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Reflections: music, charity and fun and games - the social importance of the parish church

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THE parish church is very often the oldest physical man-made structure surviving within a parish. For all the pre-Reformation centuries it was the centre for worship, instruction and social interaction and it was the place where the life’s rites of passage were made and confirmed.

Despite the growth of dissent, the church’s role was maintained to a significant extent by legislation which legally required couples to marry in the parish church regardless of their religious allegiance. Baptisms and burials, too, were to be performed in the parish church by the local incumbent.

This situation was weakened by the Civil War (often known as the Puritan Revolution) of the mid-17th century and from that time onwards, through a succession of enactments, individuals were gradually released from these bonds and the parish church lost something of its overall centrality and dissenters were allowed to erect their own dedicated places of worship (Reflections of July 2017 covered this in more detail)..

One remarkably durable administrative arrangement was brought about by the introduction of the Poor Law in 1601. Amongst its many provisions was one ensuring that every infant born in this country belonged to the parish in which they were born which became their ‘parish of origin.’ And relief for those requiring it was administered through elected parishioners, namely the churchwardens and the newly instituted overseers of the poor.

Lyndhurst's 18th century Georgian church
Lyndhurst's 18th century Georgian church

I will explain more about this vitally important and long-lived legislation in a future Reflections. The point here is that it ensured the social connection of every individual to a specific parish and legally all records were maintained and preserved in the parish church. This, of course, included registers of baptisms, marriages and burials: and, fortuitously, these survive in very large numbers and provide a valuable insight into parish life (most of them today preserved in the county record offices).

Additionally, all Poor Law records and accounts were similarly kept in the parish and few local history sources have proved so useful in understanding the life of individual parishes forming a rich mine of detailed information. Unfortunately, their survival is more piecemeal but where they do survive they provide perhaps the richest source for describing social conditions that we have.

Similarly, from the time of Mary I the care of the roads was catered for by parishioners elected in each parish serving, as was normal, one-year terms. All this administration, conducted and administered through the church ensured its central social position regardless of any dissenting forms of worship that might exist in individual parishes.

I am sure the successive governments passing all this legislation were not consciously aiming to retain the central importance of each parish church but merely recognising it as the established centre that could be used in this way. It is instructive to realise that in each parish was able to elect individuals who were capable of administering all these powers and duties under the overall direction and authority of the local magistrates.

Choirs and music

The community found a social centre in the parish church and in many, probably most, choirs were formed to lead and guide the singing of hymns and responses for the services on Sundays and holy days. It cannot have been long before secular choir singing was also centred in the church a factor so beautifully described in Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree in which the Mellstock Choir features.

It is worth observing that singing was an established and universal tradition still surviving when I was a boy when men working on construction sites or in the fields would often break into song, voicing the traditional songs and the folk songs that still featured prominently in their repertoire and we are all very much aware of the important role of singing by servicemen in the First World War.

As a child I learnt songs such as It’s a Long way to Tipperary or Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile” or What shall we do with the drunken sailor? these survived and featured quite prominently in the singing classes in the junior school I attended in Gore Road between 1936 and 42. And when the wailing siren led our teachers to lead us into the earthen air raid shelters the first thing we did was burst into communal song – believe me, it was a sad day when some of the teachers thought the proper thing to do was to resume and continue the formal classes!

Many church choirs became centres for promoting instrumental music to accompany the songs; string instruments were particularly popular and also some wind instruments such as the recorder, flute or the large and dramatic serpent - a fine example of which is carved on the headstone of Thomas Maynard’s grave (d.1807) in Minstead churchyard, on the south side close to the tower. The now universal organ did not become the dominant church instrument until well into the 19th century.

The important social point is that choirs helped bring communities together both as participants and listeners. But sadly its demise seems to have been speeded up by modern technology and the participative traditions that had a history spanning centuries are disappearing or have already gone.

Charities both normal and peculiar

Charities were also administered through the church and many churches still display historic boards or plaques (St Thomas in Lymington has many) commemorating these. One notable local one is Thomas Brown’s charity dating from 1667 which was to provide bread around Christmas time to selected poor folk.

Brown was an inhabitant of Hinton Admiral who owned a lot of land in the large parish of Christchurch and therefore has a large board within the Priory Church announcing the basic details of his bequest; but, in addition to this, boards were placed in each parish where his gift operated (and still does), namely Lymington, Ringwood, Sopley, Lyndhurst, Milton, and Minstead, where the painted board is unmissable attached to the front of the wooden gallery.

