top of page
  • DCHP

From Vestry to Council

How it all began

In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England from his home in Normandy claiming that he had been assured by England's Saxon king, known as Edward the Confessor of his right to the throne when Edward died. William's aim was to usurp Harold Godwinson who had also claimed the throne and had himself crowned king. Previously several different Anglo Saxon kingdoms, England did not exist as a unified country until 927 and for some time in the late 9th and early 10th centuries a large part of the north of what we know as England was ruled by Vikings from Denmark. The Danes were still raiding the north in 1066, and indeed it was a Viking raid which may have helped William win at the battle of Hastings. King Harold was fighting off this raid in Stamford Bridge when William's fleet landed near Hastings and Harold's army had to rush south pretty fast to try to head William off too. He failed, so ending the Saxon rule in England which had lasted since the year 410.

William rapidly set about introducing a Norman style of administration. He installed his friends and supporters as Barons in administrative areas of England and in 1085 he commissioned the preparation of what became known as The Domesday Book, a detailed record of 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees (the border with Scotland at the time). The first draft of the completed book appeared in August 1086. It revealed that, at the close of the Saxon period "Deneham" (a “valley homestead”) consisted of a main manor of around 1,200 acres: enough land for 12 ploughs, meadow for a further 12 ploughs and woodland for 300 pigs, 3 fisheries and 2 water mills. The total recorded population included 15 villagers and three smallholders.

For 450 more years until 1536 the manor of Denham was owned by Westminster Abbey. There are few records revealing whether the various abbots over those years were in any way active in the small village community other than to benefit from a percentage of the produce of the land but we do know that Nicholas Litlyngton, the Abbot of Westminster from 1362-1386 enjoyed hunting in the grounds of what we now call Denham Place and housed his sheriff as the 14th century administrator of local government in a building which stood on the site of the Old Bakery.

However in 1534 King Henry VIII fell out with the Pope over the Pope's refusal to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry appointed himself head of the Church in England and in 1536 unleashed his Protestant Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell to appropriate the lands belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and pour the profits into Henry's war chest. History calls it "the Dissolution". The confiscated properties passed into the ownership of members of the minor nobility who were no doubt very grateful to the king - and were expected to show their gratitude.

As Henry's enforcer, Thomas Cromwell must have known that the seizure of monastic wealth was not unprecedented; it had happened before in 1295, 1337, and 1369. He certainly knew the benefits. In 1534, Cromwell had initiated a visitation of the monasteries ostensibly to examine their character, but in fact, to value their assets with a view to expropriation. Knowing that the church owned between one-fifth and one-third of the land in all England, Cromwell realised that he could bind the gentry and nobility to loyalty to the King and his supremacy over the church by selling to them vast acres of church lands. Thereafter any reversal of the king's supremacy over the church in England would entail upsetting many of the powerful people in the realm.

Already in possession of a large amount of land in Denham, in 1541 Edmund Peckham purchased the manor of Denham from Henry VIII. With that, according to the Reverend Lathbury’s 1904 History of Denham “Peckham became absolute lord of Denham and possessor or tenant of well-nigh the whole of the parish.”

Ownership of the manor came with some rights of local government but responsibility for the kinds of things that our parish council does now or at least those that were appropriate to the 16th century fell to the local church and its vestry committee.

Governing the workers

The 1000 year period from 500CE to 1500CE in Europe is known as The Middle Ages. For most of that time almost wholly rural and agricultural, the economy of the England of the Middle Ages was feudal. Society was layered, each class showing fealty or loyalty to the next tier up in a social pyramid with the king at its peak. Those “able to work” included men, women, young people, and even children. "Serfs" as they were known, were in an economic relationship with a landlord. The lord was charged with having the authority over the serfs by keeping them employed (not allowing them to become beggars which would require church support), healthy and able to work to old age.

The lord of the manor occupied the position of authority at the local level and included the selection of the rector. The law that governed the relationship between the law of the manor and its residents was known as the common law. It recognised two classes of manorial tenants: freemen and "villein". In relation to villeins, the common law favoured the lord. Villeins had "no ordinary recourse to the common law for protection against his lord". Over the centuries the meaning and indeed the spelling of villein as a person outside the law has changed to describe a person whose behaviour is lawless.

