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Victorian lives in North Mymms
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 11
Pillars of Society

Before the parish council was established in 1894 the officers of the vestry had carried out the administration of the parish for several hundred years. They were the churchwardens, the overseers of the poor, the surveyors of roads, the waywardens, the vestry clerks, the beadles. They were close to the lives of the villagers. Together with others, some voluntary, some paid a small amount, the temperance workers, the organists, not to mention the school teachers who are dealt with elsewhere, they were the pillars of the little society of North Mymms. Overseeing them were the vicars and the gentry, themselves often churchwardens. More remote from the parish, was another group of men, the guardians of the poor who regulated the poor law from Hatfield Union. But since they controlled parish relief, medical aid and admission to the workhouse, they also buttressed the social order.

Over-arching them all sat the justices of the peace at petty and quarter sessions. Throughout the long period of Victoria’s reign the magistrates of North Mymms were landowners, the Gaussens of Brookmans, the Kembles of Leggatts and W J Lyseley, barrister at law. Their function was to maintain the law and keep the peace in the parish and elsewhere in their division. They were responsible not only for the punishment of crime such as poaching but also, equally close to village life, for the licensing of public houses. Offending publicans could be punished as when James Hutson of the Hope and Anchor beerhouse incurred a fine of £2 in 1838.

Some justices were also guardians of the poor ex officio, for the first years after the introduction of the new kinds of Poor Law in 1834 so as to lend weight to it. The operation of this law was then put into practice by the Boards of Guardians. Invariably substantial owners or occupiers of property, the qualification being £30 rateable value, and elected by tbose with similar qualifications, the guardians were considered to be able to judge the needs of the poor of the parish and what public assistance they should have. Such were W C Casamajor of Potterells in 1835, R W Gaussen and Kemble again in 1851, all large landowners.

The pattern changed somewhat later in the century when the farmers were more active as guardians. Thus, J T Stillman, farmer first at Moffats, then at Boltons, was guardian from 1871 to 1885, Thomas Barker junior another farmer at Potterells, Daniel Crawford, later of Potterells farm, guardian from 1886 to 1893. They were still diluted by superior esquires - John Schofield Esq., landowner and stockbroker of Little Heath House, Thomas Scruton Esq of independent means at Heathfield, TB Forward Esq. of Hawkshead House, Thomas Smith at The Laurels, Pancake Hall, all in the 1880s at different times. Sitting monthy at the Hatfield Workhouse they decided with their fellow guardians from Hatfield, Essendon and Northaw, presided over by the Marquis of Salisbury, how the very poor should be treated.

These farmers and gentry decided the guidelines within which their officers, the receiving officer, the medical officers such as Dr Drage, the master and matron of the workhouse, acted in North Mymms. They sanctioned living conditions in the workhouse, the outdoor relief given to people and the amount of medical aid for the sick in their homes. But they, in their turn, were accountable to the Poor Law Commissioners in London (nicknamed The Three Bashaws of Somerset House) with whom they did not always agree. At the time in 1835 when a dozen paupers were transferred from the North Mymms workhouse to the Union workhouse in Hatfield]d, and the guardians were new to their work, they insisted on retaining their own diet for the inmates because they considered that the one required by the commissioners was inadequate. Later on, however, their attitude was more akin to our own Victorian virtues when in 1877 they resolved, "Where a man is earning 15 shillings per week and is in constant work, with a family of not more than three children, medical orders should be granted only by way of loan." The labourer was to pay later when he could, if ever. Medical aid was, in fact, a considerable item, not surprisingly in view of the insanitary state of many cottages in the parish, as revealed in 1867 by the North Mymms Sanitary Committee. Eleven parishioners were given medical tickets entitling them in treatment in 1851. Twenty years later the number had risen to fourteen.

Outdoor Relief

As many parishioners were also closely affected by the guardians’ power to grant outdoor relief to the needy. That power was limited by the ruling from London that relief must not be given to able-bodied workers who, if they needed it, were to enter the workhouse. The guardians could make them take an alternative test. In 1835 they ordered the unemployed men in the parish to work for the surveyor at two shillings a day. When Michael Lee and seven of his mates struck against this, other men were given a paper to enquire for work from the farmers.

