The Lectures




Before I begin, I must thank you for the invitation to address you this evening on the subject of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. I understand that this is the latest of a number of talks on other ancient Livery Companies. As I hope to show, the Clerks are a unique institution in the City, not a Livery Company in the regular sense but nevertheless with a history as ancient and as distinguished as any City Company can show. I should begin by paying due tribute to all those who have researched the history of the Company and whose work I have quarried extensively. At the end of the nineteenth century the Company employed an amateur antiquarian, the Reverend James Christie, to produce the first comprehensively researched history of the Company and his magnificent work remains the foundation stone on which all later researchers must build. The late Reg Adams, a past Clerk and Master of the Company, produced his beautifully crafted history in 1970 . More recently Oswald Clark has written in depth on the ancient role of the clerk and Norman and Valerie James have produced a meticulous account of the Company’s Bede Roll , and in doing so have gained more knowledge of the medieval history of the Company than anyone else could ever hope to match. There are two other people that I must mention, without whose work this talk would not be possible. William McMurray was a quiet self-effacing amateur historian and member of the Company. That he never became Master speaks much of his retiring nature but he loved the Company deeply and during the inter-War years, in preparation for a large scale history, he made notes from and partly transcribed the Court Minute books and Company Admission books. The other person that I will mention had a character as different as possibly could be. Dr Ernest Ebblewhite was twice Master and an ebullient personality. He was definitely the most dominant figure in the Company in the first half of the twentieth century and after the destruction of the hall gathered an enormous collection of ephemera which reconstituted much of what had been lost. I realise that I have already spoilt the story by telling you part of the most recent history so I had better go back to the start. I should begin by asking “what is a Clerk?”. To answer that we have to go back to a period long before the foundation of the Company. The name comes from the Greek κληροσ, a word which appears in the Greek translation of Acts I 17 and elsewhere as referring to that part of the Church to which official duties were committed. At least as early as the time of Justinian, the derivative of this word - κληρικοσ - was being used for all those who held any form of office in the church. In due course a distinction was made between the ancient and higher orders of bishop, priest and deacon, and subsumed within that the office of sub-deacon, and the minor orders – those of doorkeeper, reader, exorcist and acolyte. The first three became known as clerks in holy orders; by inference the others were clerks not in holy orders or else in minor orders. Nevertheless, clerks of every complexion played their part in the English Church from the earliest days of Augustine’s reconversion of the country. These clerks are mentioned in a letter written by Pope Gregory to Augustine at the start of the seventh century and when St Mellitus created the modern diocese of London his team is thought to have predominately consisted of clerks in minor orders. For centuries these minor clerks remain in the background of church affairs. The canons promulgated under King Edgar in the late tenth century required every priest to have a clerk and to bring him to the yearly synod, along with his books and vestments. It was only after the Conquest that they began to take on a higher profile and in London they suddenly appear as a recognisable body at the end of the twelfth century. William fitzStephen, writing around 1180, says “There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and "whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright". Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement's Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the air.” This Clerkenwell itself, incidentally, was rediscovered in the 1920s and has in recent decades been the subject of quasi-pilgrimages by those clerks’ present day successors. So, even by 1180, the clerks were visibly meeting as a body and had attended a particular well so long and often as to give their name to it. That they were meeting together does not, of course, mean that there was as yet anything as distinct as a Company. That would come much later. Antony Munday’s 1633 edition of Stow’s Survey gives a date of 1233 as the first recorded date for the Company being licensed. Regrettably, he gives no source and although over the years much research has gone into trying to track down this reference, no one has ever discovered it. It sounds improbably early. We should look elsewhere for the development of the clerks and their Company. The trigger for the rapid development of both religious and trade guilds, and of the whole apparatus of parochial administration and worship, was surely the growing wealth of the City of London. More than most places in the country, its parishes were wealthy; the inventories compiled under Edward VI confirm this with their lists of treasures in plate, relics and vestments. In this context, it was essential that every parish should maintain a staff to attend to the myriad of activities needed to maintain the constant round of services. Here we find the particular development of the role of parish clerk as encompassing most of the roles of clerks in minor orders. They fulfilled the role of doorkeepers to maintain the keys, open and close the churches and ring the bells. They fulfilled the role of reader by reading the liturgical epistle. As acolytes they tended and trimmed the candles, no mean task in a building where numerous candles burned before sacrament, rood and statues. And as sub-deacons they laid out the altars and vestments. Most visibly the clerks were responsible for the preparation of holy water and its distribution to the parishioners. During parish