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Of the parish, by the parish, for the parish

The civil parish is the smallest unit of local government in England. They are constituted only in rural areas, but the work they do affects 35% of the population, that's nearly 20 million people. This month we take a look at the history of Denham Parish Council, its important place in the community and one or two of its odd traditions.

The photo here shows the very male dominated parish council of 1936 with Mrs. Edith Morten determinedly holding her own flanked by William Woodley, Thomas Bartlett, William Wise, Ernest Grieg, the clerk Douglas Smith, the Chairman Major J K B Dawson Councillor Mr. Thomas Bradbury and to Mrs. Morten's left William Johnson, William James and Herbert Marsh.

Parish perseverance

As a feature of local political and civil administration the "parish" has demonstrated remarkable perseverance. Though the English form of the word itself does not seem to have been used until the late 1200s a system of local administration centred on each local church was first introduced to the Anglo-Saxon townships by the 7th century Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus. He used the Latin term "paroecia" or in Greek "paroikia" . It means dwelling place of the priest.

But in Theodore's time, the territory of England and Wales was divided into several different kingdoms and chiefdoms. It was not until the 10th century that England became one country and then of course there was all the disruption caused by the Norman invasion under William the Conqueror in 1066. Though the idea of local civil administration was quite well embedded by 1066, it was not until William himself commissioned the Domesday Book in 1086 that any well informed structure for the government of the whole country began to be established. It then took another century and the imposition of a new Norman ruling class before the structure was embedded.

But the parish role in local government then remained fairly limited for another 300 years. It was not the church but "the manor" which was the principal unit of local administration and justice. The church's role was restricted to ecclesiastical affairs - though this was still of some importance in a society in which adherence to the church, its teachings and its hierarchy was in many ways a matter of political organisation.

In 1534 Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church of Rome over the refusal of the Pope and the Catholic rulers of Europe to give way to Henry's demands that he be allowed to terminate his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and replace her with Anne Boleyn who, he hoped would provide him with the male heir to his throne that he so desperately needed. Henry's preoccupation with his marital problems and his succession opened the flood gates to Protestant sentiment which had spread into England from mainland Europe. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared that Henry was the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England replacing the Pope. It was the Tudor equivalent of Brexit and it sent England and Wales, and later the still independent Scotland, into turmoil for 126 years ending only with the settlement of a civil war.

The coming of the "vestry"

Having split the country along religious lines, Henry and his new Ministers badly needed to get a grip. Very many of the manorial lords were loyal adherents of the Catholic faith and clearly could not be relied upon to manage affairs as the king and his ministers would wish. Indeed if left to themselves they might well threaten his throne. What better plan then to use the church of which the king was now the supreme leader to take charge of local affairs. The church replaced the manor court as the rural administrative centre, and began to levy local taxes on produce in the form of what were called "tithes" a one tenth value of the parish produce. The parish business was managed by the vestry. As the cartoon from 1795 illustrates, the vestries were not always well thought of amongst the less well off in the parish. It was not until the Local Government Act of 1894 that local government at parish level was secularised - though to some extent this was a measure restructuring and reforming civil as opposed to ecclesiastical parishes that had been developing around England and Wales for a couple of decades.

But of course things rarely, if ever, lurch overnight from one system of government to another just because Parliament has passed new legislation. Later this month we will be telling more of how the vestry ran things in Denham right up to 1894 and indeed how the church retained its influence on parish business well into the 20th century. For this story about parish government in Denham we'll start around 1925.

What does the parish council do ?

One of the biggest problems for parish councils right up to the present day is that there is, and has long been, a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about what they do and what exactly their powers are. Throughout England, and Denham is certainly no exception, parish councillors are criticised for failing to solve problems over which in fact they have absolutely no authority. Individually the councillors easily become the targets for criticism because they are well known in the community whilst others who represent the community in the higher tiers of local government are not locally resident and may escape the criticisms because they are not well known.

