Dorchester Parish

The Area was Settled at least as early as the Neolithic Period, and on the Outskirts of Dorchester are the remains of an Iron Age Hillfort and suspected oppidum at Dyke Hills a massive Double Rampart of earth that spanned a Loop in the River, protecting an Arc of Land where a late Iron-Age Town once stood.  Across the Thames, a Bronze Age Hillfort tops one of the twin Peaks known as the Wittenham Clumps twin Summits their Crests bristling with Beech trees.  Sinodun Camp is an Iron Age Hillfort. The Romans were drawn to Dorchester for its strategic position near the Thames.  They built a Walled Town (Dorcic) here, defended by Water on 3 sides and linked by Road to the Fort at Alchester.  There are a number of Romano-British Villas in the close neighbourhood; one lies almost 6-miles due West at Sutton Courtenay, one about 5-miles North-east at Ditchend and another 8-miles North-nor-east at Wheatley.  A Pottery Kiln has also been recorded in the outskirts of Dorchester about a mile North-West of the Settlement along the Road to Alcester.  The event that really put Dorchester on the Map came in AD 634 when St Birinius arrived on a Mission to convert the Pagan Inhabitants of the Thames Valley to Christianity.  Cynegils of Wessex Granted Lands at Dorchester to Birinius, who established a Bishopric here.  Tradition says that Birinius Baptised the King in the Thames at Dorchester.

Based on Richard Davis’s Map (1797) & Tithe Award & Maps of Overy (1840) & Dorchester (1847).

The composition of the Ancient Parish of Dorchester is somewhat obscure. It may have included the Hamlet of Overy as well as Burcot, about 1½-miles North-West of Dorchester, and so have covered an area of 2,263 acres.  For centuries, however, Burcot had a separate Economic Life and was long recognised as a separate Civil Parish. The History of Burcot will not be included except incidentally. The area of Dorchester & Overy was 1,954 acres.  This was still the area of the Civil Parish in 1959.  It then included a new Estate of 271 Dwellings, made at Berinsfield just North-West of Dorchester and close to the Oxford Road.
OS Map 1897 Sth Oxon XLVI.13 (Dorchester)

The River Thames forms the Parish Boundary to the South and the River Thame for about a mile to the East. To the South-East, the Boundary crosses the Thame to include the Hamlet of Overy.  The Northern half of the Parish has irregular Boundaries with the Hamlet of Burcot and the neighbouring Parishes of Marsh Baldon, Chislehampton & Drayton St Leonard.
The Lower Section of the River Thame runs from the Town of Thame to its confluence with the River Thames just South of Dorchester-on-Thames: a distance of about 52km. From Thame Town, the River flows broadly West past the Villages of Shabbington & Ickford to Waterstock. It then turns to the South now passing under the M40 & A40 Junction & Services at Wheatley, past Cuddesdon Mill & Chiselhampton, (where it is joined by the Chalgrove) before continuing on to Dorchester.

