When Weston had church ale revelry

PUBLISHED: 14:10 24 April 2006 | UPDATED: 09:11 24 May 2010

This old print is of a corner of Weston now undergoing change. It show the recently demolished St John's School and also Lower Church Road properties, many of which have also been sent tumbling to make way for the town's new college.

This old print is of a corner of Weston now undergoing change. It show the recently demolished St John's School and also Lower Church Road properties, many of which have also been sent tumbling to make way for the town's new college.

Way back in 1699 the accounts of Weston's Parish Church of St. John included the following item: Pd. for a bushell of malt and brewing of it 5s." This was obviously a reference to the fact that Weston Parish Church, like others all over the country in th

Way back in 1699 the accounts of Weston's Parish Church of St. John included the following item: "Pd. for a bushell of malt and brewing of it 5s." This was obviously a reference to the fact that Weston Parish Church, like others all over the country in those days, held annual church ales.These ales were arranged in connection with dedication festivities and especially at Whitsun.The churchwardens bought, or sometimes were given, a large quantity of malt, which they brewed into beer and sold to the people. The money raised might be devoted to the cost of repairs to the church or held for distribution as alms for the poor and handicapped.In most places the celebration was held in the church house, which stood near the church. An old writer recorded: "In every parish was a church-house, to which belonged spits, crocks, and other utensils for dressing provisions. Here the housekeepers met. The young people were there, too, and had dancing, bowling, shooting at butts etc, the ancients (i.e. the old folk) sitting gravely by and looking on. All things were civil and without scandal. The church-ale is, doubtless, derived from the Agapai or Love Feast, mentioned in the New Testament."Unfortunately the church ales did not remain "civil". They developed into drunken orgies and got such a bad name that eventually they were stopped.Weston's parish registers are poor and particularly lacking in interest, but it is possible to glean from them some reflection of life in former days. The earliest surviving registers are dated 1668 and during the 11 years that follow there are only eight entries. They relate to the birth of seven children of Samuel Willan, the rector, and the burial of one of them. The death of one of his boys is perpetuated in a quaint memorial in the floor of the Parish Church, now covered with tiles, which reads:Of two brothers born togetherCruel death was so unkindAs to bring the eldest hitherAnd the younger to leave behind.May George live longEdgar dy'd youngFor born he asTo Master Sam Willan, Rector in this place, of Jane his Wife, Sept. 5th, 1680, and buryed Feb. the eleventh 1686. The 9th did put an end to all his painAnd sent him into everlasting gain.Another of the oldest memorials in Weston parish church is that to Peter Day, Yeoman, "who departed this life ye 28th July, 1695." A verse reads:His life was holyHe dy'd in loveHere rests his bodyHis soul's above.From 1679 until 1800 entries appear fairly regularly in the Weston parish registers. During this period of 121 years there are entries of baptisms in only 13 years, no burials in 17 years, and no marriages in three years. The population of the village in 1801 was only 108. There is a complete set of churchwardens' accounts from 1694 to 1819. They include details of the levying of church rates "For the raising of money for the repair and other necessaries belonging to ye Church".Payments for repairs to Weston's village church included: "Pd. James Haiden for mending ye bells and ironwork, 8s.; Gave ye bel carpenters to drink 1s.; Ite, for to sacks of lime to whitelime the church, 2s. 4d.; For washing the serples at Whitsentide ad cleaning the flagon and boule 2s. 6d.; Paid for to Silke tossels for the pulpit coochin 5s. 6d.; Pd. Nicholas Ricketts for going to Banwell to by a tree of oacke to mend ye church 10s."The earliest record shows but 42 ratepayers, and they paid very small sums, the contribution levied on the Lord of the Manor, Edward Gorges, being one shilling. The total rate realised £3 8s.Among the burials was the following: "1796, August 18th. A sailor unknown, washed up by the sea". In those days this was a frequent happening, and such entries are to be found in the registers of all the seaboard parishes along the Somerset coast. There were formerly hundreds of sailing vessels beating up and down the Bristol Channel to and from Bristol and other ports. The Channel has treacherous currents, rocks, and sandbanks, and shipwrecks were frequent. The first Flat Holm lighthouse, a simple coal fire in an iron basket, was not lit until 1738, and the early sailors had no modern navigational aids. At one time it was the custom for unidentified bodies found upon the shore to be buried just above high-water