North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford
Democratic ideas were stirring vigorously in all the parishes of England in 1894, and not least among the fifteen hundred inhabitants of North Mymms. For the Local Government Act of that year established parish councils, a completely new feature of village life, which displaced that centuries old body, the vestry. Perhaps that was why the Bill met such strong opposition in Parliament. It went to and fro between Commons and Lords three times before becoming law. Although this was in tune with the Lords’ partisan opposition to every proposal by the Liberal Government, there were real fears that local expenditure could be controlled by persons who paid little rates or apparently none at all. Whereas in the vestry a ratepayer could have up to six votes, depending on his rateable value, in the new councils it was to be one man, one vote. The Act abolished the political privilege of property owners. No wonder that it aroused much enthusiasm and hopes of a real village democracy.
What did the old vestry do in the last 25 years of its long life, what kind of body was it, and why was the new parish council welcomed so warmly? Its most important task, and the most sensitive one, was to decide how much each ratepayer should contribute to the precept for poor relief made every six months by the Hatfield Board of Guardians. Although the total sum to be raised increased, the half-yearly rate fell gradually from 16d. to 8d. in the pound, as rateable values moved generally upward. Thus in 1881 the vestry raised North Mymms Place from £170 to £210, Brookmans from £160 to £200, Potterells from £150 to £180, Leggatts from £100 to £140, Little Heath mansion from £120 to £140, and so on down the social scale.
Conversely the vestry occasionally reduced assessments. The most notable example was minuted in October 1891:
"Proposed by Rev I Consterdine (vicar of Little Heath), seconded by Mr TKH Nash (vestry surveyor) - That the assessment of the mansion and grounds etc., etc., Brookmans, R G Gaussen Esq owner, be reduced from £250 gross estimated rental to £75. The mansion having been destroyed by fire. Carried unanimously."
Such large properties were saved from heavier taxation by the increasing number of new houses. Most of these were in the growing suburb of Little Heath where more than thirty houses were built in the 1880s, in Thornton Road, Frampon Road and Heath Road. Thus in 1884 it was "Resolved unanimously that the 7 new cottages at Thornton Road, the property of S G Sheppard Esq. (the lord of Leggatts) be rated at £6.7 .6d rateable value." There was rarely, if ever, disagreement on decisions affecting rating.
A new responsibility for the parish roads fell on the vestry when the District Highways Board was dissolved in 1880. This meant that the vestry had to levy its own highways rate (usually about 5d. in the pound) and appoint its own surveyor of roads, farmer Thomas Barker, at a salary of £20. A later contest for this post with an increase in pay to £30 stimulated the record vestry attendance of 25.
The vestry could, and did, also raise a voluntary rate. After it had decided, in 1892, on one of 3d, to support the parochial schools, it informed the ratepayers "that if the voluntary rate is not promptly and generally paid, a School Board will have to be established, the scheme of which will involve a much higher rate". And the names of those who responded were duly published in the parish magazine. That was about the sum of the vestry’s responsibilities. It also nominated, but could not appoint, the overseers and the guardians of the poor. It did appoint its waywardens, to assist the surveyor, and, of course, the church-wardens, beadle and clerk.
A mere handful of people took the decisions. The average attendance at the quarterly meetings was seven, including the paid and unpaid officers and the vicar, invariably in the chair. They were mostly farmers, plain Misters, with a leavening of Esquires, usually landowners. Continuity was strong. Some men attended regularly for more than ten years and the variations were usually occasioned by death or departure. Only one woman ever attended, Mrs Bodger of the Welham Green beerhouse.
The paid officers were long serving: only two (W G Goulbum, the schoolmaster, and I E Gray, the builder) were employed as vestry clerk in the 25 years, and only three (Thomas Barker, John Stillman and Thomas Nash Junior) as surveyors, The unpaid posts were often filled by the same men year after year, as wardens, overseers and churchwardens. Such continuity may well have beet in conflict with changing conditions. Expectations were raised by the trade unions of the ‘70s (against which the vicar warned his flock) and by the parliamentary vote of the ‘80s.
In the last few years of the vestry there were certainly some signs of a new spirit of less deference. In 1887 two farmers proposed "That the Sporting Rights of the Parish be assessed to the Poor Rate" This was carried, but only by a majority vote. Three years later the vestry challenged the squire of North Mymms Place to pay rates on his tithe rent, and insisted on the principle "That the Tithe owners be assessed to the Poor rate for the net amount of Tithe they actually receive". It then made the same claim against the squire of Brookmans and owner of the rectorial tithe, with a threat of summons, although he had served as vicar’s churchwarden for many years and done many charitable works. It is significant, also, that non-ratepayers began to attend the vestry meetings.
The coming of the parish council had aroused great expectations so that on 4th December 1894 at the first parish meeting which was to elect the council, there was a large attendance of sixty. In a scene of unheard of activity 50 nominations were made by 13 men, resulting in 21 candidates for 10 seats. In the vote by a show of hands a builder, William Groom, headed the list, followed, in order, by woodman Jesse Burgess, farmer Dan Crawford, carpenter Edmund Keep, farmer Charles Honour, joiner John Nash, publican William Aslett, stockbroker Samuel Sheppard, railway clerk Gardiner Wilson, and solicitor Arthur Dagg. Among those unsuccessful were the two vicars, two gentlemen and a banker, all of whom had served the vestry well. When a poll was demanded, and held, the result showed the same social composition, except that the senior vicar, George Batty, took the place of the builder. Of the ten members of the new council only two had given service to the old vestry; several others had attended in its last year, perhaps with an end in view. Here was indeed change. It remained to be seen what the new broom would do.
