Civil Parishes and Townships

During the sixteenth century the existing ecclesiastical parishes and townships were adopted by the government as the units through which new civil duties, notably relief of the poor and upkeep of the highways, were to be administered. Responsible for these new duties were the overseers of the poor and the surveyor of the highways, who worked alongside the existing officers, the churchwardens (whose functions were ecclesiastical) and the constable.

Each of these four officers was empowered to levy a rate in order to carry out his duties and was required to keep accounts of the rate collected and how it was spent. The resulting sets of accounting records can often be found in the same volume until the early part of the 19th century. The officers were responsible to the vestry, a general meeting of parishioners, by whom they were elected and whose activities, both ecclesiastical and civil to 1894, were recorded in their minute books. While surveyors’, churchwardens and constables records are largely rate assessments and accounts, the overseers’ responsibilities for settlement and removal, apprenticeship and bastardy as well as the poor rate resulted in more varied records, at least until 1834 when most of their responsibilities passed to the boards of guardians.

Before 1894, while the civil and ecclesiastical functions of parish officers may appear clearly defined, their records frequently overlap. The Local Government Act of 1894 finally separated the two. Parish councils for civil purposes were to be elected in places with a population over 300, and permissible in places with a population of 100-300.