The powers that were removed from the "vestry" committees in 1894 and given to parish councils were:

  • Appointment of overseers of the poor

  • Maintaining and repairing closed churchyards

  • Holding or maintaining parish property (including village greens, allotments, recreation grounds) for the benefit of the inhabitants

  • Election of allotment managers

  • Acquisition of buildings for parish purposes

  • Acquisition of land for allotments, public walks and recreation grounds

together with some responsibilities for local lighting, burials, libraries and "local improvement" if, with the approval of the parish electorate the parish council chose to take these things on.

Though different pieces of legislation did add some functions to parish councils when the need arose, in broad terms the 1894 model survived until 1972 when the powers of parish councils were actually reduced in a few respects and transferred to the newly established district councils. Their powers were then enlarged again on a piecemeal basis until in 2011, the Localism Act provided a radical new basis for their operation.

Worthy of the press

The Parish Council evidently provided a great deal of copy for the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette which was determined to keep its readers well informed of what was going on in their community. the frustration felt by the Councillors about what they could not do was evident in a report in The Gazette in September 1925. When the Council enthusiastically discussed the provision of a telephone at the Denham police house, the Chief Constable of the County expressed himself "very much in favour of the suggestion" but politely told the Council that this was a matter for the "Watch Committee" (the policing authority of the day) not for them. The councillors at the same meeting had to content themselves with ticking off a Mr. Davys over the fact that he had ploughed over a local footpath and that if he failed to restore the footpath, the councillors would themselves exercise their rights by walking it.

The Gazette's enthusiasm for reporting on Denham Parish Council meetings did not however mean that the Council was free of the Gazette's editorial criticism. In January 1928 the Gazette leader writer took the Council to task over its reluctance to embrace the idea of town planning. With soaring rhetoric the Gazette informed its readers that "there is no parish in the whole kingdom than is more ripe for town planning than is Denham".

But the author's purpose was not to condemn the village to 20th century modernism. On the contrary the piece went on, "and in certain tendencies already to be seen there, no more striking instances can be found anywhere of undesirable features because of the lack of control by town planning." In calling for a promenade avenue and "some particularly effective groupings of good class property" there was clear acknowledgement of "the most compelling necessity for preserving the village from the hands of speculators and shop window despoilers."

The Parish Council's powers in relation to allotments became a duty in 1908 as demand for food production increased. World War I made those needs acute and the allotments question figured prominently in the discussions of the parish council in April 1911 when the councillors responded to a deputation from New Denham by setting up a committee charged with the responsibility to acquire between six and seven acres. The management of Denham's allotments remains very much part of the parish council's work over a century later.

In October 1936 the Parish Councillors' attention was focussed on the village's water supply no doubt aware that the Public Health Act of that year had given them new powers to make use of well, stream and spring water of which there is of course a plentiful supply in the area. Councillor Bradbury was recorded as complaining bitterly that a glass of water he had prepared to drink had been found to contain a worm and two insects. He had, he said, meant to bring the glass to the Council meeting but the worm and insects had died the previous day.

The council's responsibilities for bus shelters has attracted far less attention from the Uxbridge Gazette and it would seem that the council has not been particularly active in this respect, though in July 1986 it found itself in the curious position of having to replace the bus shelter at Station Parade after the old one was stolen, yes stolen, by being uprooted and put on the back of a lorry.

Amongst the more obscure powers and responsibilities of parish councils is the power to provide and maintain mortuaries, mercifully now much less of an active concern of parish councils than once was the case. In 1918 Mr. A. E. W. Charsley the local coroner positively encouraged the parish council to provide a mortuary noting with concern the number of inquests that had been taking place in the village - presumably at The Swan - and the urgent needs that this created. Councillor Rance indicated that it wouldn't cost much, perhaps a shed in the churchyard would be adequate. Mr. Rance then joined Councillors Taylor and Morten to form a small committee to put the suggestion to the Rector.

There is no easily accessible record of the Rector's reaction to the suggestion, but the proposal was subsequently vetoed by the Oxford diocese. Mr. Rance however tried again in 1931 but was again rebuffed.