processions, inside the church and around the parish, they were omnipresent carrying their holy water buckets. It was so much the sign of their craft that in 1482 the aspergillia – the holy water sprinklers – were selected as the crest of the Company. Although they enjoyed the status of clergy, from quite early one these minor clerks could be married men. It had originally been expected that there would be a progression through all the orders towards the priesthood. With the development of married clerks, this progression was sharply halted for them and, despite the occasional attempts of bishops to tighten the rules, by the later Middle Ages the distinct role of a married parish clerk had developed. That therefore was the role of the clerk, but what of their Company? In the pre-Reformation City there were reckoned to be over 110 parishes – FitzStephen says 126 - not including the great conventual churches. As every church, both parochial and conventual, would have retained a clerk, and sometimes assistant clerks, there were at least two hundred clerks around in medieval London and its environs. As we have seen, they were gathering together in the twelfth century but centuries would pass before their formal incorporation. By the end of the thirteenth century property was being held by individuals – presumably themselves clerks – in the parish of St Ethelburga Bishopsgate. That individuals had to hold the property confirms that they were not an incorporate body. Not till the turn of the fourteenth century do the clerks really emerge from the shadows and then it is in the context of their masterminding the production of mystery plays. Given that the clerks of the 1180s must have been doing something that stood out in the public consciousness, one is tempted to wonder whether even then they were performing in some context . In 1391 the considerable payment of £10 was made from the Exchequer in relation to a play the clerks had put on the year before at Skinners’ Well. Further performances are known to have taken place in the early years of the fifteenth century When the first royal charter was granted in 1442, it described the Company as having existed on an informal basis for forty years previously or thereabouts. We should therefore look for the inception of the present Company in the reigns of Richard II or Henry IV, indeed the very period when we hear of the mystery plays. This unofficial guild was one of a number of Companies which met at Brewers’ Hall in the period 1419 to 1423. Later in the century they had a hall of their own off Bishopsgate in what then, and to this day, was known as Clerks Alley. Whether that was a later purchase or a continuation of their thirteenth century holding we cannot say. When they did band together, they soon became a visible adjunct to the corporate worship of the City. Other trade and religious guilds attached themselves to a particular parish church, where they might maintain an altar or chapel. In their second Charter of 1449, the Clerks were described as a “confraternitie founded in the Chappell of Guyldhall”. That is to say that from within a few years of their creation as a formal Company they were inextricably linked to the religious observances of the Lord Mayor and Corporation. The chapel stood in Guildhall Yard, where now the Guildhall Art Gallery stands. The arrangement was mutually beneficial for both Lord Mayor and Clerks. The whole complex of the Guildhall, its library and the chapel were rebuilt on a magnificent scale in the first half of the fifteenth century . The work on the chapel had begun around 1430 and its dedication took place in October 1444. That is to say, it is exactly contemporary with the consolidation of the Clerks’ Company. The City Fathers already had the organisation known as the Society of the Piu attached to the chapel, who provided high quality music. We might not be too far off the mark if we imagine that they were also eager to ensure the highest quality of liturgical practice and keen to attract this body of known liturgical exponents to the chapel. For the Clerks, it put them at the heart of City affairs. Of all City Companies, they alone were seen as being in the direct service of the Lord Mayor. Even after 650 years, a trace of the arrangement survives in the presence of the Master and Wardens of the Company at the Lord Mayor’s election service, Common Council Service and Carol Service, all now held in the Corporation church of St Lawrence Jewry, the successor of the Guildhall Chapel. The 1440s were therefore the period at which the fledgling company came of age. In the year after the Royal Charter of 1442, the members of the Company were granted by the Corporation the honour of being admitted as Freemen of the City and they became central to mayoral devotions at the Guildhall Chapel and maintained there an altar of St Mary Magdalene, one of its patron saints, and in 1449 their rights were reinforced by a second Royal Charter. Around 1449 also they created an elaborate Bede Roll, commemorating past and present members of the Company, who were remembered at the Offertory of the Mass on major occasions of the Company’s year. Norman and Valerie James’ researches have shown that some names on the roll date back at least to the 1420s. It must therefore draw on earlier Company records and its creation seems to be part and parcel of the triumphalist resurgence of those years. For the best part of a century, the Company performed for the Lord Mayor what all contemporaries recognised as the acme of polished liturgy. Apart from their own ministrations, the Company maintained the services of two chaplains at the altar of St Mary Magdalene in the Guildhall chapel. There are indications, however, that in its rapid transformation, the Company had overstretched itself. In 1475 it sought a third Royal Charter. From then on the number of chaplains maintained at the Guildhall was reduced to one and, whereas the Company had been entitled to hold property bringing in £40 annually, this was reduced to £20. Nevertheless, the century after the consecration of the Guildhall Chapel represented the high water point for the clerks. As an assembly of minor clergy, their membership extended to the whole of