As the land of Watlington was divided between different Lords in the Middle Ages, Watlington men owed Service to several Manorial Courts. In 1279 the Earl of Cornwall, Tenant of the later Crown Manor, William de la Hoo, Tenant of the Préaux Abbey Manor, and the Lords of the Marsh Baldon Fee in Watcombe and of Warmscombe Manor each had Courts; an under-Tenant, the Lord of Syresfield, also had his Court; and presumably Tenants of the Abbey of Oseney’s Rectory Estate attended the Abbey’s Court, although no mention was made of it. The Earl of Cornwall had the right to hold View of Frankpledge, Assizes of Bread and Ale, and to have a Gallows for his Watlington Manor. He also held these privileges as Lord of Wallingford Honour, and so Hugh Frelond, Lord of the Marsh Baldon Fee in Watlington, attended the Honour Court held at Watlington for View of Frankpledge, Baldon being a member of the Honour, although for other matters Frelond was a Suitor of the Baldon Court. Men of the Warmscombe and Preaux Property in Watcombe, on the other hand, owed Suit to Pyrton Hundred, but that too belonged to Wallingford Honour by 1279.
A few Rolls of the View of Frankpledge Court of Watlington Manor survive for the years between 1424 & 1461, and between 1542 & 1551. It was held once a year as it was in the 13thC, and was attended by the Tithings of Watlington, Syresfield, & Pishill Napper, another Manor of the Honour. In the 15thC Watlington paid 20s Cert Money, which included 2s Cert for Syresfield and Pishill paid 1s In c.1616, however, Syresfield was not mentioned, but the Tithing was called ‘Watcombe Fee alias Greenfield‘ and said to pay 3s Cert; Watlington paid 18s and Pishill 2s at the Court held yearly on 25th March. In Medieval Times the Presiding Officer of the Court was the Steward, and under him, the Bailiff; other officials mentioned in the records were the Ale-tasters and the Constables. Normal Leet Business was conducted: the majority of cases concerned breaches of the Assize of Bread and Ale, Trespasses on the King’s Highway, the unjust raising of the Hue and Cry, and shedding of Blood.
In the surviving Records, the View was often followed by the curia communis and the Roll frequently contains one other Record of a Common Court held during the year. The Court dealt with ordinary Manorial Matters such as the Repair of Tenements, Admission to Holdings, as well as Pleas of Debt.
The King’s Bailiff was the Chief Administrative Officer of the Manor, and the House called the Bailiwick, mentioned in the 17thC, must have been his Headquarters. A complaint about his conduct in the early 17th century has been recorded. He had said that the King had given him leave to punish all in the Town at his pleasure and that they were all ‘beggarly Knaves‘ save for 4 or 5. Watlington men maintained that he had put the Profits of the Common Pound out to Farm instead of letting the Hayward have them; that he misused the King’s Property in the Fleet Meadow and in the Old Manor House; and that he had put various honest Citizens in the Stocks ‘to their great shame‘ for keeping whelps, and had thereby driven old inhabitants out of the Town.
Some Manorial records also survive of the Court of Préaux’s Watcombe Manor for various years between 1331 & 1538, when it was held by the Stonors and their successor, Adrian Fortescue. The Court dealt with the Letting and Repair of Tenements and Cases of Trespass.
The Court Baron and Court Leet of the Crown Manor were sold to the Freeholders in 1669, and it is recorded that these Courts were being held in the Town Hall in the early 19thC. There is a Roll of Watcombe’s Court Baron for 1650, and in about 1816 it was said that a Court Baron was held only once in 2 years to save Jury costs. At the same time, the Leet Court for Pyrton Hundred was held annually for the Crown at the ‘White Hart Inn‘, and was attended by ‘Watcombe in Pyrton‘, i.e. the original Preaux Abbey’s Estate and Warmscombe, as well as other Tithings of the Hundred. Petty Sessions at this time were held in the ‘Hare & Hounds‘, once a fortnight in Winter, but less frequently in Summer.