The Parish is low lying & flat, sloping gently from 200ft in the North to 150ft in the South.  The underlying Gault Clay is covered by Gravel and there are large Gravel Pits, which extended in 1959 to well over 100 acres, to the North-West of the Village.  There is no Woodland in the Parish, and apart from the Trees of the Village and the Riverside, there is very little standing Timber.  In 1551 a Survey of what had been the Bishop of Lincoln’s Manor listed 970 Timber Trees on the Copyhold of Dorchester and 785 on those of Overy.  Shortly after the Dissolution, there were 360 Elms & Ashes growing on the Lands of what had been the Abbey’s Manor.
Dorchester Parish Plan
The oldest known Road in the Parish is the Roman one leading from Dorchester, where its line is preserved in the Main Street of the Village, to Water Stratford just over the North-East Boundary of the County.  It is possible that this Road continued across the Thame and crossed the Thames by a Ford about half-way between Dorchester & Shillingford. It seems probable that the Thame was Bridged here in the Anglo-Saxon Period but the earliest evidence of a Bridge is in 1146.  In 1381 the Bailiffs of Dorchester were Granted Pontage for 3-yrs for the repair of the Bridge  and in the mid-15thC more work seems to have been done on it at the expense of 2 local Landowners, Sir Richard Drayton & John Delabere (Bishop of St Davids, 1447–60),  whose Benefaction was commemorated in an inscription on a Cross which stood on or near the Bridge in the 16thC.  This Cross was removed in or soon after 1781John Leland described the Bridge as ‘of a good length and a great Stone Causey is made to come well onto it. There be 5 principal Arches in the Bridge and in the Causey joining to the South end of it.‘   In the 17th & 18thCs it was frequently in need of repair, and by 1781 its condition was so bad that £206 were spent on its repair & widening.  In 1808 a Grand Jury presented that it was again out of repair, narrow, & inconvenient.  It was described as a mean & narrow Structure, with recesses on one side to enable Foot Passengers to avoid the real danger threatened by the Transit of Carriages.  A new Bridge was, therefore, designed by Mr Francis Sandys (Irish Architect) and built about 100-yards above the old Structure between 1813 & 1815 at a cost of £23, 857.

Union of the Thames and Isis ('Dorchester Mead, Oxfordshire') exhibited 1808 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallard William Turner’s original Title for this picture in Exhibitions at his Gallery in 1808 & 1809 is commonly used today, although he showed it again in 1810 as ‘Dorchester Mead,  Oxfordshire’. It depicts the confluence of the River Thames, and the Thame near DorchesterThe River Thame, hardly more than a Stream, is in the foreground while the Thames is glimpsed beyond the Old Wooden Bridge on the Right.  

The new 1815 Bridge is Stone built and with its Causeway is 1,160 yards long.  The Old Wooden Bridge, which led into the Green at Bridge End, was demolished in 1816, but the Foundations of its Piers are still encountered by Boats when the River is low.  By 1824 the Foundations of the new Bridge had been so badly washed away that underpinning at a cost of £3,737 was necessary.  In 1847 the Ladies of Dorchester complained of the nuisances committed on the Seats on this Bridge which were said to be a disgrace to the Parish.  The remedy suggested by Mr William Cobb was ‘to slope them up with brickwork … so that no person can stand or sit in them’.  This was apparently done for the Recesses on the Bridge are at present ‘sloped up’ with Stonework.

Thame Bridge Approach: Petrol Station, Tea Rooms, Halls Old Castle Pub & St Birinus RC Church at Bridge End

The Bridge carries the main Oxford-Henley Road which crosses the Parish and forms the Main Street of the Village.  Since the expiration of the Henley & Dorchester Turnpike Trust in 1873 the maintenance of this Road has been the responsibility of the County.  The early 19thC Toll-House still stands at the approach to the Bridge.  This road, probably always the most important through the Parish, was used in the 13thC by the Bishop of Lincoln’s Tenants who were required to Cart Corn to Oxford & Wallingford.  In 1816 Dorchester was said to be chiefly known by it.  It ran through to Oxford, Worcester, Gloucester, & South Wales.

A side Road of some importance leads via Burcot to Abingdon.  There seems to have been a great deal of concern about this Road in the 15thC and the Abingdon Guild of the Holy Cross was established to maintain it.  The Road was Turnpiked in 1754–5 and was dis-turnpiked in 1874.  In a Survey of the Bishop of Lincoln’s Demesne at Dorchester made in 1348 mention is made of Roads or ‘Ways’ to Oxford, Baldon, Drayton (St Leonard), Burcot, & ‘Wolden‘.  In the mid-19thC the River Thame was crossed by 3 Footbridges, one at the confluence with the Thames, another just above the Site of the Old Bridge, and a 3rd leading to Overy via The Hurst.  The ‘Back Lane‘ on the West of the Village is sometimes known as Watlington Lane and this is most likely a corruption of the name of 2 Holdings of Richard Beauforest in the 16thC, Great & Little Wallington.  The Track now known as Wittenham Lane was in the mid-19thC called Ferry Road.