The same business was then back on the agenda in 1934. Then the parish council was investigating a joint scheme with Gerrards Cross parish council. That however seems to have come to nothing and the question was still under discussion in 1938 and 1939. At some point the Falcon stables, now the garage, acquired the reputation as the mortuary, but we admit ourselves beaten as to whether, and if so when, this facility so long resisted by the parish council, did appear in the village. We invite logged in readers to help with a comment.

Beating the bounds

This goes back a very long way indeed. Owners of landed property are of course very concerned to know where their property boundaries are and to avoid, so far as possible, boundary disputes. It is equally important for governments at every level to know the borders of the territory they govern and of course protecting borders is still a major issue right up to date.

Around 700 BC Ruler Numa Pompilius introduced Roman citizens to the worship of Terminus, the God of Landmarks, and set up the practice of marking the separation of their fields by placing heavy stones at significant boundary points. These stones were dedicated, made sacred to Terminus and, annually on 23rd February, citizens would deck the stones with flowers and perform sacrificial rites. It was considered a criminal act to move them that could result in the putting to death any that might so attempt.

This practice was carried to Britain by the Romans around 2000 years ago. After they left some four centuries later, the Anglo Saxons continued the ritual of marking their boundaries.

But there were no maps at this time to remind a township of where its boundaries lay and, to ensure there was no encroachment by neighbours, particularly onto fertile and arable land so important for providing food, it was the custom to walk the boundary line annually marking the significant points.

This ceremony would for very good reason include the local children. With the longest time to live they were expected to remember where the boundaries were throughout their lives and pass on the knowledge from generation to generation.

But something would be needed to ensure that their memories did not fade. The idea which became most popular to achieve this objective was to upend the children and forcibly bump their heads on the stones or alongside other markers that had been added to the circuit, such as large trees or waterways. Whether the intention was to induce memory through terror or amusement isn't entirely clear. Perhaps it depended on each child but it does seem to have worked.

Wands made from willow branches were then taken to ceremoniously whip the markers. It seems that sometimes they were also used to admonish reluctant children.

As with so much else in Anglo Saxon England the common practice of necessity became something of a pagan custom and in turn were adapted to fit into the Christian calendar. Ascension Day (39 days after Easter Sunday) was chosen as the day for beating the bounds. It then became normal for the walks to be led by bishops and clergy who at an appropriate point would lead prayers to God for his protection against plague and pestilence. The church introduced some consolation for the children by awarding them a small sum of money from the parish. This no doubt served also as a method of encouraging their participation in the ritual.

In 1992 Denham Parish Council, like many other parishes, decided to resurrect the tradition. With Ascension Day falling on Thursday when in modern times most people would be otherwise committed, the previous Sunday, which in the church calendar is known as Rogation Day, was chosen for the ceremony. Inspired for many years by the energetic efforts of Denham's former parish clerk, Paul Graham the beating of the bounds has continued successfully ever since.

But Denham’s boundary is long, rather too long for a typical Sunday stroll. So shorter circular walks taking in different sections of the parish boundary have been devised so as to complete a full boundary check over a period of years. It takes ten years to complete the circuit.

Local Government Act 1972 and more

The Local Government Act of 1972 paved the way for a radical reform of local government in England (since 1974 Wales has had "communities" rather than parishes). Parish Councils lost some of their duties and responsibilities to the new District Councils but acquired powers to do new positive things within their communities. The 1972 Act and the several pieces of legislation which supplemented it gave the parish councils a new and rather different role, one which in practice they had in many respects fulfilled with a natural sense of community belonging.

They could now provide and equip community centres for sports and recreational purposes and promote their use for conferences. They could promote entertainment and the arts and accept gifts to supplement their income from their council tax precepts. They could work with the police on crime prevention schemes in their communities

Parish councils acquired new powers in relation to estate roads in their parishes - lighting, footpaths, litter bin provision and parking places for bikes. They could provide traffic signs on minor roads, contribute to traffic calming schemes and plant trees and grass verges. They were authorised to run local lotteries, acquire and accept gifts of land.

Then in a significant change in 1990 parish councils acquired the right to be notified of planning applications in their areas. They now have the formal right to be consulted.

