Why did sixteenth-century Dartmouth have wards named after every day of the week except Saturday? And was this bureaucracy independent of taxation or did it run alongside it? These were some of the questions that I asked myself while editing the Devon & Cornwall Record Society’s third volume of parish taxation records.
Both Exeter and Plymouth had four wards. The former were named after the cardinal points while the latter had names which have no obvious significance. Dartmouth exceeded them both despite being markedly smaller in population. It appears the main purpose of a ward in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was for policing and the assessment of men and women for military hardware. They were one of the ways in which places each uniquely organised their populations.
Taxation was another. I am not aware of there being a community of English parish rates historians but if there was such a thing its members would realise taxation is a unique means of untangling how communities organised themselves.
Some parishes created quarters, divisions or sides in order to administer tax collection and the dispersal of funds provided opportunities to create another layer of organisation. And they evolved. From 1500 to 1650 the 700 or so parishes of Devon and Cornwall organised a variety of roles and number of officers. Each parish was of course impacted by national legislation in looking after the poor and the highways, but odd things happened in how they carried out their responsibilities: Milton Abbot, for example, had two collectors of the poor, eight bread wardens, a high warden, two wardens of the common store, three receivers and one or two ‘payers’. The precursors to the parish council or vestry in Devon were the ‘Eight Men’ or the ‘Four Men’ or whatever number of men was thought to be appropriate for that parish (or even for that year). Dean Prior, for instance, continually changed its number of officers.
Taxation in the period from 1500 to 1650 was complicated by the additional layer of taxes paid to the church through the parishes. Even in this there were differences, while most towns had only one parish church, Dartmouth had three and Exeter nearly twenty! Some parishes did not deploy rates but others, such as Barnstaple in the early 1500s, were usually early and these records provide a unique means of assessing population levels.
In wading through the thousands of names of men and women it occurred to me early on why it was that no other county had attempted to print its parish rates over these 150 years, but remarkable insights are being gained. Eventually I realised that in Dartmouth an individual was either from North Town or South Town and at the same time identified as being a parishioner of one of three parishes and a member of one of the six wards. I have also come to understand this is useful in attempting to understand the next set of parish records…
This guest post was written by TODD GRAY MBE, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and the author or editor of a number of volumes on Exeter and Devon including William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743 and The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book, 1763-1765.