In effect most of the North Mymms people who were given outdoor relief were old or infirm or widows without any means of support. Under the Settlement Law they must have resided in the parish for a given period, five years at first subsequent]y reduced to three years and then to one; widows had to be resident for only one year and temporary relief for sickness needed no such qualification. The parishioners receiving medical relief in 1851 were Ann Pratchett, Sarah Peddar, Susan Rands, all widows, Jane Childs, and six others; they were all called permanently (not temporarily) sick and disabled. In addition the guardians granted relief to eleven persons on the ground of needs: the widows, servant Aim Burr, Iacemaker Hannah Wells, worsted weaver Ruth Starkis, servant Maria Witamore, strawplaiters Rebecca Gray, Susan Webb. Elizabeth Willson; and also to Sophia Brinldey, charwoman Elizabeth Howard, and one apparently able bodied labourer John Webb. Thus a total of twenty persons had poor relief in that year, and probably more. Only a few of them were born in North Mymms and their Settlement qualification would have been examined.

Twenty years later the guardians role was much the same but the circumstances of their influence had changed somewhat. for one thing the law of settlement had been relaxed considerably. Their masters in London had been replaced by the Local Government Board and the new broom wanted to sweep away the national increase in outdoor relief which was giving grave concern to politicians rooted in rnarket values. In fact, that increase had occurred because it was cheaper to give outdoor relief than to maintain paupers in the workhouse. In the parish there were only four old people getting out relief - Henry Brinkley, Mary Field, James Day and Edward Tapster. Whether this reduction was due to the guardians obeying their new masters or to the genera] prosperity of farming in the previous years is debatable. What is certain is that the number of infirm and sick paupers receiving medical attention had risen, as noted above, in spite of the landowner’s provision of privies and cesspools at their cottages. When the invalids came to the end of their days the guardians seem to have been sensitive to the necessity of a decent paupers burial. The undertakers who failed to carry out in a proper manner the funerals of Sophia Brinkley and Sarah Lawrence were reprimanded.

A few of the guardians were also churchwardens such as J T Stillman, farmer at Boltons and Daniel Crawford of Potterells farm who was both at the same time and a man of considerable influence in the parish. Before the Poor Law Act of 1834 the churchwardens had a responsibility for poor relief but after that date theft role was chiefly one of looking after the church accounts, the fabric, heating and cleaning of St Mary’s church and paying the wages of the vestry and parish clerks and the beadle.

These secondary pillars gave good service to the churchwardens. William Goulburn the schoolmaster was vestry clerk for more than thirty years for which the churchwardens paid him £5 a year. Master bricklayer William Groom served as parish clerk to several vicars for nearly as long but for rather more pay - £8 per annum. Henry Dann, garden labourer of Pancake Hall received £2 12s. 0d. for the post of beadle, entrusted with the task of keeping order in church, as did his successors the agricultural labourer Joseph Gibson and William Burgess, the woodcutter, who also supplied faggots to heat the church. The official coat for the beadle cost £3 l0s. 0d, more than his salary.

Until 1868 the churchwardens fixed and levied the compulsory church rate. A rate of twopence in the pound on a parish rateable value of £7965 14s. l0d, brought in an income of £66 7s. 8d. When this stopped they had the task of raising as much from collections in church. Another duty was to allocate the pews so that the places for worship corresponded with the social status of the worshippers; this on one occasion required a ruling by the archdeacon. The churchwardens had an important role because the church played a large part in most people’s lives as much in managing the welfare available, the numerous thrift clubs and the temperance society, as in religious observance. Men of standing were required, whether as vicar’s or as parishioners’ churchwarden.

The vicar’s warden was usually from the gentry, the Gaussens father and son owners of two thousand acres at Brookmans, Samuel Gurney Sheppard stockbroker of Leggatts, Cotton Curtis banker at Potterells, T B Forward of Hawkshead House. The parishioners’ wardens, on the other hand, were often farmers such as Samuel Blakey, Thomas Barker, Charles Honour of Home Park farm and later Moffats farm. But there was no strict social line. Both Forward and Curtis were successively vicar’s and parishioners wardens and gentry such as W R Winch of North Mymms Place and Captain (later Admiral Sir John) Fellowes, represented, in some way, the parishioners. Some of the churchwardens linked the church with the Conservative Party. Fellowes, Forward and Crawford were leaders of the North Mymms Habitation of the Primrose League, thus effecting a double influence on the villagers.

