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The Early History of The Old Church House Wilshamstead

Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]
The Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a series of copied articles which seem to have appeared in the Wilshamstead parish magazine just before the First World War, presumably written by the Vicar (Richard Charles Whitworth) [CRT130Wils4]. This piece concerns Old Church House.

“Possibly to the ordinary passer-by that old tenement in Church Road, known as the Church House, conveys no thoughts of special interest. To his mind those several humble cottages may differ in no material respect from many others in the village, save that the rents and emoluments issuing from the former belong to the Parish Church, and not to a private owner. But in point of antiquity alone our Church House can claim an interest peculiarly its own for, next to the Church, it can boast a more ancient origin than any other building in the parish”.

“As to the name “Church House” it was so called not because of the fact it belonged to the Church, nor because the Vicar of the day resided there, which he did not, but because the name had a precise technical meaning of its own which connoted the purposes of the building, and which uncovers for the antiquary today a page in the history of “the rude forefathers of the hamlet””.

“Wilshamstead is no exception in its possession of a Church House. In the middle ages, in one form or another, it was an almost universal institution. It comes under notice in varying names, such as the Gild Hall, the Court House, or the Parish House, but usually, as in our case, it is the Church House. Some such building was essential to the social life of the parish. All the interests involved in the proper management of a village required some common hall where assemblies could be convened for the transaction of business, or the enjoyment of convivial hours or for mutual improvement or any other lawful meeting. In some instances the place was a room of two storeys, the upper used for parochial purposes, the lower let out to tenants. Sometimes there was land connected with the house, and the rent expended for the benefit of the Church – “churchman” and “parishioner” being in those days almost synonymous terms. This, generally, is the explanation of the existence of a church house in a parish, and the origin and history of our own confirms the accuracy of the description”.

“In our case the original deed of conveyance is missing. The earliest record among local documents is a deed of assignment [P22/25/1/1] by Sir Henry Cheneys and Charles Glenham to Peter White and others in 1572. To this indenture is annexed a schedule setting forth the uses, purposes, and intents of the Church House, viz: - The rents and profits are to be employed upon the necessary reparations of the body of the parish church of Wilshamstead, and of the Church House. With consent of Vicar and Churchwardens, the building could be used wherein “to teach and bring up young children in virtuous discipline, education and manners”, and, further, it was to be available for the parochians (parishioners) for ever, to have the use of the same house for their poors’ bridals, church ales and other lawful assemblies and meetings. Here then we have in our midst a monument of our forefathers’ provision of a self-supporting institution for the promotion of education, business, matrimony, domestic and public recreation, in fact all, which then as now, can make life worth living”.

“Among the old purposes of our Church House, as stated above, there is one that perhaps requires further remark. It is that expressed as church ales. In later times if Vicar and Churchwardens desire to meet their parishioners at some festive function (excepting coronations, jubilee reigns and other imperial occasions) they issue invitations to a parish or church tea, probably to be followed by a social evening and they have, up their sleeve, the hope of netting a surplus for some parochial object. Their forebears acted similarly, but there was this difference. Their tickets were not for admission to a church tea (that would scarcely have been practicable for that beverage was hardly known in Europe till the middle of the 17th century) but the guests were summoned to a church ale in the Church House, and in this case too there was the expectation of a profit, indeed generally there was a collection, for the common good of the village. So it came about that these feastings were then called church ales, as now we give them the appellation of church teas”.