Days Lock & Sinodun Hill

Opposite Dorchester is Sinodun Hill.  If it be good climbing weather – that is to say, not too hot – Sinodun should not be passed heedlessly by.  The Climb is a stiffish one, but once the shelter gained of the little clump of trees atop, there is ample compensation for an exercise such as Englishmen are not usually afraid of.  From this eminence, the Country lies displayed as though upon a Map.  The shining River twists & curves like a snake in agony; upon its timbered Banks repose tiny Villages, distinguishable in the mass of foliage only by the Vanes upon the Steeples and the thin quivering lines of smoke which melt into nothingness just above the Tree-tops; Roads & Railways look straight and uncompromising indeed beside the sinuous stream.  The Country is multi-coloured – the fields green, brown & yellow, with here & there a great square of Black Woodland.  The sun seems to shine upon some and to leave others in shadow, while overall there move flecks of trembling light.  The view in the direction we are travelling is closed by swelling Downs destitute of all colour but the dim grey of distance.  Down below us, near the Weir, industrious Anglers are barbelling or spinning for jack, for hence almost to Shillingford are fine Fishing grounds.  Here the River bends somewhat towards Dorchester, and it is long ere we pass out of sight of the Abbey.  Upon the Berkshire Shore are Uplands, broad, swelling & cultivated to the utmost rood.  These rolling Uplands never look better than in Haymaking or Harvest time, when the cocks & sheaves are yellowing in the sunlight.  The regular, almost square, Boundaries of the Fields suggest a green & yellow Chessboard, and at seedtime, the mathematical Furrows are as straight as though cut by a Machine.  The nicety of vision, and the accuracy of touch with which a Ploughman cuts a Furrow are astonishing in one who usually has instinct and eye alone to guide him.  After all, there is something intellectual in the following of the Plough, and the peculiar qualities required of the Ploughman are such that it is not altogether surprising that both science & letters have drawn notable recruits from the furrowed Field.  Almost until we reach the next Ferry, a couple of miles below Day’s Lock, Dorchester still straggles along parallel to the River, and the last glimpse of its Red Roofs from a bend in the stream is exceedingly picturesque.


DaysLock&WittenhamClumpsSinodunIn 1580 & 1585 a Weir and a Lock were owned by Edmund Fettiplace and a Weir, which seems properly to have been in Little Wittenham Parish, was owned by William Dunch.  Both Edmund Dunch & Edmund Fettiplace were members of the ineffective Commission set up under the Act of 1605 for improving the Navigation of the Thames between Burcot & Oxford.  The Dunch interest passed through the Oxendens to William Hallett who in 1789 was given the Notice to keep the old Flashlock shut on the opening of the new ‘Poundlock’.  This was known as Day’s Lock and had been staked out in 1788 and completed at a cost of £1,078; it was in ‘utter ruin‘ in 1865 and was rebuilt in 1871.  Formerly there was a Timber Swing-Bridge below the Lock but an Iron Bridge was built about 1870 at a cost of £250.


Days Lock Weir Rebuild  – 1880

The Village of Dorchester lies about 9-miles Southeast by South of Oxford on the Western Bank of the River Thame, about ½-mile above the confluence of that River with the Thames. It was one of the 2 Romano-BritishTowns‘ in the County.  The Course of its Walls, 1st erected c.AD 125, has been determined in part and seems to enclose an area of about 13½ acres, and there is evidence to suggest that at least in origin this ‘Town‘ was a Military or Paramilitary Settlement with the Civilian Settlement outside the Walls.  It continued to flourish into the 4thC and the recent re-examination  of some early Saxon graves from the neighbourhood has led to the conclusion that they are the graves not of Invaders but of Foederati and their dating to the end of the 4th or the early 5thC suggests that life continued in Dorchester to the very end of the Roman Period.  Indeed it has even been suggested that the continuance of some sort of sub-Roman life in Dorchester was the reason Birinus chose it for his See in 634.  The name Dorchester itself would support the theory of continuity.  It is 1st recorded by Bede in the early 8thC in the forms Dorcic, Dorciccaestræ.  The 2nd element is the common Old English ceaster meaning a Roman Station, but the 1st is certainly British although its meaning is most uncertain.

