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Local Government and the Poor

Urswick's House
Urswick's House

At the end of the sixteenth century, legislation had raised the importance of the parish as a unit of local government, although the manorial courts still retained control of some parts of local life - and continued to regulate agricultural use of the marshes until the end of the 19th century.

The governing body of the parish was the vestry, taking its name from the room in the parish church where its members normally met. Christopher Urswick, rector of Hackney from 1502 to 1521, oversaw the construction of Church House. Completed around 1520 on the site between the Old Church Tower and Mare Street (now occupied by the Old Town Hall), the building served as a place for the parish to meet on parochial, religious or royal business. There is no evidence that it was used for other purposes in the 16th century, although it housed Hackney's free school from around 1616.

Hackney was a rectory, though the rector was normally an absentee and the spiritual duties were attended to by the vicar, who lived in a six-roomed vicarage, which lay just north of the Old Church on the site of the present Celtic cross.

The principle responsibilities of the parish in 1601 were:

-  maintaining the fabric of the parish church,
-  managing parish property and bequests,
-  meeting statutory requirements for the poor and repairing local roads.

The ‘vestry’ met at Easter and irregularly as required, perhaps up to four times a year. Officials were unpaid and elected annually. In 1554 there were two churchwardens and two sidesmen. By 1583, one churchwarden was elected and the other was presumably chosen by the vicar. The summary ‘vestry’ minutes which survive from 1583 also record two surveyors of the highways and four collectors for the poor. Overseers of the poor were recorded but not named in 1592.

The vestry met at Easter and irregularly as required, perhaps up to four times a year. Officials were unpaid and elected annually. In 1554 there were two churchwardens and two sidesmen. By 1583, one churchwarden was elected and the other was presumably chosen by the vicar. The summary vestry minutes which survive from 1583 also record two surveyors of the highways and four collectors for the poor. Overseers of the poor were recorded but not named in 1592.

Meetings were originally open to all, but in 1613 the vicar and some of the better off parishioners obtained a faculty for a select vestry, claiming that there had been trouble "from the meanest sort, being greater in number". This limited the vestry to the rector, vicar, assistant curate, churchwardens and 32 named parishioners or any 10 of them, who could meet as the vestry at the church. The new vestry thereafter made up its numbers by co-option. Wider parish meetings continued and the select vestry was to survive until the 19th century.

Hackney was to have a wide range of charitable bequests made from the early 17th century onward, mostly for the care of the poor. There was a bequest by John Matthews in 1568 and this was still being received in 1622, though it later lapsed. The earliest bequest that survived to the 19th century was made by Thomas Heron, painter of London in his will of 1603. Heron left a rent charge on cottages in Grove Street (roughly on the line of today's Lauriston Road) to provide 12 penny loaves each Sunday to the poor of Hackney. A sum of 20 handed over to the parish in 1592 for the use of the poor almost certainly came from a bequest, as it was next due to be paid in 1606.

In 1576, a legacy of 30 left to the parish by Dr Huett, was used for lead for the south chancel of the church, for the care of two children, to meet the costs of men going to a muster of militia and to gravel Kingsland Road ("the highway between Hackney to Shoreditch"). After other unspecified expenditure, 14s 4d remained in May 1593.

Balmes House
Balmes House

In that year the parish paid Roger Harrison, a smith, 40s to keep and bring up William Naylor. This money had come from a bequest made by "Mr Whitemore". This was almost certainly William Whitmore, a London haberdasher, who was leasing Balmes House near the Shoreditch border (the site is just north of the Regent's canal) on his death in 1593.

But the main costs of the poor had to come from charges raised from the inhabitants. In 1581 the collectors of the poor raised 3 to bring up a fatherless child. Robert Coton of Hackney entered into an agreement with the parish to bring up the child, Elizabeth Moberye, then aged six. In 1598, the sum of 3 6s 8d, collected by Ralph Bell, was distributed to 31 people (12 of whom were widows, one was "old Margaret" and one "Morton's wife". These and the male recipients were those deserving cases decided by the vicar, Hugh Johnson, and others who met in the vestry on 24 September 1598. Most of the payments were of 1s and included one to "the poore house". This may have been parish property used to house local poor people, or a private house, but it is the only reference of the period. Hackney did not have a parish workhouse before the 18th century.

