In 1743 a new Archbishop of York, Thomas Herring, was appointed. Soon after taking up his post he wrote to all the clergy within the diocese, seeking information about the parishes they served.
How many families lived in the parish, and how many people were Dissenters? Were there any schools, almshouses or Nonconformist meeting houses? Did the incumbent actually live in the parish and if not, why not? How often was communion offered, and how many people received? The answers to these and other questions make fascinating reading, and give much incidental information about life in the rural East Riding in the mid 18th century.
At a time before population figures were collected on a formal basis, the returns provide a useful guide to the size of villages. The vicar of Bishop Burton, one of the larger settlements in the East Riding, wrote: ‘If those only are to be reckoned families where more than one dwell together, I have then but eighty two families; but if every single person who has a room or house to himself or herself must be taken into that number, there are twelve such, which will then make ninety four families in all’. Other villages were surprisingly small, especially on the Wolds. In Fridaythorpe there were only 22 families, at North Grimston 17 and at Helperthorpe about 15. There was ‘but one family’ in Cowlam parish.
There was little support for Nonconformity in the East Riding in the mid 18th century, with only a handful of purpose-built meeting houses or chapels (3 Quaker, 7 Presbyterian or Independent and 1 Baptist) recorded in 1743, in contrast to almost 400 registered a century later, when Methodism had taken a firm hold. Several incumbents in Holderness reported families with Quaker sympathies, and the sect had meeting houses at Owstwick and Hornsea. At Patrington, where there were ‘four whole families' of Quakers, and three individuals, a barn was used as a licensed meeting house, but when it was full of corn the meetings were held in the Market Place. At Bishop Burton two private houses were licensed as ‘dissenting' places of worship, one by the Baptists, the other by the Presbyterians.
Many children received no formal education at this date. There was a school at Sancton where both English and Latin were taught, but at Bainton there was no such provision, although two ‘poor women' taught a few children to read. At Sproatley money from a charitable bequest was used to employ a schoolmaster and a school ‘dame'. The boys were taught reading and writing, and the girls knitting and sewing! There was a small private school at Skirpenbeck, maintained chiefly by contributions from the parents of the twenty or so children who attended it.
In the 18th century it was common for clergy to be non-resident, and many incumbents held more than one living. In 1743 Richard Donn, curate at Seaton Ross, lived at Pocklington where he was Usher of the Grammar School. The rector of Burnby informed the Archbishop that he lived in the village for only 8 or 9 weeks of each year, in the latter part of the summer. The rest of the time he spent at Lord Burlington's chapel in London. The time he devoted to Burnby probably coincided with the few weeks that Lord Burlington spent at his country residence in Yorkshire, Londesborough Hall near Market Weighton. The vicar of Welton spent most of his time in Rotterdam, where he had another preferment. The return for the parish of Thwing was made by James Rudd, curate, who was also vicar of Kilham. He reported that the rector of Thwing had been resident until the previous Whitsuntide, when he went as chaplain on board a ‘Man of War', the Prince Frederick. At Ulrome the vicar was resident but chose not to live in the vicarage, a ‘low thatched cottage' which he considered ‘not proper for my family'. The vicar of North Grimston informed the Archbishop that he had been granted permission to live elsewhere, as there was no parsonage house, and the cost of building one would be too great. He lived at Wetherby, many miles away, and paid a curate to take services.
It was customary for the clergy to administer communion only four times a year in the mid 18th century. In many villages only a small proportion of communicants apparently received the sacraments. The rector of Burythorpe, where the church stands isolated in the fields, away from the village, was unable to recall how many people had taken communion the previous Easter. He was certain it was fewer than usual, ‘a deep snow having fallen'. At Westow the number was smaller than in previous years ‘owing to the coldness of the weather and the epidemic distemper that was stirring at that time'. The incumbent at Scampston, a chapel of ease to Rillington church, remarked that when William St Quintin (the local squire) and his family were in residence the number of communicants increased ‘by reason of the good example shown them'.
These are just a few of the more interesting responses made by the clergy to the Archbishop's questionnaire. For those interested in reading more, the returns are in print: S.L. Ollard & P.C. Walker (eds), Archbishop Herring's Visitation Returns, 1743 (Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series volumes 71, 72, 75, 77, 79).