As long as there were plenty of labourers, there was little need for government by law to regulate their behaviour beyond the control exercised by their manorial lord who had authority over them. It was the poor for whom legal responsibility needed to be assigned. Higher church authorities directed that each local parish, and each geographical collection of parishes called dioceses, take responsibility for assisting the poor in their area. This was seen as a way to relieve the landlord of his duties to his workers.

The church as the centre of the Denham community

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, of course a Catholic church until Henry VIII's reformation, had been in Denham since at least the 11th century and perhaps a century or more before that. The church was the centre of life in the village and its priest or rector one of the village's most important dignitaries. Religious services were held several times a day and people looked to the church to explain events such as storms, disease, and famine - thought to be punishments sent by God. Prayer and religious devotion would keep away such disasters and ensure salvation.

St Mary's has rectors rather than vicars. These different descriptions have little more than traditional significance today but they were once distinguished by the fact that vicars were paid a stipend or wage whereas rectors were entitled to a tenth share of the produce of their parishes know as a "tithe". Denham's rectors were in effect at the head of the parish government until their authority began to wane in the mid-19th century. Amongst St. Mary's records are details of the rectors who have served there since the year 1218 - over 800 years. Osbert de Skypton served as rector from 1218 until 1233, and by the late 1500s more than 20 others had served in Denham, including four knights of the realm between 1511 and 1580.

Responsibility for the poor was a long established role of religious institutions It was from this responsibility that the role of the church in local government grew. Social and charitable work had been carried out in the monasteries since the sixth century. Hospitality, in the sense of welcoming guests, was also seen as a part of the monks' vocation. They had always cared for the sick, sometimes in medieval hospitals connected to their monasteries, and they provided alms for the poor, as well as giving to others through spiritual guidance. Later, hospitals, which cared for not only the sick but the orphans and the aged, grew out of the monastery experiences and were often built near abbeys or alongside or attached to monasteries.

The Christian Bible influenced how the Church treated the poor, and to a lesser extent how England's poor laws were eventually developed. Henry VIII certainly gave the church plenty of poverty to deal with on top of an already impoverished population. England's population statistics were still recovering from the devastation of bubonic plague (known as the Black Death) of the previous century which had caused widespread poverty and famine. When Henry forced the Catholic monasteries to close and turned their lands and properties over to his loyal followers, he forced out the religious inhabitants and the poor who lived in their institutions. The social resource provided by the monasteries, inadequate at its best, was then substantially diminished.

Poor Laws

By the time of Henry VIII the economy of England was changing. The feudal period was coming to an end as workers abandoned agriculture for work in the growing wool and other industries based in the towns and cities. As feudalism waned, wage labour rose and the paternalistic system of economic security disappeared. Small tenant farmers were turned out and landlords combined the small farms into large pastures to raise sheep, an increasingly valuable commodity. The rearing of livestock of course required walls, fences and hedges to enclose pasture land. The “Enclosure Movement” which had begun back in the 12th century proceeded rapidly in the period 1450–1640 at the expense of open crop growing land which had for centuries supported the feudal system.

Although fencing off the land made the land more productive for the manorial lords, enclosure often had disastrous consequences for the poor, more of whom became homeless. Many of the displaced serfs, unemployed and looking for better work roamed the country as vagrants.

The problem was not entirely new in Henry's time. The beginning of the breakdown of feudalism had been an important trigger in the creation of the earliest poor laws a century or so earlier. The Statutes of Laborers of 1349-1350 was an attempt to regulate wages for workers with directives to manorial lords and penalties for non-compliance. It was not successful. It failed the ever increasing poor.

The higher clergy, bishops and abbots, belonged to the nobility and had little if anything to do with local administration. It fell to the rectors and vicars who were commonly the only educated people in their communities to take on responsibility for the poor. It is said that many of the laws passed to address the problem of poverty were actually written with the cooperation of the literate local clergy who then set about winning their willing acceptance by mostly uneducated parishioners.

Something must be done about the poor

Dealing with poverty was a main driver for increasing the powers and responsibilities of local government at parish level. With so many social changes in Henry VIII's time creating so much poverty the burden of responsibility to act obviously grew. After Henry VIII's reformation in England the newly Anglican local churches were best placed for the job and to carry it out with Christian principles and values. The church parish institutions which already had experience of village administration assumed many of the characteristics of a local governing body. They provided the clear leadership of the rector or vicar, a local officership provided by two or three householders of the parish who later came to be called Church Wardens and a system for raising funds for the upkeep and administration of the parish. The importance of the parish as an instrument of local government also continued to grow as the old feudal authority of the lord of the manor diminished.

