the total expenditure for the year was £55. A labourer in 1871 had an average wage of 12s..1d per week.[Note 3] If we extrapolate to 2008, with a minimum wage of around £6 per hour or £240 per week, we can deduce a factor of roughly 400, making the equivalent cost of maintaining the roads of the village some £22,000 per year. This money had to be raised by the surveyor, most of it as a rate of 2d in the pound of rateable value. The accounts were examined and allowed at a public vestry meeting held in the Bird-in-Hand (the public house) on 24th March 1871 and signed by Jonathan James Harris as Chairman. There is an interesting episode concerning the sewers of the township in 1867-9 where the vestry meeting (the pre-cursor of the Parish Council) got in a real knot over expenditure for drainage, requiring a court ruling as to which decisions stood [Note 4]


New administrations
1888: Local Government was radically altered when County Councils were established.

1894: Urban and Rural District Councils were established, together with Parish Councils. Uproar was caused at the time by two simple principles contained in the latter Act. Firstly, the creation of institutions having a civil origin, status and affiliations the Parish Meeting and the Parish Council; and secondly, the transfer of 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.
During the next 60 years, Parish Councils fell into obscurity. In 1894, the leaders of the village had been the squire, the parson and the schoolmaster. This influence was derived from their traditional prestige, superior education, relative wealth and in a hierarchical society, social standing.
The difficulties of Parish Councils at this time can be highlighted by a number of factors:- Parish Councils began their existence without the co-operation of the influential. On their creation, Parish Councils obtained their revenue mainly from rates on agricultural land. In the 1870s the long decline of agriculture, which only ended with the Second World War, began thus reducing revenue. It is interesting to note that within 18 months of their creation, agricultural land was de-rated by 50% without compensation.

1.    Extracts from
2.    The Ashworths were around Papcastle for a long time. Benjamin was a tenant in the 1838 Tithe Agreement, and appears in the censuses from 1841 to 1871. Originally listed as a hatter, he was a labourer in 1851, but hatter again by 1861, 1871; by now he was age 61, a widower. From thecensus enumeration sequence we can postulate that he lived at what is now Sunnybrae. Of his children , another Benjamin was a platelayer, living at the railway station (in 1861 age 22, he was a flax thread finisher), whilst Moses ( incorrectly recorded as Ashwood) was an engine cleaner and was still in the village in 1901.
3.    Average weekly cash rates of ordinary labourers in agriculture; Source: Rates of Wages prepared by Labour Dept of Board of Trade 1908
4.    Carlisle Journal 18 May 1869
“On the 11 of October, 1867, a vestry meeting of the ratepayers of Papcastle and the Goat, near Cockermouth was he1d at which a committee, consisting of Messrs. Edward Waugh, George Smith, Henry Harper,. George Mawson and Harris, was appointed for the purpose of ascertaining what steps were necessary for carrying out the more effectual drainage of the township, and for constructing waterworks, and also to ascertain’ the cost of such works and report to a future meeting.
In compliance with the resolution passed four members of the committee prepared a report as to what sewers were necessary for the drainage of the district and estimated the cost at £439 7s. Mr. Mawson declined to sign the report, which was submitted to another vestry meeting where it was rejected, and another committee was then appointed for the purpose of assisting Mr Geo. Smith, the road surveyor, to carry out such a system of drainage in Papcastle as they might think necessary.
The committee met several times after the vestry meeting, and ordered large number of the sewerage pipes; and good deal of discussion took place as to the mode in, which the drainage should be carried out. Eventualiy, Mr. Mawson declined to act any longer upon the committee, upon the ground that, the system of drainage proposed to be carried out was in direct opposition to the wishes of vestry meeting. The drainage was completed and a vestry meeting was called for the purpose of borrowing the money to defray the cost, but the meeting unanimously decided that the money should not be borrowed, and expressed its strong disapproval what had been done.
On Thursday, the 25th of June last, another vestry meeting was called for the purpose of issuing a precept to the overseers of the poor of the township of Papcastle, requiring them to pay over to the sewer authority, or other officer to be named in the precept; the sum of £155..15..2d., being the expenses incurred in carrying into effect the resolution of the said vestry passed on the 17th day of October 1867, authoring the committee therein mentioned to improve the drainage of the township, and to make new drains where required. After the precept had been read by Mr. Waugh, a ratepayer present moved, as an amendment, that no rate at all should be levied, which was duly seconded and adopted by a large majority of the persons present Afterwards it was moved and seconded that a precept should be signed for the amount named, less £10, which sum was stated to be due for services rendered by Mr. Middlemiss, the surveyor to the Cockermouth Local Board of Health, although it had been expressly stipulated by the vestry that that gentleman should not be employed. The last proposition was, after some discussion, also adopted and the precept was signed by Mr. Smith, the chairman. There the matter rested for some time.
The overseers, Mr. George Mawson and Mr. James Irving, took no steps with regards to it, and a few days ago they received a notice, signed by Mr. George Smith, Mr. Wm. Thornburn, and Mr. Henry Harper, three members of the committee last appointed and dated the 4th day of May, requesting them within fourteen days to levy and ’ raise the sum of £145..15s..2d.,.the expenses incurred in carrying out the drainage of the township; otherwise application would be made to the Court of Queen’s Bench to compel them to levy and pay the said sum without further notice. The overseen maintain that the drainage was carried out in a way which was directly opposed the expressed wish of the vestry; and that they are unable to decide which of the two resolutions adopted by, the vestry of the of the 25th June is binding namely the one by which it was resolved that no rate at all should be levied; or the other, that the precept should be signed for the amount specified in it, less £10. They have, consequently resolved to take the opinion of counsel as to whether they are bound, under the circumstances, to levy a rate.”


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