Meldreth Parish Records

William Mortlock Palmer MD, FSA
Taken from a newspaper cutting, date unknown


This examination of Meldreth’s parish records was written by William Mortlock Palmer in 1896. As he explains in his introductory paragraph below, it is not a complete examination; but a closer look at some of the records he found interesting. Nevertheless, the article below contains many useful entries and adds to our picture of what the village was like in the past.

The text was prepared for publication on our website by Meldreth Local History Group volunteer, David Marsh and is given in its entirety below.

Meldreth Parish Records by W M Palmer

In the following account of the Meldreth Parish Records, an attempt has been made to point out those items which are curious rather than useful. It would be possible for a competent person to extract from a complete series of the records of a township extending over a period of some years, some information which might be useful to the present ruling powers. But being ignorant of all such matters, I have left them alone, and have attempted only to extract some of the more interesting items. In the few hours which I was able to spend over this matter last August, many points may have been missed which a more careful examination would have discovered. Hence it must be understood that this account does not pretend to be exhaustive of the subject. The Records are kept in an iron safe which stands in the Veysie Chapel in the south aisle of the Parish Church. This safe is quite modern, but there is also in the Church a fine iron bound oaken chest, some centuries old (before 1685).

The parish records, although not very voluminous, are of a somewhat unique character, as there is no complete series of them, except during the time of the Rev. Richard Willowes, who was vicar from 1692 to 1736. Previous to the former date there are none existing, with the exceptions of the Register, and a lease of the Vicar’s tithes, dated 1673. And from 1735 to the time when the parish officers began to enter their accounts in books, which the churchwardens did in 1776, and the overseers at the beginning of the present century, the annual accounts, instead of numbering over a hundred, can be counted on the fingers. There are of course many miscellaneous papers, but these chiefly refer to the beginning and end of the 18th century. When, however, we consider that each of these annual accounts is written on a separate sheet of paper, the wonder is, not that so many are missing, but that so many have survived.

But it might well be asked, why have those of earlier date survived, while the most recent have disappeared? This question is answered at once when we examine these earlier accounts. They are all written in a beautifully clear and uniform hand. In 1692 and 1693 the bucolic scribe made a mighty effort to guide his horny hand across the paper, with a different result, and if were not for the indorsement by the vicar, the results would be less intelligible even than they are. In 1694 the Reverend Richard Willows took up the pen, and for over forty years wrote out the accounts in a scholarly fashion, and most of his accounts have survived. All who take any interest in these matters ought to feel very grateful to John Palmer and Jonathan Stockbridge, and their successors for their allowance of 10s. to Mr Willowes “for writing out the rates and accounts for the year past”.  This included the churchwarden’s, the constable’s, and the overseers rates and accounts, and the Queen’s taxes on houses and land, the longest of all. It was in the production of this last that our vicar particularly excelled. He seems to have had a passion for figures, for he has sometimes carried out each person’s proportion of the assessment to several points of decimals. The other records which exits in quantity enough to be called a series are the indentures of parish apprentices, and the certificates of poor people showing their native places. The miscellaneous records consist of bills for repairs connected with the church and churchyard, bills for medial attendances, inventories for the sales of goods of dead paupers, and papers referring to the parish charities and their distribution.

I.  The Overseers’ Accounts

The overseer’s accounts begin in 1692. They are usually much longer than the accounts of the other officers. The two most interesting classes of entries are those which refer to attendance on the sick, and charges for clothing, &c. The first account does not give us much information, it was written by a very unskilful scribe, and consists of the names of people only with this exception:-

1692Widdow Gorselinge for wood and mutton20

The remaining accounts to 1730 are in Mr. Willowes’ handwriting.

In 1694 we find :

Paid John Graunt for two coals and breeches and trimming411

In 1696 occur the following entries of clothing :

Oct. 213½ of course cloath for a coat and breeches for Aynesworth’s boy80
Nov. 3For making them210
Dec. 9For a pair of shoes for him210
Nov. 3For a pair of shoes for Hunt’s girl
For a pair of shoes and pattins together
For a pair of stockings he bought her

In 1700 are found these items : –

For Mary Audery broadcloth11
3 shifts for her and her brother69
Shoe nails0
Shoes for William Audery34
Paid Robert Mead for cleaning and keeping Barber’s boy 2 weeks40

I have always noticed that whenever the small item of cleaning occurs, the amount allowed is greater.  Sometimes a special charge is made.

1702Paid Antony for washing Creisal’s children after the death of his wife6

In this year John Palmer had a long bill for clothing, but he did not go in for very expensive materials.  He laid out on the boy John Barer : –

For 51/2 yards of sacking,  5s. 11d;  for a pair of stockings, 1s. ; for buttons, 6d; for making, 2s. 6d. ; for 2 shirts, 3s. 6d. ; for a pair of shoes, 2s. 4d.  He also ordered a new rig out for the herdsman’s boy, whose gaudy one, for the charge for sacking, buttons and making, was only 4s. 3d. The charge of clothing for the Creisal orphans came to £1 6s. 8d. this year. The items include 9 yards of sacking at 1s. 1d. a yard;  12 yards of shirting at 4d. a yard, and an ell of linsy woollsey  2s 1d.

In 1706, James Badcock paid 8s. for 4 yards of linsie for wascots and breeches for Wm. Can, and 2s. for buttons and thread, and making them. He had also to clothe the four orphan sons of Edward Caldecote, and did not set about it in so economical a manner as his predecessor had done, as will be seen from the following account :-

Laid out about Robert Caldecote the eldest son. Pd. the draper’s bill for the things following :-
4 yards of cloath94
1 yard and a quarter of Linsey1
Buttons, thred, tape, canvas0
6 yards of linen cloath33
A pair of stockings11
Sub total0159
Pd. for a hat for him11
Pd. for pockets for his cloaths06
Pd. for a neckcloath for him05
For the making of his cloathes30
For the making of his two shirts08
For a pair of shoes for him26

His two brothers cost £1 14s. 0d. to clothe.

In 1718 the overseer paid 6s. 6d. for a coat and breeches for John Holder, and 2s. 8d. for a shirt for him.

A very short examination of these relief items leads one to the conclusion that 200 years ago the overseers were truly the “Guardians” of the Poor. Their primary object was the relief of distress. But of course that was a very old fashioned idea, long since obsolete. We now regulate our doles on the principle of expediency, and the primary object of the modern Board of Guardians is economy.

The overseers had one way of getting rid of a woman who had become chargeable to the parish, which might have very much commended itself to that generation of ladies; they could get rid of her by marrying her to a man belonging to another parish. By this means the wife seems to have become chargeable to the parish to which her husband belonged. Take, for example, the story of Sarah Creisall as told in the constable’s and overseer’s accounts of Meldreth. She was left a widow before 1702, for in that year the overseer’s accounts for money paid to Goody Creisall, and for clothing and keep for her children.

In 1706 Amey Game was paid about £3 10a. for keeping the said Sarah, and in the same year she had two new shifts which with making and thread cost 2s. 10d., her shoe leather cost 3s. 10d. and a pair of pattens 8d. She appears occasionally in the accounts till the year 1724. By this time her children had grown up, and she had no ties. She had been a widow for twenty years, and was a highly eligible companion for any middle-aged gentleman, who wanted an affectionate helpmate. Such a man appeared in Robert Sergeant, of Clapwell. He interviewed the fair Sarah and was satisfied. The match-making Overseers were so delighted that nothing less than a licence would suit – nothing so common as banns, oh, no. Of course they may have been afraid that Robert would change his mind in the three weeks required for the publication of the banns. However that may be, the licence was obtained, it cost one pound and twopence. The ceremony took place on September 16th, 1724, the minister and clerk received their usual fees of 5s. and 2s.6d. An order from the justices for removing the said Sarah cost 7s., and Mr. George Wicks, overseer for 1724, ends the story with this charge

Sept.He paid for the expenses of Robert Sergeant and his wife, Sarah, formerly Sarah Crisel, and the two men’s journey with their horses to convey them to Clapwell160

Thus they got rid of her for £2 10s. 8d., a pound less than she cost a year to keep. Sometimes marriages of this kind were not unqualified successes. Cases had been known in which the bridegroom’s courage had failed him, and after the ceremony he had run away, and not even a warrant from a justice could bring him back.