From the sixteenth century onward the parish legally assumed an increasing number of civil functions such as provision for local troops, suppression of vagrancy, and agricultural works. There was no clear division between secular and ecclesiastical authority, each had parallel and overlapping jurisdictions, officers and even courts. People in rural communities would have taken care of what local administration was required. Even though parishes were not governmental organisations, laws were passed, for example, requiring parishes to keep nearby roads in good condition and repair. Responding to these changes, St. Mary's Church in Denham served not only as a place of worship, but also for meetings as well as storage for agricultural produce, wool and other products, which represented the tithes from the farmland attached to the church. The sale of the products helped to meet the expenses of the church.

Parish finances

Much support for the activities and clergy of the Church of England continued to come from tithes for a while after King Henry's English Reformation. Tithes were a form of local tax, traditionally ten percent levied on the personal and agricultural output of the parish.

The tradition of tithing is very old. It is referred to in Matthew's gospel in the Christian New Testament where Jesus is reported as criticising the lawyers, traders and landowners of Galilee for being more concerned about their tithes than for "justice, mercy and faith". The biblical message was taken on board in that the wealthier residents of parishes were urged to provide hospitals, leper houses, and schools for their fellow citizens. This was in addition to what could be provided from the revenue from tithes after church expenses and the vicar’s or rector's remuneration.

But this was not enough. The collapse of feudalism and the population drift towards the towns and cities diminished the income from tithes. Taxation to pay for care was introduced by the Poor Law Act of 1601. By 1605 the parish vestries, forerunners of today’s parish councils were seen to be responsible for collecting as well as administering the Poor Law for their own poor, for ensuring water supply, together with responsibility for local gaols, roads and hospitals. Those who paid the tax were entitled to vote for vestry committee members but then, as now, places were often uncontested.

Today some form of democratic process or assumption is required even if seats on the parish council are uncontested but in the 17th century vestry committee members were often self-selected with the approval of the local landowners and dignitaries. The church was after all a source of prestige in the lives of the wealthier members of the community. Their association with the church added to their education, wealth and power, even to their artistic tastes. For many of these local landowners their reputations were obviously enhanced by their association with the church's benevolent activities. Any remaining distinctions between secular and pastoral administration became as a result even more blurred. Church records indicate that many of the same individuals served for decades, sometimes swapping committee responsibilities every few years.

Henry's Catholic daughter, Mary by the first of his six wives, acceded to the throne in 1553 following the death of her Protestant half brother, Edward. She is renowned most for her efforts to return England to the Catholic faith but nonetheless, during her five year reign the mundane machinery of government carried on to keep the country moving. In 1555 legislation was enacted to provide for the appointment of "surveyors of highways" to assist the vestries in fulfilling their duties to maintain the roads. It was a system that lasted for nearly 300 years until 1835. The Denham Church Minute Book of Christmas Day December 25, 1724, records that “We the inhabitants of the Parish of Denham do nominate Thomas Carter, John Smith, Richard Chrismas and Tho Morton to serve the office of surveyors for the year ensuing.” Other decisions at that meeting included paying three women for “additional” work they had completed, which was added to the distribution they were receiving as poor women.


The domination of local administration by the wealthier members of the community led to the development of a particular kind of cultural attitude to the community's poor. This was over two hundred years before the development of the concept of a welfare state and the early Christian preaching in favour of a broad distribution of available wealth at the initiative of the already wealthy gave way to a philosophy that the answer to poverty was work. The Poor Relief Act of 1722 allowed parishes, either alone or with others, to provide houses for the indigent where they could be housed, supervised, and put to work. Parishes were to have the "benefit of the labour" of those in the workhouses and the workhouse itself should be self- supporting.

This trend was coincident with other developments which again added to the poverty problem and increased the burden on vestry administration. As potential profits from agricultural land use increased, existing landowners were eager to assimilate more land under their control at the expense of smallholdings and common land. The number of landless householders rose rapidly. This was made much worse because between 1760 and 1800 when more than three million additional acres were enclosed depriving even more of the workers and small farmers of untenanted land that had previously provided their means for survival.

