The Building of St Paul’s Church, Birmingham in the 1770s

The sources of information

There are three “books” that are the source of most of the information in this account. They are:- The Town Book of St Martin’s and St Philip’s 10 The Minute Book 1771 11 The memorandum notebook of Henry Kempson As the Victoria County History points out a parish was like a separate local government authority with responsibilities for the relief of the poor and for the maintenance of the roads. Furthermore the churchwardens were able charge a levy on the inhabitants for the cost of repairs of the church. As they were very much concerns of the Town these Vestry meetings of St Martin’s were written up as the Town Book of St Martin’s. By law there was an Annual Vestry Meeting on Easter Tuesday at which two churchwardens were to be elected, one churchwarden was nominated by the incumbent and the other by the inhabitants of the parish, in this case therefore by the inhabitants of the Town. (To this day anyone living in a parish can attend the equivalent of the Annual Vestry Meeting so long as they are on the register of local government electors). A typical record of an Annual Vestry Meeting at St Martin’s would include the election of the churchwardens and sidesmen, the appointments of surveyors of the highways, the submission of repair costs and the determination of the levy, then page after page of names and their levy. St Philip’s comes into it because its repair costs would be included and possibly St Bartholomew’s. One of the values of the book to this account is in seeing the names of the people from St Martin’s who were running affairs and who would eventually be the trustees for the chapels. The Victoria County History points out that it was in Birmingham that a distinction was made between Vestry meetings and Town meetings, when they were essentially the same. Meetings could be at the church, but if capital expenditure was involved it was a Town meeting and held in the chamber over the Old Cross, when usually about 25 people attended. A proposal for new chapels certainly involved the inhabitants of the Town and capital expenditure and so the first meeting to discuss the proposal was held at the chamber. Perhaps it was regarded as more than a vestry meeting, as it was decided to keep a special book, the Minute Book 1771. The frontispiece declares:- “Proceedings and Resolutions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Birmingham for Building one or two Churches in the said Town”.   It records the meetings up to the granting of the Act, and all of the meetings are held at the chamber. Then it changes to the meetings of the trustees for building St Mary’s, and the meetings are no longer at the chamber but at various hostelries. Strictly, it is no longer a Vestry meeting or a Town meeting but purely a trustees meeting, but the same book is used. What is recorded are, in the main, the resolutions passed, rather than minutes of discussions. There are many meetings without resolutions. The minutes end with the final meeting of the trustees of St Mary’s. There is no mention at all of St Paul’s. Fortunately, Henry Kempson steps into the breach. As secretary to the trustees of St Paul’s he kept a notebook with a great deal of detailed information in it. It dried up about a year before the consecration, but it is a valuable source of information. Other sources include the well known histories of Hutton 1, Dent 13,Langford14 and Gill 15, and Victoria County History for Birmingham online. Browsing Birmingham archives online has led to some surprising finds. It is tempting to try to estimate what, say, £1 in the 1770s is worth today, but different inflation indices can give a very wide range of answers. Instead, it may be worth quoting a range of incomes. The National Archives state that in the 1770s a labourer’s wage would be about 7 shillings/week and a skilled craftsman some £3/week, with an average of 17-20 shillings/week. Quickenden 16 quotes from a survey of England and Wales for 1760 which estimates that the average inn-keeper earned £100/annum, the average merchant £200, the wealthiest tradesman £400 and the wealthiest merchant £600/annum. At the top end of the scale the 150 wealthiest families had annual incomes in the range £6000 to £20000. This may help in setting the scene for appreciating the value of donations of say, £10 on the one hand, and of £1000 on the other.

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