IN the middle of the eighteenth century there was very little life in the Church of England, except among the few who were stirred by John and Charles Wesley, and these for the most part met with but little sympathy from their fellow churchmen. Generally speaking, church worship was cold and dreary, and the sermons preached were dry moral essays. As far as can be gathered, Eton was no exception to this state of things. A tombstone in Old Upton Churchyard has a significant inscription, which reflects on the times. " Here lies the Body of Sarah Bramstone of Eton, Spinster, a person who dared to be just, in the reign of George the Second, obiit Jan. 30, 1765, aetat. 77."
It has already been stated that the Collegiate Church was intended by Henry VI. to serve as Parish Church for the people, as well as the Chapel for the Foundation and School; and had his original design of a spacious nave been carried out, there would have been no need of any other buildings for the accommodation of the townspeople and parishioners. They would probably have had their own nave services, as is the case in some Cathedrals and in Merton College, Oxford. But in the course of two centuries the School had grown beyond his calculations, and nearly 400 Oppidans had to be accommodated, as well as the King's Scholars. The consequence was that the Church was overfilled, and the tradespeople and poorer parishioners, already ill provided for, were little by little crowded out.
We can easily imagine the results. Many, finding themselves little welcomed, drifted off to Windsor, and a century later Windsor Church was popularly spoken of in Eton as 'the Parish Church'; others sought spiritual help in those dissenting communities which were then springing into existence, while with many others this unfortunate condition of things was the beginning of indifference and of the entire neglect of common worship.
At last the evil impressed itself on a member of the College, the Rev. William Hetherington. In his desire in some measure to meet the wants of the townspeople, he built, at his sole expense, a small Chapel of Ease in the High Street, near the entrance of the approach to the present Church. As far as can be learnt, it was a very miserable building, and a very poor substitute for what was still the Parish Church, but it was better than nothing, and no doubt was the means of saving many in the parish from spiritual destitution. This building was consecrated on September 8, 1769, and stood till 1819. At the same time, and probably from the same source, £200 was invested and conveyed to the College for the repairs of this building and was in 1875 transferred by the College to the Vicar and Churchwardens. The College also undertook to allow a competent provision for a minister to officiate there. This same Mr. Hetherington is note-worthy as the founder of a most useful London charity for the blind.
The population of the town seems to have further increased somewhat at the beginning of the next century. A census taken in 1811 gives the number in the parish as 2279; there were then 314 inhabited houses, 430 families, 272 persons employed in trade, etc., and twenty in agriculture.
One consequence of this increase was that the first Chapel of Ease became too small, and accordingly in 1819 the Provost and Fellows undertook to rebuild it on a larger scale. The first stone was laid on August 5, and it was opened on October 29 in the next year. The Windsor and Eton Express of November 5, 1820, gives the following report.
" On Saturday last, the new Chapel at Eton, which has been erected by the liberality of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College, was opened for Divine Service.
" An admirably appropriate sermon was preached by the Rev. J. B. Sumner (one of the Fellows, after-wards Archbishop of Canterbury). The Chapel is a very neat building, particularly in the interior, which is fitted up with great elegance. A most tasteful altar-piece has been presented to their native town by Mr. Ingalton and Mr. Evans, artists, of Eton, which in design and execution is highly creditable to their talent. We understand that a subscription has been raised by the inhabitants for the purpose of marking their grateful sense of their obligation to the College of Eton, by furnishing the Chapel with some handsome Communion Plate."
This report no doubt fairly represented the taste of the day, but those who remember this Chapel describe it as mean and unsightly, both inside and out. Outside, against the east wall, and flush with the street, stood the parish watchman's box. Within there were galleries on three sides, and high pews facing the pulpit, which stood near the west end, so that, except in part of the Communion Service, when it was the custom for the congregation to face east, the backs of most people were turned to the altar. " The tasteful altar-piece " consisted of the Ten Commandments, illuminated, and supported by cherubs. A well-known Etonian of the last generation, then a little boy, William Adolphus Carter, is said to have sat for one of them.
Until 1832, when a barrel organ was introduced, the hymns were accompanied by a band consisting of several instruments, such as comets, flutes and violins, played by young men living in Windsor and Eton.
The services (they were but few) were under the care of the Conducts¹ of the College Chapel. The expenses were wholly defrayed by the College, and the worshippers there, as in too many English parishes, grew up in ignorance that it is the duty and privilege of church, people to maintain their place of worship and to contribute to the support of their ministers.
The Communion Plate mentioned above was presented to the College and was by them transferred to the parish in 1875.
The attempts thus made by the College to meet the wants of the town were not however considered satisfactory. The comment of a much respected townsman, made some seventy years ago, probably represents the sense of grievance expressed in the town generally. He writes : " This was very kind indeed, but it placed the townspeople in a false position in regard to the Parish Church, and so they have remained ever since, for in course of time it was supposed that this was the place of worship belonging to the town, and that the College had an exclusive right to the Parish Church."
The interests of the town and the College also appear in opposition in another matter, and in October 1796 a case was tried at Quarter Sessions at Aylesbury between them. The College had pleaded exemption from the payment of Poor Rate on its property, but the decision was to the effect that the College was rightly liable. Since then, it has contributed its share of the rate.
But if sometimes there was a clashing of interests between the residents on the two sides of Barns Pool Bridge, there were also occasions when they fought side by side.
In 1826 an attempt was made to bring into Parliament a Bill called the Eton Enclosure Bill, which would have done away with those Lammas rights described in Chapter I. By an energetic representation to the Commons, this Bill was defeated on May 1 by a majority of 173. The victory was celebrated in Eton with feastings and bonfires.
A banner designed for the occasion, preserved for many years by the late John Harding at the " Crown and Cushion," is still in existence and is the property of Mr. H. J. Hetherington. On one side it is adorned with an illuminated inscription:
The glorious 1st of May 1826.
On the other is emblazoned:
May Eton flourish and ever protect her rights.
Some twenty years later another attempt was made to override these same Lammas rights by Mr. Thomas Hughes, who built two houses on Lammas ground oppo-site Eton Wick. An action was brought against him, and the case was tried at Aylesbury with the result that he was compelled to pull down his houses. This second triumph was also celebrated with rejoicings.
Later in the century some exceptions were made in cases where the ground enclosed, or the building erected, was for the general benefit of the parish. But this concession was only granted after a unanimous vote of ratepayers, assembled at a public meeting.
1 Conductitii Capellani, i.e. hired Chaplains. They were appointed by the Provost for seven, and later for ten, years, and were then entitled to certain of the College livings if a vacancy occurred.
OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text is has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.