In 2011 Parliament enacted the Localism Act. That effectively consolidated all the powers of parish councils under one umbrella provision to the effect that parish councils are now allowed to do anything an individual is permitted to do for the benefit of the community unless there is other legislation which prohibits or restricts the council. Of course in practice there are quite a few restrictions and parish councillors are quite right to respond to an aggrieved parishioner that the parish council cannot solve a particular problem if the solution is specifically confined to some higher government authority. However parish councils have been strengthened since 2011 and even if they cannot give a final answer to a particular problem they do have influence which higher authorities should acknowledge.

Influence and protest

One long serving parish councillor joked with us that as she looked back she remembered that the parish council always seemed to be protesting about something. She recalled battles over plans to construct a rail freight terminal in New Denham, the transformation of Denham Court Farm into the Buckinghamshire Golf Club and most recently HS2. Here is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of these campaigns but they, and many other less publicised concerns, illustrate how the parish council acts as a channel of communication to ensure that the voice of the community, indeed the voices of individuals within the community, are heard and given attention. In January 1896 the parish council was protesting bitterly about the way that the County Council had gone about settling the "rate", the predecessor to Council tax. In November 1926 the council called a public meeting to protest over the lack of adequate waste disposal in the village. In March 1946 it was a matter of writing to the Chief Constable demanding action over dangerous parking. In March 1986 the clerk to the council was asked to write to the Department of the Environment asking to know how the village might avoid being caught in "a tangle of red tape" following the abolition of the Greater London Council and the transfer of some of its responsibilities to the Bucks County Council.

These are just a few examples of how the parish council seeks to represent the community even in matters over which the council itself has no direct control. They are examples that demonstrate that some problems never go away.

Twinning to celebrate 100 years

Henry Mangles Denham was born into a merchant family in London on 28th August 1800. Though the surname Denham is considered a place related surname, there are no records to suggest that the ancestors of Henry Mangles Denham were connected with Denham village in Buckinghamshire. There are at least three places in England to choose from and Henry's traceable ancestors actually came from Sherborne in Dorset. However Henry Mangles Denham was destined to have a significant role in our village's history.

He joined the navy as a volunteer at the tender age of 12. He was to rise to the rank of Vice Admiral, but in 1852 his rank was that of Captain of the Corvette HMS Herald, his first posting in charge of a vessel.

Henry had made his name as a coastal surveyor, an expertise which led in 1839 to his being awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society for his "substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge". As Captain of HMS Herald he earned "a lasting place in the history of maritime surveying" as he spent the years from 1853 to 1860 charting land masses and suspected hazards in the south-west Pacific and substantial parts of the Australian coast. In 1858 his labours took him to Shark Bay some 500 miles north of Perth on the coast of Western Australia. The small pearling camp in the bay called Freshwater Camp grew into a town. It was named Denham in Henry's honour.

In Denham Buckinghamshire in 1993 the members of the parish council then chaired by Rosemary Temple were thinking of how they might celebrate the forthcoming centenary of the parish council first formed following the enactment of the Local Government Act in 1894. Why not find a twin ? Andrew, the husband of parish councillor Hope Shaw, enthusiastically took on the task of organisation of what came to be described as "a wonderful idea". With the council's blessing he wrote to the civil authorities of Denhams around the world.

The most suitable turned out to be the furthest away, Denham in Shark Bay. On 1st January 1994, the twinning of Denham Village in Buckinghamshire with Denham, Shark Bay Western Australia was celebrated at Blacksmiths Cottage in the company of the great, great, great grandson of Henry Mangles Denham himself. Gifts were exchanged, school projects initiated and a lasting friendship across 8,360 miles. Since 1994 a number of local residents have visited Denham's Australian counterpart and in May 2008, the parish council was delighted to entertain Councillor Bob Eddington, President of the Shire of Denham Shark Bay visiting with his wife Katie.


Today's Denham Parish Council has offices in the Village Memorial Hall. It was not always so. The press reports of the 1920s. '30s and '40s describe their meeting in the church hall, the village school, St. Francis Hall and in the private houses of leading council members.

