A vestry was a committee for the local secular and ecclesiastical government for a parish in England and Wales, which originally met in the vestry or sacristy of the parish church, and consequently became known colloquially as the "vestry".
For many centuries the vestries were the sole de facto local government and presided over local, communal fundraising and expenditure until the mid or late 19th century using local Established Church chairmanship. More punitive matters were dealt with by the manorial court and hundred court, and latterly the Justices of the Peace.
Their initial power derived from custom and was only very occasionally ratified by the common law or asserted in statute such as the Elizabethan Poor Law. At the high point of their powers before removal of Poor Law responsibilities in 1834, the vestries spent not far short of one-fifth of the budget of the British government.
In 1894 the secular and ecclesiastical aspects of the vestries were separated in local government reforms, by the creation of civil parishes and the vestry's secular duties have been performed in England since then by parish councils. Their ecclesiastical duties remained with the Church of England where they have been performed by parochial church councils (PCCs) since 1921. This secularisation of local government was unsuccessfully opposed by administrations of the Tory Party led by Lord Salisbury and several High Whigs politicians from 1895 to 1900.
A public right in the PCC (church council) context remains; that all members of an overlapping civil parish can speak at their annual PCC meeting (which may appoint churchwardens for instance). A right to tax by a PCC for church chancel repairs remains as to liable (apportioned) local residents and businesses across an apportioned area of many church parishes, in the form of chancel repair liability however in some areas tithes were replaced by no such further taxation.
The term vestry remains in use outside of England and Wales to refer to the elected governing body and legal representative of a parish church, for example in the Scottish and American Episcopal Churches.
The vestry committees were not established by any law, but they evolved independently in each parish according to local needs from their roots in medieval parochial governance. By the late 17th century they had become, along with the county magistrates, the rulers of rural England.
In England, until the 19th century, the parish vestry committee equated to today's parochial church councils plus all local government responsible for secular local business, which is now the responsibility of a District Council as well as in some areas a Civil Parish Council, and other activities, such as administering locally the poor law.
The original unit of settlement among the Anglo-Saxons in England was the tun or town. The inhabitants met to carry out this business in the town moot or meeting, at which they empowered or tasked men with various positions and the common law would be promulgated. Later with the rise of the shire, the township would send its reeve and four best men to represent it in the courts of the hundred and shire. However, township independence in the Saxon system was lost to the feudal manorial court leet which replaced the town meeting.
Assembly of parishes rested on land ownership, so increasingly the manorial system, with parishes assembled by lords of the manor in concert with local clergy and religious institutions by serving via a new church a manor, or more than one manor plus commons, barren land (waste) and land set aside for church benefit as rectory or vicarage lands (glebelands). Initially, the manor was the principal unit of local administration, common customs and justice in the rural economy, but over time the church replaced the manorial court as to key elements of rural life and improvement — it levied its local tax on produce, tithes. Much subinfeudation, division of manors and a new mercantile middle class had widely eroded the old feudal model by the early Tudor period and which changes nationally accelerated with the Reformation in the 1530s seeing the sequestration of religious houses and the greatest estates of the church, but also under Mary I and others a turning to the parish system to attend to social and economic needs. These changes transformed participation in the township or parish meeting, which dealt with an increasing variety of civil and ecclesiastical demands, needs and projects. This new meeting was supervised by the parish priest (vicar/rector/curate), probably the best educated of the inhabitants, and became generally dubbed the vestry meeting.
As the complexity of rural society increased, the vestry meetings pragmatically acquired greater responsibilities, and were given the power to grant or deny payments from parish funds. Although the vestry committees were not established by any law, and had come into being in an unregulated ad-hoc process, it was highly convenient to allow them to develop. This was convenient when they were the obvious body for administering the Edwardian and Elizabethan systems for support of the poor on a parochial basis. This was their first, and for many centuries their principal, statutory power.
With this gradual formalisation of civil responsibilities, the ecclesiastical parishes acquired a dual nature and could be classed as both civil and ecclesiastical parishes. In England, until the 19th century, the parish vestry was in effect what would today usually be called a parochial church council, but was also responsible for all the secular parish business now dealt with by civil bodies, such as parish councils.
Eventually, the vestry assumed a variety of tasks. It became responsible for appointing parish officials, such as the parish clerk, overseers of the poor, sextons and scavengers, constables and nightwatchmen.
At the high point of their powers, just prior to removal of Poor Law responsibilities in 1834, the vestries spent not far short of one-fifth of the budget of the national government itself. More than 15,600 ecclesiastical parish vestries looked after their own: churches and burial grounds, parish cottages and workhouses, endowed charities, market crosses, pumps, pounds, whipping posts, stocks, cages, watch houses, weights and scales, clocks and fire engines. Or to put it another way: the maintenance of the church and its services, the keeping of the peace, the repression of vagrancy, the relief of destitution, the mending of roads, the suppression of nuisances, the destruction of vermin, the furnishing of soldiers and sailors, even to some extent the enforcement of religious and moral discipline. These were among the multitudinous duties imposed on the parish and its officers, that is to say the vestry and its organisation, by the law of the land, and by local custom and practice as the situation demanded.