Some miscellaneous charges in connection with paupers are: –
1694, April 27Paid for a Linner wheel for George Macer36
1706 AprilPaid for a pair of cards for Hugh Johnson
Paid for a wheel for him

These were I suppose spinning wheels, which the parish provided for certain infirm people to keep them from being perpetually on the rates.

1719, Aug 5He paid Thomas Barker for Badges for the poor persons who received relief40

This badge the paupers were compelled by law to wear upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of their outside garment. It consisted of a large Roman P, together with the first letter of the name of the parish of which the person was an inhabitant, cut in red or blue cloth. Thus all the Meldreth paupers would have P.M. on their shoulders, the Shepreth paupers P.S.

The Overseers appear to have looked after the poor very well indeed. Such entries as the following are far from uncommon :

1702, April 2Paid Alexander Newman for fetching Roger Ilots straw or Harme16

They also paid the debts of paupers. Thus in 1713 John Anicoe died owing £3 15s. 0d. in small sums to 24 different people. They were all paid by Edward Hawkes, the overseer.

The entries in the account of Isaac Coxall and Richard Hadgar, overseers, 1728-9, concerning Thomas Hussey, show him to have been in a most doleful condition.

£ sd
April 27He paid to Thomas Hussey for relief10
Aug 6He paid to Lames Letchfield for straw to clean him from lice10
He bought him a shirt which cost28
He paid for removing his bed02
He paid Goodwife Malden to wash and clean and lodge him for 22 weeks176

In the earlier lists of relief there is one name which strikes one as being rather peculiar and that is the name of “Bina.”

For instance:£sd
1697Paid for altering of a gown given Bina7
Dec 28For linsey woolsey to make Bina a gown76
For making it1010

In a list of the recipients of Pyke‘s gift in 1700 she occurs as “Binas or Widow Ivory.” She seems to have been a recipient of parish relief until she died in 1701, when she was buried at a cost of 5s. 6d. Was she a black woman and a relation to Captain Hitch’s black servant?

It may be interesting to compare the following charges with those of the present day. They occur in the accounts of James Badcock, overseer for 1706.

Paid about the Almshouse that was lately Thomas Barber’s.

April 17Paid John Chapman for five days’ worke of thatching76
Paid John Waller, five days to serve him50
Pd. the boy five days to yelme26
Pd. for three hundred of withs16
Pd. for spits 1s. 6d., and stack rods, 1s26
Pd. for splints 2s. 3d., and for nails 4d27
Pd. John Pierce for two loads of straw160
Pd. for bear for the thatchers10
Pd. Henry Knight for bringing a load of straw from Mr. Burton’s16
Pd. him for two loads of clay out of Peek More .. ..16
MayPd. John Maulden and Robt. Mead for two days’ work each to daub and leere the house40
Pd. Thomas Gulliver for two days18
Paid for bear for them04
Pd. for splints to be used14
Pd. Ephraim Skinner for two staples for the doors, two hooks for the chimnies, and for putting on the locks10
Pd. for a new lock for the door 10d., and for 16 nails 4d.12
Pd. Mr. Burton for a load of straw had of him for the house60
Pd. Thomas Pinnock for geices to lay over the butteries10
OctoberPaid the glazier for the window ..110

In 1711, John Burton being overseer, the parish was put to the following charges, by the sudden death of a pauper :

April 16Pd. William Pierce for relief10
Nov.For the cart and horses to fetch the corps of Win. Pierce out of the field36
Pd. Richard Day and his son for loading the corps10
Pd. for coffin for him 6s. 0d., paid the two women for stripping the corps and laying it into the coffin 2s. 0d., for wool for it 3d., for ye affidavit 6d89
For the journey to the justice and the coroner10
Expenses 2s. 4d., paid the boy for carrying ye warrant to ye constable 2d26
Pd. the Coroner130
Pd. or due for the burial50

In the accounts of James Brand and Stephen Green, overseers for 1718, there is a list headed as follows:

His charges about Richard Hickman and John Cowel or Cornish, two fornicators.

The first is for 5s., when the neighbours met the men of Orwell at the Bell on May 9.  Journeys were made to Baldock and Walkern about them and they were also guarded. They cost the parish altogether £3 18s. 4d.

The overseers’ accounts contain much curious and interesting matter concerning the medical treatment of paupers. A parish doctor in those days did not receive a fixed sum for his services, but was paid by the job, and it is to this fact that we owe most of this kind of information.

In 1694 a man named George Mason was ill. The nature of his illness is not stated, and whether he was cured or not, I cannot say. But at least the parish authorities had a good try, as the following items show : –

Charges about George Mason£sd
Oct 25.Pd. Mr. Harrison, of Cambridge, the Surgeon350
Pd. John Wilson for his being there with him1142
Pd. Mr. Burr about him046
For a shirt for him036
Paid for brandy that he had010
For his and my journey to the Hospital and charges thereupon1510

In 1696 we find an account headed : –

Pd. to Cheirurgians£sd
April 29.Pd. to Mr. Skigs, of Royston, for cheirurgery about G. Mercer in 1695066
Pd. Mr. Burr for a glass of stuff for Goody Creisal010
Pd. Mr. Skigs for his visits and care of Goody Creisal0146
Pd. Mr. Skigs for plaistering and ointment for G. Mercer029

In 1711 occurs an entry which shows that men had not quite the monopoly of the surgical profession in those days.

JanPaid to Dame Pierce for surgery work and charges upon the widow Ilots’ daughter350

In 1719 Robert Gillett had the misfortune to break his thigh, which cost the parish £2 5s. 3d. to get mended as below : –

MayHe paid to Robert Gillett where his thigh was broke at 1s. 6d. or 2s. at a time from May to July 110126
Oct 29He paid to Mr Burr for his service upon Rbt. Gillett’s thigh100
He paid Win. Pateman for his service upon it050
Aug 5For his journey to Royston to fetch Mr. Burr for him010
For carriage of Robert Gillett when his thigh was broke to his house009

In 1720 Isaac Trigg had an injured or diseased arm, which probably disabled him from work. For besides paying Mr. Burr £1 8s. 3d. “for surgery upon it” the overseer paid his debts. It was not at all an uncommon thing, in those days, for a sick person to be sent by the parish to live near a surgeon in the nearest town, for surgical or medical treatment.  For instance, 1725.

April 14He paid to James Knatchbull to goe to Mr. Burre004
April 17For his boarding J. K. 3 days016
April 24He paid him at 3 times066
May 4He paid for curing him of the Itch026
May 8For lodging him in his house030

The authorities also made a determined effort to cure Richard Bigrave, but it appears to have been unsuccessful.

1725, July 31Richard Bigrave journeyed with his nurse to Cambridge. He made another journey thither on Aug. 15 and came back Aug. 29. Sept 29 He was taken to a London Hospital and had given him 12s. In that year he cost altogether £5 18s. 8d.

Next year he was back again, for on Oct. 29 the overseer paid Dr. Sams his charge upon the town for R. Bigrave £5 6s. 0d.  And for his journey to Dr. Sams, at Cambridge, 2s. Altogether, independent of relief, for medical attendance, he cost the parish £11 6s. 8d. in two years.

After this result, unsatisfactory both to doctor and patient, it is encouraging to find that the medical man was then, as he is now, sometimes successful in his treatment. For nothing can be more definite and satisfactory, than two entries in the accounts of 1728. He paid Dr. Burr for curing Jo Burton’s wrist 5s. Aug 3, he paid Fr. Thompson for the cure of John Wood’s throat 1s.

I should think that the last named was an amateur doctor, by the small value which he set upon his cure.

It is very rarely stated in these earlier accounts for what purpose the medicines were given, but in December 1726, we find, he paid Mr. Burr, Dec. 28, 1s. 6d., and Dec. 31, 1s. 6d., being two glasses of medicine for the Dropsy and upon Henry Allen.

Let us hope that Mr. Henry Allen recovered.

