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Engine buckets, church beer and powder for fleas


A collier drinking beer. Men who cleaned the St Nicholas Church in the mid-19th century were similarly rewarded, as the Churchwarden’s receipts reveal. Courtesey of Folkestone Town Council via Folkestone Museum.

In our latest blog, Martin Crowther shares some fascinating stories researched from Victorian churchwarden receipts.


An intriguing collection Safely deposited in the Essex Records Office at Chelmsford is an intriguing collection of receipts, carefully kept by the Victorian churchwardens of St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham, to account for everyday church expenditure as well as major repairs to the fabric of the building.


There is an almost continuous run, from 1835 to 1871, providing a fascinating glimpse into the life of church and parish in the mid-19th century.


Communion wine and repairs to the clock Many payments would be familiar to the current churchwardens and rector - wine for communion (from The Bell Inn and Posting House), maintenance of the church clock (bill for repairing, winding and cleaning church clock from Nathaniel Boosey, turret clockmaker of Great Yeldham), and stationery (including a new baptism register).


View of St Nicholas Church roof from the top of the tower. Much 19th century expenditure, like today was spent on expensive building repairs, particularly to the roof and tower. Copyright St Nicholas Church/Martin Crowther.


Repairing the roof and gilding the vane Nor would they be surprised to see large and regular expenses for ongoing maintenance of the building. The repair of St Nicholas Church roof has been a major part of the current Voices from the Pews project and our Victorian ancestors had to do the same, without the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The repair, painting and gilding of the weather vane was carried out by our Victorian ancestors, and is required again today.


Copyright St Nicholas Church/Martin Crowther.


Hardly a year went by without some major expenditure being recorded - an estimate for repairs to the steeple, receipts for repairing and re-fixing a pinnacle on the tower (by E. and C. Keogh, of Sudbury, stone masons), bills for re-casting old lead and for 17 lbs of solder, and repairs to the church roof including carriage of lead from London. There is even a receipt for the painting and gilding of the weather vane - a job that again needs doing in 2021.


Balancing the books The church owned land and property, and there is reference to a letter regarding the lease of a shop. Such rents brought in much-needed income, which topped up with the regular weekly collections from parishioners, and donations from wealthy benefactors, helped to balance the books.

A late 18th century fire pump on display at Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. The one that used to be stored inside St Nicholas Church, probably looked something like this. Note the leather ‘engine buckets.’ Courtesy of Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury.


Engine buckets and prayers for cholera Some expenses are more intriguing. An 1830s receipt for ‘engine buckets’ refers to leather buckets for the parish fire engine, a hand-operated pump, which in the days before the village fire station was built, was stored inside the church.


A receipt for ‘100 forms of prayer for cholera’ relates to the purchase of 100 prayer sheets, so the congregation could seek divine protection against a dreadful cholera epidemic which was sweeping the country in 1849 and had already claimed thousands of victims in the East End of London and Liverpool. The prayer was written by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner.


Beer for the cleaners and flea powder for the parishioners? One of my favourite entries, and one which appears several times, is ‘beer for men cleaning the church’ which was obviously thirsty work and rewarded in kind. Presumably it was drunk at the Bell, Wheatsheaf or other local hostelry, rather than inside the church itself.


An order from Richard Hall, Chemist in 1864 included laudanum, flea powder and tobacco.


A rather eclectic order from Richard Hall, chemist in 1864, really makes one think. It includes ingredients for pomade (a scented oil or ointment applied to the hair), as well as cough lozenges, laudanum (a medication containing 10% opium which was widely used a painkiller and cough suppressant), powder for fleas, worm powder for a horse, blister ointment and tobacco. This was most likely for the rector’s use (was he suffering from a throat complaint?) and for his animals, rather than for the congregation. Unless of course, we imagine flea-bitten parishioners scratching themselves furiously in the pews, and the church choir getting hoarse from excessive singing!

Other entries referred more specifically to the religious life of the church - including a best Morocco bible and an Irish linen surplice from Joseph Ede of London, robe maker, both purchased in 1863. There’s also a bill for ‘cleaning and trimming the parish pall’ (the cloth spread over a coffin at funerals).


The St Nicholas churchwardens paid a clerk to complete the Baptism Register, in beautiful copperplate writing. The entries here from 1849 include Esau, son of William Walford, a labourer and his wife Sarah, of Back Lane (now Church Lane), Castle Hedingham, who was baptised on 7 Oct 1849, by I. R. Mills Incumbent (the Rector).


Copyright Essex Records Office.


Fine copperplate handwriting Interestingly, a clerk was paid for transcribing the baptism and burial registers (1848-1860) for the bishop, in fine copperplate handwriting.