From the 16thC until the end of the old poor-law system in 1836 the Vestry took a prominent part in Parish Government because of its Statutory responsibilities for Poor Relief. No Vestry Minutes exist before 1847, but there are early Overseers’ and Churchwardens’ Accounts. The Accounts of these Officers, presented at the Easter Vestry, were usually signed by the Churchwardens and Overseers themselves and by 5 or 6 other Parishioners, and occasionally by more; the Vicar or Curate usually signed the Churchwardens’ Accounts as well. Vestry Meetings were also called to Lease the Church Estates. The usual meeting place was the ‘Hare & Hounds‘, but in the 19thC, the Town Hall was sometimes used.
The Chief Responsibility of the 2 Churchwardens was naturally the upkeep of the Church and its Services. Prevention against Fire also seems to have been regarded as part of their Duties, and there is an entry in their Accounts for 1872 of the purchase of a new Fire Engine and of the Sale of the old one. Bills were paid by them in 1872 for repairs to the Engine-house, and for payments to 16 men for working the Engine at the Station at a Fire. A more important part of the Churchwardens’ Duties was the Relief of the Poor since until 1884 they administered certain Charities left for this purpose. These were the Church Estate Charity, which had been left in the 16thC both for the upkeep of the Church and for the Relief of the Poor, Hester’s Charity left in 1737 for the unrelieved Poor, and Hart’s Charity left c.1664 to Apprentice 2 Boys of the Parish, These Accounts were kept separately from those of the Overseers. In the 18thC, save for a few years, the Churchwardens, however, misappropriated the whole of the Church Estate Income to the upkeep of the Church, since no Church Rate was levied in Watlington. Even so, they were unable to meet the growing expense of the Upkeep of the Church and in 1820 the Vestry actually transferred to the Poor Rate expenditure such exclusively Church Liabilities as the purchase of Parchment for the Registers, Sacramental Bread and Wine, and the Clerk’s Fees. The Organist’s Fee was to be met by subscription, but, in fact, that too appeared in the Overseers’ Accounts in the following years.
The Overseers’ Accounts from 1656 until 1682 mention only 2 Overseers, but in 1682 a 3rd was appointed for the Liberty of Greenfield, which included all the Hill part of Watlington as well as Warmscombe. It is uncertain when Greenfield was organised as a separate Liberty, but it seems to have been so by 1667 at any rate when its Rates were listed separately in the Overseers’ Book. In the 17th century and for at least part of the 18th century a Record of the Greenfield Rates was kept in the Watlington Overseers’ Book, and the Distribution was made for the whole Parish. From at least 1787 to 1800 there was a separate Rate Book for Greenfield and apparently separate Distributions by the Greenfield Overseer. By 1818, however, this arrangement had been abandoned; Rates were entered in the One Book for the whole Parish, and the Greenfield Overseer’s Expenditure was entered in the Watlington Book at the end of the Accounting year. The Overseers were usually prominent Parishioners: in the 17thC the Nashes, Tooveys, Whites, and in 1664, Robert Parslowe, the Donor of a Charity, who like many others was unable to sign his name. In the 19thC, they included the Tilsons of Watlington Park. By 1818 there was also a Deputy Overseer, who was paid £25 a year in 1823, and who verified the Accounts at the Easter Vestry.
A Rate levied for the Poor in 1656 produced £21 11s 7d from 121 premises and was distributed to about 26 people a month, usually for unspecified Relief. In other years expenses for clothes, sickness, burials, and journeys are mentioned. In 1665 a Pesthouse of Timber was built in Time of Plague, and in 1675 a Ducking-Stool was made for 15s 4d. A Rate was made in about 1667 for the House of Correction, maimed Soldiers, and other necessary Town Expenses. Expenditure rose in the 17th century to £118 19s 7d, for example, in 1681, when £137 6s 11d was received from the Rates. The total amount raised for the Poor, however, between 1686 & 1700 was estimated at £1,579, markedly in contrast with the expenditure by the end of the 18th century, when the problem of the Poor was very serious in all Parishes in this area, and Watlington’s Expenditure was one of the 3 or 4 highest. In 1776 £552 was spent but by 1803 expenditure had risen to £946 for Watlington and £310 for Greenfield. The rates had risen from 5s 6d in the 1780s to what was probably the highest rate of the Century, 15s in 1801. Between 1810 and 1816 the rates were said to average £1,570 a year and to be raised at 7s 8d in the pound. The years immediately after the Napoleonic Wars were again difficult and expenditure reached between £1,700 and £1,800 but declined in the 1820s and by 1835 it was £1,330.