London, Westminster and Southwark, for unlike the trade guilds there was no question restricting this particular fraternity within the City. The number of members listed on the Bede Roll amounts to nearly 7000. Only a fraction of these were working clerks. The other names consist of grandees, even royalty and senior prelates, who were content to have their names enrolled in the guild, but most commonly of ordinary men and women of London who were keen to associate themselves with the Company’s activities. In a period in which attention to celebration of the mass and in which due performance of a series of memorial masses after death became obsessive, to have one’s name added to the Roll ensured that your soul would be prayed for in perpetuity at masses of the highest elaboration. Henry Machyn, who chronicled the last days of the old religious order, mentions the clerks on frequent occasions and may himself have been a member of the Company. The Charter of 1442 laid down that the Masters – in medieval tradition there were two of them – should be elected on Ascension Day and that became the great feast day of the Company. Under 1555 he records, The xxvii day of May[presumably Ascension Day] was the Clarkes’ processyon from Yerdhall college, and ther was a goodly masse be hard, and evere Clarke having a cope and garland, with C stremers borne, and the whettes playing round Chepe, and so to Ledynhall unto sant Alboro [Ethelburga’s] chyrche, [and there] they put off ther gayre, and ther was the blessyd sacrament borne with torche-lyght abowt, and from thens unto the Barbur-hall to dener” . The early waves of reforming legislation of the reign of Henry VIII left the clerks, and indeed the religious observances of the City, untouched. It was not to last. As Oswald Clark has written, though London has suffered the Black Death, riots and rebellions, civil wars, religious Reformation, plagues, fires and two World Wars, the greatest disaster that has ever befallen the Company was the second Chantries Act of 1548. It was no less than the naked theft of the money and treasures of thousands of religious societies and institutions, even colleges and hospitals, designed by greedy courtiers and encouraged by a tiny group of advanced reformers keen to exterminate the whole concept of veneration of the saints and the liturgical solemnities that attended it. In London, the trade guilds, all of them fraternities under the patronage of saints, their halls and their arms smothered with religious trappings, rushed forward to point out that they were in fact secular bodies devoted to the regulation of their various crafts. Then, as now, there was no advantage in wrecking the trade of the City of London, and they were spared to continue to the present day. It was not so with the Parish Clerks. Their whole raison d’être had been centered on the most elaborate performance of all the catholic practices which were now being laid aside. Ominously, when the City guilds had been reorganised and numbered in 1515, the Clerks had not joined in. Perhaps they took the view that as technically minor clergy owing their office to their bishop, it would not be appropriate to join with the overtly mercantile companies. If that was their thinking, it was to be a dreadful mistake. The whole of the property of the Company was held to be devoted to superstitious purposes and therefore subject to confiscation. In 1548 the hall and the adjoining seven almshouses were granted to and seized by Sir Robert Chester, the Recorder of London. The clerks valiantly contested against the designation of their property as being for superstitious purposes and argued that they were just any other trade guild. Their Ordinances were approved by the Court of Aldermen. Like other guilds any breaches of the ordinances were referable to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen. For a short period they even regained possession of the hall but when a further court ruling transferred it back to Sir Robert, he promptly demolished it to avoid further debate. The clerks were defeated and their very existence could have come to an end. However, the Corporation and other Livery came to their aid. Initially, they were granted the use of the Bethlehem Hospital and to regularise their now uncertain legal position, the Company was reincorporated in 1553 under the seal of the Lord Mayor. Their role in the support of the catholic liturgy may have ended but at this bleakest moment in their existence, the clerks found new roles. The maintenance of parish registers had begun in the 1530s and everywhere had been entrusted to the clerk. From 1546 they were ordered to inform the Lord Mayor of the deaths of freemen. And in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation they added to this the responsibility for reporting to the Lord Mayor on the deaths in the capital. Occasional returns had been made as early as the 1530s but a severe outbreak of plague in 1563 must have reinforced the importance of such information. The maintenance of these Bills of Mortality, as they became known, now became the principle role of the Company. They were kept regularly from 1592 to 1595 and consistently from the great plague of 1603 to the middle of the nineteenth century. John Graunt writing a century later gives a good account of how the process worked. “When any one dies, then, either by tolling or ringing of a bell, or by bespeaking of a grave of the sexton, the same is known to the searchers corresponding with the said sexton. The searchers hereupon (who are ancient matrons sworn to their office) repair to the place where the corpse lies, and by view of the same, and by other inquiries, they examine by what disease or casualty the corpse died. Hereupon they make their report to the parish clerk, and he, every Tuesday evening, carried in an account of all the burials and christenings happening that week to the clerk at the Parish Clerks’ Hall. On Wednesdays the general account is made up and printed, and on Thursdays published and disposed to the several families who will pay four shillings per annum for them” . That was the model of how the process should work and throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth century it did work efficiently. The only break was a fortnight after the Great Fire when, without a printing press, a hall or, indeed, most of a city, the parish clerks were at a loss what to do. It is difficult to appreciate now the importance and high profile than that age before newspapers attributed to these weekly broadsheets. I have run just a little ahead of myself. In the Elizabethan period the clerks also took on another role. Before the Reformation, the liturgical activities of the Company had included the provision of church music and a number of distinguished church composers are known to have been members. The two decades after 1560 saw the demise of the parochial choral tradition. Church music did survive but only in the rarefied environment of the Chapel Royal and the cathedrals. In the parish churches, the services of the Book of Common Prayer were delivered said by the minister with only minimal lay involvement. Music was confined to the singing of the psalms and even that was no longer polyphonic but was conducted after the manner of Geneva. Settings were few in number and singing was rarely accompanied by an organ. It was the clerk who gave out the tune by singing the line, to be followed by the congregation. In many cases the whole psalm was sung line by line in this manner. It cannot have been a very edifying experience. It did, however, reinforce the importance of the clerk as a key member of the parochial team, coming below rector and curate but in status well above the sexton and searchers After the accession of Elizabeth, another wave of Reformation took place. Just as in her half-brother’s reign, all the trappings of catholic ceremonial which had been reintroduced under Queen Mary were cast out again. With the hardening of Protestant attitudes throughout the 1560s and 1570s, the very crest of the Company became the subject of adverse attention. The Bills of Mortality which were circulated throughout the City each week bore at their head the holy water sprinklers of the old religion. In the preamble to the new Grant of Arms, the old crest was described as “over much charged with certain superstitious devises”. The aspergillia so long associated with the clerks were dispensed with and their place was taken by a prick-song book. This reflects just how entrenched their new role as music leaders had become in the eyes of the citizenry. The Parish Clerks Company must have enjoyed a high profile role throughout the reign of Elizabeth. Unfortunately, we know very little about it. Company records for this period are very thin and no in-depth research has yet been done on what may lie within surviving parish records. From the early years of the seventeenth century the Court began to keep minutes and at last we have a written record of Company life. That record, however, is not attractive. The minutes reveal that there were many dissensions and rival factions within the Company. One of the earliest records, for 8 May 1610 reveals that it was ordered that a fine of £3 be imposed upon Robert Haxbee, clerk of St Peter’s Cornhill, since he with his Complices and Confederates “upon a malignant entent & purpose hath sondry times heretofore endeavoured to overthrowe the state of this Companie and doth still with all their power seeke the ruine and subversion of this Auntient societie & brotherhood, refusing to take his oath, to become a Brother or Member of this fraternitie & fellowship or to be subiect to the gouernment of the same as he ought to do”. What is going on here? It is difficult to know but it looks as if it is the problem that would beset the Company for centuries, of clerks trying to operate freelance and probably to undercut the scale of fees charged by their compatriots. Their income, generally known as Clerks wages, was always an important issue. From an early period, certainly when the first surviving churchwardens’ accounts begin in the fifteenth century, the clerks were maintained by a door to door collection among the householders of the parish. With the rapid expansion of households from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, particularly in the parishes suburban to the City, disputes over whether the new houses were subject to paying for the clerk became frequent. The Company was as fierce as any trade guild in maintaining fixed fee rates for their attendance at occasional services. Clearly, the position of the Clerks needed to be regularised and it was addressed in two further Royal Charters, of 1635 and 1639. The latter remains to this day the governing document of the Company. While the Parish Clerks had spent their time ensuring the security of their incomes, the first half of the seventeenth century witnessed a corresponding polarisation of views within the Established Church. The City, in particular, became renowned for having a number of parishes which were at the advanced end of the Puritan spectrum. Where did the clerks stand among these tensions? We don’t really know but clearly there must have been clerks representative of every viewpoint. At this point, I will give you a case study from the parish of St Clement Danes, a parish on which I have done some research. William Gastell became parish clerk of the suburban parish of St Clement Danes in the late 1630s. Only a few years before his parish had been a staunch centre of Puritanism but by now was definitely rising in its churchmanship. His rector, Dr Richard Dukeson was a firm supporter of the ecclesiastical changes being made by Archbishop Laud and in his church had was using a rich collection of plate, altar cloths and ceremonial. Gastell must have acquiesced in all of this as clerk. But within a few years all this was to change. By 1643 London had become an unsafe place. Gastell’s rector was imprisoned and later fled to Oxford. A new minister acceptable to the Puritan regime was installed. And all this time Gastell continued as clerk. He sounded out his Amen when the services were drawn from the Book of Common Prayer and later he presumably did the same when the prayers were drawn from the Directory of Worship. He played his part in the affairs of his Company and he was its Master in 1649/50. Throughout he kept the registers and when the specific