PARISHES AND THE RISE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Originally a parish was a unit of church administration, usually centred on a settlement like Dartford, with its own church and vicar, to whom the parishioners paid tithes and other dues. Various laws passed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries encouraged the evolution of the parish into an administrative unit controlled by townspeople rather than the Church.
THE PARISH VESTRY
The governing body of the parish was known as the vestry. Parishes already had the power to raise a church rate [tax], but further legislation gave them power to raise a rate to help the poor, and assist with the repair and maintenance of the highway, two areas which increased the role and importance of the parish vestry.
The lord of the manor of Dartford still retained some power over the local community, but these powers were limited to holding a manorial court, which dealt with minor matters connected with landholding.
Most parish vestries were open, in that any male ratepayer could attend the meetings and vote on important issues. Some parishes did not like this relatively fair and democratic system so they opted for the establishment of a select vestry, composed of local gentry, with no voting rights for ordinary local ratepayers.
The vestry appointed churchwardens, the parish beadle [define], and the overseers of the poor, the surveyors of the highway, and constables.
THE PARISH VESTRY AND JUSTICES OF THE PEACE IN DARTFORD
During the period 1500-1800 the parish vestry played an increasingly important role in the political administration of Dartford. This small group of men was responsible for all aspects of Poor Law administration, law and order, the maintenance of roads, the quality of the towns water supply, the implementation of fire precautions, the testing of weights and measures, and the collection of parish rates.
Justices of the peace were also important in the administration of towns like Dartford. Justices had the power to hear cases as well as to bring them. Meetings of the justices of the peace were known as Quarter Sessions (held four times a year). The Quarter Sessions had no power to deal with civil cases, but were able to deal with criminal cases such as murder, riot, theft, assault and poaching. From 1531 onwards justices of the peace also dealt with the administration of the Poor Law and from 1601 appointed the overseers of the poor for each parish. Petty Sessions were a minor court presided over by two or more justices or magistrates.