[Illustration (upside down, by the way): PORTRAIT OF RICHARD HUNT THE RESTORER OF THE CLERKS’ ALMSHOUSES]
WOMEN AS PARISH CLERKS
A woman cannot legally be elected to the office of parish clerk, though she may be a sexton. There was the famous case of Olive v. Ingram (12 George I) which determined this. One Sarah Bly was elected sexton of the parish of St. Botolph without Aldersgate by 169 indisputable votes and 40 which were given by women who were householders and paid to the church and poor, against 174 indisputable votes and 20 given by women for her male rival. Sarah Bly was declared elected, and the Court upheld the appointment and decreed that women could vote on such elections.
Cuthbert Bede states that in 1857 there were at least three female sextons, or “sextonesses,” in the City of London, viz.: Mrs. Crook at St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury; Mrs. E. Worley at St. Laurence, Jewry, King Street; and Mrs. Stapleton at St. Michael’s, Wood Street. In 1867 Mrs. Noble was sextoness of St. John the Baptist, Peterborough. The Annual Register for 1759 mentions an extraordinary centenarian sextoness:
Died, April 30th, Mary
Hall, sexton of Bishop Hill, York
City, aged one hundred and five; she walked about and
retained her senses till within three days of her death.
Evidently the duties of her office had not worn out the stalwart old dame.
Although legally a woman may not perform the duties of a parish clerk, there have been numerous instances of female holders of the office. In the census returns it is not quite unusual to see the names of women returned as parish clerks, and we have many who discharge the duties of churchwarden, overseer, rate-collector, and other parochial offices.
One Ann Hopps was parish clerk of Linton about the year 1770, but nothing is known of her by her descendants except her name. Madame D’Arblay speaks in her diary of that “poor, wretched, ragged woman, a female clerk” who showed her the church of Collumpton, Devon. This good woman inherited her office from her deceased husband and received the salary, but she did not take the clerk’s place in the services on Sunday, but paid a man to perform that part of her functions.
The parish register of Totteridge tells of the fame of Elizabeth King, who was clerk of that place for forty-six years. The following extract tells its own story:
March 2nd, 1802, buried
Elizabeth King, widow, for 46 years
clerk of this parish, in the 91st year of her age, who died
at Whetstone in the Parish of Finchley, Feb. 24th.
N.B.—This old woman, as long as she was able to attend, did constantly, and read on the prayer-days, with great strength and pleasure to the hearers, though not in the clerk’s place; the desk being filled on the Sunday by her son-in-law, Benjamin Withall, who did his best.
[Footnote 80: Burn’s History of Parish Registers, p. 129.]