office of Register of the parish was created in 1653, he was the man appointed to it. He was still in office when the Cromwellian regime collapsed. Once the royal authority had been restored, it became possible for deprived incumbents to reclaim their parishes. The parson’s freehold was, after all, legal property and could now be reclaimed through the Courts. After eighteen years absence his rector, Dr Dukeson reappeared within weeks. The king entered London on 30th May 1661. Ten weeks later Gastell was charged with buying two new books of Common Prayer for the church and by the end of August he and Dr Dukeson were again officiating just as they had done a quarter of a century earlier. For men such as Gastell, being parish clerk was beyond all else a career. Quite what his own views were, we have no idea. He and his fellow clerks quietly got on with their job. When, in August 1662, the clergy were forced to choose on whether to embrace the restored Church and liturgy, there were many instances of ministers having to leave their pulpits to the dismay of their parishioners. We hear nothing of any clerk resigning or being deprived for matters of conscience. And yet, there are just faint traces that some clerks may have entertained a warm receptiveness to the Puritan views so evident in pre-War London. Among the possessions of the Company which survived down to the 20th century was a well-thumbed copy of Fox’s Acts and Monuments of the Martyrs, bound in oak and bearing the date 1642. It was of course a standard work of the period and that it was popular reading among the clerks is not decisive proof of a particular viewpoint. More worrying is the sudden disappearance of the Company’s plate around 1643-4. This is the very period when large quantities of university plate were being surrendered for the Parliamentary cause, willingly from some colleges and less so from others. In the City, most parishes and livery companies held on to their plate, and in many instances retain it to this day. The Court Minute Books describe its disappearance only as “to supply the present urgent occasion of the Company for money”. For the moment, the jury must remain out on exactly what happened. The restored ecclesiastical settlement was barely in place when the Clerks faced the greatest crisis in their recorded history. Throughout the early part of 1665 the City was in great alarm as it watched the progress of the plague in Amsterdam, one of its main trading partners. It is said that it first broke out at the White Hart Inn on the corner of Wych Street and Drury Lane. Pepys records seeing houses there shut up through plague but the first area that was really ravaged was St Giles. Soon the plague was in Gastell’s parish of St Clement Danes. The register of burials shows how fast it took hold. In May there were thirty-eight deaths from all causes. In June the deaths rose marginally to forty and in July to forty-one. In August its was over one hundred and by September 172. An early victim was William Gastell himself, who as parish clerk was constantly exposed to infected families; he was buried on 30th June. By the end of the year the Company must have been heavily depleted. Perhaps around one third of the Court was dead from plague and we may guess that the same statistic may be applied to the rest of the Company. An Order of the Court of 30th October 1665 allowed “that for the future any person lawfully elected and Chosen into the office of a Parish Clerke, upon a Certificate signed by the Rector and Parishioners, may be admitted & sworne a ffree Brother of the Company as if he were licensed”, rather than having to show a licence from the Bishop. Presumably that means the diocesan administration had temporarily collapsed. Within months this traumatised and destabilised Company was to face another challenge. The Great Fire, as it was ever after known, began at 1am on Sunday 2 September at Thomas Farriner’s house in Pudding Lane, at the eastern end of the City. After a long and hot summer which had dried out the wooden medieval houses, a strong wind was blowing from the east. All the factors were therefore in place for this fire to do its worst. Of the parish churches of the City, St Magnus had been destroyed by 7am. By 8am St Margaret Fish Street Hill was gone. By 9am St Lawrence Pountney. As it was a Sunday morning, elsewhere in the City church services were taking place as usual. Most clerks, we may assume, were in their places under the preaching desk. For many of their parishes, this would be the last service their churches would ever hold. After they had come out of church, we may also assume that many of them gathered around their hall, now threatened by the encroaching fire. Someone had the prescience to strip the hall of its fittings. The Court Minutes survived. The iron chest of plate and money was taken to Stepney and not returned until 1671. The furniture of the later Hall was in great part pre-Civil War in date and unless bought later must have been rescued at this time. We know that the humbler items, such as pottery and cooking utensils, were removed because some survive to the present day. Even the stained glass was taken out of the window of the Hall. The only item that could not be removed was the printing press for the Bills, which was presumably too heavy and bulky to be shifted in the short time available. During the evening and night of that Sunday the flames crept closer to the Hall. The fire reached the end of Cannon Street at 5am and the Hall was consumed shortly afterwards. With it went the nearby halls of the Plumbers and the Joiners. When the Fire ended a couple of days later, 87 of the medieval churches and 44 livery Halls had been destroyed. What is remarkable is that the citizens set about rebuilding their City almost immediately. The planning of the new churches however was a slower business and of those that were rebuilt, some would not be finished for at least twenty years. The Parish Clerks, however, had specific duties in relation to their parishes and the responsibility for the maintenance of the Bills of Mortality. They therefore needed a new base very quickly. Work on a new Hall, now situated on a site in Silver Street, near Wood