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Helmdon Historical Documents


Village Life In The Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries

                                     extract from a book by W. P. Ellis



Editor's Note: Village life in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, a fascinating book by W. P. Ellis, was  published by William Potts of Banbury in 1902. 

William Ellis was a respected local historian living at Fountain House at the bottom of Wappenham Road.  There were early dwellings on this site occupied by, for example, the Fountaynes and the Emyleys, but after he retired from the Indian Civil Service in the late 18OOs, Willliam rebuilt the present Fountain House, with its own tennis court and a private platform and shelter next to the railway line, in the more fashionable brick.

The chapter presented here by Judy Cairns was typed painstakingly from an old, smudged, and in places nearly obliterated, photostat, and she makes no excuses for any errors or omissions in the text.  Thank you, Judy, for hours of detailed work.

The book is old and it is not known how to obtain permission to publish from it.  If there is copyright existing, please let us know.

It is believed that there are only one or two copies of this book in existence (a copy may be at the Northamptonshire Record Office)  but if you have one we should love to borrow it to publish further extracts. Please contact editor@helmdonhistory.com




The Churchwardens, whose office dates back to 1127, had very great responsibilities as the chief officers of the parish. As we all know they are two in number,  one chosen by the rector, the other by the parish, originally their peculiar functions were to look after the church, churchyard and things belonging to them, but being as a rule men in whom the people of the parish placed much confidence, one duty after another was imposed on them from time to time, until by custom, or act of parliament, these duties became compulsory. They had control of all parish monies and property, the church chest in which the wealth was kept had two locks of which each had a key so that the chest could not be opened without both being present and sometimes there was a third lock of which the parson had the key.  They were the paymasters of all parish servants such as cowherds, crowkeepers &c, they paid the head money for vermin and with the overseers assisted in looking after the welfare of the poor.  In very old times they used to brew whitsun ales and it was one of their pleasing duties to look after their friends and neighbours on that day in Whitweek set apart for the feast day. That day of merrymaking which has developed into the modern village club  was formerly a church matter and the churchwardens who were chosen from active energetic men were masters of the ceremonies and took care to provide everything of the best, but when these revelling days were abolished and the village sobered down, as it were, the churchwardens became business men and devoted their energies to looking after the welfare of the parish.  But as in former times the churchwarden was purely a church officer, it is in that capacity more or less that I wish to treat of him.  Mr George Thomas, our lawyer friend, when he held the office latinised the name by heading his accounts, “Ecclesiae Guardianes”.  We in these enlightened days have very little idea of the state of our church fabrics in the reign of Queen Anne - a few pews put in by their occupiers at odd times, no fires, broken windows, mildewed rotten woodwork, leaky roofs, dirty floors, and whitewashed walls.  It is marvellous how the buildings have withstood the neglect and hard usage of the two hundred years following the reformation, and such stability fills us with wonder and admiration at the work of the giant builders of the middle ages.  The amount paid for repairs every year was considerable,  the quantity of glass used in repairing windows, the weight of lead and solder for the roof, the dimensions of the beams, everything was given in detail, but these repairs were all temporary every year, similar items occurring until Mr John Fairbrother became churchwarden in 1741 and remained in office till 1752, during which time everything that was done was permanent.  He retired for a few years, and on his return to office he had the church pewed and other permanent works done.  The following memoranda occurs on cover of churchwarden’s book commencing 1698:-


Monies allowed to be expended by ye churchwardens  and to be a standing table of expenses.

Imp nothing to be allowed to be expended in ale and victuals upon workmen.      


  £ s d
To ye Ringers upon each Thanksgiving day   0 3 0
To be expended upon Processioning day,      
                The South field walk   ……………..   0 8 6
The other two walks, each walk   .. ………..  0 6 0


For attending ye visitations to each Churchwarden

himself and horse, Three shillings and sixpence.

              Consented to by us

                                                         Geo Jones Curate

Followed by the names of the other members of the meeting.                      


Now it is a difficult thing to break down an old custom, especially that of standing a workman a glass of beer when he has finished, and I have no doubt the Helmdon Churchwardens found it so.  The above memoranda is on the cover of the Churchwardens’ book commencing 1698 and yet almost the first entries in the accounts are

  £ s d
William Mayow for scowering ye witterings      
              and to drink  ……………………… 0 3 0
pd for Ale drunk at Nath Crosses for ye      
              glaziar and workman  …………….   0 1 2


The next fixed payment was “ye Ringers on each Thanksgiving day”.  Now some years there were many thanksgiving days - always November the fifth and the King’s birthday and thanksgiving for peace and great victories were of frequent occurrence.