mark, but later Parliament laid down that they should be buried in churchyards. "Their expenses in so doing are to be repaid by the treasurer of the county .... The Minister, parish clerk, and sexton are to perform their respective duties at this as at other funerals, receiving such fees as are paid to them for funerals made at the expense of the parish."At one time Woodspring Priory maintained a hospital for wounded soldiers. Weston's old parish registers record annual contributions to it. In 1670 the Weston overseers levied a rate "after ye proportion of 1s. 6d. ye pound for ye relief of ye poor maimed Souldiers Hospital and other necessarys."Many of the entries relate to relief of the poor. The Backwell family appears to have been helped fairly often. There is the entry that reads: "Sent Joan Backwell by Will Lucky, Nov. ye 6th, when her arm was broke ... 5s.; Presented Mr. Leman a peck of samphire for setting Joan Backwell's arm 1s. 6d." (Samphire was used for pickle and in former days it grew on Birnbeck Island and in other parts of the district.)In 1722 Elizabeth Backwell had to be provided with clothes: "Item pd. for 2 yeards of sarge and one ell of collard linning for Elizabeth Backwell to bodie her gown ... 4s. 6d.; Item pd. for one ell of shagg to macke Elizth. Backwell a mantel ... 1s. 4d."In 1731 one of the Backwells died, and the parish not only paid all her funeral expenses but also footed the bill for the feast that went with it: "Pd. for a shroude for Mary Backwell 8s. 8d.; Pd. for a coffing 9s.; Pd. Robert Loude for a quarter barrel of syder 7s.; Pd. Thomas May for bread 2s.; Pd. for 14 pound of cheese 3s. 21/2d.; Pd. for a quartern of tobaca and too peniworth of pipes 6d.; Pd. for ringing the bell and digging the grave 3s."A statue dating back to Queen Elizabeth I's time offered rewards for the destruction of "noisome fowls and vermin." In this district the vermin for which rewards are shown in the accounts were chiefly hedgehogs, polecats, foxes, and "gravs" (badgers). Otters were also killed in streams on the moor.During 1729, 64 hedgehogs were killed, the churchwardens paying fourpence each for them. In 1745 Mr John Pigott, the chief landowner, objected to some of these items in the accounts and one of his comments recorded was: "I know of no law for ye allowance of 2 pence for Hedgehog and as they seem by this allowance rather to increase I don't consent any longer to this custom of payment".Remote village Weston relied on passing travellers for much of its news of world events. Some of these were penniless ex-soldiers or sailors, who no doubt told lurid tales of their adventures in order to touch local hearts and pockets. Some of the items in the accounts suggest that in doling out charity the wardens were sometimes carried away by these tales of hardship.Among the items were: "Gave to poore women which was undun by fire 1s.; Gave a pore woman that was tacken by the french 6d.; Gave a poor man which beged for his father in Turkey 2s.; Gave severall poor seamen 6d.; Gave a poor man which was wounded 6d."In 1708 the Old Pretender put to sea from Dunkirk to invade England with 5,000 men, but his fleet was scattered by Admiral Byng. The defeat of the Old Pretender is mentioned in an odd reference in the Weston records which reads: "1708. Ite, for a boock of thans that ye pretenders not landing in Scotland 6d."Following the great victories of the Duke of Marlborough, Weston's church bells were rung in 1713 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht: "Gave ye ringers ye day of proclimation of peace 5s."After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 Weston welcomed the first of the four Georges to the throne: "Paid for a Book of prayers ye fust of August 1s."An item in 1694, "Pd. the Muster Masters pay 2s. 6d." refers to the raising of the Militia. The muster master as the official appointed to raise the necessary men in the parish for training and exercising once a year.On the 6th August 1824, the churchwardens resolved that "the churchyard should be made level and to erect a roundhouse, stocks, whipping post, and pound in a field called "The Worthy," the land being given by J H S Pigott for that purpose." These have all disappeared. The spot where they stood was at the foot of Bristol Road.The stocks, incidentally, have been described as "A prison or place of security to keep safe all such as the constable finds to be night-walkers, common drunkards, and swearers, that have no money and such like; also petty thieves, strippers of hedges, robbers of hen roosts, and light fingered persons, who can let none of their masters' or mistresses' goods or cloathes lye before them; also wandring rogues, gipsies, and such as love begging better than labour."Weston had a whipping post and stocks long before 1824. An entry dated 1743 which reads: "Item pd., for ye painting of ye whipping post and stocks, 1s. 31/2d."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on October 21, 1966

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