Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The 1817 duties of a Bromley Sexton

As I trancribed a volume of the funeral accounts of Dunns for the years 1816-1826 at Bromley Archives I discovered a single sheet of paper which contained the duties of a sexton.
Edward Dunn compiled the funeral accounts in this period and had carried out the funeral business  since at least 1803 when one Folio opens (Folio 1). Dunn was an upholder and I have previously blogged about the business of the upholder. From the earliest records of Dunn it is apparent that he was organising large funerals and elaborate burials often spending up to 3 days carrying a body to Hertfordshire or Sussex. This suggests a familiarity with all aspects of funeral business not a fledgling enterprise to accompany the trade since at least 1710 in premises in Market Square of his forebears in business in Bromley as drapers furnishers cabinet makers and in his era all of these skills combined in providing a complete funeral service.
The document identies several duties

  • to keep the church and pews cleanly swept and aired
  • to make graves and open vaults for the burial of the dead
  • under direction of the churchwardens to provide candles for the church and bread and wine for the communion and water for baptisms
  • to attend church during divine service in order to open pews and prevent disturbances 
The sextons salary was paid by the churchwardens and sextons fees were determined by vestry meetings. The sexton in Bromley "it has been held that if he be removed without sufficient cause a mandamus will lie for his restitution".
The presence of this loose sheet of duties within Edward Dunn's funeral accounts appeared at first curious. Fees paid to sextons for opening the catacombs of Bromley church or opening vaults within the church or digging graves outside are detailed and named individuals appear throughout the years covered.
The reason this document survives to this day is part of the turmoil in the parish in the last years of Reverend Henry Smith's life as Minister of Bromley.Smith served as rector of Hedley Hampshire and for 42 years as Minister of Bromley. He had a reputation as a heavy drinker without apparent signs of intoxication. He also loved to ride to hounds. Horsburgh in his history of Bromley records the occasion when Bishop Horsley of Rochester (resident at his palace at Bromley) witnessed him leap hishorse (and pack) into the highway and the Bishop forbade him hunting as unsuited to his duties as Minister.
Smith had for many years had John Dunn as Parish Clerk in Bromley but John became ill in 1814 and until his death his duties were faithfully carried out by Edward Dunn.In February 1817 a special vestry was summoned to appoint a parish Clerk in place of the deceased John Dunn. The meeting was told of the work of Edward Dunn for over two years and he was proposed as parish clerk. 62 parishioners were present including John Dunkin the Bromley Historian. Edward Dunn was unanimously elected and it was resolved by the Vestry that "the right of appointing a Parish Clerk is vested in the inhabitants of the Parish in Vestry assembled".There was only one dissenting vote.
Doctor Henry Smith asserted his exclusive right to make that appointment and he protested and also instituted proceedings in Doctors Commons. This in turn was referred to the High Court. The matter was heard before Baron Graham at Maidstone Assizes in March 1818 who found against the parishioners and in favour of Henry Smith who appointed William Bateley as Parish Clerk. The reaction of parishioners to the removal of Edward Dunn was on one hand personal and on the other to appoint Edward Dunn as sexton.
Smith was questioned in vestry about how many trees he had felled and benefited from personally but claimed he was too ill to attend to further parish business and when he died on 22 July 1818 aged 68 years matters were resolved.
As the surviving funeral accounts show Dunn kept the duties of a sexton record for later generations to see but two other persons are named as sextons in the funeral accounts as opening catacombs and vaults in the church and digging graves in the churchyard whilst Edward conducted the majority of funerals at Bromley both for poor house interments at the request and payment of churchwardens and for the town's inhabitants and the local landowners and gentry in the district.