Sunday, 30 August 2015

Eton College: Tudor rights and responsibilities

The Tudor period, brought to Eton College rights and responsibilities never envisaged by the Founder. These came about as a result of the new and increasing number of civil duties imposed upon the parishes by numerous Acts of Parliament. Already many parishes had vestries, that assembly of rate paying parishioners who managed the ecclesiastical affairs of the parish. Now under these Acts the parishes became responsible for the maintenance of law and order, the relief of the poor, the upkeep of the roads, and many other minor duties.  In many parishes the vestry became the unit of local government, replacing the manor court, though in others, like Eton, the two functioned side by side. In many parishes the incumbent acted as chairman at the vestry meetings, but the Provost was often a national figure, a man with responsibilities beyond that of parochial affairs, and one must suspect that the affairs of the parish took a back seat compared with those of the College and his other interests.


However, there was a vestry in Eton though few of its records have been found. Passing references in other documents reveal that it met at different times at the workhouse, the Town House owned by the Baldwin's Bridge Trust and in a room used by the Magistrates. These meetings may well always have taken place at Eton but the Wick was an integral part of the parish and villagers took their place in serving as parish officers, albeit unpaid and perhaps unwilling. The most important and hard worked of the officials were the Overseers of the Poor. Two, and later three, were needed in the parish and in the late eighteenth century, when he was a tenant farmer at Saddocks, John Atkins served in this capacity. Perhaps other villagers took their turn, for they changed each year, but the records are few; most, however, would have paid their poor rates and quite a number will have received some kind of dole or relief from the overseers when times were hard.  During the eighteenth century the number of poor needing help from the parish increased yearly and the level of rates rose correspondingly. An unfortunate few would have had to go into the workhouse.   Such workhouses were set up after the Act of 1722, and for many decades one stood in Eton; but early in the nineteenth century a new one was built on the outskirts of Eton Wick on the site of the present College sanatorium. This was soon demolished when Eton combined with other parishes in south Buckinghamshire and provided a Union Workhouse in 1836. Today this is the Upton Hospital.  Lists of pauper inmates show that a few came from the village.


The constable and tithingmen (that is petty constables) were probably still manor officials, but again people from Eton Wick can be found serving their year.  Henry Moody, who lived at Dairy Farm from the end of the seventeenth century, was a constable and Henry Sexton, another farmer, a tithingman some half century later. One can only wonder how many of their neighbours they had cause to present to the justices or even to set in the stocks or at the whipping post, such as those that now rest outside the Cockpit at Eton. These particular stocks came from Clewer, but Eton's own stood in the High Street until the middle of nineteenth century.

The churchwardens of Eton had no responsibility towards the fabric of the Chapel or the behaviour of the clergy for these were in the charge of the College but for at least two centuries they were concerned with those who did not attend church or see that their children were baptised and confirmed. In 1686 Matthew Paine of Eton Wick, with his wife and others, was presented to the Bishop as not attending church regularly, and session after session at the Quarter Sessions they were fined for being recusants (Roman Catholics).

Not surprisingly, in the four centuries or so of parochial self-government, the parish was important to its inhabitants to an extent that is difficult for us to understand today living as we do in a world of easy communications, education for  everyone, standardization and relatively impersonal local government.  It was essential to know in which parish one lived and in which each and every plot of land lay. This was not only because these were separately rated but because it was the parish officials who levied the rates and to whom they were paid.  The most important of these rates was the poor rate, but there were others such as the highway rate and the church rate.   For part of this period Acts of Parliament made it impossible for the poor to receive parish relief except in the parish in which they had settlement, in effect usually the one in which they were born, and the Quarter Sessions’ records tell the sad stories of several families removed from Eton (and Eton Wick?) by order of the justices because they had become paupers.

This is an extract from The Story of a Village: Eton Wick 1217 to 1977 by Judith Hunter.

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