This level of activity had resulted in an increasing sophistication of administration. The decisions and accounts of the vestry committee would be administered by the parish clerk, and records of parish business would be stored in a "parish chest" kept in the church and provided for security with three different locks, the individual keys to which would be held by such as the parish priest and churchwardens.
Whilst the vestry was a general meeting of all inhabitant rate-paying householders in a parish, in the 17th century the huge growth of population in some parishes, mostly urban, made it increasingly difficult to convene and conduct meetings. Consequently, in some of these a new body, the select vestry, was created. This was an administrative committee of selected parishioners whose members generally had a property qualification and who were recruited largely by co-option. This took responsibility from the community at large and improved efficiency, but over time tended to lead to governance by a self-perpetuating elite. This committee was also known as the "close vestry", whilst the term "open vestry" was used for the meeting of all ratepayers.
By the late 17th century, the existence of a number of autocratic and corrupt select vestries had become a national scandal, and several bills were introduced to parliament in the 1690s, but none became acts. There was continual agitation for reform, and in 1698 to keep the debate alive the House of Lords insisted that a bill to reform the select vestries, the Select Vestries Bill, would always be the first item of business of the Lords in a new parliament until a reform bill was passed. The First Reading of the bill was made annually, but every year it never got any further. This continues to this day as an archaic custom in the Lords to assert the independence from the Crown, even though the select vestries have long been abolished.
A major responsibility of the vestry had been the administration of the Poor Law, but the widespread unemployment following the Napoleonic Wars overwhelmed the vestries, and under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 this duty was transferred to elected boards of guardians for single parishes or to poor law unions for larger areas. These new bodies now received the poor law levy and administered the system, and removed a large portion of the income of the vestry and a significant part of its duties.
The vestries escaped the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, which brought more democratic and open processes to municipal bodies, but there was gradual movement to separate the vestry's ecclesiastical and secular duties. The Vestries Act 1850 prevented the holding of meeting in churches, and in London, vestries were incorporated under the Metropolis Management Act 1855 to create properly regulated civil bodies for London parishes, but they did not have any ecclesiastical duties.
As the 19th century progressed the parish vestry progressively lost its secular duties to the increasing number of local boards which came into being and operated across greater areas than single parishes for a specific purpose. These were able to levy their own rate. Among these were the local boards of health created under the Public Health Act 1848, the Burial boards, which took over responsibility for secular burials in 1853, and the Sanitary Districts which were established in 1875. The church rate ceased to be levied in many parishes and was made voluntary in 1868.
However, the proliferation of these local bodies led to a confusing fragmentation of local government responsibilities, and this became a driver for large scale reform in local government, which resulted in the Local Government Act 1894. The problem of so many local bodies was expressed by H H Fowler, President of the Local Government Board, who said in the parliamentary debate for the 1894 Act....
62 counties, 302 Municipal Boroughs, 31 Improvement Act Districts, 688 Local Government Districts, 574 Rural Sanitary Districts, 58 Port Sanitary Districts, 2,302 School Board Districts ... 1,052 Burial Board Districts, 648 Poor Law Unions, 13,775 Ecclesiastical Parishes, and nearly 15,000 Civil Parishes. The total number of Authorities which tax the English ratepayers is between 28,000 and 29,000. Not only are we exposed to this multiplicity of authority and this confusion of rating power, but the qualification, tenure, and mode of election of members of these Authorities differ in different cases."
Under the Act, secular and ecclesiastical duties were finally separated when a system of elected rural parish councils and urban district councils was introduced. This removed all secular matters from the parish vestries, and created parish councils or parish meetings to manage these. The parish vestries were left with only church affairs to manage.
Following the removal of civil powers in 1894, the vestry meetings continued to administer church matters in Church of England parishes until the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1921 Act established parochial church councils as their successors. Since then, the only remnant of the vestry meeting has been the meeting of parishioners, which is convened annually solely for the election of churchwardens of the ecclesiastical parish. This is sometime referred to as the "annual vestry meeting". All other roles of the vestry meetings are now undertaken by parochial church councils.
The term vestry continues to be used in some other denominations, denoting a body of lay members elected by the congregation to run the business of a church parish. This is the case in the Scottish, and the American Episcopal Churches, and in Anglican ecclesiastical provinces such as Australia and New Zealand. In the American Episcopal church, vestry members are generally elected annually and serve as the legal representatives of the church. Within the Church of Ireland the term "select vestry" is used to describe the members of the parish who are elected to conduct the affairs of the parish.