Whether or not life continued in Dorchester until the English Conquest and after, it is remarkable that both the Abbey Church, presumably on the site of the earlier Church, and the Monastic Buildings lay outside what seems to have been the line of the Roman Walls. The full extent of the Saxon Settlement is not known, but after the Norman Conquest and the removal of the See to Lincoln, the Town may well have declined in importance.  William of Malmesbury, writing about 1125, described Dorchester as exilis et infrequens, but he added majestas tamen ecclesiarum [est] magna, seu veteri opera seu sedulitate nova.  Leland, who visited Dorchester in 1542, remarked that ‘of old time it was much larger in building than it is now toward the South and the Tamise side. There was a Parish Church a little by South from the Abbey Church. And another Parish Church more South above it. There was a 3rd Parish Church by South West‘.  This was probably the source of the statements made by such later Observers as Hearne & Gough that there were 3 Churches at Dorchester besides the Abbey ChurchGough, writing in the early 19thC, stated that Foundations of one of these Churches could be seen ‘as you turn up to the Bridge in the Gardens of the Clerk’s House‘.  A few years later J N Brewer reported that he could find no trace of such Foundations,  but he observed what seemed to be the Site of one Church in Farm Field. There is now no trace of any of these Churches. The Walls of the Town seem still to have been standing in the 12thC.  Other lost Buildings are the Bishop’s Palace & ‘The Gyld‘ and the Farmhouse mentioned by Gough, who says it was called Bishop’s Court Farm and was in the form of a Cross.  Bishop’s Court is reputed to stand on the Site of the Bishop’s PalaceLeland observed Old Foundations there, and in his time the Courts, presumably of the Bishop of Lincoln’s Manor, were held there.

Aerial View

Apart from post-War Development most of the Village may be said to be bounded by the rectangle formed by Back Lane to the West & South and Marten’s Lane to the North. The only important extension beyond this is Bridge End, which has become a backwater since the construction of the new Bridge.

Most of the buildings in the Village are basically of the 17th & 18thCs.  The main 19thC additions are the Vicarage, built in 1856–7 to the design of David Brandon, the Beech House Hotel (originally a Private Residence), and the former Missionary Training College in Queen Street, which was formed out of some older buildings by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1877–8.  There is also some 20thC Housing in several parts of the Village, including an Estate called Tenpenny at the Southwest end of the Village and some varied modern houses at the North-East Corner between Queen Street and the River.  Most of the earlier buildings have Timber-frames, generally with brick-filling, while buildings of the 18thC and later are generally of brick. Much of the brickwork of all ages is colour-washed.  Other building materials are used, including Flint & Rubble Stone, most remarkably is Mollymops Cottage in Bridge End, dated 1715, which is built of alternate bands of Flint & Brick.  Most roofs are Tiled but some Thatch remains, notably in Bridge End & Malt House Lane.  Several buildings in the Village have been extensively altered from time to time, but still, retain many original features. This is particularly true of High Street where a large number of buildings seem to be originally of the 17thC, but have a variety of later Frontages.  The most striking of these is on Willoughby House, a Timber-framed Structure of the 17thC, or perhaps even earlier, which has an early 19thC stuccoed Front with a Masonry pattern.  The Manor House is another good example of an enlarged House in which the earlier building is largely preserved.  It is to almost all external appearances an 18thC House with Gothic windows on the West Front and an early-19thC Wing added on the North. It contains extensive traces of an earlier House of the 17thC or perhaps even the 16thC. This seems to have been a 2-Storey Building and now forms the Core of the Western part of the House. There are some very fine Timbers in the ceilings of the Cellar and the Ground Floor, and the Tiled Roof may be original.  This was the Farm-house mentioned by Wood in 1657 as belonging to Mr Clerkwhich some say was part of the Abbey‘.