Brown Charity notice in Minstead from 1667
Brown Charity notice in Minstead from 1667

Such charitable bequests were quite distinct from relief given to the poor through the official channels of the Poor Law. They had appointed trustees who invariably included wealthy and highly respected local gentry but to ensure their continuity provision was made to administer these bequests by the incumbents and churchwardens in each parish – a practice continued to the present day.

Brown Charity notice from 1667 in Lymington
Brown Charity notice from 1667 in Lymington

Charitable briefs

The rather odd form of requests for charitable donations was done by means of ‘briefs’ whereby each local incumbent was obliged to announce the details, usually at the conclusion of his Sunday sermon. Applications were made through the diocesan bishop who issued the instruction to every parish in his jurisdiction.

The most common brief was seeking financial support for a church that had been damage by storm or fire, but they also covered requests for support for communities which had suffered flooding or fire or some similar kind of unexpected disaster.

Happily, a few parishes, including Lymington, entered details of each brief in their churchwarden’s account books (see The Church in Lymington, pages 56-7 for some of the specific cases) or even in the parish registers.

It is worth noting the variations in the responses to the requests for donations and some individuals, including Samuel Pepys, did not look kindly on them and wrote in his diary for 30th June 1661: “Briefs come up now so constant a course every Sunday that we resolve to give no more to them.”

And he was not alone in voicing discontent. Lady Mary Coke, in a letter she wrote, more than a century later, on 16th October 1768, declared: “I went to church and heard a very dull sermon. We had a brief for the rebuilding of a church in your county of Yorkshire; to which, I own I did not contribute a single shilling. To tell you the truth, I think you ought to keep your churches in such good repair as to make it unnecessary to send to us in the south to furnish money for the rebuilding.” Seemingly not a very Christian sentiment!

The brief system of raising money was finally abolished in 1853 following numerous and widespread expressions of discontent.

Fun and games in the churchyard

It is to be expected that the church and its parish which formed the focal point for civil and social organisation of one sort or another would also provide a convenient centre for wholly informal communal activities but, gradually, as dissenters established their own places of worship the centrality of the Anglican parish church very slowly but surely began to wane and its civil administration became increasingly confirmed by various parliamentary enactments during the nineteenth century.

Civil administration then passed entirely into secular hands, culminating in the formation of county, town and parish councils. But one role, if we believe the complaints, persisted and that was that the churchyard and the church itself provided an opportunity for unofficial games. Boisterous young men would organise various games to be played in the churchyard, often using the walls of church building itself.

One game in particular rose to prominence, mostly recorded in the West Country, particularly Somerset, though it was played across all the southern counties and even in the yard of Newgate Prison in London. The game was fives (an early form of squash) for which a solid wall was needed against which to bounce the ball.

The church building proved to be ideal, more especially against buttresses and along north side aisle walls. But from various churchwardens’ records we know that damage was caused first accidentally, such as the breaking of windows and later deliberately when small footholds were cut into stone buttresses to facilitate access to the aisle roof so a young man could then quickly clamber up to retrieve a ball.

A few churches bear witness to this activity and occasionally such damaged buttresses can be found to this day. But the clergy and the churchwardens launched a concerted attack on this behaviour by causing the ground near the wall to be dug up to make it unsuitable even to the extent of planting stinging nettles in the space. In 1758 the churchwardens of Bradford Abbas church in Dorset paid out 3s. 6d to dig up the “Fives place” while the sexton was paid 3 shillings for planting the nettles.

These kinds of records - sadly none seem to have survived for our area - leave a catalogue of this ongoing conflict. At Bradford Abbas church in Dorset (which has surviving records) the guide states: “But the game of fives became a nuisance, balls were often hit on to the roof of the aisle... To recover these the buttress was used as a ladder. The notches cut in the angles were used as footholds and handholds...” although later filled in with cement they are still visible today.

Other ad hoc games were also played in many churchyards, often to the disquiet of clergy and the annoyance of the congregations at large.

It is worth having some awareness of the historically long-running importance of the church in providing the best known centre for a range of social activities, such as those described, and I would suggest that some small part of the decline in church attendances may be placed at the increasing role of secular civil administration.

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