Church singers to church choir There were regular £1 annual payments for the church singers in the 1830s and 1840s. This informal group of village musicians, sometimes listed by name, sang locally-composed versions of psalms, hymns and anthems from a gallery in the tower at the back of the church, and were accompanied on instruments such as the violin, cello, clarinet, flute and bassoon. The church singers were replaced in 1850 by a more professional church choir, of men and boys, who were trained by an organist and choir master, singing hymns and choral music from officially-approved hymn books.


The Chelmsford Chronicle on 27 September 1850 reported…


During the last fortnight singing in connection with this church has undergone a great and rapid change, and the effect produced is highly gratifying to all.


The old, but we are happy to say, fast declining fashion of having most un-sacred instruments to lead the singing in country churches, has been unavoidably the custom here, which, with the accompaniment of a few men's voices has formed a very poor attempt to “Sing to the praise and glory of God." Through the kind exertions of a visitor to the incumbent of this parish, conjointly with his own and his lady's efforts, and those of other friends, the unsolemnizing bassoon and clarionet have been laid aside; a choir 30 children and a dozen men has been formed, and great credit is due to pupils as well as teachers, for the readiness they have shown to promote the needful alteration of this important, but too often neglected, part of divine service.


The galleries (balcony seating at the rear of St Nicholas Church) are mentioned in two receipts. One for ‘makeing roll blinds for the gallery’ (in 1851-53) and another for the ‘repair of the children’s gallery’ (in 1862-63).


A Village Choir by Thomas Webster, 1847. The church singers at St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham would have looked very similar, singing from a high gallery at the back of the church. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.


To flirt and profane in The Victorian era was a period of great change in parish churches across England and this is reflected in major changes to the seating.


In 1853 there is a receipt for deal (a softwood such as pine) for replacing Mr Raynor’s pew (one of the old enclosed family box pews that filled most parish churches at this time).

However high galleries and box pews allowed opportunities for scandalous and sacrilegious behaviour, providing dark musty recesses for school children to sleep, play or eat fruit in, or places where the old could sleep unobserved, and the young and giddy flirt and profane God’s house.


The 18th century box pews, one of which features in the Churchwardens’ receipts were replaced by bench pews in the late 19th century.


These outdated fixtures were torn down in the 1872 alterations to the nave, replaced at first by chairs, and later by rows of bench pews, where everybody could be seen, and any misbehaviours quickly stamped out.


View from the pulpit The congregation could also be observed from on high, from the Rector’s pulpit. And the congregation could more easily see and hear him when delivering the sermon. Expenses for a canopy for the pulpit appear in 1855-56, pulpit candlesticks were purchased in 1857-58, and a new wainscot desk in 1858-60.


New forms of heating also brought new expenses. A billhead from J. H. Horrex, Ironmonger and brazier, lists ‘a blower for the chancel fireplace’ as well as a ‘new fancy key’ for the lock to the chancel door. I wonder if this still survives? A billhead of Thomas Moy of Hedingham Station, coal and coke merchant, circa 1870, suggests the burning of coal to keep the congregation warm in winter, as well as documenting the arrival of the railway.


Queen Adelaide by Sir William Beechey, 1831. On the day of her funeral the bells of St Nicholas Church fell silent as a mark of respect. Copyright National Portrait Gallery.


Silenced for Queen Adelaide Perhaps not unsurprisingly, there is little reference to local or national events - just one short entry recording the sexton’s fee for raising the bell on the day of the Queen Dowager’s burial. This was for Queen Adelaide, the Consort of William IV who died in 1849. Queen Adelaide was held in extremely high regard by the British people for her piety, modesty and charitable work, and this was the reason the bell that normally rang out the hours of the day, fell silent in respect. Watch this space So far, I’ve only been able to view a basic listing of these bills and receipts via Essex Archives Online (which is great value for money and highly recommended), as the Essex Records Office is closed due to Coronavirus. There will of course be many more fascinating details to discover, when the archives re-open and the documents can be viewed in detail.

In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing the handwritten billheads of several Victorian businesses, from Castle Hedingham and further afield. From E. Gladwyn, Draper and Silk Merchant and H. Myhill, Grocer to the Foreign Vineyard Association. Watch this space.

With thanks With thanks to the Essex Records Office and Essex Archives Online. Please note the Essex Records Office reference numbers for this material are D/P48/5/23 to D/P48/5/52. They also hold lots of other interesting records relating to St Nicholas Church. Happy hunting!

Martin Crowther Heritage Engagement Officer Voices from the Pews project

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