Street, began in 1669. From 1670 all new members were invited to make contributions, usually 10s or 20s. All other members were expected to contribute £3 and action was taken against recalcitrant members. The result of this drive was the new Hall, which opened in 1671. It was, in its way, the perfect example of a post-Fire hall for a minor City Company, quite compact but beautifully fitted in oak panelling throughout. Sensibly for a Company of limited means, the ground floor was let out as a shop, an arrangement which would continue as long as the hall lasted. Even at that time there was an organ; Lewis Burnett, the clerk of St Martin in the Fields gave three guineas towards “ornamentizing the case”. The organ was an essential item for the Company, for we hear that they were accustomed to sing psalms together for an hour before their meetings, no doubt as way of ensuring conformity to the correct chants. Indeed, the 1639 Charter required that “every Parish Clerk hereafter to be chosen or admitted into the service of Parish clerk in any parish church ... shall be examined and approved by the Master and one of the Wardens at the least of the fellowship of Parish Clerks whether he be able to sing the Psalms of David according to the usual tunes used in the said parish churches”. It would be interesting to exercise that obligation today. The Great Fire had created an additional problem for clerks. From the moment that plans for rebuilding the City were presented, while the ruins were still smouldering, it was clear to everyone that there was no need to rebuild the dense concentration of churches which had existed before. In the event, thirty six were not rebuilt and legislation was passed to unite many of the pre-Fire parishes. Where there were rectors, financial provision was made to pension off those whose churches were not to be rebuilt. But in new church buildings which were officially the church of two separate and united parishes, there could only be one clerk to say Amen at the end of the collects. In 1674 the Company sought Counsel’s opinion on what might be done about the redundant clerks but in the absence of a role or an income it must be assumed that most petered away into other occupations or poverty. With the loss of so many churches in the Fire, a number of clerkships laid down in the Charter went unfilled and would remain so until the twentieth century. But new clerkships were created as the metropolis spread rapidly to east and west. In the wake of the 1711 Church Building Act, another rash of churches was created and the enabling legislation of each one specifically declared that they should have a parish clerk and that he should be entitled to membership of the Company. London’s religious life at the start of the eighteenth century was particularly thriving, with the major churches providing a large number of services during the week. In 1709, Benjamin Payne, one of the Company, published a Guide, which went to later editions throughout the first half of the century, to the parishes of London and their services. With the completion of the rebuilt City churches, the Company was able to attain another period of prosperity. Small indications, such as the tradition erecting portraits of the Masters in stained glass confirm this. A few additional items of silver were added to the Company’s rather limited collection, for it does not appear that the losses of the 1640s had never been made good. And in 1718 a new chair was presented for the use of the Master, its back carved with the Company Arms and a depiction of a song book. But as the eighteenth century progressed a growing problem arose in relation to the membership. The rapid expansion in population meant that the number of parishioners, particularly in the large suburban parishes could be huge. Along with the income raised by Rector’s Rates, most incumbents derived a large part of their revenue from surplice fees, the charges laid down for the occasional offices of baptisms, churching of women, marriages and burials. Every parish had a set scale of fees and the clerk too was entitled a set fee on each occasion. This ought to have meant that the Company was filled with rich clerks. In the event, the opposite was to occur. From the early eighteenth century, incumbents began appointing to the position of parish clerk their curates. By doing so they relieved themselves of the obligation to provide for their curates out of their own pockets. The result was that these nominal clerks felt it beneath their dignity as clergy to join the Company, the deputy clerks were ineligible under the charter and the Company was therefore left with unfillable places and denied the income that would have been expected from fines if they had joined the Company. A complaint against the practice made by the Company to the Bishop of London in 1750 produced no effect. Given that those licensed as clerks were obliged by Royal Charter to join the Company, failure to do so was technically an offence, for it deprived the Commissioners of the Stamp Duty as the payment due to them. The Company used this tactic in 1757 to try to force recalcitrant clergy into the Company. The curates at St Augustine Old Change, St Martin Ludgate, St Anne Westminster and St Clement Danes were all cited but again without effect. A final attempt to force all clerks within the Bills of Mortality to join the Company was made in April 1832. The clerk was directed to write to thirty-one offending clerks, half of them clergy and including a certain Colonel Beresford at St Andrew Holborn and the Reverend Dr Anthony Hamilton, Archdeacon of Colchester and Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, who had appointed himself to his own lucrative clerkship. At the next Court meeting letters were read from Archdeacon Hamilton and another clergyman declining at present to join the Company. A Mr Leigh, deputy to Reverend Dr Gardner, wrote stating that the doctor resided on his estate in Shropshire and that it would consequently be inconvenient for him to attend the Company even if he were willing, which the writer doubted. Only one clerk, Mr Chapman of Whitechapel, was then admitted as a result of the letter that had been sent. This was the last