History of Parish Councils
In Saxon England a settlement of people was known as a ‘tun’ from which the word town is derived. In turn, the land associated with the town (tun) was called a township . The people of a township elected officials to create and enforce local laws and this became one of the earliest examples of local government.
At this period of time there was no great religious influence, but as Christianity and the Church rose in importance so did the need to find a way of defining the extent of the Church’s authority. It was decided that the physical area of a Saxon township would define the limits of what would become to be known as the Parish.
In 1066 William the Conqueror brought the Feudal system to England from France. The King owned all English land, some of which he kept for his own use, some he gave to the Church and the rest was leased out on a tiered system to Barons (Lords of the Manor), Knights and finally, lowly serfs.
The local independence of the Saxon town meetings was lost, especially with the introduction of the Feudal Manorial Court Leet. This court was powerful and unpopular, not least because of ‘frankpledge’ which stated that groups of ten inhabitants would be punished if any one of the ten committed a breach of the law. The laws were so restrictive and harsh it was very easy to commit a ‘crime’. Powers of the court included enforcing rent payments, taxation, judicial matters, fines and interference with virtually all aspects of life.
Growing resistance to the changes caused by the Feudal Manorial Court system gave rise to the development of (Church) Parish meetings. At the helm was the parish priest who, along with the other educated inhabitants, took on more and more power. The Parish meeting soon became known a Vestry Meeting because it was held in the church vestry. In time the meeting became known simply as the Vestry and was the first fully organised local council.
As the Feudal system declined, the Vestry meeting became more organised, took on more responsibilities and gained greater powers. By the early 1600s the Vestry had the power to decide how Church funds would be spent. The Church also managed the levying of the Poor Rate (a tax on wealthier local inhabitants that would be used to help the poor people).
Over the years the Church, through the Vestry meetings, controlled both the ecclesiastical and civil affairs of a Parish. Although the Vestry went through changes, the priest or parson plus wealthy landowners were still normally those who served and the common inhabitant was excluded by rank closing. The system remained in place until 1894 when the government of the day wanted to limit the church's influence over the lives of ‘non-believers’ and introduced the 1894 Government Act in an attempt to create greater democracy.
The 1894 bill enabled Parish Councils to be formed, with elected members whose role would be to administer all civil matters formerly administered by the Church. Thus there was a split between civil and ecclesiastical affairs that exists to this day.
Initially, Parish Council income came from a tax upon agricultural land but the income was so low that a new system of household rates was devised (the basis for the modern rating system). Not surprisingly this proved to be very unpopular and there were many objections to the very existence of Parish Councils.
However, successive governments would bestowed more resposibilities for local affairs upon the Parish Council. Significant changes for the better were experienced at a local level and residents began to accept the rating system
Some time after the Second World War, the creation of the National Association of Parish Councils (to which most Parish Councils now belong) led to Parish Councils becoming more seriously regarded and, partially as a result of the higher profile, their range of responsibilities grew.
The modern Parish Council has many more powers than its predecessors but also far more red-tape and regulations within which a Council must work. Nonetheless, even with these obligations the Parish Council is free to act in the best interests of its village and residents. Nowadays the Church and the Council have a good relationship and often work together.
Note: Ashley was a township in Bowdon Parish and included the hamlets of Hough Green, Thorns Green and part of Castle Mill. Ashley's Manor house was Ashley Hall and Ashley became a civil parish in 1866.
With apologies for some historic licence in this potted account!