For the latter part of the century several of the original bills of the surgeons have been preserved. These are very long and peculiar. The earliest is a fragment dated 1773-4. Here are some of the items:-

A large bathing Mixture16
A strengthening plaister10
Twelve Peruvian powders16
A Glyster, etc10

With Febrifrige, Cardiac, Sudorific, and Cordial Mixtures in abundance. In the medicine supplied on account of Robert Smith, to the value of £1 3s. 10d., were:- A pectoral Lohock 1s. 6d.,  an antiseptic Mixture 1s. 6d. and a Paregoric Mixture 1s. 4d.

To another person were supplied an Epulotic Ointment, &c, 1s., Camphor Spirits 1s., a pot of Digestive Ointment 9d., a Cataplasm 2s., and attenuating tincture 1s. 4d.

In the account of Dr. John Talwin for 1777, a prominent item is the treatment of a man named Skinner,

July 6Two vomiting powders1
Large Peruvian electuary5

I should think that he must have been a sufferer from the ague, for between July 6 and Oct. 22, he consumed two pounds-worth of electuary, and next March had another 10s. worth.

Other items in this doctor’s account are :-

An attenuating epithem, 1s; lavender drops, 6d; balsamic tincture, 1s; solutive electuary, 1s; pectoral electuary, 2s 6d, ; emollient mixture, 2s, and for a journey on the night of January 2nd, he charged 10s 6d.

In 1780, we first meet with Dr, Crespin, when he charges a guinea-and-a-half for reducing and healing a dislocated ankle and fractured leg. He was very fond of giving his patients what he calls “Ingredients to boil,” and charges 1s for. Pills do not seem to have been very frequently used by parish doctors in those days. The first time I find them mentioned is in 1780 –

May 17For Pain’s wife, stomachic pills1

In 1785 Dr. Crespin charges 1s, 6d, for a Restringent mixture. In 1793 he reduces a broken arm for 10s. 6d., and attends two mid-wifery cases for a guinea each. He also supplied a volatile mixture for 1s, 6d. In this year the parish employed two other surgeons, but their united bills only came to £9 10s 2d.  Mr Thomas Nunn, of Royston, was a great believer in boluses, for which he charges 4d  each. He once treated a patient to a quart julep, 2s. A distinctly high class practitioner was Thomas Nunn, to judge from his charges. The other surgeon, Mr T Barron, was more of an empiric, but he was the only one who supplied his patients with mouth washes. His panaceas were Peruvian Bark and Daffy’s Elixir, the latter of which survives on the modern doctor’s shelf under the title of compound Tincture of Senna. He believed in local treatment more particularly, his charges for cerecloth, bleeding, blistering, and dressings being very frequent.

During the period covered by these accounts there seems to have been only one disease which was constantly present in the minds of the people, and that was the Small Pox. This fell disease has in recent times caused much trouble in the village of Meldreth, but the benefits derived from isolation and vaccination, have deprived it of many of those characteristics which rendered it such a terror in past times.  Many will remember the passage in Macaulay’s History of England, where, after having recorded the death of Queen Mary from Smallpox in 1694, he describes the horrors of this ever present disease at that period. But although that paragraph may have been written more with regard to effect than facts, there can be no doubt that the fear of this disease, if not constantly present, was at least easily raised.

Take the following items : –

1713He gave to a travelling woman near her labour, with three others, her attendants, one of whom was suspected to be sick of the Smallpox, to send them away with all convenient speed1
1731He gave to a woman with Smallpox14

Such unheard of generosity could only have been to get rid of her. The only other disease which is mentioned in the time of Mr. Willowes is the Itch and that only once.

In 1788 there was an outbreak in the village itself, and amongst the records is a list of the expenses then incurred. But it evidently refers only to a part of them, the total cost to the parish being £45 14s. 5d.  The year 1787 had been a moderately bad Smallpox year in London, one out of every eight deaths being due to that disease. And as usual in the case of such epidemics, the next year saw a rise of it in the provinces. The period of which my record gives an account is from July 24 to September 24, 1788. Most of the items are simply records of the payment of small sums to various people. The following are the more interesting items :-

July 24For moving Samuel Wortar16
For man and cart  for carrying him16
Paid Richard Pitty for waiting of S.W.16
For fetching the nurse10
The nurse a pint of bear when she came,2
Payd the men for carrying S.W. to the grave60
For bear and bread and cheese for the men26
Aug 5For moving Wilson’s wife and children16
For the mare and cart carrying William Wilson’s wife110
For honey2
A bottle of wine23

From the above it would seem that they had some method of isolation in those days, for each of these victims was moved twice. The person who received most money during the time of this account was Elizabeth Green, £3 13s. 4d., perhaps she was a nurse; next comes Isaac Trigg who was paid £2 17s. 9d. Dr. Crespin only received 1s. 10d, but the burial fees were 10s. 6d.

The fear which Smallpox inspired in even educated people is seen in the following incident, related by the Rev. William Cole, the celebrated Cambridgeshire antiquary. In 1775 the Rev. Oliver Naylor, rector of Milton, died of Smallpox. About a year before the son of a farmer named Plowright had died of Smallpox and was buried in the side of the churchyard nearest the Rector’s house, where the rest of the Plowright family were buried. But so fearful was Mr. Naylor of the distemper that he made the father disinter the corpse and re-bury it on the opposite side of the church ; nevertheless it proved fatal to him at a greater distance.

All three parish officers, the constable, the overseer and the churchwarden, seem to have granted alms to strangers as they thought proper. The commonest form in which almsgiving appears in the accounts is –

Given to a man with a letter of request. 6d.

On what principle they regulated their doles I have not been able to find out, but when they were afraid that the company of any traveller was likely to entail any unusual expense a little extra was given in order to make such a person move on speedily, as in the case of the woman suspected to have small-pox already mentioned.

The following are some of the instances of almsgiving in the Meldreth accounts –

1699Given to a “framan” (whoever or whatever that was)6
1699I gave to 2 solgers with a pass2
1699, Aug 13Payd for lodgin of 10 Jepsies and a gide6
1699, Aug 28Payd for lodgin 15 Jepsies and a gide16
1700Given to a poor man from Turkey4
1707Given to a man that was burnt out in St. Christopher’s Island [This place is in the West Indies]

I wonder whether a modern constable would believe a tale such as this one probably told. Perhaps the money was given for his entertaining stories as much as for sympathy.

1725, Dec19To a great bellied woman 6d., and to his man to go with her to guide her away 4d10
1725, Nov 4He paid at the ale house for a night’s lodging of a great bellied woman10
1732To a maimed soldier2
To 8 seamen9

The officials at Orwell were more liberal than this, for we read in the records there –

1675For the maymed soldiers100
1680To a shipwrackt Dutchman20
1691To 2 men sufferers by the sea banks breaking10

With regard to miscellaneous payments to people within the parish, it may be remarked that it was customary for the children to have 5s worth of beer when they went stone-picking. This was an annual institution. Let us hope that it was small beer which they had. Beer was sometimes drunk in prodigious quantities in those days. Thus on August 4th, 1720, there was a fire at Meldreth, at some farm probably, and on that occasion, beer to the value of £1 18s. 6d. was drunk, which would represent a quantity of liquid, almost large enough to extinguish the fire itself. But of course August is very thirsty weather. In May, however, your rosy-cheeked countryman is not in such a chronic state of dryness, and we find that on May 26th, 1726, when the fire happened at Dan Sadler’s, only a pounds worth of beer was drunk, of which 10s. worth was had at the Bell, and 10d. at the Widow Childerby’s. The above payments for beer were made on the authority of the constables, the overseers were occasionally much more extravagant. In 1719 they allow 6s. for Brandy, which the watching men had, after the fire which happened Aug. 13th and 14th.

II.  The Churchwardens’ Accounts

Of the three series of accounts, the churchwardens, the constables, and the overseers, the former are most numerous but least interesting generally. They exist for the year 1694, for each year from 1699 to 1735, and from 1776 onward. They consist mainly of lists of expenses for church repairs. Thus in 1701, the chancel windows cost 30s. to repair. Details of the glazier’s bill are given – 11¼  pounds of solder were used at 10d. a pound, and 100 quarries of glass, which cost 8s. 7d. The youths of the village appear to have been especially fond of the sport of window breaking, judging from the annual amount of the glazier’s bill.

