Monday 5 June 2023


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." 

They also suggested that one of the Conducts should be appointed by the Vicar of Eton with the approval of the Provost and should act as a Curate of the parish of Eton. 

These recommendations were however founded on misinformation. The population by the census of Easter 1861 was really 3122, and the existence of Eton Wick was apparently overlooked. It was also subsequently seen that the suggestion as to the Curate was unworkable, and would not meet with the sanction of the College. 

Some years however elapsed before the Public Schools Act, which gave force to the scheme, was passed, and then their recommendations as regards the parish had to be submitted to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and laid before Her Majesty in Council. 

It was the fourth of February 1875 when the final Order in Council was gazetted. 

The following are some extracts from the Order. "The parish of Eton shall be severed from the Royal College of Eton, and the existing Chapel of Ease at Eton dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist shall thenceforth be the Parish Church of Eton and the existing Chapel at Eton Wick dedicated to Saint John the Baptist shall thence-forth be deemed to be a Chapel of Ease to such Parish Church and the College Chapel of the said College shall thenceforth cease to be the Parish Church of the parish of Eton, and shall be exempted from being used or dealt with as a Parish Church." "The parish of Eton shall become and be a benefice with cure of souls and a distinct vicarage, and the advowson thereof and perpetual right of presentation thereto shall be vested in the Provost and Fellows of the said College and their successors." "The person who shall be nominated, presented and instituted to the said vicarage shall be esteemed in law a Vicar and shall have within and over the said parish of Eton sole and exclusive cure of souls, and the Provost shall thence-forth be relieved from the spiritual charge of the said parish and from all liability to perform Divine Services in the said Chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and in the said Chapel of Eton Wick." 

It was also ordered that "the Vicarage should be endowed with the rent-charge payable to the said College in lieu of tithes, in respect of all titheable lands in the said parish of Eton; this was taken to be of the net value of two hundred and ten pounds a year and that the bursar should pay out of the College revenues three hundred and ninety pounds." 

" The freeholds of the churches and burial grounds were also to be vested in the Vicar and his successors, and all fees arising in the said parish were to be paid to him." 

The first Vicar under this new scheme was appointed in 1875 and publicly instituted to the cure of souls in the Parish Church by Bishop Mackarness on March 19. He was a few days after inducted to the temporalities by the Rural Dean. 

As a visible proof that the Church in the High Street had become the Parish Church, the Parish Registers were in accordance with instructions received from the Registrar General removed from the College Chapel and placed in St. John's Church. By agreement with Provost Goodford, the early Registers (four volumes, 1598 to 1779) were to be kept for better security in the College muniment room, the Vicar reserving to himself and his successors the right of access and extract. On the election of the first churchwardens at the Easter Vestry, Messrs. S. Evans and W. Goddard, the Communion plate was placed in their charge, and on them now devolved the duty hitherto borne by the College of raising funds for the maintenance of the Church fabrics and services. 

St. John's was now in the eyes of the law the Parish Church of Eton, but it had yet to become so in the eyes of the people. At present their only idea of a Parish Church was the Church in Windsor. They now had to learn little by little that they had a Church of their own, in which they had their own rights and their own responsibilities. 

It devolved on the first appointed Vicar to lead them to recognize this, and various institutions had to be organized which would help to unite the people in a common work and to realise their new unity. 

But there were many special difficulties to be over-come, beyond those which exist in ordinary parishes. 

The population was composed of very various elements, each perhaps representing some phase of past history. There were those who had inherited a strong strain of Saxon independence and liked to be left to go their own way. There were others who were the product of Norman feudalism, and who were either lordly in their treatment of dependents, or cringing in their subservience to their masters ; there were those who had grown up under the old system, and objected to reforms ; there were many who inherited the prejudices of Puritan fore-fathers, and smelt Popery in every attempt to improve the Church Services or to carry out the Prayer Book system ; there were others who, on the contrary, were fired with the enthusiasm of the Oxford Movement, and were in a hurry to reach at a bound a higher level of Churchmanship. Then the great School in the midst and its special interests had also to be considered, and was not without its draw-backs from a parochial point of view. In so large a body, there are often boys who are reckless and lavish with their money, and some not always the best models in behaviour and manners. There were also difficulties to be en-countered, arising out of the customs and traditions of an old institution. Some of these were venerable, and could not be lightly disregarded, but others presented obvious abuses, which called for active reform. Further there existed in the parish strong class feelings, and numerous cliques and interests; there was a contingent of waterside loafers fond of drink and disinclined for regular labour, living but a short distance from highly-trained scholars and dignified members of the Cloisters and College. Further still to be taken into account was a vast number of hard-worked domestic servants, with scant opportunities for spiritual privileges during term-time, and three times a year left more or less without control ; also a consider-able body of women compelled by the idleness of their husbands to earn by manual labour sufficient to maintain their children and their homes, and many others living leisured lives, and needing opportunities to discover them-selves and to find their happiness in helping their neighbours. With all these various elements, within a small area, there was room for much patient work, if anything like true parochial feeling was to be created, and if those whose lot was cast in one place were to be induced to recognize their common interests and their common duties, and to regard not only the common good of the parish itself, but their relation to the Diocese and their brotherhood in the Church at large. Much necessarily of the efforts of the first Incumbent under this new system had to be bestowed on mere spade work. As a pioneer he had to break the ground and to clear the road and get rid of the most obvious obstructions and disarm opposition. 