  £ s d
Spent on Ringers when Good News from      
              Vigo  0 3 0
Spent on ye thanksgiving for ye Peace  …..   0 3 0
To ye Ringers at ye time of ye victory over      
               ye Rebels in Scotland  ……………..  0 3 0
Spent on ye Ringours when ye King came . 0 3 0
Item on ye thanksgiving for ye great victory  0 6 0
Spent on the Ringers on thanksgiven on the        
              26 day of November  ……………….  0 3 0



I should like to call your readers’ attention to this last item.  There was in every year a sum for the ringers on the fifth of November and I find in many years of the 17th and the earlier part of the 18th centuries a few entries after the fifth “spent on ye Ringers for thankes giving”.  Now I think that the second ringing was the harvest thanksgiving.  Notice the date given above, 26 day of November.  In the United States of America the last Friday in November is called “Thanksgiving Day,”  and is a general holiday fixed by Act of Congress I believe, all places of business are closed and in the Western States the rural districts make a more general festival of it than even Christmas and every house looks forward to having a thanksgiving turkey.  May it not have been that the earlier settlers brought the good custom with them from their old homes and settled it on a firmer basis than that on which they left it.  Is not the end of November a far more suitable time to render thanks for the harvest gathered than the present indefinite custom?

I have many times wished that these old writers had given the dates of their entries as I should like to know (what) many of the fasts and thanksgivings were for as in every year there are frequent entries similar to


  £ s  d
Pd for a procklemation and a book for a      
            thanksgiving…………………………… 0 1  0
Pd for a Procklimation and Pray’rs foor a      
               thanksgiving……………………………  0 1   0
Pd for a boock and procklimation for a fast  0 1   0
               Pd to ye Pariter for a boock 0 1   0


The entry following all these was invariably “Spent on the Ringers” so that there must have been many village rejoicings every year, and it is quite certain that the bells, a peal of six, were used a great deal, I might almost say in  daily use.  I do not know whether the curfew was rung there or not but be it from what cause it may the expenditure on the bells and in and about the tower was out of all proportion to the amount laid out on the rest of the church.  Scarcely a year passed without a set of bell ropes being paid for, the cost of which varied from 12s. to 18s.; leather for the clappers three or four at a time 6d. each; mending the bell wheels, new clappers, iron work about the bells, many other minor repairs, and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bells re-cast.  The 2nd bell re-cast at Northampton and hanging cost £6 5s. 0d., carriage included.  The 1st bell was sent to London and cost 6s.8d to send it there and £1 0s.0d for the homeward journey via Banbury, and the amount for the re-casting £12 0s. 0d  The cost of the 3rd bell in 1725 is so well set down by the churchwardens of that year that I shall give you the copy.


  £ s d
Pd Mr. Russell of Wotton for casting ye 3rd      
Bell at 20s. ye hundred weight and 6 pound      
of new metal allowed for waste in each      
hundred weight.  The said Bell was weighed      
to him at 5 hundred and 20 pound weight,      
came back 5 hundred and 16 pound and      
1 shilling expence.  The whole charge came to  6 10 0
Pd to James Bull at Bill of Smithworks be-      
longing to ye Bell ………………………………..  .0   6 3
Allowed Joseph Phillips for charge and      
carriage of ye Bell to Wotton and Back being      
But 5 dayes with 2 men and 4 horses …………. 2  0 0