In 1703, three new bell ropes, weighing 21 pounds each, were bought at a cost of 13s. 4d.

In 1706, the steeple underwent some extensive repairs. Six men were at work for 26 days, but the total cost of both labour and material seems to have been only £20. Anyone interested in the cost of building at this period, could gain much information from the detailed account. The materials used were lime, sand and ironstone. The workmen drank 7s. 6d. worth of small beer, and 2s. 6d. worth of strong beer, which they got from William Pateman’s. The smallest item is that of soap for the workmen’s pulleys, which cost 5 farthings.

In 1713, October, occurs this entry :-

Paid Mr. Willows for 1½ hundred of bricks to underpin the churchyard gate house20

From which we may conclude that there was then a lychgate, that is, a gate with a cover above it, at the entrance to the churchyard.

In 1715. March 30. He paid Thomas Pinnock for 30 pins put upon the seats for the men’s hats to be hung upon20

In the same year, Thomas Baker being church warden, there is a long account headed :

“His charges about making new the cracked 2nd bell, and the weeks and stocks of the other bells, and his repair of the frames and braces in the steeple.”

The account begins in the good old fashioned style : –

Oct. 3 . Spent at Pateman’s at the meeting of the town to put out the 2nd bell and agree with the carpenter,” &c40

The bell was sent to John Waylet, of Bishop’s Stortford, to be recast at a cost of £6 12s 6d; the journey occupied from Friday to Tuesday during the month of November, and cost £1 19s. 2d.

Next year the first or treble bell was sent to the same place to be recast at a cost of £6 18s. 10d. From the inscription now on the bells they appear to have been recast a second time in 1855.

The following entries show that the churchyard was surrounded by a hedge two hundred years ago, and afterwards by a fence –

1696  FebPaid Thomas Mead for making new the churchyard hedge16
1780  JuneFor wood to mend the churchyard pales66
1701  March 28Paid John Palmer for pales, about 24, and nails and a staple, for the church yard fence10
1715  Oct 18For posts and Rales and pales, and nales for the ffence of the church yard52
Pd. the carpenters for a day there28

A frequent feature of the churchwardens’ account is the payment for books of special prayers for fasts and thanksgivings, which were sent “by authority” but as it is very seldom that the occasion for the special service is indicated, they are of very little interest. But we find on Dec. 15, 1703  –

Paid for a prayer to be used after the great tempest of wind6

This was, of course, the storm of November 26th previous, the greatest storm ever known in this country, when whole forests were uprooted, and the damage in London alone estimated at a million sterling.

We find also that in 1704 there were special services in Meldreth for the victory of Blenheim, and in 1705 for the capture of Gibraltar by Admiral Rooke.

There are also entries indicating the changes of sovereigns.

1702  March 28Paid the Paritor for a paper concerning the altering of the names in ye common prayer book ..6

This was Queen Anne, for King William.

1714  Aug 26He paid the Paritor for the paper or order for altering the names in the Common Prayer Book, after the death of Queen Anne
Oct 18He paid for an order to pray for George, Prince of Wales by name

This order was probably to prevent any overt reference to the exiled Stuarts.

In the constables’ accounts for 1723, there is also an example of this class of entry.

Aug 21He paid to John Thurley for the printed information sent to give notice to persons of estates to take the oaths required to be taken to the King and Government10

This was the year of Bishop Atterbury’s Jacobite plot. I never heard of any Jacobites in this neighbourhood, nearer than Cambridge.

During this period there was a constant demand on the parish for money to pay for briefs. These were collections started by authority for the relief of individuals or people who had suffered severe losses. Sometimes they were collected throughout the whole country, sometimes only in certain dioceses. A book was usually kept in the Church in which records of these briefs were made. There is a charge for such a book amongst the Meldreth accounts, but it has been lost, and all we can gather about the briefs collected at Meldreth is obtained from the payment noted down in the Churchwardens’ accounts.

Thus in 1699 we find

For Minehead in Somersetshire where was lost by fire £4,03026
For Drury Lane in London, where was lost by fire, £7,32026
For Soham in Cambs. where was lost by fire, £75930

It will be noticed that the loss at Soham, although only a tenth of the loss in London, touched the people to a greater extent.

1716  Sept 14Given to the Brief for the Cow-keeper whose loss was above, £24,00070

The amount of loss seems here incredible, probably a cipher too many has been written down.

1720  Oct 3He paid to the brief for the sufferers by tempest, which was ordered to be gathered from house to house40

1730, Mar 30. He gave to 3 Briefs 3s., one of which was the brief for Melbourn when Aug. 24, 1728, the loss by fire was £6,869, and it was ordered to be gathered from house to house, in the dioceses of Lincoln and Ely, but there was money gathered for those sufferers before.

This is the first that I have heard about this fire, which must have destroyed nearly the whole village, and the harvest as well, if the amount stated be the true one. But I always suspect a considerable exaggeration in these amounts.

There are two briefs for calamities very far distant.

1730To the brief for Copenhagen fire26
1734To a brief for the harbour of Aberbrothock which will cost £9,314 to repair and make good20

These must have been gathered in the whole province of Canterbury at least, as they also occur in the records of one of the Churches at Canterbury.

An important village custom was that of beating the bounds. It has now almost or quite fallen into disuse, for of course there is no longer any necessity for it. The parish records contain frequent references to this annual function, which like all other functions of the olden time, was an occasion for much eating and drinking. The origin of the custom was somewhat like this. During the middle ages, and perhaps for long after, the fields of each village, did not as now, lie side by side, but were separated by waste ground, each being surrounded by a ring of common land. Very often a road ran along this common, when the boundary line was the middle of this road, but when there was no such artificial line of division between the common land of two villages, natural objects, such as bushes, banks, rocks and itches, were used as marks. It was very important that the exact boundary line should be remembered, so every year – at Meldreth it appears to have been in May or June – the men and children went in procession, or perambulated, as it was called, along the traditional bounds. The town children, that is children brought up at the parish expense, having the situation of any particular landmark impressed on their memory, by a beating at that spot—hence the expression ” beating the bounds.” The neglect of this practice in modern times, has resulted in some parishes having the whole cost of a highway running along their borders, thrust upon them, instead of only having to pay half. In the Church wardens’ accounts, under the year 1716, is

1716, June 6Paid Wm. Pateman for Beer after the perambulation of the Bounds100
Paid Geo. Stanford for 12½ dozen of bread bought for processioning126
1724, May 25Paid Isaac Smith, of Royston, for 10 doz. of penny bread had for the men and children at the perambulation100
Paid to Richard Hadgar for beer which the men and children had after the perambulation10

Richard Hadgar kept the Bell Inn, which appears to have been the general meeting place of the village. The quantity of beer drunk at these perambulations must have been enormous, and we are glad to notice that it was reserved until after the function was over.

There is much in these accounts about the destruction of vermin, for which the following rates were paid. For polecats, hedgehogs, and weasels 4d. each, for young weasels 2d., for moles 1½d., for sparrows 3d. a doz., for young ones 2d., for eggs 1d. a doz. It seems strange, when so much attention was paid to vermin, to find rats never mentioned. It is somewhat difficult to understand why hedgehogs were considered vermin. There was once a superstition current that they were injurious to milking cows, perhaps that is why the inoffensive animals were persecuted at Meldreth. In 1788 a considerable portion of the inhabitants must have gone in for vermin killing, perhaps because they were boycotted by their neighbours, as there was an epidemic of Small-pox at Meldreth in that year—for 49 hedgehogs were paid for by the constable, as well as 14 weasels, 3 polecats, 106 dozen sparrows, and 6 dozen eggs. The number of polecats killed is sometimes astonishing. Thus in 1711 John Scruby, the Churchwarden, paid for 25 polecats, and 7 weasels, and in 1713 for 15 polecats. One of the most successful exterminators of vermin was Isaac Waldock, who in 1783 was ditcher in ordinary to the parish.