occasion on which the Company attempted to enforce its Charter and the failure of the attempt revealed the Charter as a dead letter thereafter. There is an aspect of the role of parish clerks which, so far as I know, has not been explored by any previous author. That is their role as undertakers. It is an area that would repay further research for it appears that a significant number of parish clerks in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also operated as undertakers. For instance, William Ayscough, who presented the beadle’s staff head, was one. It should come as no surprise that the men who were effectively the registrars of the parish should use their position to work up an additional avenue of business. During the period under review, all parishes had a set scale of charges for the minister, the clerk, pall bearers, use of the bell or bells, use of the parish pall and particularly for the ground – ranging from the exclusive honour of interment in the vaults to the decidedly non-exclusive interment in the parish burial ground. Regrettably, this also meant that the clerks were deeply implicated in the scandals which arose in relation to the City burial grounds. The whole process was guaranteed to create an impossible situation. Unless high fines were paid, it was obligatory for every parishioner to be buried within the parish. The fees which arose formed a significant part of the income of minister, clerk and parish. Even if there had been a will to redress the situation, it would have been financial suicide to alter the arrangements. The result was that by the end of the eighteenth century London’s graveyards were full. And yet, further thousands of interments continued each year by using ever more offensive means to squeeze the dead in. When the scandal was revealed in the 1840s, regrettably the names of many parish clerks figured high in the evidence presented to the Royal Commission. In the first half of the nineteenth century a series of factors came together which seriously threatened the very existence of parish clerks. As we have seen, many of the Company clerkships were held by men who would not join the Company and who it was revealed could not be forced to do so. The income of clerks had always been precarious and depended chiefly on fees for occasional services. The scandal of London’s graveyards led to the creation of suburban cemeteries from the 1830s. It meant that this major element of clerks’ incomes was removed at a stroke. And from 1850 there began a rapid depopulation of the area within the City walls; there would now be precious few fees coming from baptisms, weddings or churchings either. The most visible activity of the Company, the production of the Bills was itself soon threatened. When, in 1807, Mr Lacon, clerk of St George’s in the East, failed to send in his returns, he was summoned before the Lord Mayor for his neglect by Mr Batt, the Master, “when his Lordship was pleased to reprimand and fine him”. Even then the activity was taken seriously and was protected. When further suburban parishes and district churches were built within existing parishes, in the 1820s, they were added to the official area “within the Bills”. But even by then problems were arising. The huge parish of St George’s Hanover Square, with a population over 50,000, ceased to make returns in 1823. It was followed in 1832 by All Saints’ Poplar and St John’s Wapping. Two years later St George’s Queen’s Square and St Bartholomew the Less also defected. By now the Bills were virtually worthless. They did not include dissenters, Roman Catholics or those being buried in the new cemeteries, nor did they cover the newer parts of London which were more extensive and populous than its ancient heartland. In 1837 the newly-created Registrar General began to publish a “Table of Mortality in the Metropolis”, which, based on death certificates, comprehensively supplied all that was lacking in the Bills. Nevertheless, in its conservative way, the Company continued to assemble and publish Bills of Mortality from those clerks who would send them in right down to 1858. The greatest threat to the clerks was more subtle. Changes were taking place in the manner of conducting the church services themselves. When the new district churches were erected in Lambeth in the 1820s, at Waterloo, Kennington, Norwood and Brixton, they were designed with traditional reading desks for the minister and clerk. By the 1840s, barely any churches were built like this. Classical architecture gave way to Gothic. All new churches now had a liturgical chancel, very often fitted with choir stalls and with a powerful organ backing onto it. In these new churches with their refined musical tastes, there was no place for the clerk to sing out his metrical chant and to shout Amen. In the new churches, there would be a stall on each side of the chancel for the incumbent and curate but nothing for the clerk. More insultingly, there might now be a place for them at the back of the church where, reduced to the situation of a verger, they might look after the congregation’s umbrellas. After the middle of the century, the number of new clerks who were properly appointed and licensed by the bishop, dropped drastically. The Company itself dropped the requirement of the bishop’s licence in 1861. By 1872 there were only fifty aging members and in that year all the parishes of London and Westminster were circularised, reminding them that they had the right to nominate a clerk to the Company. At this moment the salvation of the Company came from an unexpected source. A by-product of the Gothic revival was a highly developed interest in the past. By the end of the century antiquarianism and even the revival of long dead ceremonies grew exponentially. New men came forward whose interest lay more in the history and conviviality of the Company. The two hundred year old hall with its Wrennian fittings came to be treasured as a jewel. Interest began to grow in the Company’s history, culminating in the sponsorship by the Company of Christie’s history in 1894. These new men were all devout churchmen but were more often wealthy men from the City and professions. By the start of the twentieth century, the