We have been very fortunate to have had access to a dissertation “The Social Structure of a Buckinghamshire Village: Denham, 1749-1800, by Carolynne M. Hearmon. She writes that “of the 19 major farms near Denham…the majority were not owner-occupied but were farmed by tenants.” In 1793, farm owners and gentry, not including women were 2.5% of the population, but owned 75 percent of the land in Denham. In turn the financial burden of providing for the poor caused dramatic increases in taxation. That was combined with a perceived deterioration in the quality of labour as so many people without experience were seeking any work they could get. Whilst the population of England doubled between 1760 and 1832, taxes for poor relief rose five and one-half times what they had been in 1760.

Again we turn to Carolynne Hearmon's study for the statistics. In Denham in 1780, of the 52 people on regular poor relief, 29 were under the age of 20. Payments to the poor were by far the largest item of expenditure while expenses of “vagrants, militia, county bridges, goals, houses of correction, repairing parish roads, churches, salaries to ministers” were also financial obligations. The steep rise in the cost of bread in 1796 was an additional challenge to balancing household budgets during that time.

It was in 1796 that a new workhouse was being built in Denham. The original work-house had stood next to the school-house in the church-yard. In 1721 part of the church-yard had been enclosed into the poor-house garden. That was the same year that Sir William Bowyer had set up the Charity School in what we know as Bowyer House, no doubt concerned that the children whose parents were on poor relief were likely to end up on parish relief.

Carolynne Hearmon continues: “The money to run the Charity School came from its own property and trust fund. The cost of the provision for the poor made by the parish came from a poor-rate levied on every occupier of property in Denham each May and October, although a poor-relief occupier was exempt from paying the poor-rate. In addition to funds collected by the parish, Biddles’ Gifts, a charity begun in 1643 and Stanleys’ Gifts set up in 1729 allocated some income (gifts) from rental land to be donated to the poor of the parish. When the better craftsmen of Denham established a “Friendly Society” in 1783, they did so to help any member rendered incapable of working for his livelyhood to receive up to seven shillings per week. In Denham there was a sense of responsibility and understanding, even though the problem of poverty was not as drastic as in other communities."

Carolynne also notes that in 1798 there were probably about 7% of the children in Denham in school. The rest seem not to have been formally educated. England's poor laws were again reformed in 1832, not because the workhouse regime was considered too harsh but rather that it was considered too liberal for failing to "implement discipline into the poor". The effects were felt immediately. The most noticeable was the administrative streamlining and consolidation. Within three years, 90 percent of Great Britain's parishes (some 13,264 of them) were combined into 568 units, poor law districts or unions, as they were called, presided over by locally elected boards of guardians, with each board having its own workhouse.

Assistance to the poor was made less attractive. Sanitary regulation became more stringent and the law also introduced the concept of "less eligibility," that is, making sure the nonworking poor receive less assistance than the lowest paid worker, thus making work more attractive. This principle supported the reintroduction of penal approaches to poor relief. At least for the poor who were unable to work, there was a growing acknowledgment that they were entitled to assistance. No longer tied to the lord of the manor or the ecclesiastical authorities, those unable to work could turn to the civil government for help, and they usually received it.

The Industrial Revolution

During the industrial revolution in Britain (1760-1840) there were large scale population increases, massively increased urbanisation (especially in previously unimportant towns), and the creation of an urban poor, who had no means of subsistence. This created many new problems that the small-scale local government apparatus existing in England could not cope with. Between 1832 and 1888, several laws were passed to try and address these problems.

In 1837 laws were passed allowing rural parishes to group together as Poor Law Unions, in order to administer the Poor Law more effectively. These unions were able to collect taxes (“rates”) in order to carry out poor-relief. Each union was run by a Board of Guardians, partly elected but also including local Justices of the Peace. In 1866, all land which was not part of ecclesiastical parishes was formed into Civil Parishes for administration of the poor law.

By 1845, as a rural parish, Denham had become part of the Eton Union Board of Guardians, along with five other neighbouring rural parishes. The Guardians met quarterly at the Central Workhouse in Slough to hear reports such as:

· the Medical Officer's report with updates on the number of cases of infectious diseases such as scarlet fever and diphtheria

· the Surveyors' reports with updates of drainage issues, sewage and sewage disposal issues; as well as highway expenditures

· the New Houses Report on crowded housing conditions which added to health and sanitary problems

· the Finance Committee's report on the funds acquired and expended on inhabitants of the Workhouse.

In this operating framework can be recognised the beginnings of the kind of committee structure we have in our Parish Council today.

Comprehensive Reform - The Local Government Act 1894

By 1888 it was clear that the piecemeal system that had developed over the previous century in response to the vastly increasing need for local administration could no longer cope. The sanitary districts and parish councils had legal status, but were not parts of the mechanism of government. They were run by volunteers, and often there was no-one who could be held responsible for the failure to undertake the required duties.