III.  The Constable’s Accounts.

The constable is not now a very important parish officer. His duties have, to a great extent, been taken over by the modern policeman, and although each parish is still obliged to elect a constable annually in Cambridgeshire, though not in all counties, very little remains for him to do. But it was quite otherwise during the time of the Rev. Mr. Willowes, as the annual long list of disbursements shows. Many and varied were the duties which he then had to undertake ; and some of his expenses seem quaint and even extraordinary to us now that two centuries have elapsed since they were incurred. The earliest account existing is that of Henry Knight, for the year 1696. It is not in the Vicar’s handwriting, but he has written the date on the back, which would otherwise be unknown. It consists of three paper leaves, the first two of which are partly rotted away. Here are some of the items :-

John Maiding for cutting the riufer twis1154
Pd. to Robert Cowling for whiping Eliz. Liley010
Pd. to Mr. Willows for righting050
Pd. to 6 passengers and a carte to Nesworth030
Pd. 1 with a pase and a horse and a gide010
For a huincry to Knesworth030
The total expenses were748

The first item above is an illustration of the constable’s function as surveyor of the parish, of which we shall meet with more examples later on.  John Maiding, or Maiden, appears to have been “river cutter” in ordinary to the parish; he cut the weeds twice every year at 17s. 8d. a time. There is nothing to show why Elizabeth Lilley was whipped, but for whatever reason, she got a good dose of it, for 1s. was often as much as was paid for a day’s work. We know that the whipping post stood where the effigy of the stocks still stands. I have noticed in a much later account that a new whipping post was set up in 1782, and cost a shilling. With regard to the next item, that for Mr. Willows’ “righting,” it was perhaps for his making a copy of the rates.

The payments to passengers are examples of the most frequent kind of entry in these accounts.

The payment of 3s. for the hue and cry to Kneesworth seems excessive, usually the amount is 4d., and if in the night 8d. The “hue and cry” was the old method of catching thieves and recovering stolen property. And a very good one too, which according to some good authorities, has not been surpassed by the autocratic red-tapism of the modern police. It consisted of the constable’s carrying a description of the supposed thief and stolen goods to the next village. If a village, through its constable, allowed a thief to escape, it had to pay a fine to the sheriff. Therefore it was to the advantage of everyone to hinder the escape of such a person. But now the only responsible person is “Robert”.

The constable had a greater variety of duties to perform than “Robert” has now. For one thing he had to undertake part of the duties of the modern surveyor of highways, and charges for cleaning ditches and mending bridges, figure largely in his accounts. He also, as is seen in another place, made payments to destitute travellers. The following entries refer more particularly to the policeman’s part of his work.

1707For serving a warrant upon Goody Hall to answer for her abuse of Amey Game.

Goody Hall seems to have been rather a troublesome person, for two other warrants were served on her this year.

His charges about Leonard Webbe, in attending him, guarding him, and committing him in August, and in Harvest, 1713.
John Pierce, constable for his time in Harvest to goe with Leonard Webbe to the Justices, about a day*20
He paid Thomas Barker for guarding Leonard Webbe, two days and nights50
He paid to William Sell, of Royston, for ditto, two nights and one day40
He paid John Casbell for ditto, two nights and one day30
J. P., constable, for his journey to Cambridge*20
For his horse thither, with L. Webb*20
He expended at Cambridge with the men that guarded Leonard Webbe thither20
He paid at the prison for straw for L. W04
He paid to William Pateman for the expenses at his house, when L. W. was kept and guarded there in August, or Harvest100
The sum of the charges about Leonard Webb£110s4d

The Justices who examined this account, seem to think that the charges were excessive, for they disallowed all, or part of the items marked thus (*).  Perhaps they did not see why the constable should charge more for doing his duties in the harvest time. There is nothing to show what Leonard Webb’s crime was; but although he had, as it were, disgraced the parish, we are interested to learn, that they still allowed him 4d. for straw to lie upon in his wretched prison abode. Gaols were then in an awful state. The iniquitous window tax, which had lately been imposed, caused the gaolers to block up as many windows as they could, thus shutting out light and air, and concentrating the stench and gaol fever poison within. But Leonard survived it all, and in 1720 we find him employed by the parish as a ditcher.

In the account of James Letchfield, constable for the year ending April 19th, 1720, we find this:-

The charge for the new oaken pound.

AprilHe paid for the carriage of the pound from Walkern, in Hertfordshire0168
May 2He paid Thos. Pinnock for setting it down056
He paid Ephraim Skinner for Irons for it020
Paid to Richard Hadgar for beer which the men and children had after the perambulation100
…. for a lock014
JuneHe paid to Mr. George Chapman, of Walkern, for the timber and framing it676

I don’t know where the pound stood at Meldreth, but possibly some of the older residents can remember it. The use of the pound was to confine stray animals. If not claimed, and redeemed by payment of money, they were kept a year and a day and then sold, the proceeds going to the Lord of the Manor. I believe pounds are still in use in some parts of the country. There is a brick pound adjoining the Churchyard gate at West Wickham, in Cambs. We all remember how Mr. Pickwick was put in the pound after he had taken too much of that excellent cold punch. In the above account it will be observed that the parish went a long way off to get its pound, but most of the timber used by the parish authorities seems to have been obtained from Walkern.

The constables’ accounts at Meldreth, unfortunately begin too late for them to contain any mention of the Nonconformist persecution of the Stuart period. But at Orwell, where the accounts begin much earlier, there are in 1668-9, frequent charges for warrants for the “phanatiques”.

There are two entries on the constable’s accounts of which I cannot grasp the full significance. The first is in the account of John Grant for 1699

April 23Item paid to Bartholomew Angir, and James Fuller for the King’s carridge1100
Item for John Burton and James Letchfield for going with the King’s carridge150
Item for two saddle horses to RobertCaldecote and William Fassat080

It must be remembered that there is no main high road in the parish. At Melbourn, Shepreth, or Whaddon, the entry might easily have been explained.

In the account of Jonathan Stockbridge, 1723, occur these :

March 30He paid to Mr Lavender for two deal poles for the fire hooks60
April 11He paid to George Kefford for his shaving and smoothing and worke about the poles and hooks08
He paid for seven cart nails, and one staple03
He paid to Thomas Barbor, the smith, for the two fire hooks making which weighed 42½ pounds at 4d. for the pound142
April 12He paid Ephraim Skinner for two Revits for them03
He paid Mr. Jackson for oiling and colouring the poles and hooks20

An Iron hook weighing over 20 lbs. is an article for which I know of no use in a village, unless it be for pulling down burning buildings.

John Pierce, the constable, who arrested Leonard Webb in 1714, got into trouble himself in the next year, either with regard to a private matter, or town business, for he makes the following charges :-

1715 MarchHe expended at Royston when he was arrested in March, 1714-5, and was in custody of the bailiffs till he could get bail for his liberty06

As this item was allowed to pass, perhaps the arrest may have had to do with parish matters. For that the town itself sometimes got into trouble, is proved by an entry in the accounts of Stephen Green.

1727He paid Mr. Gatward by Jonathan Stockbridge, his fee to plead for the town of Meldreth, for their not repairing the high way or road against or near Winniscroft106

In the last year but one of the Willows’ series of Constable’s accounts is this entry.

1735  Jan 1He paid for beer, brandy and victuals for a distracted woman, with the money given her 2s., he paid at Hadger’s for an old Blanket for her30

In 1724 and 1729 two very unpleasant accidents caused the town much expense, as follows :-

His (Jonathan Stockbridge) charges about Elizabeth Bumsted, a vagrant, delivered of a female child in the field at Melbourn about Dec.13th, 1724.

Dec or JanHe paid Abraham Titchmarsh for keeping the woman a week and five days more1110
He paid him for 2 journeys to Royston with the woman30

Five journeys to Shelford about her cost twelve shillings.

He paid William Horseley to carry her to Shelford20
Pd. Mr. Justice Wale for an order to carry her away26

Received of the High Constable towards these charges £1 15s. 0d. and remains for the town to pay 6s. 4d.

In 1729 George Refford, junior, has the following account:-

His charges about the man and his family who came to Meldreth about or before Aug. 13th, his child had the Smallpox, and his wife was delivered of her child in the Churchyard. He paid for the necessaries at the Shop, 6s. 11d, and for beer at the ale house for them 1s 9½ d. he paid to Francis Thompson for the bed, the house, the errants abroad, and serving them 7s. 6d., he paid for meat and cheese 2s. 0d., for 1½  bushell of coles 1s. 6d. for them, and for his journey to Kneesworth for advice about them 4s.     Sum £1 0s. 8½d.