Company numbered among its ranks a handful of former Lord Mayors, something unthinkable in the seventeenth century. Now a trickle of gifts, of plate, paintings and furnishings, begins to the Company from men well able to afford them. After a century of keeping the tenets of the Oxford Movement at bay, the Company began to embrace the more lavish ceremonial which had by then taken a deep hold on the Church. The ancient custom of attending Divine Service at St Alban’s Wood Street, within which parish the hall stood, was revived on Ascension Day, May 29th 1919, when the Master, Wardens and Members of the Court went in procession to the Hall, preceded by the Beadle. Two years later they even borrowed the processional cross of St Lawrence Jewry after correspondence with the Archdeacon of London, in which he advocated the carrying of such a cross in procession “if it could be done without risking a row”. In 1922 the whole of the Members were invited to attend the Service wearing their gowns, together with cassocks and surplices. In the best tradition of the Edwardians, the Company also set about revivifying its ancient traditions and occasionally creating new ones where ancient ones were wanting. In 1912, realising that the Company still had in its possession the two Masters’ crowns dating from 1603, they decided that there had once been a tradition of trying the crown on the heads of various people present at dinner after the election until they reached the new Master, upon which all present would cry out “the cap fits!”. A similar tradition exists in other companies but who can say whether the Clerks ever did this in reality? All writers concur that to dine with the Parish Clerks at their hall in the inter-War years was to enter a magical Dickensian world. Apart from one gaslight, the hall was still lit by candlelight. Vast joints, cooked in a kitchen in the hall’s attic, were carved by the Master and Wardens. Alas, this world was not to last. As 1940 approached, the Company began to plan for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the 1442 Grant of Arms. Even despite the exigencies of wartime conditions, it was intended that there should be a year of celebration, beginning in 1941 and concluding on the anniversary of the grant in 1942. In preparation, they arranged for the restoration of the interior of the hall. Extensive improvements had been made in the early years of the century but now they had the historic panelling of the hall restored and a thorough redecoration of the interior. For the future, the Company had also purchased the freeholds of a number of adjoining buildings, intending in due course to expand the limited accommodation of the building. This was, after all, the period of the phoney war in which all the action was taking place in France and no particular danger was foreseen. A few weeks later the Blitz on London began. In anticipation of what was to come, the historic stained glass was removed from the hall for storage in the vaults of a nearby bank. Apart from that, all the other possessions of the Company remained in place. Some members of the Company were alarmed at the risk as the Blitz progressed. In particular, Dr Ernest Ebblewhite took copies of the inscriptions on the historic items, even to the point of making detailed tracings of the outline and engravings on items such as the silver snuff box, given in the early eighteenth century by Benjamin Payne, and the brass plates recording the restoration of the organ in the hall. To remove the items, however, needed the agreement of the Court and they were due to meet next in mid-January 1941. However, on the evening of 29/30 December 1940 the City experienced the first major air raid of the War. The Clerks’ Hall was hit and being constructed mainly of timber, it effectively evaporated. Apart from the plate and charters, which were stored in a bank, nearly everything else was destroyed. It was the most terrible shock for this small group of elderly antiquarians. And yet, with remarkable resilience, they clawed their way back from this disaster. Dr Ernest Ebblewhite was re-appointed for a second term as Master and during the following year he assembled such a large and comprehensive collection of records, that it is difficult to think what could have been lost. In the aftermath of the War, the Company seriously planned the building of a new hall. They even commissioned copies to be made of at least one of the lost paintings from a photograph, to one day hang in this hall. However, in the immediate post-War years, building materials were strictly reserved for buildings essential to the national recovery. The restrictions continued well into the 1950s. By then, the Corporation had produced a plan for creating a hug piazza by Guildhall, twice the size of the present Guildhall Yard and extending to Wood Street. The site of the old hall was purchased by them and the prospect of building a new hall slipped away. That brings us to the present day. The Company has, indeed, experienced a resurgence in recent decades. I began by asking “What is a Parish Clerk?”. He is, as we have seen, something of an ecclesiastical chameleon. He has been a member of the clergy in minor orders, the liturgical maestro of the medieval church, brandishing his holy water bucket and staging worship before the Lord Mayor as polished as any ballet; he has been the parish administrator, writing up the registers and producing the bills of mortality; he has been the exponent of parochial music, giving out the tunes of the psalms and booming out his “Amen”; he has been parochial undertaker, consigning his fellow citizens to the fetid graveyards of the metropolis and he has been the convivial antiquarian of late Victorian times enjoying his brandy and cigars in the historic surroundings of his oak panelled hall. As they have been for centuries, each clerk is still nominated to their post by the incumbent, and now also the parochial church council, of their parish. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds but even in the twenty-first century all clerks are united in serving their parishes as they have done for at least seven hundred years.

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