by Karen and Patrick
In 1780 the Consistory Court was asked to order a parishioner to pay outstanding wages due to the Parish Clerk. The small village of Yoxall was the setting for this case which was taken to the Court by William Merry and which was contested by a yeoman farmer called Henry Chell who employed a solicitor to represent him.
St Peter’s Church sits at the centre of the village closely surrounded by small hamlets including Hadley End – the home of the defendant – Henry Chell. Yoxall was a farming community, with only about 750 people spread across the hamlets. Even today it is a small village and the hamlets are still evident. Hadley End lies at the northwest side of Yoxall with good flat farm land – where Henry Chell, who is recorded in the Court papers as a ‘yeoman’ – in its strict meaning this would indicate that Henry Chell owned the land he farmed although this can’t be assumed. In social status a yeoman ranked above a husbandman (generally a tenant farmer) but below the landed gentry.
When William Merry took his case to the Consistory Court he had already been Parish Clerk for 25 years – presumably having been paid without any problem until that date. He’d been nominated and appointed by the Consistory Court in 1755. Henry Chell was a younger man, about 41 years old at the time of the court case, married with 3 young children. Parish Clerks had a range of responsibilities – including reading scriptures, leading the congregation in singing and with prayer responses, ringing the church bells and digging graves. The other work they carried out was to maintain the church registers which recorded baptisms, marriages and burials. The church laws dictated that Parish Clerks:
…be chosen by the Minister. No Parish Clerk upon any vacation shall by chosen… but by the Parson or Vicar; or… by the Minister of that place for the time being… And the said Clerk shall be of twenty years of age at the least, and known to the said Parson, Vicar or Minister, to be of honest conversation, and sufficient for his reading, writing, and also for his competent skill in singing…
William Merry was a local man, baptised in St Peter’s Church in 1717, the son of Francis Merry, a master carpenter and joiner, and it is possible that William – who would not of course, have been a full time employee of the church – also followed his father’s trade although we haven’t been able to find any evidence to confirm this.
Henry Chell, was also a local man, born in 1739 and married to Mary Smith of Hamstall Ridware. He was also buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, in 1814, aged 75.
An article by Mark Pearsell on the National Archives website (‘The parish: administration and records‘) contains much useful information about the roles of parish officials. In small rural communities all administration was conducted by officers chosen from the local community. The principal officers were the churchwardens, of whom there were at least two. They were chosen by the parish priest with the consent of the parish meeting or vestry (all the householders or rate payers of the parish) but it also became usual for the priest to appoint a parish clerk to whom a salary would be paid.
The churchwardens were responsible for the maintenance of the church and kept the parish accounts. They could also refer to the ecclesiastical courts any transgressions of church law, particularly relating to morality, and they were responsible for witnessing the making of entries by the priest in the register of births marriages and deaths and for making sure that the entries were copied and sent to the bishop every year. Churchwardens’ accounts include details of expenditure on repair of the church and of payments to the parish clerk, sexton, bell ringer and other officials. If the churchwardens were semiliterate or even illiterate they might pay the parish clerk to write up the accounts for them. Appointed by the parish priest and acting as his clerk and as clerk to the parish meeting William Merry would also have assisted at church services and led the responses to prayers. In some parishes the Parish Clerk might also act as sexton – digging graves and maintaining the churchyard – we don’t know whether this was one of William Merry’s roles although Staffordshire does hold the Churchwardens Accounts covering the period of William Merry’s tenure and it would be fascinating to check what payments he received and whether the churchwardens always agreed on his fees! In some parishes, the Parish Clerk might even, prior to the Parochial Registers Act of 1812, make entries in the parish registers although this was really the duty of the priest.
In our case the court papers contain only a limited amount of information and there are a number of unanswered questions. William Merry’s complaint was that he hadn’t been paid, and as payment of his wages was the responsibility of the churchwardens we must assume that Henry Chell was one of them. But why was he the only defendant when there were usually at least two churchwardens? Was payment of wages his particular responsibility and what was the reason for them being withheld? As William Merry had already served as parish clerk for 25 years we must assume that he performed his job well but perhaps there had been some disagreement between him and Henry Chell .
Henry Chell neither admitted nor denied that the wages had not been paid. The sole defence put forward by his solicitor – Mr Jackson – was that the Consistory Court had no jurisdiction in the matter – “because the said Parish Clerk of Yoxall is a temporal man or officer and fees wages or salary being merely temporal his client …. is not liable or compellable by this Court to answer the contents of the said original citation extracted against him in this pretended cause”.
We do not know if the Court agreed with Mr Jackson’s submission. As we’ve seen in our studies of some of the Bawdy Courts cases, the ecclesiastical courts exercised a wide- ranging jurisdiction including probate, matrimonial, defamation, tithe and faculty cases. Anne Tarver’s study of The Lichfield and Coventry Consistory Court over the period 1680 – 1830 concluded that ‘the Lichfield courts represented a source of arbitration for intractable disputes of predominately rural origin. Causes arose from within the community rather than being imposed externally by the church authorities and formed a channel for public censure of those who offended against local mores, regardless of sex or social standing’. She added that ‘these courts could harm neither purse nor person’ which does seem to support Henry Chell’s argument that the payment of wages was not something that could come with the jurisdiction of a church court. For example, although the court dealt with many cases relating to disputes over tithes it could not enforce actual payment.
Although we don’t have more information at this stage about the Court’s decision we do know that William Merry continued in his post as Parish Clerk which suggests that some agreement (or money!) was found. Indeed, William served for another 24 years until his death in 1808 when the burial register records that he had served as Parish Clerk for 49 years. There are records of parish clerks serving for as long as 60 years so it certainly seems to have been a job for life. William reached the remarkable age of 91 and was buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, but as late as 1801 when he was 83 years old he was still attending weddings and other services, as this page from St Peter’s Church Register of marriages illustrates.
His knowledge of Yoxall’s community must have been vast, he certainly would have known far more about local families than the many curates and rectors who officiated at services.
Karen and Patrick are volunteers with the Bawdy Courts of Lichfield project and are part of the volunteer group that meets on Tuesday afternoons at the Lichfield History Access Point. If you are interested in volunteering please get in touch: Jennifer.email@example.com
You can search Staffordshire Parish Clerk nominations here: https://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/default.aspx?Index=G