In the constable’s accounts there are constantly occurring names given to various parts of the village, many of which are now quite forgotten. Of these names I shall now proceed to give some examples : –

1697, Feb 4Item for setting a rale and laying Gilten Bridge10
1707Pd. for cross-bars for posts in the way to Guilton bridge, to beep the horses out of the footway6
1726Abated him in his rates for the Guilton ground10

We now speak of Guilden Arch. It is possible that this piece of ground may have had some connection with the village guild which existed here before the Reformation. A bequest may have been made by some member of the Guild, with the condition that it was to undertake the repair of this bridge. When the guild was suppressed this piece of land may have been detached from the confiscated possessions, and handed over to the parish authorities, which may have been the cause of its not being rateable. I shall be glad to know where the “Guilton ground” was situated.

1697, Jun 20Item for a sluse for Balls Lane 12s., for fetching it 1s. 6d., for laying it 1s. 4d.1410
1719For a hook for the gate at Balls Lane4

It appears from this entry, that Balls Lane [now (2021) known as Malton Lane] was formerly entered through a gate, and it is not many years since the gates across this road further along at Malton, were removed.

1699, July 14Payed Thomas Meade for ditchin in Peek More151 0
1735For cleansing the ditch by Peek furlong along Hulcroft to Mettly Hill balk, 240 poles200

I have found Peek Moor, now called Peat Moor, mentioned as early as 1502

1707Nov. For cleansing Boy bridge ditch121 0
1708For cleansing the common part of Manton Brook20
1720, May 4He paid for bushes for the hedge upon Manton Bank 1s. 6d., and for edders and stakes for that hedge, 1s.26
1729, Apr 18He paid Ephraim Skinner for Iron and nails for the fieldgate into Manton, being 16 pounds of Iron at 4½d. a pound, and for nails 8d68
1731, DecHe paid about the gull or breach in the high river at Norgan’s Nook, in or near Manton7184

Boy Bridge and Manton are still names in common use, but where was “Norgan’s Nook”?  I can’t remember any place where the high river would be likely to burst its banks, and that is what this entry would lead us to infer. I must also confess ignorance as to what “edders ” were.

Charges for sluices and stanks, either to hold water, or to change the direction of a stream, are very common.

1714, FebPaid J. Green, jun. for opening of 3 sluices, one at Two furlong balk and two about Mettly Hill13
1708To John Malden for turning the water of Chiswick end that it might not have its course into Manton Brook10

This was because Meldreth Holm bridge was then being mended.

1720He paid Henry West for a day to make the stank by the Parsonage, or bridge, to turn the water into North end 1s.  He paid for stakes for that stank, 1s.20
1721, Dec 26For a sluice for the drain at Whislin Ditch40
1731For two planks for a sluice in Duke’s Lane30

The names of the places mentioned in the following items are all unknown to me :- I do not know where Whislin Ditch was, but Duke’s Lane leads from the road opposite College Farm to the footpath, which crosses the river and comes out by the Churchyard.

1699, Sep 28Sept. 28. Item for wode and work for a rail for Collaps More bridge16
1721, Nov 15For carriage of 4 loads of clunch to Letchcroft60
1725, Oct 18He paid Leonard Webb and Wm. Hadgar for 36 poles of ditching in Chandler’s Drane60
1727For the ditch and bridge at Fleet way70
For the gate in Broadway7
1729To mend the stile from Litchcroft into North End66
1729, Jun 7For a post and Rail for Westnal Bridge10
1731Paid for making good the ford at Westonhale24

Perhaps this was the ford over the high river near King’s Bridge.

1731For ditching in Melbourn Wash, 334 poles at 2d. a pole2158
For a bar and staple in Beaver’s Lane10
1723He paid for 84 poles ditching in Down ditch140
1733For scouring 172 poles in Wash-ditch150
1735For ditching in Little Holm lane to Rickett’s close4
For mending a sluice at Holloe Balk50

Probably many of these names might be found in the parish award. In the year 1732 occur these : –

May 24He paid Edward Caldecote for drawing the lake on the Moor, for 171 poles of it143
For cleaning Bull head springs and the springs by Kneesworth Hook40
Sep 25He paid for measuring the meadows 5s. and spent on the man at the Bell 1s.60

Of the bridges which the constable had to keep in repair, by far the most expensive was that called Meldreth Holm Bridge. Something was done to it nearly every year. The following is an early reference to it:—

1699,  Jul 6Item payd to bonet for digen of 24 load of gravel for Meldreth Home Bridge510
Item for 4 days worke with my horse and cart and men for mending the slew100
Item payd John Barber for digen the mowles for the sleuce20
Item payd to Thomas Gullifee for moing of rushes and couvring the casy (causey)6

The gravel seems to have been always fetched from the pits of Mr. Dearmer, of Barley, the stones from Heydon Grange, e.g. :-

1707, AugPd. Mr. Hammond, of Heiden Grange, for three heaps or loads of stones that our surveyors had of him for the ways33

Meldreth Holm Bridge broke down in the harvest of 1714, and the Running ditch had to be turned out of its course to allow it to be mended. At this mending they used 46 feet of oaken planking, which cost 3d. a foot. Where was this bridge?

Another bridge, the name of which frequently occurs, was that which led into Little Holm. This was thoroughly repaired, or rebuilt in 1727. The total cost was £3 3s. 10d., the items being as follows :-

He paid to Mr. Smith for 1000 of white bricks100
For carriage of them from Cambridge0120
For lime 5s. for carriage of it 2s., for sand 2s090
He paid to Tim Bonnes, the mason, 10s. for beer, and for him and his men 1s. 4d0114
He paid for ye carriage of 2 loads of stones 3s., and of 2 loads of gravel to it 2s050
He paid Mr. Coxall for bushes carried to that bridge030
He paid to Edward Palmer for 3 days’ work036

But of all the names which occur in these accounts, those which puzzle and interest me most are those of Veezes Moor, and Feezies Lane. The lane by Veysie’s Manor House has been called Fenny Lane for upwards of 400 years. The mill by the railway was held by the Veysie family 600 years ago. Veysie’s Moor, which I first met with in 1502, seems to have been between Meldreth and Shepreth. So that it will be seen that the manor of Veysie’s was not a compact one. The following are some of the entries of this name, in very varied spelling:—

1697It. for mending fasers lane100
1699, Jul 14Payd to Thomas Meade for fuises more ditch88
1721, MarHe paid Ephraim Skinner for 11½ lb. of Irons or hooks and hinges for the gate at feezies lane310
1726He paid George Kefford for two posts and a rale put up in Veise’s more, or at the bridge to Shepreth, half to be paid by Meldreth and half by Shepreth09
1727For mending the way into Veeze’s more176
1732, Jun 24To Leonard Webb for drawing the high river and the ditch by Veezes Moor178

From the last entry it appears to have been somewhere near the high river.

Perhaps it lay between the Orwell Road and the stream coming from Guilden Arch.

There are two entries in the constable’s accounts which refer to the military life of the period. Under the date March 25th, 1708, we find :-

Spent at Wm. Pateman’s about the men whom orders were given to press or find53

These men were required for the army in Flanders under Marlborough. It might be expected that the glories of Blenheim and the other victories, would have fired the country youth with military enthusiasm. But it was not so in Meldreth, for we read-

Paid to Ambrose Koe and Thomas Chamberlain for journies to Cambridge with the pressed men20

From these entries it would seem that orders were sent to each village to find a certain number of men, or in default to expect a visit from the press gang. The money spent at Pateman’s in generous liquor, perhaps was the cause of some of the lazy, ne’er-do-wells of the parish taking the Queen’s Shilling. These recruits had some warm work before them, for next year was won the bloody victory of Malplaquet, where the Allies lost three times as many men as the vanquished French.

