Churchwardens are lay officials who have been in charge of the routine running and maintenance of parish churches in perpetuity. Their records account for income and expenditure and there are some surprising entries to be found in churchwardens’ account books1.
An entry for the payment of 6d to 30 men taken by the Turks in the accounts of George Parker, churchwarden of the parish of Coughton in 1729, is one striking example. This sum very likely contributed towards a ransom for those captured by pirates, many of whom preyed upon sailors in the Mediterranean and beyond at this time. While this entry was unusual, other surprising entries such as those relating to the control of dogs and vermin were actually commonplace.
While this entry was unusual, other entries which may seem surprising today were commonplace. A payment of 4s 4d was made to Richard Shilton for whipping dogs out of church. The dog whipper seems to have been an important subordinate of churchwardens and his duties were apparently to maintain order among those sheepdogs and other dogs accompanying their owners to church and expel those who behaved badly!
Sparrows and urchins
Near the end of the list is a payment of 3s 9d made for sparrows and one urchin. This refers to the practice of paying parishioners for catching animals regarded as vermin.
The heads of animals and the eggs of birds were shown to the churchwardens and payment made. Crows, rooks, owls and sparrows were among the birds recorded together with foxes and hedgehogs (urchins). Later entries in the accountbook suggest that 2d was paid for one dozen sparrows and the same amount for one hedgehog, so this particular entry indicates several hundred birds.
Functions of the churchwarden
The other payments made by George Parker reflect the essentially ecclesiastical duties of the office of churchwarden: the upkeep of the fabric of the church and the provision of necessary equipment for the conduct of the services in church.
1 See, for example, the subject of this article. Available at the Warwickshire County Record Office under the reference DR690/3
This article was Document of the Month for the Warwickshire County Record Office in October 2009. Further articles can be found on their website.