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What is.....?
(Frequently Asked Questions - FAQS)

Overview
A Hundred
A Parish
A Parish Clerk
A Parish Register
A Mop or Hiring Fair
A Shire
Enclosure
The Poor Laws
The Act of Settlement
The Corn Laws
 

Overview

On many occasions I have been asked to define various references that occur in the genealogical search. This page is intended as a quick reference to provide some answers.

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Hundred

From Anglo-Saxon times to the 19th century, a unit of local government common south of the river Tees. A subdivision of the shire, which had its own moot, it corresponded to the "wapentakes" of the Danelaw. Varying in size from area to area hundreds may have originated from the groupings of a hundred hides (a hide was a measurement used in the Domesday Book which was a land unit reckoned as 120 acres); they emerged as administrative units in the 10th century. Hundred courts, which met every four weeks had jurisdiction in cases relating to local issues and apportioned taxes. The hundreds were known as wapentakes in the North of England, while in Sussex there were rapes and in Kent lathes, which were groups of hundreds. By the end of the 12th century, they had ceased to be important, but were not formally abolished as units of local government until 1867. The term survives today in the Chiltern Hundreds.

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Parish

From Tudor times the parish acting through the vestry, became a unit of local government, and since then the boundaries of ecclesiastical and civil parishes have not necessarily been the same.

Ecclesiastical. A district under the religious care of a clergyman (a Rector or Vicar in the Church of England, a priest in Roman Catholic terms). Parishes in England date from at least the 7th century. Initially they were often coterminous with the estate of a lord, who controlled the appointment of a priest and was sometimes entitled to the ecclesiastical income of the parish, chiefly tithes. Following the Lateran Council (1179), however, the bishops had greater control over the parishes in their dioceses. A parish is not the same as a settlement, often there are several distinct hamlets in one parish or more than one parish in a village; the average is probably about three settlements to two parishes. The creation of new parishes, in response to the growth of population and changes in its distribution, is the responsibility of the Church Commissioners. Once Henry VIII had established the Church of England power passed gradually from the Roman Catholic priest to the Rector or Vicar of the Church of England.

Civil. The smallest unit of local govemment. Parishes became units of civil administration in the 16th century, when they were made responsible for the highways and for administering the 'poor law. The boundaries of civil and ecclesiastical parisIses, at first corresponding. increasingly diverged with the growing complexity of local government, especially in the 19th century. The powers of the parish councils are now limited to such matters as maintaining bus shelters and footpaths. The ancient custom of "beating the bounds" (or marking the boundaries) on 25 April and the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day (the Rogation Days) is still practised in some parishes.

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Parish Clerk

An old-established ecclesiastical official, known from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury, in the Church of England. In the Middle Ages he was often a clergyman in minor orders (a deacon or a subdeacon); he taught the children singing, read the Epistle at the Mass, assisted the priest when he celebrated and made the responses in the services. After the Reformation he was a layman and often acted as vestry clerk. In the old three-decker pulpits, he occupied the lowest stage. The office was an appointment for life until 1921. Few exist today.

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Parish Register

The parish register is the ecclesiastical record for a given parish for all baptisms, marriages and burials performed by that parish. Banns posted for marriages would also be recorded. In medieval times there were no parish registers and in later years some notes were occasionally kept relating to families of note. Not until 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, Vice-Gerent, Henry II's closet advisor issued a mandate that ordered every parson, vicar or curate to enter in a book every wedding, christening and burial in his parish, with the names of the parties. The entries were to be made each Sunday after service, in the presence of one of the wardens. The mandate was enforced under a penalty of 3s. 4d. for the repair of the church. Thus started parish registers which were usually on scraps of paper, sixty years later these registers were ordered to be copied onto parchment in books so that registers that survive dating back to 1538-9 rarely contain original entries of this date. Transcripts were then copied from these books and sent to the Bishop responsible for that parish and some of these documents survive today (Bishop's Transcripts).

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Mop or Hiring Fairs

Mop fairs were held in the autumn to enable farmers to engage servants who were usually hired for a year, from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. The men and women, who sought employment, lined up wearing tokens of their skills-cowmen a of cowhair, carters a piece of whipcord, shepherds a tuft of sheepswool and thatchers a fragment of woven straw, while servant-girls carried a mop or wore a white apron. In some places the regular Mop Fair was followed a week or two later by the Runaway Mop to give a second chance for those who were not already hired or for employers who were dissatisfied. As soon as a man or woman got a job, the token was removed and replaced by a ribbon which was bought with the hiring, or fasten-penny, paid by the employer to seal the contract and the rest of the day was given up to enjoying the amusements at the fair.

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Shire

A Shire was the main division of local govenment in England under the Anglo-Saxons, originating in 8th and 9th century Wessex. The shire System replaced the Roman provinces and was later extended to cover the whole of England. About a third of the shires represent old kingdoms (e.g. Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Sussex) or tribal divisions (e.g. Norfolk and Suffolk); most of the others take their name from important boroughs (e.g. Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and York). All England south of the Thames, except Cornwall, was divided into shires by King Alfred's reign (871-901); the Midlands were divided as they were conquered from the Danes; but the development was not completed in the North until after the Norman Conquest. The King's interest was represented by an ealdorman and later by a sheriff, who presided over the shire court and was responsible for the militia. The shires were replaced after the Norman conquest by the counties.