The other entry occurs in the accounts of Wm. Fuller, 1728. It is as follows :—

His charges about James Britain when he Listed for a soldier.£sd
He paid Wm. Harper for shaving of James Britain02
He paid to John Brett for drink when he was taken for a soldier1
He paid for eating and drinking at one time when he went for a soldier80
He paid for Wine 13s. 6d., for Brandy 9d., for Beer 3s.4d., for ye officers177
He paid the Sergeant in money110
He paid for shoes 3s. 6d., for stockings 2s. 6d. for J.B.60
He paid after this charge and trouble for a warrant for J.B.10
He paid Wm. Whorland for his horse and himself to goe after him46
He paid Wm. Fuller for his two horses and himself about him40

This is a most remarkable account. Surely the parish must have been very anxious to get rid of James Britain, or they would hardly have incurred all this expense. Perhaps he was a parish apprentice, who had turned out badly, and had run away from his master. Why should they have treated the officers to wine and brandy, and have paid the sergeant money, except as a bribe to take their man away? He must have been a very bad lot to have required such a big bribe, and then the ungrateful fellow ran away, after having a nice clean shave too, and required two horses to bring him back. What a noble defender of his country he must have made!

The constable’s accounts contain references to the Hayward, a parish official of very ancient lineage, but now defunct. He was formerly appointed at the annual court leet of the Kings honour of Clare, at the same time as the lark silver was paid, etc. His duties were to look after the commons and way-side pasture, but they were distinct from those of the common herdman.  The latter official still exists, or did until a short time ago, in a somewhat eccentric person who looked after the cattle on Shepreth Moor and was otherwise noted for his skill in playing the tin whistle.

Concerning the Hayward and Herdman note the following entries:-

1713 Apr or MayHe paid Wm. Chamberlain as an earnest for his undertaking to keep the herd by ye townsmen’s consent10
1715Received from John Maiden for grass upon the Hayward’s Nook18
1772, AprPaid for Matthew Edward’s oath to be admitted hayward06

From the second of these entries, a piece of ground appears to have reserved for the Hayward’s use. There were Haywards in every village but the office now survives only in the fairly common surname of Hayward.

The Payment of Lark Silver

I suppose that in every generation, for the last two centuries and more, the overseers have been at one time or another, puzzled by the mysterious payments of Lark Silver, and Fee farm rents, which are annually demanded of them by the officers of the crown. Perhaps some, more independent than the others, have refused to pay them, until a peremptory order has arrived from His Majesty’s Exchequer, or in later times, from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, and a threat of legal proceedings if not complied with.

Under these circumstances, most overseers have considered discretion the better part of valour, and have paid up without more to do. But about the year 1714, a fighting generation had arisen in Meldreth. Whether it had anything to do with the change of dynasty or not, whether our ancestors in this village objected to the house of Hanover, I cannot say.

At any rate, they refused the payment of 13s., which their predecessors had been accustomed to pay annually, under the names of Common fine, and Lark Silver. For a time all went well. Nothing further is heard about it till the year 1719, when the constable charges 3s. for two journeys, one to Comberton, the other to Cambridge about the “fine and larksilver demanded as due to the crown.” Some years pass, however, before there is any further notice of the matter. In 1725 the parish authorities were making inquiries in London, about this matter. We may suppose that the following proceedings took place between them and the Exchequer officers. The latter demand the payment; the parish protest, “Why should we make this payment? We get nothing in return for it.” The Exchequer answers “You have paid it for centuries, which is good enough reason for us. We shall enforce it.” But the parish still protests, “Why did we ever have to pay it at all? ” Red-tapism answers “We don’t know, and we don’t care. You can come and search the Exchequer rolls and find out. Our business is only to collect money.” No doubt they thought that this answer would silence these pigheaded country people. But no, they have a champion who accepts the gauge. For Jonathan Stockbridge, brave and enterprising man, in September 1725, having quite finished his harvest, rides up to London on his horse to enquire into these weighty matters. He charges 10s. for the journey, and 10s. for his three days stay there. What he accomplished in these three days we do not know, or what he did with himself. But certainly he did not waste much money, for 3s. 4d. a day for board, lodging, and necessary expenses can hardly be called extravagant. But next month a journey to Cambridge, and several attorney’s letters, begin to make the expenses of the litigation mount up. We can imagine the parish meeting in the spring of 1726 may have been a lively one. Those who had been in favour of continuing the payments without incurring more expenses, no doubt talked very scornfully of the clever people who were trying to “best” His Majesty’s Exchequer.

Under date of April, 1726, we can read :—

There is due to Mr. Hoy, the attorney at London, for his time and service in searching into the Records or Rolls in the Exchequer, and for finding therein the Common fine and Lark Silver required of the parish as due to the King and Crown106

After this one would have thought that the doughty champions of non-payment would have been satisfied and paid up as pleasantly as they could. But no, they still take more advice. This time it is a local man, Mr. Counsellor Gatward, of Cambridge, probably a member of the Meldreth family of that name. The effect of his advice is shown by the fact that they paid up all arrears in 1728. They amounted to over £28, which with the other expenses of the constable, brought the disbursements for the year up to £41 13s., a large sum for a small parish to pay. So a 6d. and a 2d. constable’s rate were what the interfering party brought on the inhabitants of Meldreth. For the benefit of all future overseers who may question the legality of these payments, I repeat that there is undisputable proof that they have been paid regularly since the year 1249, which is as far back as I can trace them, and let me remind them that the law regards such a custom, 650 years old, as an undoubted right.

In 1713 occurs this

1713,  Aug 4He paid for two papers or orders from the sessions containing the Rates or Wages for servants and labourers and carriers10

This refers of course to the custom of fixing the rates of wages at the Quarter Sessions, which custom was law until the present century.

IV  Miscellaneous Papers

A class of records which are well represented in the Parish Chest, but which have become quite obsolete, are the certificates of residence of paupers. The origin of these is as follows:— In the reign of Charles the Second an Act of Parliament was passed, by which the parish authorities were empowered to remove all persons likely to become chargeable to the parish. But persons having a certificate from the officers of another parish were allowed to reside. The usual form of the certificate is this.

To the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of Meldred in the county of Cambridge.

Whereas we are given to understand that Thomas Barker, of Melbourn, is desirous to dwell at Meldred, we, the churchwardens and overseers of the said parish whose names are here, etc., do acknowledge and own that the said Thomas Barker is an inhabitant legally settled in our parish of Melbourn, and bind ourselves to provide for the said Thomas Barker, when he shall happen to become chargeable to the parish, or be forced to ask relief.

(Signed) William Hitch, Churchwarden
Thos. Wayman, Overseer
James Brown and Thomas Atkins, Witnesses
William Eversden & G. Wale, Justices the Peace.

The date is 1721.

The certificates in the Meldreth chest date from1700. There were frequently disputes between two parishes concerning their respective liabilities to support a certain pauper, and the constables’ accounts contain many references to charges for warrants, fees to counsellors, and expenses at the sessions when the cases were tried. The result of the trial at the sessions in 1713, concerning Richard Thomasin, will be seen from the following extract from the accounts of John Green, the overseer—

1713,  Jan(After many expenses, total £8 1s. 6d., for the trial with Melbourn about him). For carrying of Richard Thomasin and his family to Melbourn, by order of the sessions, together for removing him and his out of the dirt when he was brought in October.20

One of the duties of the Overseer was to put out the parish children as apprentices. There are more than a score of indentures of apprenticeship remaining in the parish chest, drawn up by Mr. Stacy, or Mr. Stoughton, attorneys who lived in the village. The terms are very much the same as those in which modern indentures are drawn up. The time was always for seven years. The premium or sum paid to the master, varied from three to eighteen pounds, which was charged by the overseer in his account. Blacksmiths, cordwainers, carpenters, labourers, shepherds, tailors, and yeomen, all had their apprentices.

The indentures of three of Sarah Creisell’s children survive, from which we find that a daughter, Sarah, went to Swineshead, in Lincolnshire in 1702, a son, Jacob, to Therfield in 1704, whilst another son, Jonathan, remained at Meldreth. Sometimes on the back of the indenture, an inventory of the clothes of the apprentice is found. Thus in the case of William Burrock put out at a cost of £7 5s. in 1724 to Sarah Peace, widow, and John Peace, singleman and yeoman of Meldreth, there is a note of ” the clothing he hath when he entered on his apprenticeship.”