Whether the king ever passed through Helmdon I do not know but it is recorded that the churchwardens  in 1714 “Spent on ye Ringours when ye King came £0 3s. 0d.”  The church fabric must have been very bad indeed in 1707 for I find “For timber to prop ye church £0 5s. 0d, for ye use of a Beam for ye same purpose £0 1s.0d.”  Now those are the only two entries relative to the building in that year so that it is to be presumed that having made the walls secure for the time being they let matters rest till the walls or roof became worse.  That it was a troublesome job I have no doubt as the workmen for “ye labour in proping ye church” were paid 19s.0d. which included ale.  In the following year there is ”To Tho Haines for timber and boards & scafoling & woorcke done att ye Church £12 5s.3d.”  I believe that the roof was the greatest worry to all the churchwardens for there are many accounts for lead and stripping of the lead to repair the timber of the roof.  There are also given the dimensions of the beams “1 pieces 12 foot long 8 inches ½ by 23 inches 18 foot ½ timber £1 4s.8d.; 2 pieces 7 foot long 3 by 4, £0 1s.9d.; 45 foot planke, £0 5s.6d.; 105 foot bordes, £0 15s.0d.; for the use of prope, £0 2s.6d; for the use of a lather, £0  0s. 6d.; and a few other items followed by the visit of the plumber who is paid “4 days ½ Rich Leeson, £0 9s.0d.; paid to Rich Leeson 18 pounds Soder, £0 18s. 0d.”  When the church had to be releaded it was customary to send the old lead away to Brackley to be melted and returned in sheets.  The process of releading  cost usually £8 or £9.  I do not fancy that the whole of the roof was done at any one time from the frequency of the sums charged to that heading.  Here and there I found, “Pd for sroud and sails” so much, and as I do not know of the application of those terms otherwise than in referring to those articles on board ship, I conclude that the roof was covered with canvas, or at least that portion which was under repair at the time. A complete account is given of the repairs to the roof with the weight of the lead in 1745.      


  £   s  d
For 18 hundred 2 quarters & 9 pound of        
sheet lead at 18 shillings & 8 pence ye      
Hundred ………………………………........   17   6 10
2 days work of 2 men ……………………..   0 10   0
A days work and ½ of his apprentice ……   0   2   4
  19   4  11
Old Lead 22 hundred 3 quarters and 4 pound      
at 14 shillings ye Hundred   15 19   0
                                                     Ye Balance …………   3   5 11



This was apparently a good deal as the new lead did not weigh so heavy as the old, and the churchwardens came out 4 cwt to the good.  The old sheet lead must have been considerably thicker than the new.  It was customary to pay the board and lodging of all strange workmen in addition to their wages, and on this occasion it was “Pd wid Bull ye plumbers expenses £0 11s.4d”. When the work was trivial, such as mending a couple of panes of glass, it was “For the Glaziour when ye windoes at ye Church was mended on two peny lofe and 6 in Ale £0 0s.5d.”  I cannot imaging how so much damage was done to the windows every year.  There was the same set of items in the accounts.  The glass could not have been broken every year by hailstones or any natural cause that I know of,  and the old glass was usually very strong, so we are forced to come to the conclusion that there was very little reverence for God’s House amongst the youth of that time.  These are the bills for a few years:-

  £  s.   d
John Leeson for mending the Church windows      
being  4 dozen and 4 ……………………………     4    4
paid the Glazor for mending the Church      
windos ………………………………..................    0  5  9½
paide  to John Leeson for mending the ledes      
and mending the windows twiss ………………  0 16   9
for glazing the windoes ………………………..      8  11
paid for 2 Dozen ½ quaries …………………….   0   2   6
Pd the Glazier for Glazing att church …………..   0   2   4
pd more for Glazing ………………………………  0   6   6
Pd to Rich Leeson for works don att ye church      
121 fute of nue glass and 31 Corys and mending      
ye other windows ………………………………......   0   9   7
Spent with ye Glazire when he and I reckond … 0   1   0


Of course it was customary to settle all accounts at friend Cross’s and curious it is that the man who paid the bill always stood the drinks. Now-a-days it is the other way, the man who receives offers the hospitality.  There are two or three interesting items in 1699 the only year in which mention is made of any other drink but “bear” and ale and another curious thing is that one of the Churchwardens includes himself among the workmen which may possibly account for the quantity consumed. The business was whitewashing the church and very likely done in warm weather, and it may have been a thirsty job.


   £  s   d
Ffor Lime and hare and ffeching it …………   0  2   3
2lb of glwe and 19lb of whiting for the      
Church  ………………………………............  0  2   3
On fagot of wood and on besom ……………    0  0   2
pd  for scafoling stof and Lader and other      
things  used at the church when it was      
panted ………………………………..............     0  1  10
for 2 Iron Spieks ………………………………  0  0   6
For 2 bords between the chancel and the      
church  ………………………………..............  0  1   2
pd Richard Branson for his work on week at      
church  0  6  4
pd for Ale had to the church for the workmen   0  3  6
pd for Ale had to the church for the workmen       
same time ………………………………..........    0  0  9
ffor my work 3 wholl days and part of 4 more    0  4  6
Spent with the Painter …………………………   0  1  9
Spent with the Painter …………………………       
when the church was finished ……………….   0  1  8


There was another Churchwarden who seized his opportunities and perhaps made them.