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Enclosure

Enclosure was the conversion of the open field system of farming into that of enclosed fields by surrounding an area of land with fences, ditches, and/or hedges so that what had usually been common land became private property. Enclosures gradually transformed English farming from the medieval system of communally controlled open fields farmed in strips by the villagers, into a system of individually owned fields whose cropping and stocking were their owner's choice. Enclosures were created for different reasons at different times, and the reaction to the process depended on whether it was affecting valuable arable land or common wastes. In Tudor times enclosure was popularly seen as the conversion of the peasants' tilled land to grass on which a landowner's sheep would graze: the sheep were eating men, it was said, because the villagers were losing both their employment and their tillage. Enclosures became a national issue, but although they were denounced by the church (especially by Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More) and were penalised by statutes and royal proclamations, and even provoked Kett's Rebellion (1549), their financial advantages were so strong that they continued to be carried out.

In the second half of the 18th century enclosure by private Act of Parliament increased dramatically, and the General Enclosure Act of 1801 standardised the procedure. Enclosures were less unpopular in the 18th century, as they enabled farmers to introduce improvements in crops and breeding without reference to their neighbours. By 1815 most usable farming land had been enclosed.

Although land reallocation under an enclosure act theoretically compensated those losing their rights to common land, in practice most lacked the capital to utilise the land, and many smallholders could not live adequately from their new plots; further more, landless labourers received no compensation.

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The Poor Laws

The Poor Laws were acts of legislation concerned with relief of the poor. An Act of 1536 provided relief for the 'impotent poor' but compelled "sturdy beggars" to work. Relief was funded by voluntary subscription and administered by the parish. In 1552 parish registers of the poor were introduced, and in 1563 and 1597 justices of the peace were given power to raise compulsory funds. Administration was regularised by the Poor Law Act (1601), which introduced a poor relief rate on property owners. The Act of Settlement (1662) permitted parish overseers to send vagrants back to their native parishes. From 1723 the Workhouse Test Act obliged the poor to enter workhouses to obtain relief, but Gilbert's Act (1782) excluded the able-bodied from the workhouse and forced parishes to provide work or outdoor relief for them. By the late 18th century the Elizabethan Poor Law system, administered through parish overseers, was increasingly inadequate when people began travelling many miles in search of employment. In some rural areas, in addition to direct relief to those without work, there developed the so-called Speenhamland system (named after the district in Berkshire where the system originated in 1795), whereby the wages of low-paid workers were supplemented by a parish allowance. Such a system was clearly unsatisfactory, since it tended both to depress wages and to subsidise landlords and employers. Increased hardship among agricultural workers and heavy expenditure on outdoor relief in the early 19th century resulted in the 1834 a Poor Law Amendment Act which tried to end the giving of assistance outside the workhouse; it established the principle that all citizens should have the right to relief from destitution through accommodation. The act created 600 unions of parishes, managed by boards of guardians elected by ratepayers. Outdoor relief ceased, all paupers being forced into the workhouse, but conditions in the workhouse, often with families separated by sex and age, were to be so severe as to discourage all but the most needy from its care. The workhouses were run by locally elected Boards of Guardians, who raised money through a poor-rate. The system proved inadequate in the growing cities, where the Guardians sometimes resorted to relief without the guarantee of accommodation. The Poor Law was gradually dismantled by social legislation of the 20th century, particularly that of the Liberal governments (1906-14) by important Acts in 1927, 1929 (when Boards of Guardians were abolished), 1930, 1934 (when Unemployment Assistance Boards were created), by social security legislation following the Beveridge Report (1942), and by the establishment of the welfare state.

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The Act of Settlement

The Act of Settlement is the name given to several English Acts.

  1. (1652) An act passd following Cromwell's suppression of the lrish rebellion (1641). A hundred named leaders of the revolt, together with anyone who had participated in its early stages and who had killed an Englishman except in battle, lost their lives and estates. Other leaders of the Irish army lost two-thirds of their estates and anyone who had not demonstrated "constant good affection" to the English lost one-third and was liable for transportation to Connaught or Clare. The severity of the act was lessened by further legislation in 1662.

  2. (1662) A poor law designed to control vagrancy. It enabled parish overseers to compel a person not born in their parish and having no land or work to return to his native parish.

  3. The Act of 1701 was the most politically significant. It provided for the succession to the throne after the death of Queen Anne's last surviving child, and was intended to Prevent the Roman Catholic Stuarts from regaining the throne. It stipulated that the crown should go to James I's granddaughter, the Electress Sophia of Hanover, or her surviving Protestant heirs. The act also required the sovereign to be a member of the church of England and not to leave England or make war to protect foreign possessions without parliamen-tary approval. It also debarred foreig-ners from office and parliament, limitations were placed on royal power, and made the judiciary independent of crown and Parliament. In 1714, on the death of Queen Anne, George I of Hanover succeeded to the thrones of Great Britain (Scotland having united with England in 1707) and Ireland.

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The Corn Laws

The Corn Laws were legislation designed to protect British agriculture by charging duties to the import and export of grain (mainly wheat) in order to control its supply and price. Corn Laws had been applied since the Middle Ages but only became a political issue in 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Parliament passed a law permitting the import of foreign wheat free of duty only when the do-mestic price reached 80 shillings per quarter (8 bushels). This proved unworkable and a sliding scale of duties was introduced in 1828 in order to alleviate the distress being caused to poorer people by the rise in the price of bread. A slump in trade in the late 1830's and a succession of bad harvests made conditions worse and strengthened the hand of the Anti-Corn Law League, founded in 1839, who were promoted by factory owners under the leadership of Cobden and Bright who denounced the system as benefiting landowners at everyone else's expense; the landowners counter-argued that industrialists wanted cheaper bread to keep wages down. In 1846 the Conservative prime minister, Peel, secured the repeal of the Corn Laws with a bill that retained only a nominal duty which was itself abolished in 1869. This split the Conservative Party, and ended Peel's career, but agriculture in Britain did not suffer as had been predicted. The repeal of the Corn Laws came to symbolise the success of free trade and liberal political economy.

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Last Updated on: 09 March 2000
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