Both Outdoor and Indoor Relief were given. A Workhouse or Workshop in Hog Lane was built in 1749 for ‘receiving and maintaining the Poor‘ and ‘for the better employing and setting them to work‘. In the late 18thC the Overseers paid a Rent of £3 10s to the Churchwardens, but there seems later to have been disagreement as to whether it was Parish Property or part of the Church Estate. In 1816 a Vestry decided that it was Parish Property, but in 1821 the Brougham Commissioners recommended that it be restored to the Church Estate, and an annual Rent of £8 was agreed on.
A provision was made for the proper management of the Workhouse. In 1787, for example, the Vestry said that the Poor were to be instructed ‘in the art and mystery of sack-weaving‘ and in ‘decent behaviour and good manner’s’. The Parish undertook to provide clothing, food, drink, and tools; and the Master, who was paid £25 a year, was to Instruct, to Manage the House, and to prepare and serve the Food at proper hours. The Poor who could walk were to be sent to Waltington Church every Sunday. The Spinning of Hemp, which had employed a number of Poor for about 50 years, was found unprofitable before the end of the Century and was abandoned. There were 19 people in the Workhouse in 1803, but it was closed after the Abolition of the old Poor Law, and in 1839 there were Cottagers in the ‘old Workhouse‘.
Far more people received Outdoor Relief in Watlington, especially at the beginning of the 19thC. In 1803 there were 86 adults receiving permanent Outdoor Relief, 8 of them in Greenfield, besides 125 children. Another 63 people in Watlington and 20 in Greenfield Liberty were helped occasionally. Overseers’ Accounts between 1817 and 1825 show that regular Relief was given in Watlington Liberty to some 95 people a year. Another form of Relief was the payment of Rent. The Overseers paid the Churchwardens for the Rent of 3 houses belonging to the Church Estate, which the Churchwardens kept in Repair. There were also about 8 Parish Houses which the Overseers kept in Repair and let to the Poor at low Rentals of 26s each a year. They also paid other Rents for the Poor. Payments for sickness, nursing, and medical care were also made. In 1821 a subscription of £5 5s was given to the Radcliffe Infirmary, and 2 Apothecaries were paid £31 & £65 respectively. In 1825 £22 19s 6d was paid for the Vaccination of the Poor.
Like other Parishes Watlington had to take special measures to cope with the unemployed. Various payments were made for ‘no work‘, and monthly subsidies were given for work on the Roads. The Roundsman System was a form of organised Labour Exchange for the poorest Labourers by which a Parish Vestry helped to pay local farmers, households and others to employ such applicants for relief at a rate of headline wages negotiated and set by the Parish. This System seems to have been adopted in 1820, when about £8 to £9 a month was reimbursed to ‘sundry Roundsmen at half pay‘.
The payment of County Rates and Marshalsea Money appeared in the Overseers’ Accounts, and the Bills of the Constables for Greenfield and Warmscombe were entered and paid at the end of each year.
The Watlington Rates were kept high by the number of Paupers who came into the Town from other Parishes because of the ample Cottage accommodation: in 1831 the increased Population in the Town was attributed in the Census to these Paupers from outside; in 1867 there were said to be 200 to 300 Immigrants from neighbouring Parishes. In 1836 Watlington was put in the Henley Union for the purposes of Poor Relief. In 1851 expenditure was £1,144, the 2nd largest in the Union after Henley itself, and the rate was 4s 10d in the pound. The burden on the Watlington Rates was not relieved until the passing of the Union Chargeability Act (1865).