Chelsworth Yesterday and Today
By this time in the early 18” century, the influence of the Lord of the Manor, though his Court Leet has substantially evaporated - to some degree, because the man himself is never here in Chelsworth. So the settlement of neighbours’ squabbles and of the occasional trespass or public nuisance has to be resolved in other ways.
Magistrates (Justices of the Peace) play a considerable part in these and other civil matters, as well as in the determination of guilt or innocence in criminal cases; so too does the Vestry and the churchwardens, in the absence of a local secular court. The villagers do indeed have their modest part in this, too, because they elect one of the two churchwardens - the other being appointed as the rector’s representative. They also vote for the appointment of the parish constable and of the overseers of the poor, as well as for setting the poor rate.
A handful of residents also contribute to the election of parliamentary representatives - freeholders alone have the vote in national elections, voting as much from party political affiliation as from personal preference.
Each of these functions is tightly defined and controlled both by statute and by local custom and practice, and underpinned by a wealth of documentation - ranging from the Rolls of the Manor Court and the parish registers lo the returns detailing the collection and distribution of the poor rate, and of course the assize records.
Today, villagers quite recently voted to retain their century-long grasp on day-to-day parish management within their collective hands, as a Parish Meeting, rather than delegate their powers to a Parish Council as neighbouring parishes do. This is a widely-supported philosophy, despite the fact that the powers of a parish meeting to undertake community projects are markedly less than those of the more formal body.
Under these arrangements, the only official post in the parish is that of the chairman - and even then that persons powers are only those derived from the Parish Meeting as and when it so decides. In practice, we also have a treasurer and sometimes a team of ‘helpers’ to assist the chairman, but these have no authority or responsibility.
For income, the parish has the power to set a precept, which is collected by the District Council and paid into the parish bank account half-yearly. These funds help to pay for parish administration as well as such things as cutting the grass on the road verges.
Three village trusts, covering the Victory Hall, the Sports Field and the Chelsworth Woodland, are administered separately under their own boards of trustees appointed by the parish meeting.
There is also a charitable trust in favour of ‘the poor people of Chelsworth’, the residue of two bequests by long-dead benefactors of the parish. The board of this trust reflects a longstanding confusion in terminology between the idea of ‘parish’ as a secular community, and that of ‘parish’ as the local organ of the established church, which at one time exercised powers in local government in the form of the Vestry (now the Parochial Church Council). The Nightingale Trust, as it should properly be called, has three church-appointed trustees, the rector and two churchwardens, while the parish meeting appoints only two nominees.