Sarah Parker, fl. 1748-1769

Both Pauper and Parish Officer

Sarah Parker was unusual in two respects: she was a woman elected to an important, and lucrative parish office, and the recipient of generous poor relief at the same time.

A Poor Widow in a Wealthy Parish

By 1748, when Sarah Parker's name first appears in the records of the parish of St Dionis Backchurch, she was a widow. From 1751 she is mentioned several times a year until 1769. St Dionis, in the City of London is situated near the junction of Fenchurch Street and Lime Street, and was a well-endowed parish. Legacies provided by the wills of aldermen, merchants and other rich parishioners were available for distribution to the poor and householders, and formed a useful adjunct to the parish rates.1

Like many of the City of London parishes, St Dionis did not have its own workhouse. It paid out-relief to a long list of poor people, who remained dependent on the parish for many years at a time, even when the care of many of its paupers was contracted out to private a "pauper farm". Sarah was one of the poor supported by this out-relief. Her daughters also appear to have occasionally received payments from parish legacies between 1759 and 1762.

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Petitions for Relief

In 1751, Sarah Parker presented her first petition to the churchwardens, in competition with another widow, for all or part of Alderman Abdy's gift, which provided £7 10s for a "poor housekeeper" in the parish. Parker was unsuccessful on this occasion, but on 21 December the following year, again in competition with another parishioner, Thomas May, she was awarded £5 of the alderman's gift. This appears to have been her second successful application having been given £2 by a charitable association on the 17th of July. In the following year, on 13 March 1753, she was also the recipient of £2 10s from the £30 legacy left by Mr Lewis Mendez.

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Elected "Sextoness"

At the Easter vestry on 18 April 1754, following the resignation of the sexton and organ blower (who had been chosen ward beadle), four parishioners stood for election to the vacant post of sexton: Sarah Parker, two men, and the daughter of the former post holder. A show of hands eliminated one man and the other woman. A second show of hands gave Sarah Parker 42 votes, and Caleb Lee 41. The churchwarden seemed disconcerted by this close result and proposed another ballot to take place the next day. The result was the same, and Sarah Parker was declared "sextoness" from midsummer.

There was no specification of the work of the sexton of this parish. Normally a sexton deals with the maintenance of the church building and graveyard, grave digging, bell tolling and ringing, and, as in this case, organ blowing. It was a salaried post, with expenses paid in addition. The keenness of several parishioners to serve in this capacity is explained by the relatively generous salary. During Sarah Parker's time as sextoness, her salary and expenses, for which she billed the churchwardens quarterly, seldom fell below £25 a year.

She was not the first sextoness to serve the parish of St Dionis Backchurch. The office was frequently filled by a woman. At least four women preceded her during the eighteenth century:Mrs (Goody) Martin, Sarah Smith, Sarah Godwin and Susannah Wood. These five women held the post for a total of thirty-five years between 1693 and 1762.

Nor was the practice of appointing women to the role of sexton unique to St Dionis Backchurch. The post of sexton was the only parish office open to women, and women could vote in their election.2 There appears to have been a strong tradition of electing women to this role in the parishes of the City in particular. In January 1745, for instance, the churchwarden of St Andrew Undershaft reported the death the parish sextoness, Mary Baxter, who had served in this post for several years preceding her death. In her place the vestry unanimously elected her daughter, Elizabeth Baxter, who again served the parish for several years in succession.3 In St Botolph Aldgate, as evidenced by the overseers accounts, Elizabeth Curtis and Ann Elizabeth Poupard, between them served the parish in this role for the three decades following 1770.

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A Steady Income

From 1754 to 1760 Sarah Parker was re-elected each year to the post of sextoness without comment. In addition to her salary, she was paid between 4s and 17s on between four to six times a year for making "linen for the poor" - shifts and aprons, presumably for parish paupers receiving out-relief. She was also in receipt of other money from legacies and gifts, being awarded amounts varying between 2s and 4s about three times a year. There were also occasional payments to her from the sacrament money. In 1758, she was also paid a significant additional amount for cleaning and airing the church. That year she appeared on the parish roll of paupers as the recipient of 54 weeks relief at 2s a week (£5 8s.), the vestry having considered that her circumstances were "low" and because there was sickness in her family.

Poor she may have been, but she was a parish official and may have had privileged access to the churchwardens' ear. Catherine Jones, a disabled pauper who wrote a series of demanding letters to the officers of St Dionis, wrote directly to Mrs Parker in her capacity as sexton in February 1759. Jones begged Parker to present her case to the churchwardens since they were not responding to her requests.

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Meeting Resistance and Losing Office

In 1758 "several gentlemen" of the vestry accused Mrs Parker of neglect of duty for failing to ensure that the church pews were cleaned properly, and for failing to take care of the curtains of the organ loft. She was formally reprimanded by the churchwardens and promised to give no occasion for future complaint.

Further difficulties for Sarah erupted at the Easter vestry of 1761. On this occasion she presented her petition for re-election on three occasions, and while no one stood against her, no hand was shown in her support, and the post was declared vacant. A further meeting was called a week later, when she was obliged to stand against several others. The churchwarden procrastinated when the result went in Sarah's favour, and called for a ballot four days later. Again Sarah Parker won, this time with an excess of ten votes, and her position was confirmed. She offered "humble thanks to the Gentlemen for the great favour and goodness shown to her". Her salary and expenses continued to be paid throughout 1761, along with 2s 6d from each of five charitable gifts. She also remained on the parish poor roll at 2s a week.

In 1762, she decisively lost the election as sexton to John Iselton, another parish pauper, by 5 votes to 24. It was around this time that the parish outsourced its poor relief to a private workhouse in the parish of Christ Church, Spitalfields, run by Richard Birch. This may have altered the nature of the role of sexton and the work required. Parker's successor, John Iselton was asked to fill several roles for which Sarah would not have been deemed suitable. He was also parish warden and street keeper at an additional salary (and a special uniform), and later engine keeper. He continued in these offices until at least 1798.

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Continuing Relief

Following her loss of office, Sarah Parker continued to appear frequently in the parish records from 1762 to 1769. Each year she received amounts from at least two parish legacies, continued to receive poor relief of 1s 6d or 2s a week, usually appeared on the parish poor roll, and sometimes on the list of casual poor. There is no evidence that she was ever moved to either of the pauper farms with which the parish contracted part of its provision during these years. There were other payments to her from time to time, noted as expenses. Around 1764-5, besides her relief money, she was given the resources on at least two occasions to redeem her clothes from pawn, for coal, and for "physick".

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1 The most generous benefactor to the parish was Alderman Anthony Abdy (1579-1640), an East India merchant, member of the Clothworkers' Company and one time sheriff of London, who lived near the church in Lime Street. He owned land at Collier Row, Essex, which brought the parish a useful rent; Anthony-Abdy. Other benefactors included Sir Robert Clarke, Mr Wareham, Mrs Deane, Lady Osborne, Dr Tyson, Sir John Percival, Roger Tinndall, Lady Harvey.

2 As determined in Olive v. Ingram at Kings Bench in 1738, and explained in Hilda L. Smith, Women as Sextons and Electors: Kings Bench and Precedents for Women's Citizenship, in Hilda L. Smith, ed., Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 324-42.

3 London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), St Andrew Undershaft Vestry Minutes, 1726-1759, Ms. 4118 vol. 2, 1 Jan. 1745, p. 180.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

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