The church, the school, the pub and the shop: these are the institutions that are at the heart of a village. Englefield still has all of these, although since 2008 there is no longer a Post Office. In the late 19th and early 20th century there was also a village nurse, paid for by Mrs Benyon.
The ancient parishes were part of the manorial system and the manor and parish usually shared the same boundaries. The manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice in rural areas, with the manorial court as its centre of administration but over time the Church replaced the manorial court. In the 16th century, after the Reformation and with the decline of the feudal system a new type of administration evolved to become the vestry meeting, chaired by the parish priest. All the public administration of the village, both civil and ecclesiastical, was carried out at vestry meetings, so called because, at least nominally, they took place in the vestry of the church. The vestry meetings appointed the churchwardens and sidesmen and were responsible for the upkeep of the church and graveyard but also appointed overseers of the poor, highway surveyors, parish constables and the parish nurse, distributed clothing and food to the poor, set up the fire brigade, ran the school and set a rate to be paid in order to provide the necessary funds. Thus all matters relating to the upkeep of the parish and its inhabitants were dealt with in the parish by the parishioners themselves.
Towards the end of the 18th century centralisation began to occur, with parishes being advised to combine with others in the interests of efficiency. Under the Poor Laws, “unions” of parishes were formed and rather than the poor being looked after in their own villages they were housed all together in a single workhouse which served the needs of several parishes. The Bradfield Union was formed in 1834 with the Workhouse erected the following year (later Waylands Hospital, now a housing development) in Union Road. The Union covered some 29 parishes from Goring and Ashampstead in the north to Padworth and Grazely in the south, containing in 1841 some 15,000 people of whom 150 were housed in the Bradfield Workhouse and a further 55 in a Poor-house at Tilehurst.
County Councils had been introduced in 1889 by the minority Conservative government of Lord Salisbury, at the insistence of the Liberal Party on whose support Salisbury relied for a majority. The County Councils inherited the powers of the old courts of quarter sessions and did not, initially, much affect the running of the parishes but the Local Government Act of 1894 set up the system of civil, as distinct from ecclesiastical, parishes and Parish Councils and Rural District Councils were created. This split church and state, with the Parochial Church Council being only responsible for church matters and all other functions of the vestry meeting being transferred to the new parish council. As these two bodies evolved over time the boundaries of their separate parishes even ceased to be identical. As time went by the rural district and county councils gradually assumed more and more of the powers previously held by the parishes and some of the separate ecclesiastical parishes were also combined into joint benefices under the bureaucracy of the Church of England. By this transfer of power away from the lowest level villages lost their independence and the ability to manage their own affairs and came to be controlled by outsiders, often with no connection to or affinity with the parish and with their own agenda. The effect of this can perhaps be seen with regard to the situation at one of today’s parish council meetings compared to the first one held in Englefield on Tuesday 4 December 1894 when of 54 parochial electors 27 were present. The first Parish Council members elected at that meeting were: R Benyon, G Roake, Daniel Harris, Thomas Dixon and Henry Horne.
© 2019 Richard J Smith