High Street, crossing the Village from North-West to South-East, is a most attractive street and contains many groups of buildings of great charm & interest.  It winds through the Village and is made up of a variety of Cottages, Houses, Shops, & Inns with very irregular Roof Lines.  Perhaps the most striking buildings in this street are the Inns: the ‘Crown’, The ‘George’, The ‘White Hart‘, and what was formerly the ‘Bull Inn’ but is now 3 Houses. These are all Timber-framed Buildings and their Upper Storeys oversail, the carved brackets on ‘Bullyn‘ being particularly good.  This house also has some fine panelled Rooms. All these Inns have Yards, the best being that of the ‘George‘ with its open Gallery.  There were some 10 Inns in Dorchester in the past.


Former Chequers Pub 20 Bridge End

The High Road has added considerably to Dorchester’s Prosperity.  At the beginning of the 19thC, the place was described as ‘now humble in buildings and depending chiefly for its precarious resources on the traffic of the high road on which it is situated‘.  The Census of 1851 shows the predominance of the Innkeeper in the small group of Shopkeepers recorded, and the names of many of their Inns are known from the early 16thC.  In 1691 the Fettiplace Manor (i.e. the former Abbey Manor) owned the ‘Plough‘, the ‘Saracen’s Head‘, the ‘Talbot‘, the ‘Crown‘, the ‘George‘, the ‘Swan‘, and the ‘White Hart‘.  The ‘Bull‘, 1st recorded early in the 16thC, occurs again in 1728 and was on the Abingdon Estate.

The Plough – Abingdon Road
George Inn

Ten Inns were recorded in the 18thC, and in 1792 the Keepers of the ‘George‘ and the ‘White Horse‘ were important enough to have their own Pews in the Church.

Bull Inn

Seven Inns were licensed in 1821: the ‘Fountain‘, the ‘George‘, the ‘White Hart‘, the ‘Fleur de Lys‘, the ‘Horse & Hounds‘ and the ‘Castle‘.  A ‘Queen’s Arms‘ was mentioned in 1854.  Some 6 or 7 Inns were regularly recorded in the 19th & 20thCs.  Dorchester’s Inns still flourished in 1959 when the ‘George‘ was one of the leading Hotels in the County.

The Old Castle at Bridge End: formerly a Halls Brewery Public House
Crown Inn & White Hart beyond left

The Old Crown Inn (Morelands) where the Defiance Stage Coach from London to Oxford used to Stop.  The Crown continued to operate as a Pub into the 1950s.


Of the 10 original Coaching Inns, only 2 remain The George & The White HartThe George has a Galleried Yard dating back to 1495 and it also used to serve Coaches on the Gloucester-Oxford-London Route.

White Hart Inn
White Hart Inn

North-West of the Village is Bishop’s Court.  The central part of the present House is an L-shaped timber-framed structure with Brick filling, some of it herringbone, and there are 18th & 19thC extensions.  The Interior contains some fine chamfered Beams which may date back to the rebuilding of 1552, which, it is said, is recorded in the Title Deeds.

The Monastic Guest House beside the Abbey is now a Museum & Tea Room.

With the probable exception of what is now the Schoolhouse at the West end of the Church, nothing remains of the Monastic Buildings. The Schoolhouse may have been a Guest House.  It is a Timber-framed Building with brick filling and on the Northside, the 1st Floor over-sails. The South Wall, however, is built of Stone and in it, there is the cusped head of a 2-light mullioned window that has been blocked up. There are also traces of other similar windows and of a Stone DoorwayWood speaks of the Schoolhouse being built about 1654, and this almost certainly refers to the Timber-framed Structure.  When the Schoolhouse was built some little underground rooms were discovered, some of them paved with hard White Stone, and one of them had a Central Hearth.  Digging at the West end of the Church in the 17thC also revealed a small Vault which Wood seems to have considered as a place of Punishment.  In the early 19thC there seem to have been the remains of an Arched Entrance to the Monastery at the West end of the Church, between this Schoolhouse and the Church. The Main Monastic Buildings were on the Northside of the Church, the Cloister on the Northside of the Nave.  Nothing now remains of these Buildings although substantial remains were described by Wood.  To the North of the Church, there were then some ‘Great Slatted Barns, that are supported with Buttresses‘ which were probably the Wooden Barns forming a quadrangle North of the Manor House.  These were recently destroyed to make way for some new houses.   Some part of the Medieval Masonry does, however, still survive.