The Denham Village Memorial Hall is not a parish council property. The original hall was built in 1921 as Denham's memorial to those of the parish who died in World War I. A caretaker's bungalow which in 1961 was occupied by a disabled ex-serviceman was added in 1953 to commemorate those who died in WWII. The Hall is administered by a trust with a management committee. The trust has been registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales since 1962 in the first wave of registrations following the enactment of the Charities Act in 1960. The Hall underwent renovation in 1961/62 following a local appeal supported by eight community organisations including the parish council to raise £1500 towards the total cost of £3500.

For some time the council had a room in the village hall that is now used for storage. It was not until 1997 that the council found the opportunity to finance an office extension together with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and not until February 2002 that the new office rooms were officially declared open with the cutting of a tape by Rosemarie Ford


Further assistance for the 2001/2002 refurbishment came from the waste management company Onyx. Its contribution was rewarded by naming one of the new rooms the Onyx Room.

Elections and members

Election procedures for parish councillors take place in a four year cycle, but Denham is one of those several parishes where actual elections are rare because the number of candidates is the same as or less than the number of available places. Candidates are still required to submit their nomination forms at election time but if there are not enough candidates those who do stand are "elected unopposed" and there is no poll. The council then has the opportunity to co-opt to fill the vacant places. Denham Parish Council's website has a standing invitation to qualifying local residents to put themselves forward.

Look back over the records of membership of the parish council in the 20th century and many names are revealed that have been mentioned in other stories on this website. They include the village dignitaries like Colonel Braithwaite at the White House, Mr. James from Denham Mount Mansion, Mrs. Morten from Savay Farm and the "refined and gracious lady" May Coles. Later there was Major Tindall and subsequently his wife Margaret from Blacksmiths Cottage, also a County Councillor.

But the local traders were also well represented. There's Mr. Rance the predecessor to Sidney Williams at the grocery store, Mr. Woodley, landlord at the Dog and Duck and many others. Amongst them too way back in 1916 was the schoolmaster Mr. Sanders.

Your council

The Localism Act of 2011 extended the parish council's opportunity to provide benefits to the community, but of course there are always the constraints of cash. Most of the money available to a parish council comes from a "precept" that the parish gets from the council tax charged by the higher local government authorities, and that is naturally limited by what is politically acceptable. Our parish council's finances are healthy enough to allow the council quite a range of initiatives to benefit the community. It is not always obvious what they do. Who knows for example that the parish council provides the Christmas tree and lights on the village green and other public spaces around the community ? Is it understood that the Music on the Green events on the village green are provided by the parish council ? The Christmas Carols, the Good Neighbour scheme, the free outdoor gym equipment and the Memory Cafe, all these and more are Denham Parish Council initiatives.

Our thanks

The Denham Community History Project is wholly independent of the Denham Parish Council but we have been generously given access to some of its files and minute books together with beautifully compiled albums of photographs dating back over 30 years. We are extremely grateful to parish councillors Alan Head, Sharon Williams and Margaret Skelton for their help in compiling this article. Special thanks go to Terry Skelton for giving us access to his mammoth compilation of research and photos recording the history of the five neighbourhoods served by the parish council. Any errors in this article are ours not theirs.

There is far more information in the parish council's records than we could possibly cover on this website, but we are told that the parish council is always eager to let local residents know about their work and encourages people to visit their website at Home - Denham Parish Council (

Records of the parish council prior to 1988 are now kept by the Buckinghamshire County Archives in Aylesbury rather than at the council's offices in Denham. There will be more from those records later this month.

A dedication

This article is dedicated to the memory of former parish council chair Rosemary Temple who sadly died in January 2022.



Photo of sculpture of Theodore of Canterbury by Unknown author to be found in St. Theodore's church, Crawley West Sussex <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Vestry dinner - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Henry Mangles Denham by Charles Baugniet, 1849 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Denham Parish Council Minutes and photographic albums

British Newspaper Archive


Wikimedia images

Interviews with Parish Councillors Alan Head, Margaret Skelton and Sharon Williams

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