The Vermin man of Bishop’s Stortford: 1569-1571

At the moment, I am knee-deep in postcards, papers and books relating to the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford, whilst I research and write my forthcoming book Bishop’s Stortford Through Time for the publishers, Amberley Publishing.  During my quest for material, I happened across a book from 1882: The Records of St Michael’s parish church, Bishop’s Stortford, edited by J.L Glasscock, Jun.  This book has verbatium transcripts of various manuscripts, which, at that time, were held  in the parish chest within the church at Bishop’s Stortford. These manuscripts included various churchwardens’ accounts – which start in 1431. My regular readers will know that I am just ever-so slightly obsessed with churchwardens’ accounts, having spent a great many years researching and analysing the Essex town of Great Dunmow’s Tudor churchwardens’ accounts.  Great Dunmow’s accounts start in the 1520s, when Henry VIII was on the throne and still married to Katherine of Aragon, and England was still a staunchly Catholic nation.  Bishop’s Stortford’s, although incomplete, start in 1431 – nearly a hundred years earlier, when the boy-king King Henry VI had been on throne 10 years, and the main protagonists of the bloody War of the Roses from the Royal Houses of Lancaster and York had either not yet been born, or were still peaceful law-abiding young men. Pretty impressive for medieval manuscripts – regarding the workings of a small English parish church – to have survived for so long.

Windhill and parish church, Bishop's StortfordWindhill and parish church of St Michael’s, Bishop’s Stortford in the 1900s

Unlike Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts – which were beautifully bound in a tooled leather volume – Bishop’s Stortford’s accounts were loose-leaved and lying scattered in the parish chest.  Amongst the churchwardens’ accounts were other manuscripts, including the “reckonings” (accounts) of the vermin catcher(s) for the years 1569 to 1571.  They make fascinating reading – so I have reproduced them here – exactly as J.L Glasscock, Jun, transcribed them over hundred years ago in 1882.

St Michael's church, Bishop's StortfordSt Michael’s parish church, Bishop’s Stortford in the 1900s

The Destruction of Vermin
The Accounte and Reconynge of me Edward Wylley of Stortford, Collectore of all man’ of veyrmane of ij [2] yeres past both of Charge and Dyscharge as here aftr folloth frome the xij [12] daye of App’lle in a° [i.e. Anno Domino]1569 to this yere of a 1571.

On the first page is what he terms his “charge,” which is an account of moneys received by him from various persons “at v [5] tymes;” he received altogether “lij.s. vij½d” [52 shillings and 7½ pence]. Then follows his “Dyscharge,” which consists of various payments made by him to the destroyers of vermin :

He paid for:

      • Hedge hoggs heads . 2d each
      • Crose [crows] eggs 2d per doz
      • Pyse [magpie] eggs 2d
      • vj [6] crose [crows] hedds 1d
      • vj [6] hawkys hedes 1d
      • xij [12] Ratts hedes 1d
      • 1 mowlle [mole] ½d
      • xij [12] myse [mice] heddes 1d
      • xij [12] starlyngs hedes 1d
      • a wysells [weasel] hede 1d
      • v [5] hedds of the kyngs fyschers [king fishers] 5d
      • a powlle cats [pole cat] hed 2d
      • 1 boulle fynches [bullfinches] hed 1d

During the two years over which this account extends I find that vermin was destroyed within the parish of Stortford to the following extent, viz :

141 hedgehogs, 53 moles, 6 weasels, 202 crows’ eggs, 128 pies’ [magpies’] eggs, 18 young crows, 80 rats, 18 crows, 2 bullfinches, 5 hawks, 24 starlings, 5 kingfishers, 1 polecat, 1,426 mice; and besides these there are 118 heads of crows, hawks, and “cadows” (jackdaws).

Note: “There used to be a standing committee in every parish for the destruction of ‘noyfull fowles and vermyn.’ The practice still exists in some rural parishes. But many readers may be surprised to learn that this object was formerly felt to be so important that the practical use of it already then existing in many parishes received the express sanction of general suggestion by statute. A committee, consisting of the churchwardens together with six other parishioners, is named with power to tax and assess every person holding lands or tythes in any parish yearly at Easter, and whenever else it may be needful, in order to raise a sum of money to be put in the hands of two other persons, who are to distribute it. And these distributors are to pay this money in rewards for the different sorts of vermin brought in. The record is curious, and interesting enough on its own account to be rescued from forgetfulness, if only for its bearing on the natural history of the country.” Toulmin Smith, “The Parish and its Obligations and Powers“, 1854 p. 232.

The Records of St Michael’s parish church, Bishop’s Stortford,
edited by J.L Glasscock, Jun, 1882, p156-157

Animals and birds caught by the vermin man of Bishops Stortford, 1569-1571Some of the English wildlife captured and killed by the vermin man of Tudor Bishop’s Stortford 1569-1571

As someone who was brought up listening to the bedtime English tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, The Wind in the Willows, and The Little Grey Rabbit – along with the American tales of Thornton W Burges and Old Mother West Wind  - I find Tudor tales of killing these creatures thought-provoking. Some, now as then, still vermin; whilst others are now much loved members of the English countryside’s wildlife.

Tudor Rat CatcherA Tudor Rat Catcher

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You may also be interested in the following
Index to each folio in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts
Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts: transcripts 1526-1621
Tudor local history
Pre-Reformation Catholic Ritual Year

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