Brief History of Parish Councils

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PARISH COUNCILS with thanks to Wikipedia and other sources!

In England, a civil parish is a territorial designation and, where they are found, the lowest tier of local government below districts and counties. It is an administrative parish, as opposed to an ecclesiastical parish.

Ancient origins

The division into ancient parishes was linked to the manorial system, with parishes and manors often sharing the same boundaries. Initially the manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice in the early rural economy. Eventually the church replaced the manor court as the rural administrative centre and levied a local tax on produce known as a tithe.

The Highways Act 1555 made parishes responsible for the upkeep of roads. Every adult inhabitant of the parish was obliged to work four days a year on the roads, providing their own tools, carts and horses; the work was overseen by an unpaid local appointee, the Surveyor of Highways.

The poor were looked after by the monasteries, until their dissolution. In 1572, magistrates were given power to ‘survey the poor’ and impose taxes for their relief. This system was made more formal by the Poor Law Act 1601, which made parishes responsible for administering the Poor Law; overseers were appointed to charge a rate to support the poor of the parish. The 19th century saw an increase in the responsibility of parishes, although the Poor Law powers were transferred to Poor Law Unions in 1834. The Public Health Act 1872 grouped parishes into Rural Sanitary Districts, based on the Poor Law Unions; these subsequently formed the basis for Rural Districts (Caldbeck Parish was in Wigton Rural District).

The parish authorities were known as vestries and consisted of all the inhabitants of the parish. As the population was growing it became increasingly difficult to convene meetings as an open vestry. In some, mostly built up, areas the select vestry took over responsibility from the community at large. This innovation improved efficiency, but allowed governance by a self-perpetuating elite. The administration of the parish system relied on the monopoly of the English church. As religious membership became more fractured, such as through the revival of Methodism, the legitimacy of the parish vestry came into question and the perceived inefficiency and corruption inherent in the system became a source for concern. Because of this scepticism, during early the 19th century the parish progressively lost its powers to ad-hoc boards and other organisations, such as the loss of responsibility for poor relief through the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The replacement boards were each able to levy their own rate in the parish. The church rate ceased to be levied in many areas and was abolished in 1868.

Civil and Ecclesiastical Split

The ancient parishes diverged into two distinct units during the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate become civil parishes as well. The parishes for church use continued unchanged as ecclesiastical parishes (the current Parochial Church Councils, as for St Kentigern’s Church, Caldbeck).


Civil parishes in their modern sense were established afresh in 1894, by the Local Government Act 1894. The Act abolished vestries, and established elected parish councils in all rural civil parishes with more than 300 electors. These were grouped into rural districts. Boundaries were altered to avoid parishes being split between counties. Caldbeck’s last Vestry meeting was in 1893 and its first Parish Council meeting was in 1894.

Boundaries of Caldbeck Civil Parish

Caldbeck was in Wigton Rural District. The civil parish of Caldbeck in 1894 also included Mosedale and Swineside, although the township of Mosedale had been included in the Penrith Registration District rather than Wigton for poor law purposes since 1837. Mungrisdale was in Greystoke parish. Subsequently Mosedale became a separate civil parish and then in 1934 became part of the present civil parish of Mungrisdale.

The Caldbeck parish boundary walk held every 21 years (the next walk being due in 2016) has traditionally followed the old boundary from Wiley Gill along the whole length of the Caldew by Swineside and Mosedale to Waters Meeting near Hesket Newmarket where it is joined by the Cald Beck rather than the present boundary which leaves the Caldew above Swineside and skirts below the summits of Knott and High Pike and then descends from the summit of Carrock Fell to rejoin the Caldew near Linewath.

In 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 retained civil parishes in rural areas and small urban areas, but abolished them in larger urban areas.

Powers and Functions

Typical activities undertaken by parish or town councils include (Caldbeck Parish Council’s activities are in bold type):

  • The provision and upkeep of certain local facilities such as allotments, bus shelters, parks, playgrounds, public seats, public toilets, public clocks, street lights, village or town halls, and various leisure and recreation facilities.
  • Maintenance of footpaths, cemeteries (the Parish Council provides a grant towards the upkeep of St Kentigern’s Churchyard) and village greens (in Caldbeck and Hesket Newmarket the Greens are actually part of the Commons and are regulated by Commons legislation. They are owned by Cumbria County Council and the Lake District National Park Authority respectively and are managed by the Parish Council).
  • Since 1997 parish councils have had new powers to provide community transport (such as a minibus – Caldbeck Parish Council and its neighbouring parishes support the Northern Fells Group community minibus), crime prevention measures (such as CCTV) and to contribute money towards traffic calming schemes.
  • Parish councils act as a channel of local opinion to larger local government bodies, and as such have the right to be consulted on any planning decisions affecting the parish.
  • Giving of grants to local voluntary organisations, and sponsoring public events, including entering Britain in Bloom.

The role played by parish councils varies. Smaller parish councils have only limited resources and generally play only a minor role, while some larger parish councils have a role similar to that of a small district council. Parish councils receive funding by levying a “precept” on the council tax paid by the residents of the parish.

Councillors and Elections

Parish councils are run by volunteer councillors who are elected to serve for four years and are not paid. The Responsible Financial Officer and Clerk is paid (for 8 hours a week in Caldbeck Parish).