The election in which the hamlets in the parish, Welham Green, Bell Bar, Waterend, Roestock and Little Heath, had chosen their council cost £20. This unwelcome fact gave rise to a plea at the next election to avoid a contest. Accordingly all the out-going councillors were re-elected and two vacancies were filled on a show of hands by a farmer from Welham Green and a painter from Little Heath. The parish had had enough of democratic contests; there was not to be another for eight years.
Consequently it was a small band of worthies which ran the council for some years, as in the old vestry. For instance, the same chairman, Archibald Thompson JP, held office for 13 years. The similarity did not extend to social composition in which four out of ten were now working men. New things were expected of the council. Only time would tell whether conflict would arise and if the old habits of deference would change. Would collective interests clash with private ones?
The council took its new duties seriously. It soon asserted itself in just those areas which had excited opposition in Parliament, the provision of allotments and control over parochial charities, and set about exercising its powers under the Act immediately. These concerned also appeals against rating, and the preservation of parish property such as roadside wastes, and of footpaths and footbridges. Allotments were the most important, and exciting, subject and the council immediately set about acquiring land. The consequent struggle is the subject of chapter 10.
While allotments were the cause of some conflict, the administration of existing parochial charities also gave rise to minor clashes. Under the Act the council could elect to the trustees of the charities two representative members and two others to replace the churchwardens of the old vestry. It did so and proceeded to investigate the trust. The four newcomers were half of the trustees.
The charity distributed was not inconsiderable. Each year four widows received 5s per week, and another ls 3d per week; ten "poor labourers" received a sum of l0s 6d each, provided they were honest and respectable and regular attendants at church, and another had £1; a lad or girl was apprenticed and each apprentice was given £1 each year of his term. There was a distribution of bread, meat and potatoes to poor widows at Easter, and there was the bread charity from which "Bread, to the amount of £12, is given on Sundays throughout the year, and to the amount of £6 at the Chief Festivals, to all labourers of good character who attend church." The bread was, in fact, given out in the church.
These sums must be related to the amount of the Old Age Pension of 5s per week for those over 70, provided their incomes were not more than 8s per week, less if they were more, and none if their incomes exceeded 12s. And there were no pensions before 1909. The charities, therefore, meagre as they may seem, meant a good deal to the really poor.
There was disagreement about the recipients of the charities and two trustees resigned on the issue. It had been the practice to announce the names of recipients but when that was dropped a councillor pressed for publication on the grounds that the undeserving had been included. There was "a prolonged and warm discussion" before publication was agreed. But the trustees stood firm and the names appeared only once more. They held to the text: "Let not your right hand know what your left hand giveth."
The council also jealously regarded encroachments on parish property and spent much time on the preservation of footpaths and footbridges. This, inevitably, brought it into conflict with landowners and tenants. The lady of North Mymms Place had built a pier at the entrance to the avenue leading to the church, no less than four yards too far forward. This was lengthily and warmly debated before being allowed, in consideration of other benefits accruing from the lady’s generosity. Soon after, her request to make a new highway which would have sacrificed access to half an old avenue leading to the church was refused outright. Four years later, however, she was allowed to divert a bridle way, on condition of making a new road. This issue attracted the record massive attendance of 115 parishioners at the annual meeting.
In another dispute the council called for an enquiry by the County Council and recorded its concern: "That it be an instruction to the Surveyor to advise at once any member of the Parish Council of any attempted alteration of, or interference with, the Common Roadside wastes, or any other property of which the Parish have a right, and that the Parishioners be invited to co-operate in this respect in safeguarding their interests within the Parish". Ploughing up of footpaths and neglect of footbridges, much used in daily comings and goings, often led to a sharp reminder of their duty to owners and tenants
Conflict of a different kind arose from the growth of Little Heath and its impact on the old community of North Mymms. On two occasions complaints of insufficient representation of Little Heath on the council from a show of hands at the annual meeting resulted in the unpopular expense of conducting polls. The council did want to embrace Little Heath, but tried hard to avoid the expense arising from its drainage problems and its need for a new school. On the great occasion of King Edward’s coronation, Little Heath deserted to join in the celebrations at Potters Bar.
The Local Government Act of 1894 had authorised parish councils to spend only the product of a threepenny rate, or exceptionally a sixpenny one, and this was to dispel earlier dreams of democratic power. The need for restraint was a unifying influence. It was watched over by the part time paid officers and there were plenty of men willing to undertake their positions. In a contest for assistant overseer and clerk at £40 per annum there were four candidates, from whom an ex publican and ex councillor of Welham Green was elected. When the surveyor of highways resigned, five men, including three farmers, applied for his post at £30 a year.
The scene was one, still, of slow change and old habits. It was, also, a man’s world. A woman’s name appears only twice in the minutes during the twenty years up to 1914. On one occasion there was a motion from two farmers, Crawford and Honour, to exclude a Miss Childs from the applicants for allotments in favour of a married man, but it was lost. The other was when a girl was apprenticed by the parish. The assumption was that woman’s place was not in parish affairs. Although women, married or unmarried, could attend and vote at parish meetings and be elected as councillors, none did so. The suffragettes were in the news.
Peter Kingsford, 1986
Chapter 10 - A plot of land
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book