Pd to Tho. Emberley for a botle of ale that he      
broutt in the fields without any order  0 1 10


It must have been an uncommonly big bottle to cost 1s.10d., and the entry comes in with “paid at Nat Crosses an Crass Monday when we solde ye hyways.”  The tower was repaired in 1698 at a cost of about twelve pounds and again in 1733 the first year of Mr John Fairbrother’s Churchwardenship when the interior of the tower was completely renovated and the ladder to the bells and the stonework of doorway renewed.


Pd 2 workmen for 5 days work each hewing      
ye Doorcase coines and fitting up ye work 0 14  0
Pd for rough coins to finish being 20ft …….   0  3  6


In 1770 the Church was pewed at a cost of £124 16s., which was paid for by the pew holders at the rate of 12s.0d. a sitting which is thus recorded. “204 seats at 12 shillings each come to £122 8s.0d., old material sold came to £1 12s.0d. and the descendant of Mr Thomas had his pew altered, new seats put in and some painting done for which he paid 16s.”

It might be asked how the sittings of the poor were provided for.  Well their spiritual welfare was regarded with quite as much tenderness as their bodily and in a manner to be an example to the present and future generations.  Every farmer has a pew for himself and his tenants.  If one was not large enough he had two and they all sat together, the chieftain and his retainers as their forefathers in the days of old had gathered round the festive board and dined in the baronial hall.  The surplice provided by the parish was an expensive item, “Pd for 10 ells of Hollan for a surplice at 6s.8d ye ell, £3 6s.8d.; and for making ye same, £0 6s.8d.; for thrid, £0 0s.4d.” And its use must have been frequent from the number of times it was mended.  “For washing ye surplis 4 times and mending ye old one twice, £0 4s.4d.”  The old one was mended for many years before the new one was bought. Many people have hobbies and ride them everywhere in broad daylight and many of the old churchwardens had hobbies, good hobbies that is to say bent upon doing something in or for the church. One would set his heart on the outside of the fabric and when his turn came the expense of ladders and labour for pointing was considerable,  another loved the bells and his superfluous money went to repairing and restoring this or that part of the machinery, then the tower pinnacles and weather-cock took another man’s fancy, every portion in its turn found an admirer and got furbished up.  Now one of these well-doing gentlemen had fixed his heart on pulpits and when his turn came there was some cushion thumping and turning inside out and decorating; to him the pulpit and cushion were the things to make the church look well.  Did not everyone, neighbour or stranger, who came to the service have to gaze most of his time on the pulpit whilst the discourse was delivered to them.  He visited all the neighbouring churches and took in all the best things in his line and waited and fidgetted as he gazed Sunday after Sunday on the old and tattered cushions and the dilapidated pulpit.  He worried his predecessors and occasionally got something done such as “an iorn staye to keep up ye pulpitt” that was quite as much as  that year’s warden could do.

Note from typist: the following few paragraphs have been cut off at one side and so the sentences are all incomplete.  The gist seems to be that other wardens had to take precedence over the “pulpit” warden as various essential building repairs had to be made first.  What can be gleaned is:

Repairs had to be made “to mullions, leads and quarries“, to the roof  - “those old rotten beams ….must be seen to”.  Eventually “a happy Easter came that saw” the warden take up his “long desired office” and he was able to begin making his “beloved” pulpit “worthy of the church”  He buys “Shage” from Burford and pays £3 17s 4d. for  the “Cushin”.  He pays “Mathews for making the Cloth”.

His fellow warden began to complain and remonstrate at the expense but the pulpit “lover” would have none of it “and on he goes with the pulpit”  Timber and nails had to be purchased and John Oakley paid for working on the pulpit and also John Bull for fastening … and Iron work.  There seems to have been problems with the cost of purchasing the drapery as subscriptions “went down badly”  people could grumble as much as they liked but the warden was determined to press on “no matter what it cost“.  Some of the expenses were: “binding for ye Pullpitt Clothe”,  “loopes to hang it upp by”, payment to “Will Pytings wife to make fringing….rounde ye Cushing,  the cost of a tick, payment to “Thomas Haynes for feathers and things”. Something else was “spent at Nathaniell Crosses”.