Oversee the Poor

In the same way as some men doubled as guardian and churchwarden so did others as churchwarden and overseer of the poor. The overseer merited that full title before 1834 when he had the duty of providing for the poor in whatever way his conscience dictated and raising a rate accordingly. After that date their job was only to collect the amount required of the parish by the Hatfield Board of Guardians. Thus as the vicar recorded in 1871. ‘There was a Vestry Meeting on 11 May to grant a rate to the Overseers for the ensuing quarter of 15 pence in the pound including poor, road and county rates.’ The vestry meetings were small, with an average attendance of seven or eight, mostly farmers with one or two landowners.

The overseer’s task was a ticklish one for it involved fixing the rateable values of properties and consequently the amounts which landowners and farmers had to pay. Smaller as well as large properties had to be assessed. The rateable value of The parish School Masters House, Garden & Yard owned by North Mims Poor was fixed at £7. L0s. 0d. and the Duke of Leeds Public House owned by Willlam Casamajor, the landowner of Potterells at £13 Ss. 4d. in 1838.

Fifty years later it was the turn of all the numerous new small houses in Thornton and Frampton roads as Little Heath grew. The effect of the rates also entered into the farmer’s profit and loss. This in turn affected not only the wages they paid but also how many labourers they had to turn off in bad times and frosty weather. The labourers and their families then had to rely on the soup kitchens provided by the gentry in the parish in the 1870s and 1880s. Much therefore depended on the overseers decisions, whether or not to change rateable values and rates. These men, taking their turn at financial matters, were the farmers at Hawkshead, Puttocks, Upper and Lower Bell Bar, Home Park, Potterells and, mixing with them Edward Woolley, licensee of the White Swan, the builder Edward Howling, the baker Richard Chuck, the bootmaker Alexander Arnold and the joiner and estate foreman John Bates, all men of some substance and standing.

Road Rate

The road rate which the vestry was empowered to raise was to maintain the parish roads. To see that this was done another officer was elected, the waywarden who reported to the Hatfield Highway District until it was abolished in 1880 and after that to the parish’s own surveyor. Over the years, the waywardens were a mixed bunch. There were some farmers as before, the two incomer Scots - James Sinclair of Tollgate and Danield Crawford again, Stillman again, and the land agent at Brookmans, Archbald Gorrie, and going up the social scale - Thomas Smith of The Laurels and the barrister and magistrate S Soames Esq residing at Hawkshead House.

When the time came for the vestry to appoint its own surveyor two of the waywardens, Stillman and Barker were promoted to that position, to be followed by the carpenter T K H Nash. Since there was a salary of, at first £20 then £30, these appointments aroused much interest and occasioned record attendance at the vestry meetings called to make them.

Temperance Society

All the time, or at least after 1876 there was another group of men, and women in this case, quite different from the others mentioned, though linked to the church, but with a different purpose. They were the works in the temperance movement. Foremost among those who gave encouraging addresses to the often crowded meetings in the Welham Green schoo1room was James Cheeseman, the Gaussens coachman at Brookmans.

He spoke at one of the first meetings and after twenty years he still "added a few words of good counsel. As treasurer of the North Mymms branch of the Church of England and Temperance Society he promoted it until there were a hundred and eighty abstainers. Another stalwart with both the temperance branch and the Band of Hope was James Pousty, from a different social level, residing at The Laurels, Pancake Hall. He combined the two occupations of auctioneer (for was which there could not have been much scope in North Mymms), and local preacher for which there was probably a great deal more. When he gave his farewell addresses in 1881 they were followed by a well-earned presentation.

Many other men and women, notably the schoolmasters and school mistresses who have been recorded elsewhere, maintained the social fabric of the parish community, but those mentioned were probably the main pillars of society in their day.

Peter Kingsford, 1989


Chapter 12 - Expressions of Loyalty
Index - Victorian lives in North Mymms
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched the material for this book.
Photographs - The photographs reproduced by Peter Kingsford in his book

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