In the Churchyard, close to the South Porch, there is a Cross, and towards the River there are 2 Ancient Cottages.

During the Civil War, as Dorchester lay so near Oxford and on the main road to Henley, Troops were constantly in & about it.  Sir Samuel Luke records that in May 1643 Sir John Byron and his Forces lay there; that 2 Regiments of the King’s Foot left it in September, and that the Royalists intended to keep Garrison there during the Winter.  In March of the next year, all Prince Maurice’s Foot were said to be at Dorchester as well as some of the King’s Horse from Oxford.  In March 1646 the Committee of Both Kingdoms was informed that 1,000 Royalist Horse & 500 Foot was at Dorchester and intended to Quarter there.  Colonel Fleetwood was ordered to remove them.

Among Residents of interest are the 16thC Family of Beauforest and the Roman Catholic Daveys of Overy, who were especially Prominent from the 17th to the 19thCs, may perhaps be singled out.  In the 19thCW C Macfarlane was a notable Curate.

Queensford Mill
, 1st mentioned by name in 1146, was undoubtedly the Mill recorded on the Bishop’s Estate in 1086.  It remained part of the Bishop’s Estate during the Middle Ages and in 1545 was included with the Fishery in the Lease of Bishops Court Farm to Richard Beauforest.  It passed to the Crown in 1547 with the rest of the Dorchester Estate but continued to be Leased.   In 1585 Queen Elizabeth included the Mill in the Grant of Bishops Court Farm to William Dunch.  It followed the Descent of the Dunch Estate: in 1630, for example, Edmund Dunch leased Queeneforde Millnes and Appurtenances for 14 years for £26 13s 4d a year.  In the 18thC their successors, the Oxendens, held it.  The Descent of the Mill is not clear after it passed from the Oxendens at the end of the 18thC, but it was in use as a Mill at least until the 1870s.  At the end of the century, it was part of Jabez Balfour’s Estate of Queensford Mill Farm and was sold in 1897.  By then it is said to have been used as a Store for some time.
Queensford Mill, to the East of Dorchester, is partly built of Brick, partly Timber-framed & Weather-boarded. The Mill House & Barn are both brick structures of the 18thC.  Situated on the River Thame, but by the 1980s most of the Machinery had been stripped out, although the Bins & Hoist remained.
Watermill18thC, remodelled late 20thC.  Brick & Weatherboarded, Timber Framing, old plain-tile Roof. 2-Storeys. Brick end Wall and one side Wall retain some segmental-arched Openings; Weatherboarded side Wall has 20thC windows. The Roof is Half-hipped one end and Hipped with Outshut towards the River.
Interior: Structure of 2-Floors and part of Side-wall Framing remain largely intact. The Roof has been rebuilt at a lower level in the 20thC.


Fisheries & Locks
Fishing Rights belonged originally to the Bishop.  In 1397 he Granted all his Fishing Rights in the Thame & Thames at Dorchester to the Abbey.  These Rights Descended to the Abbey’s successors.  In 1538 the Crown leased the Thame Fishery to Sir Edmund Ashfield and later included the Fisheries in the Grant of the Manor.  Ashfield’s heir. Edmund Fettiplace owned the Weir & Lock on the Thames in 1580 & 1585, and in the 17thC, the Fettiplaces held the Free Fishery in the Thame & Thames.  In 1691 their Tenant held the Ferry, Fishery, & Lock for £4 a year.  In 1707 Sir Charles Fettiplace released to Edmund Dunch Wittenham a Ferry House on an Island in the Thames, the Ferry between Dorchester & Wittenham, and Fishing Rights between ‘Cowcutt & Feasants Eyot‘.  The Dunch interest presumably passed to their successors but no further mention of the Fishing Rights was made.