But if there were difficulties to be overcome, there was also much to encourage. Churchworkers were forthcoming on all sides, and many both in town and College supplied funds as well as personal service with great liberality, and soon many of the old barriers were broken down, and those who had stood aloof from one another found themselves working side by side in a common cause. 

Almost the first step taken was the appointment of sidesmen, to assist the Churchwardens and to form with them a council, in which the Vicar could discuss plans for the better ordering of the Church and services. One of the early decisions thus arrived at was to declare all sittings free and open to all at the Evening Services. 

A further step was the better organization of charity in the parish. Enquiry had proved that there was great overlapping in aid given, and that while many families were being pauperised, others in real need were in danger of being overlooked. This led to the establishment of a branch of the Charity Organization Society and the appointment of a relief committee. A central soup kitchen was also organized, to which the broken food from College houses could be sent, and cooked, and distributed to carefully selected families. 

In 1876 a branch of the Church Temperance Society was introduced with the hope of checking the excess which at that time largely prevailed and was the ruin and disgrace of many a home.¹

It proved the means of raising public opinion among all classes in the parish, and reached its climax of influence when a meeting was held in Upper School in Easter week 1888, at which Bishop Temple was the chief speaker. 

Two important results were the permanent outcome of this movement: first the establishment of a coffee tavern which for many years was run in connection with the Society; secondly, the establishment of allotment grounds, which have perhaps done more than anything else to benefit the working men of the place and give them and their belongings wholesome interests. Both these branches of work owed much at the outset to the energies of Mr. Frederick Drew (an Assistant Master), who died in 1891. 

By the willing co-operation of the Eton Poor Estate, another valuable institution was started in 1883, viz. the appointment of a Parish Nurse to care for the sick and suffering, and in 1896 the same Trust set on foot pensions of 5s. a week to a few aged people. 

To raise the spiritual tone of the people a parochial mission was held in 1880 after careful preparation, and it was followed up by the institution of a Guild of Communicants, and by other like measures.

But before this or any such work could be attempted, it was necessary to provide a house for the Vicar, large enough for classes and meetings of workers, and it was obvious that it would be in all ways an advantage if this could be placed in the centre of his work and within easy reach of the Parish Church and Parish Schools. 

A site was given by the College in Sun Close, with an approach by an occupation road from the High Street. Owing to the low-lying nature of the ground, considerable expense was incurred in the foundations. A mass of concrete had to be laid under the whole structure to secure it from damp, and special measures had to be taken to raise the rooms well above flood level. The design was prepared by Mr. E. B. Ferrey and the total cost was £3292. Of this £2290 was raised by subscription, and £1000 borrowed by the Vicar on the living, the loan being spread over thirty years and to be paid off, together with 4 per cent interest, by annual instalments. 

Thus again, after a long lapse of years, the parish was provided not only with a Parish Church of its own, but with a Vicarage house for its Vicar. 

The foundation stone, with the motto Nisi Dominus,'² was laid by the Archdeacon of Bucks (now Dean of York). on September 29, 1877, and the house was ready for occupation in the following August. 

In 1878, the Eton Parish Magazine was started with the purpose of interesting the people in what was going on in their parish. It has been carried on continuously ever since. 

One incident connected with the new constitution of the parish should not be omitted.

After the building of St. John's Church, although it was only a Chapel of Ease and the College Chapel was still the legal Parish Church, the local authorities took it for granted that marriages could be lawfully solemnized there, and between 1858 and 1875 as many as 223 took place.

The Diocesan officials in this latter year discovered the error, and one morning when the people of Eton opened their newspapers, they were startled to see that on the previous night the Bishop of Oxford had introduced a Bill into the House of Lords for the purpose of legalising the marriages which had been solemnised in St. John's Church, Eton, previously to its becoming the Parish Church. Little had any concerned dreamt of this flaw in their marriages.

The Bill was carried through both houses with such speed, that if there was anyone who would have liked to have availed himself of the loophole, he had no chance of so doing. 


1 At that time there were twenty-three public houses in the parish. 

2 Psalm cxxvii. 

OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.

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