One new cote and wescote.
One new pare of Breches, two shillings.
Three new shirts and one old one.
Three new pare of stockings.
One pare of shoes.
And one hat. One new white frock.
One linen wolsey wescote.

The earliest rate for the King’s tax is dated May 30th, 1699, and is in Mr. Willowes’ hand writing. It is headed “The valuation of estates in the parish of Meldreth in the county of Cambridge.” The ratable value of the whole parish was £1042, the annual value of the largest estates being mh follows :—Mr. Crouch’s estate (Shene Farm) £150; Robert Hagger, Esquire, his estate (Rectory Farm) £130; William Sedgewick, his estate £130; Sir Benjamin Ayloffe’s estate £99; Esquire Dier’s estate £65. There were 30 other people with ratable estates. This list is very like the Subsidy Roll of 1660, and such lists well supply the want of Subsidy Rolls in the eighteenth century. I had no time to examine these lists thoroughly as their bulk much exceeds that of any other individual class.

Amongst the loose papers is this inventory, in Mr. Willowes’ handwriting —

“April the 14th, 1702—
The account of Thomas Barber’s household goods – Beding.

One feather bed, one flock bed, two feather boulsters, one flock bolster, three pillowes, one blanket, and one coverlet, and an old rugge, two bedsteads, one old sheet, two pillow bears, two shirts, three curtains and valence.

Twelve diaper napkins, one diaper tablecloath, in the camber two Hutches, two little tables, two boxes, two glass bottels, a mug, a bible, three more glass bottles, a barrel and stok.

In the house or hall four pewter dishes, and one plate, two porringers, a salter, a sugging bottell, a flaggon, a tin candlestick, a tin pot, an iron candlestick, three kittles, a brass morter, a warming pan, a frying pan, a look iron and two padds, a pott hanger, a pair tongs, bellows, three wooden dishes, a brass spoon, four trenchers, two glass porringers, two Blew plates, a look in glass, a cupboard, a table, one joynted stool, a water pale, five chairs good and bad, a form, a linnen wheel, a Hey Hook, one suit of clothes. . . “

I think the list is incomplete, as it leaves off very abruptly and should have a note as to how much the sale of these effects realised. The spelling is rather at fault, but the handwriting is certainly that of Mr. Willowes. This Thomas Barber is probably the man who is mentioned in the repairing of the Almshouse in 1706. During 1701-2 he frequently had sick pay. Being a pauper when he died his goods were sold and the proceeds applied to the rates.

In connection with charities there are the following records in the parish chest: —

(1) A copy of the will of J. Addlestone proved at Ely in 1661 (paper).

(2) Assignment of a cottage and premises at Chiswick End by James Addlestone to Jonathan Stockbridge, the constable, in trust for the parish in 1721 (parchment),

(3) Probate of will of Francis Thompson, labourer, of Meldreth, (made 1713, proved 1735) (parchment),

(4) Original will of Jane Gillet,1749 (paper).

Francis Thompson bequeathed a cottage to his daughter Jane Gillett, which she on her death left to the parish “if her lost son John did not return”.

There is no record referring to Halfheid’s charity, the most important of all, but there are several memoranda in Mr. Willowes’ handwriting concerning it. Thus, in 1702, 19s. was distributed amongst 15 poor people.

Under the date of April 20, 1700, there is on a scrap of paper a list of the recipients of “Pykes Gift,” the interest for three years being 30s.

There are also frequent references to the annual payments of the Chrishall pension, or Lettice Martin’s dole.

V  The Register and the Vicar

The register being now under the charge of the Vicar alone, it is no longer kept with the parish documents, but an account of the contents of the parish chest would hardly be complete without something about the register. On applying to the Vicar for permission to inspect the register he very kindly granted me free access to all his records. The earliest book is a paper folio bound in parchment, having written on the first page,

Meldreth Register Booke, bought
by William Surplice and James Howard,
churchwardens, upon ye 27 Aprill, 1680.

On the inside cover is written a terrier, or list of the strips of land belonging to Halfheid’s Charity, as they lay in the open fields in 1774. During the short space of time that I was able to spend over this register, I did not find any items of very great interest. It appears to have been specially well kept during the time of the Reverend Richard Willowes. In the earlier part, there is the usual record of every corpse having been buried in woollen. This burial in woollen was in obedience to a law first made in 1667 and made more stringent in 1678. Its object was to encourage the home manufacture of woollen goods at the expense of foreign made linen. By this law the clergy were obliged to make an entry in the register that an affidavit had been brought to them within eight days after the burial. It was the custom of the parish clerk to call out at the grave immediately after the conclusion of the burial service “Who makes affidavit?” where upon, someone appointed by the friends of the deceased, came forward and made the necessary affidavit. One very good result of this law was that it caused wooden coffins to become general. Before this time burials had often been coffinless, a linen shroud only being used, but woollen being a material unfitted for shrouds, the people fell back upon wood. To this innovation a recent writer traces one of the causes of the extinction of the plague in England.

This law was not repealed till 1814, but had fallen into disuse long before. The neglect of the order to be buried in woollen caused a penalty to be imposed, as will be seen from the following extract from the Register at Whaddon :

Nov. 26
Sir Henry Pickering, Baronet, dyed in Barbadoes, May 7th, 1705, and was buried at Whaddon. Mem. There being no affidavit of Sir Henry Pickering being buried in woollen brought me in 8 days, I certified Mr. Piggott in writing of ye same, and Mr. Glover having also informed him, I delivered 50a. brought unto me by Mr. Glover from my Lady Pickering, to ye poor of ye Parish as ye Act directs, &c.

Another Register book was started before this one was filled up, and on some of the blank pages thus left, the late Vicar of Meldreth has copied all the wills and other records referring to the Meldreth charities which were then in the parish chest. One of the wills, that of Robert Halfheed, 1660, has disappeared since this copy was made.

Although the records of births, deaths and marriages at Meldreth, being only in 1680, the records of all earlier ones are not lost. There is in the record room of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely, a complete copy on parchment of the Meldreth parish Register from the year 1599. This record is made up of the annual copy of the Register which the Vicar and Churchwardens were obliged by law to send to the Bishop’s Registrar. Such copies were also sent from every parish in Cambridgeshire, and still exist at Ely, where the Bishop allows free access to them. I commend this fact to the notice of those Vicars who refuse to allow their Registers to be inspected without the payment of enormous fees.

In conclusion, I should like to make a few remarks on a matter not wholly unconnected with the parish records. If any one has derived entertainment from this account of the Meldreth Parish Records, their thanks are chiefly due to the Rev. Richard Willowes, whose industry and neatness has preserved for us nearly all the records of his time, and some of an earlier date. If all country parsons had been of his sort, there would have been little cause to regret so many Parish Records lost, and so many Registers gone astray. Mr. Willows belonged to a family in Wiltshire. He came up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1682, and took his degree in 1685. He was appointed to the Vicarage of Meldreth, on May 2nd, 1692, and remained there till his death in 1736. The Rev. Wm. Cole, of Milton, who deserves to be one of the best known men in Cambridgeshire, paid a visit to Meldreth Church on May 3rd, 1743, and notes that “on a free stone in ye middle isle before ye pulpit is this inscription.

Here lieth the body of the
Rev. Richard Willows, A.M.,
Who was Vicar of this Church
45 years. He died Nov. 17th,
1736, aged 77 years.”

The pulpit then stood near the pillar of the aisle next the chancel. This inscription is now no longer legible. He who sleeps below it, has, however, left a far more enduring monument on the 45 years of care bestowed on the parish records. But would it not be a graceful act on the part of the Parish Council, to recover the now nameless tomb of him, to whom they owe all their earlier records ?

The author of the preceding papers on the Meldreth Parish Records would be much obliged for any information on the obsolete words and names mentioned in the extracts. He would also suggest that each Parish Council should have its records examined by a competent person, and an inventory made of them. This would go some way towards preventing any further loss.

Comments about this page

  • This is so interesting and gives a good insight into life in Meldreth all those years ago. Really enjoyed reading

    By Stephen Payne (23/02/2021)

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