Until 1894 the Vestry was the main form of civil administration. The Easter Vestry appointed Parish Officers such as the Poor Law Overseers, Surveyors, Constables etc. However, Tuesday 4 December 4 1894, Frittenden saw a meeting for the election of Parish Councillors under the Local Government Act. The Rector presided. Although not elected The Rector continued to be a member of the Parish Council and was at times the chairman.
In England, the Vestry had been chaired by the Parish Minister and was made up of various worthy members of the Parish. It had acquired power over the government of the Parish, in conjunction with JP’s. The closed meeting was the select governing body of the Parish whilst the open Vestry meeting was of less importance and open to all inhabitants.
The Vestry had medieval antecedents, having been established at least as early as the 14c to manage church affairs, but in the early modern period it became a general administrative body. The rise of the Vestry did not necessarily mean the demise of the Manor, and in some places the two bodies coexisted side by side, each carrying out separate functions. It is no coincidence, however, that as the Vestry grew in importance, the Manor declined as an institution. The right to set parish rates to finance the work of its officials and to hold them to account at the end of the period of office gave the Vestry undoubted prestige. Its influence only declined in 1834 when the administration of the poor law was assumed by Boards of Guardians. In 1894 it was finally replaced as a unit of civil administration by the parish councils which took over its work.
The normal practice was for the Vestry to meet regularly once a month, under the chairmanship of the Vicar or Rector. Where there was an absentee incumbent, his churchwarden would normally deputise for him. It was summoned by the churchwardens, by the clergyman from the pulpit on Sunday, or by tolling the church bell. All ratepaying occupiers were entitled to attend, but there is some doubt about the position of those who had received poor relief within the past year, and so were technically paupers, women on the other hand, were allowed to attend and vote. In practice a meeting might normally consist of between one and two dozen of the more substantial farmers and shopkeepers, varying according to the business to be done.
In some parishes the vestry meetings commonly consisted of only the parish officers – the overseers, churchwardens and constable, with perhaps the surveyor – and the business they did was almost entirely concerned with the relief of the poor. The functions of the vestries had never been clearly defined; they had a general responsibility for the maintenance of the church and the churchyard. They made byelaws for the good government of the parish, fixed the poor rate and the church rate, and generally looked after the well-being of the town or village.
In strict law it was not the Vestry, but the overseers, under the supervision of the Justices, who were responsible. Yet it was in practice the Vestry that generally made the policy and controlled the administration. Paying for the workhouse, if they had one, appointing the master of the workhouse, apprenticing children, granting allowances to the aged or sick, arranging for labourers to emigrate, and instituting affiliation proceedings.
The minutes of Frittenden’s Vestry shortly after the rededication of the Church in 1848 records that the meeting resolved unanimously that:-
this Meeting cannot suffer the occasion to pass without expressing the unfeigned respect and gratitude entertained by all classes of the Parishioners as well those belonging to as those dissenting from the established Church towards their beloved Rector and his Excellent Lady.’
At a Vestry meeting in October 1842, it was agreed to permit the conveyance of
“all that portion of the field called the Church Field now fenced off” to eight Trustees, including Edward Moore, to be applied as a site for a school to be under the management and control of the Clergyman of the Parish.’
Frittenden’s Vestry records are held at the Kent Archives [Kent History and Library Centre – Ref: P152/8/4] entitled ‘Vestry Rating Book, 1833-1885′ consisting of Vestry minutes concerning the appointment of parish officers and the levying of rates, 1860-85, and which include the sanctioning of a faculty for a chancel with pews to be annexed to Frittenden House and Camden Hill House, 1860, and the examination of the parish map, 1862; churchwardens’ accounts including disbursements, 1838-65; overseers’ assessments, 1833-6; arrears of poor rates, 1832-3; and a memorandum concerning a visitation, 1840.
This information has been kindly provided by Frittenden Historical Society.