The increased "county business" could not be handled by the Quarter Sessions, nor was it appropriate to do so. Finally, there was a desire to see local administration performed by elected officials, as in the reformed municipal boroughs. The Local Government Act enacted in 1894 was therefore the first systematic attempt to impose a standardised system of local government in England.

The Act created a system of urban and rural districts with elected councils. These, along with the town councils of municipal boroughs created earlier in the century, formed a second tier of local government below the existing county councils. It provided for the establishment of elected parish councils in rural areas and for the reform of the boards of guardians of poor law unions. To assist the local citizens unfamiliar with the operations of government a booklet was published, “Standing Orders for Parish Councils 1894”. It included the rules of conduct and standardised procedures to be followed at meetings of the new councils.

It didn’t take the Parish of Denham long to meet the requirements of the Act. The records for December 4 1894 refer to “a parish meeting held this day after due notice given, for the purpose of electing nine councillors to sit upon the first Parish Council of Denham under the provision of the Local Government Act 1894.”

An interesting and incidental side effect of the 1894 Act was that it paved the way for the national enfranchisement of women as electors. Unmarried women ratepayers had received the right to vote in local government elections by the Municipal Franchise Act 1869. This right was confirmed in the Local Government Act 1894 and extended to include some married women. By 1900, more than 1 million women were registered to vote in local government elections in England.

First officers of the Parish Council

The chairmanship of the vestry committee after 1879 was of course someone whom we have encountered several times on the pages of the Denham Community History Project - the Reverend Robert Henry Lathbury. For him as rector of St. Mary's Church, the chair of the vestry came with the job. His leadership in the community was not surrendered by the mere enactment of the removal of local government authority from the vestry into the secular elected council. The Reverend Lathbury was duly elected and in January 1895 became the Council's Vice-Chairman and Clerk. He was already by then a member of the Eton Rural District Council of which Denham was part.

The chairmanship of the new Parish Council was taken by the owner of Denham Court (now the Buckinghamshire Golf Club), Mr., and later Commander, Harold Swithinbank. He was a Justice of the Peace and recent High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire.

Lathbury remained active in local government until close to his death in 1915. In addition to his role on the Parish Council he was also a member of the Eton Rural District and for many years vice-chair of the Board of Guardians which met regularly at the workhouse in Slough. It was in that capacity that he revealed his attitude to those he considered work-shy, as reported in the Windsor and Eton Express in October 1898.

“I think with all my heart that tramps ought to be punished. Those born on the road and never do any work. They won't work if you offer it to them. I have given them work, but they won't stop after they have earned enough for a pint of beer. Such men as these ought to be made to work. They have no right to come here and live on other people. It is the only way to stop these fellows. I don't wish to punish the weak, but only the strong. The Rev. R. H. Lathbury remarked that he had been told that in Ireland stone breaking was found to be very effective. Although another Guardian contended that it would not reduce the number of tramps; It would only drive them to another [workhouse] union, The Rev. R. H. Lathbury responded : That is just what we want to do.”

Times have changed.


Disused fencing by Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons images in public domain


The Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Project, 2008-2012, Buckinghamshire County Council

Carolynne M. Hearmon, “The Social Structure of a Buckinghamshire Village: Denham, 1749-1800 (unpublished MA Dissertation, University of Leicester, 1978).

Quigley, William P. (1997) “Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834: Regulating the Working and Nonworking Poor”, Akron Law Review: Vol. 30: Iss.1, Article 4. Available at: http//ideaexchange,

McManners, John (1992), Editor: The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 724 pp. Denham Parish Records PR 61/11 Denham Overseers of the Poor – Rate; PR 61/12 Denham Overseers of the Poor - Accounts , PR 61 14; PR 61/8/5 Denham Parish Records, Denham Vestry and Parochial Church Council 1764-1774, and 1915-1929. Documents reviewed 1:30-4:00, Wednesday 8 December 2021.

Lathbury, Rev. R.H., MA Rector (1904), The History of Denham Bucks by the Reverend R.H. Lathbury, MA Rector (1904),

The Holy Bible, King James Version.

Harries, Hazel M. (1998), One Thousand Years in a Village Church: The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Denham, The Pentland Press Ltd. Bishop Auckland, Durham, 66 pp.


British Newspaper Archive

271 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page