Parish Government
Only 2 Medieval Rolls, those of 1401 & 1463, of the Manorial Courts held for the Abbey’s Manor are known to exist.  They deal with Admissions, Fines, & Heriots, but a Court Roll of 1539, when the Abbey’s Estate was in the King’s Hands, contains some Open-field Regulations.  Court Rolls & Court Books for the Manor of the Bishops’ Successors have survived for many years between 1624 & 1718 and there is evidence for Courts being held up to 1769.
Three Courts entered for April 1648, March 1649, & April 1650 were Views of Frankpledge.  In 1649 the View & Court Baron were held on the same day, each with their separate Homage.  In the mid-17thC 3 or 4 Courts Baron a year are recorded;  in the latter part of the 17thC & in the 18thC only one or 2 a year; and it may be that Courts, where no Business was transacted, were not written up.  The Courts dealt with changes in Holdings and with the maintenance of Highways & Drains and with problems of Open-field Agriculture.  The following points of interest may be noted: a typical Heriot paid by a Copyholder was half a year’s Rent,  but in 1685 one Tenant gave a Horse worth £3 as Heriot for 1 Messuage & 1½ Virgates; in 1625 Orders were issued in Court forbidding anyone to build Cottages on the Lord’s Waste without Licence, an indication perhaps of a growth of population; and Tenants were constantly admonished to Scour Ditches & Drains in Dorchester Streets and in the Open-fields.
There are no surviving Court Rolls for the Fettiplace Manor for this Period, but the Fettiplaces were said to have a Court Leet in the mid-17thC.