The poor and those seeking work by moving from their home parish were seen as a growing problem in Tudor England. Legislation before 1536 had been mainly concerned with punishing vagabonds and beggars, but in that year churchwardens and others were empowered to collect voluntary alms for poor relief. Successive legislation increased penalties for the able bodied, while trying to ensure that the disabled were housed.

A compulsory rate financing poor relief was brought in under an Act of Parliament in 1597/8.The Act ensured that there were Houses of Correction built in counties and all major towns. The parish was confirmed as responsible for its own resident paupers. Vagrants were legally defined and those convicted of vagrancy were to be whipped and sent back to their places of origin. Relief raised from the poor rate was to be divided between the maintenance of the poor in 'poor houses' and payments for those still living in their own houses. Work was to be provided for paupers and raw materials provided for the purpose. Pauper children were to be apprenticed, so that parish officials in association with local Justices of the Peace made binding contracts with employers. Two Hackney examples survive for 1598. The Act of 1597/8 was strengthened in 1601 and this formed the basis of the administration of English poor law until 1834.

The collections made in Hackney in June 1599, September 1601 and August 1602, which each raised 40s were likely to be from the poor rate. In June 1602, 7 13s 4d was raised for "a stocke for the house of correction" - this was intended to be for the county of Middlesex, although in the event it was not constructed until 1614.

The parish also collected other taxes including compositions of hay, which was paid in kind in June of each year. The rectory, included in the total of 1599, contributed one load of hay. There were other sums raised for what we would think of as good causes - in 1603 5 2s was gathered "for the distressed state of Geneva", and in 1604 sums ranging from 3s to 10s were given to help out victims of fires at Enfield, Chiswick, Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire and as far away as Staffordshire.

Income for parish business came from local taxes, though in 1590 the vicar and fifteen other parishioners excused Thomas Audley from undertaking parish officers in exchange for money for repair of the church. Church rates were collected by districts from 1605, when those paying were listed in the summary records that survive.


Although no formal records of a parochial school exist before the appointment of a schoolmaster by the vestry in 1613, it is likely that Hackney's parochial grammar existed in Tudor times. A schoolmaster was recorded in 1580, and in his will of 1587 William Snape left ten shillings "e;unto and for the better mainteyninge of the Grammar Schole". It is likely that the school master was also the curate. In the record of her testament in 1599 Christain Payne, a widow, was concerned for the future of her eight year old son, William Dove. She wished to leave her goods and the care of the child to Christopher Elliot, the curate, who was also described in other wills as the parish clerk. One of the reasons was "that the said Christopher had tought and entered the Childe in learninge and that for a verie reasonable stipend", so it is likely that it was the curate who also served as parish schoolmaster.

There is no indication of the location of the school, but the most likely building to have housed it was Church House, where the school was in 1616. Church House was also home to Margaret Audley's foundation for twelve boys and in the vestry minutes of 1620 was called 'the common schoolhouse of the parish'. In December 1613 the parish appointed James Chrychton BA to be the schoolmaster. Chrychton was "Thoughtfyle to teach the Inhabitants children of this Parish of Hackney" under specified conditions, namely:

"That he shall take no more for all gramer schoolers being parishioners children but fower pence a weeke for every suche schooller. And yf they do learne to read Inglishe but two pence a week excepte he teache them to wright and syfer [suffer], and then to have a groat for them also. And he to be at lybertie to take what he will of strangers for theire children. And also it is agreed that yf there should be any mislyke of him by the parish that then he to have a quarters warning to provide him selfe ells wheare, or if he upon occasion shall of himself remove. Then he to give to the Churchwardens for the tyme being in the name of the parish a quarters warninge that in that tyme an other Schoole master maye be provided".

Among the Commissary Court of London records is a presentation in 1599 of an unlicensed schoolmistress, Alice Ray, teaching at the house of Robert Sympson in Hackney. "That the said Robert Sympson keepeth a yonge woman in his house as a Schoolemistris who teacheth Children boath men children and women children...And doth lycence and tollerate her the said Alice in the meane tyme to teach as hether unto she hath accustomed accordinge as in the said ... Testimonial remaining in this courte is conteyned."

This was in breach of canon law, which required all schoolmasters to be licenced, but it provides the first record of a private school in Hackney. The first proper establishment was in operation in 1627 under John Salladine, a French schoolmaster, who served on the vestry in 1630 and helped appoint the parish schoolmaster.


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