WE have seen how, for something like five centuries before the College was founded, the parish of Eton went through various changes and vicissitudes: first, for 300 years, served by clergy unknown by name, supplied chiefly by a great Monastic Order; then, for 200 years more, under the care of a succession of Rectors, like the ordinary Rectors of most English parishes. Then we learnt how in Henry VI.'s reign it entered on a third stage of experience and was under Rectors who held at the same time the dignified office of Provosts of Eton College and often other posts as well, and how during this period the Collegiate Church served as its Parish Church.
This condition of things lasted from 1400 to 1875. In 1875 the Provost was relieved of parochial responsibilities, and the College Chapel ceased to be the Parish Church.
The fourth and last change came about in the following way.
In 1862 a Royal Commission sat to consider the condition of the great Public Schools of England and to suggest improvements. Among other matters that needed reform, the Commissioners found that for some years past the Provosts of Eton had practically ceased to act as Rectors. Several of them had never been instituted by the Bishop to the cure of souls, nor had they, except on the rarest occasions, officiated in the Chapel of Ease or undertaken any rectorial duties.
The care of the parish was practically left to two, or, after the building of St. John's Church, to three Conducts, who took their turns week by week to serve in the two buildings. Although one was styled the senior, in virtue of the date of his appointment, the three were virtually co-equal in authority ; each during his week of office took precedence of the others ; each had a portion of the parish under his care ; each had a department of the schools ; each worked in his own way and after his own methods ; and there was no head to counsel or correct, or to check neglect. Moreover, some of the Conducts held other offices as well. One acted as Master in College and was rarely available for any evening work; another was a master of a College boarding house; another had private pupils. Where these duties clashed the parish became a secondary consideration; and as no changes or new departures in work could be effected without the concurrence of the three, progress was necessarily hampered, and the condition of things was unsatisfactory.
Indeed, this anomalous arrangement was almost as bad as that which existed in some few other parishes at that date, where there were three Rectors in one parish, each responsible for the Church services during their week. It was clear to the Commissioners from the evidence they received, that the want of a head was detrimental to the interests of the people, and the more so as there were no churchwardens to voice their needs and feelings, and no Easter Vestry at which grievances could be aired and remedies suggested.
The marvel is that the system had worked for so long as well as it had, and that as a rule the three Conducts managed to discharge their duties without any serious friction in spite of very often a wide difference of opinion.
The Commissioners issued their report in 1864 and made the following recommendations: "The Parish of Eton should be constituted a separate Vicarage and endowed out of the revenues of the College. The population of the parish, excluding the boys in the School, is stated to be about 2000. It is suggested that /600 a year should be set apart for this purpose, but this sum might be diminished, should the Vicar be provided with a house or adequate lodgings by the College."