In the 17th & 18thCs the Vestry and its elected Officers, the Churchwardens, Constable, & Overseers, came to play the predominant part in Parish Government. Overseers’ Accounts exist, with some gaps, from 1680 to 1835, Vestry Minutes from 1733 to 1837, and Churchwardens’ Accounts from 1757 to 1794 & 1824 to 1882. Vestry Meetings, of which the Easter Vestry was the most important, were held as required. In 1736, for example, there were 8 Vestries entered in the Minute Book, but in 1740 there were only 2.  In the latter part of the Century, when the problem of Poor Relief had become serious, it was customary to adjourn the Vestry to a later date at the ‘White Hart‘ or at a Parishioner’s House.  Except on rare occasions, the Vestry was composed only of the Minister, the Churchwardens, the Overseers, and one or 2 of the ‘Principal Inhabitants & Parishioners’, such as the Daveys & Cherrills.  In 1735 it was definitely stated that besides 7 who signed the Minutes there was only one other who attended the Vestry.   In 1738, on the other hand, a proposal to change the way of raising Church Rates caused an attendance of 16.  The Easter Vestry appointed the 3 Churchwardens of Dorchester. The Principal Business of the Vestry was to authorise the Churchwardens’ & Overseers’ Rates and to decide the Policy about Expenditure.  Apparently, no regular sum could be paid to any Pauper without the due Authorisation of a Vestry Meeting,  and the more frequent Vestry Meetings called in some years can usually be accounted for by decisions of this kind.
The Churchwardens were mainly concerned with the maintenance of the Church Fabric. They had also the statutory duty of paying for the destruction of Vermin & Payments for polecats, sparrows, & hedgehogs occur frequently in their Accounts.  From 1784, however, the charge, save for Hedgehogs, was to be met out of the Poor Rate.
The Overseers’ Accounts present a clearer picture of the problems confronting the Vestry.  Poverty & Unemployment in the Parish were not serious in the 17thC and in 1680–1, the 1st year of the surviving Accounts, disbursements totalled only £17 10s 2d.  The War of the Spanish Succession perhaps accounts for the increase in expenditure which at the beginning of the 18thC reached £60 and by the 1740s totalled some £90 a year.  There was no remarkable increase, however, until after 1772, and between 1794 & 1801 expenditure reached £1,000.  This change was due to the lack of Employment and the strain of the Wars.  In the earlier part of the century, the Overseers had usually only to support the aged, the sick, & the fatherless families who were given regular allowances. They paid out other miscellaneous sums for schooling, rent, fuel, funeral expenses, & for soldiers or, as in 1732, to help to keep a Parishioner out of Gaol.  In these years there were some 13 to 24 Villagers on the Rates, receiving fairly regular payments,  but by 1818 there were 53 receiving Relief.  As early as 1740 the Vestry was coping with the problem of Poverty by making up workmen’s wages, a system subsequently known as the Speenhamland System (Berkshire Bread Act). In the 1780s & 1790s work was often found for able-bodied Paupers on the Roads, in the Gravel Pits, and in clearing away Snow.  In the crucial year 1795 the Magistrates ordered that cheap bread should be sold to the Poor and at an adjourned meeting of the Vestry ‘the Churchwardens, Overseers, & Principal inhabitants‘ agreed to make a 6d Rate in order to give the Poor bread at 1s 5d the gallon loaf.  In 1799 the Vestry agreed to make an allowance to the Poor who had large families.  The Roundsmen System was mentioned as early as 1740, when payments of 8d or 6d a day were made to various people who were to ‘go on their rounds‘ to everyone paying £10 to the Parish Rates for 1 day’s Employment.  The System was not mentioned again until 1814–15  but was perhaps adopted more frequently than the Accounts reveal.  Expenditure on Poor Relief again reached 4 figures after 1818 and wages were regularly made up.  In the 1820s Emigration became a popular way of helping the Poor.  In 1829 the Overseers spent £26-17s in sending 2 men to America, the passage itself costing £17.  In 1832 a family of 7 Emigrated at a cost to the Parish of £30.  There was still extensive Unemployment in the Parish, however, in 1834: 21 able-bodied men & 16 women were being given regular payments and there were also 52 needy children & 39 infirm or totally disabled people.  Nevertheless, the last years of the old Poor Law were easier ones for the Parish and the average expenditure was about £750.
Other aspects of the Overseers’ work also throw light on contemporary conditions. There were Smallpox Epidemics in 1741–42, 1753, 1773, & 1774 and expenses were heavy. In 1741–2 the Parish Doctor was given £10 in addition to his normal Salary for treating cases of this sort.  In 1780 some Parishioners were Inoculated and many more in 1794. In 1799 it was decided to Inoculate the whole Parish at a cost of £23.  The new vaccine treatment was applied in 1812.
The Parish Workhouse seems to have been Established in 1742 when the Parish Officers were to be allowed reasonable charges in seeking a Workhouse for the Poor.  The Workhouse was managed at 1st by a woman, who in 1755 was paid by the Overseers £33 7s-4d.  In 1764 John Wallis took charge at 30s a week and the Parish paid the Rent of the House.  He was to maintain the Poor in a decent fashion and was responsible for all save Smallpox Patients, those with broken bones, or bastards.  Wallis was to buy 3 beds & bedding, 7 bed-heads, & 3 spinning wheels, the cost of which the Parish would refund when he left.  He was not to be responsible for the expenses of Resettlement.  Payments were made for hemp seed and digging up the ground which the Town rented: presumably the Paupers were set to Prepare & Spin the Crop when grown.
Another aspect of the Overseers’ work is shown by the Payments made for an Incurable Lunatic.  In 1763 the Parish paid about £20 for looking after her and transferring her to Bedlam and the Vestry agreed to pay 2s-6d a week for her maintenance, a charge which recurs in the Accounts until 1788.  After the Establishment of the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Overseers subscribed 3 Guineas a year for which they were entitled to send 2 In- & 2 Out-patients.
No Surveyors’ or Constables’ Accounts have survived, but Payments to both are recorded in the Overseers’ Account Books.  In the 19thC, when the Constable was appointed by the Vestry, he was paid for visiting the Public Houses on Sundays during Services.

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