Ellis then seems to be making the comment that he wonders whether the church warden paid for some items himself and that “he has made no charge for … things from Banbury” and that he would have “looked with pride on his darling … on (Easter?) Sunday after everything was completed.” Ellis goes on to say that the warden appears to have thought that the new cushion was too good for everyday and he pays for “ turning the old cushing  …and doing it upp £0 0s. 8d.” and would “keepe (the new cushion) for “festivals and thanksgiving days”.  The warden appears to have sold feathers left from the old cushing after refurbishment and also “the flocks” for £0 0s. 4d.

Ellis says the villagers seem to have been not very generous in their contributions to various church collections and that the following list will give some idea of the amounts.

(we can now return to the full text)

Memorand October ye 15 1698


    £  s  d.
A Briefe collected att Helmdon for Bocham      
in Cambridgeshire…………………………..     0 2  3
A P……is collected att Helmdon for      
Litchfield is ……the loss amounting      
to 770 pounds ……………………………….    0 1  8
coll ….. March ye 5th 1698      
    £  s.  d.
The sum of 2s. 7½d. for Lancaster the loss      
being £2120.……………………………........     0  2  7½
A collection of charity for ye Vandois and      
the French Refuges in pursuance of His      
Majesties Briefe for the Parish of Helmdon      
April ye 30 1699  the sums of……………….     0 11   0



Before concluding it is a matter of interest to know that the tower was struck by lightning in 1822 and was rebuilt the following year at a cost of £623 19s. 8d.

It has been a very great pleasure to me to follow the various bits of manuscript and pass through the connecting links of Early English and modern handwriting, the quaint spelling and phraseology at times being most amusing.  Every event of National importance is recorded in one or other of the books.  Wars, revolutions, coronations, storms, all have found some item to record their occurrence.  The great storm of 1703 must have caused great damage to the roof of the church as the account for tiles and other building materials show, and the item “to a Man of Draiton in Oxon Shire who had a great loss by ye fatal storm” is also another record of that event. Every victory is recorded in the payment of the ringers as are also the coronations and many other incidents of National importance.  I may here give  few entries of the early years of [the] 18th century.

   £  s  d.
For a proclimation and a form of prayr for      
Ye great victory over ye French and      
Bavarions ……………………………….....    0  1  0
For a paper to pray for ye princ of Wales  0  1  0
For a book to pray for ye rylal famly ……  0  1  0
Given to 3 Brothers yt were Turkey slaves      
being very much disabled and had their      
tongues cut out who had an order      
requesting Parish Officers to allow them      
relief and had ye Justices hands in ye      
several counties theycame through ...............  0  1  0
Pd ye Apparitor for his Majesties directions      
to ye clergie for preserving unity in ye      
Church……………………………….............  0  1  0



In 1746 some form of disease broke out among Cattle, and the wardens….

   £   s.  d.
Pd for ye Act of Parliament relating to the           
hornd Cattle ……………………………….....   0        0  


And in 1748

Pd for orders of council relating to ye Cattle    0    5  0 
Pd for a form of prayer for ye Cattle ……….     0             1  0


Our colonies too are not forgotten and the “ne’er do wells” were about in 1710. The Churchwarden of that year was a humorist and wrote his accounts in a facetious manner.


      £  s. d
Gave a man yt came with a letter of noe quest       0   0 6
another with an old Story from New England     0   2    6


The last items I shall give are from 1715.  The handwriting was excellent, very plain to read, but the meaning of some of the words are most obscure.


  £  s.  d
to John Okley for a bost and butitin ………….     0  6
to Charls Adkins for lier ………………………    1  4
Pd to Jos townsend A bell for mi lord Tammath  15     0 
Gave to mi lord tammath bultar exgines for       
the bell ……………………………….................    2  6



The first line I translate “for a post and putting it in” the others I shall leave some one more clever than myself to render correctly.  On the whole I think that we may conclude that the inhabitants of Helmdon passed their lives very pleasantly in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The poor whom we have always with us were treated as members of the same family and when old and bedridden had still their old friends and neighbours in to gossip with them on topics of mutual interest and sympathise with them in their afflictions.  From the constable’s accounts we may glean that the morals of the village would have compared most favourably with those of the present day and that Charity, the greatest of gifts, was duly admired and daily exercised.  The system  of Parish government though open to abuses was best suited to the times and carried on economically and for a great part of the time in a most business like manner and when we consider the educational difficulties we must honour the memory of those hardworking men who trained their younger sons and fitted them to go forth from their native villages to battle with life and become the real founders of our colonial empire.

W.P Ellis





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