In the last post, I hope I made a convincing argument that John, baptized Casborn in Orwell, 1721, is the direct ancestor of myself and many of today’s Casbons, Casbans and Casbens.
However, I pointed out one inconsistency in the records. John was trained as a cordwainer, or shoemaker. However, the man who was buried in 1796 was recorded as parish clerk. The essential question is, “could he have been both a cordwainer and a parish clerk?”
I’ll start by exploring the meaning of the word clerk and the historical background of parish clerks in England. When I first saw the term parish clerk, I saw it with my twenty-first century eyes, and assumed it referred to someone who was literate and kept various church records. However, the meaning of the word clerk has changed considerably over time, as have the duties and qualifications of parish clerks.
Clerk derives from the Latin clericus, which means priest, clergyman, cleric, or scholar. The English word clerk has had different meanings over time. Originally, it referred to “any one who took part in the services of the Church, whether he was in major or minor orders.” Over time, the meaning of clerk changed to refer to anyone who could read or write, then later to “an assistant in public or private business,” and eventually to “a retail salesman” and “an employee who registers guests in a hotel.”
Likewise, the meaning of the term parish clerk has changed over time. In early times, parish clerks “were formerly clerks in orders, and their business at first was to officiate at the altar.” The clerk’s main duties were to “to be able to sing; to read the epistle; and to teach.”
After the Commonwealth period in English history (1649–1660), the rank and status of parish clerks was diminished. “Now they are laymen, and have certain fees with the parson, on christnings [sic], marriages, burials, etc. besides wages for their maintenance.” Qualifications for the position included the following: “the said Clerk shall be of Twenty Years of Age at the least, and known … to be of honest Conversation, and Sufficient for his Reading, Writing, and also his competent Skill in Singing,” although the requirement for singing seems to have been optional. Parish clerks were generally nominated by the minister, and appointed for life.
Besides serving as an assistant to the minister, the clerk had a multitude of other duties.
He attended practically every service, keeping dogs out and people awake and collecting pew rents and customary fees. He wrote the accounts if the wardens and overseers were illiterate, made out fair copies of the lists of church rates, assisted officers in their collection, and was capable of dealing with intransigent Independents and Quakers, perhaps assisted in a town by a beadle. He collected tolls on sheep pastured in the churchyard (too sour for cattle), on those who hung their washing there and from those who set up stalls along the path on market days.
In small parishes (such as Meldreth), the clerk might also carry out the duties of sexton. “He was responsible for the care of the churchyard as well as the inside of the church. He looked after the vestments and the vessels, rang the bells, opened and closed the church doors and dug the graves.”
How does all this apply to John, the parish clerk of Meldreth? It suggests to me that he was probably a man held in esteem by the local vicar or curate, and probably by other members of the community. He was probably literate to a certain degree. Since Meldreth was a small parish, he probably performed many of the sexton’s duties as well as those of clerk. He would have been paid for his duties, though possibly not enough for a living.
This brings me back to the original question of whether John could have been both a cordwainer and parish clerk. There is nothing in the description of a parish clerk’s duties that tells me that the position would be incompatible with other occupations. Many of the responsibilities were carried out on days of worship, and it seems like the remaining duties could generally be done on a part-time basis.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence supporting the idea that parish clerks might have other occupations. The author of The Parish Clerk’s Guide (1731), when referring to “the poorer sort of Country-Clerks,” writes that “their In-come is so very small, generally speaking, that they are forc’d to employ their Time for Bread, rather than to have leisure to qualify themselves for the Business of a Parish-Clerk.” I believe this means that many parish clerks needed to work at other occupations in order to supplement their meager wages.
An example is given in The Parish Clerk (1841), in which the English novelist Joseph Hewlett describes his protagonist, Davy Diggs, as
a shrewd, clever, uneducated, or rather half-a-quarter educated fellow, who combined in his own person the trades and occupations of parish clerk and sexton—parish Sunday-school master—parish tailor—and, what suited him best, parish gamekeeper and parish fiddler
Clearly, the parish clerk could wear many hats!
I chanced upon further confirmation when I was looking through the Orwell parish registers. The burial of “John Lawrence Labourer and Church Clerk (my emphasis)” was recorded in 1755.
Based on these examples, I think there can be no doubt that John, the cordwainer, could have also been the parish clerk.
John wasn’t appointed as the clerk until relatively late in life. I learned this when I found the burial record for his predecessor in the Meldreth parish register. “John Green, Clerk of the Parish” was buried on January 29, 1782. If our John was appointed as parish clerk in that year, he would have been about sixty-one years old. By that time, it’s possible that his work of making shoes was occupying less of his time (or generating less income), or that it had been turned over to his former apprentice. The additional wages as clerk would have been a welcome supplement.
I’ll close with a famous painting, “The Parish Clerk.” It depicts Edward Orpin, parish clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon. Like our John, he was a tradesman, having been a cooper before assuming the duties of clerk. He appears to be a man of devotion and some prominence. I would like to imagine that John shared these attributes, even if he was of humbler means.
 “clericus (Latin),” WordSense.eu Dictionary (https://www.wordsense.eu/clericus/ : accessed 28 December 2018).
 Peter Hampson Ditchfield, The Parish Clerk (London: Methuen & Co., 1907), p. 16; online image, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011590202 : accessed 18 December 2018).
 “clerk (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary (https://www.etymonline.com/word/clerk : accessed 28 December 2018).
 Giles Jacob, compiler, updated by Owen Ruffhead & J. Morgan, A New Law Dictionary: Containing the Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law, 9th ed. (London: W. Strahan & M. Woodfall, 1772), n.p. “PAR” section, entry for “Parish Clerk,” imaged on Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.93143 : accessed 21 December 2018).
 J. Wickham Legg, ed., The Clerk’s Book of 1549 (London, n.p., 1903), p. xviii; online image, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001653725 : accessed 18 December 2018).
 James le Palmer,”Omne Bonum (Ebrietas-Humanus),” c. 1360- c. 1375, manuscript, Royal 6 E VII, f. 70; online image, The British Library (https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/welcome.htm : accessed 28 December 2018).
 Ditchfield, The Parish Clerk, pp. 61-2.
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 B.P., Parish Clerk, The Parish Clerk’s Guide: or, the Singing Psalms used in the Parish Churches Suited to the Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England and most other Special Occasions (London: reprinted by John March for the Company of Parish Clerks, 1731), pp. 20-1; online image, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=lBplAAAAcAAJ : accessed 28 December 2018).
 Jacob, , A New Law Dictionary, entry for “Parish Clerk.”
 “Parish Administration in England and Wales,” FamilySearch Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Parish_Administration_in_England_and_Wales : accessed 20 December 2018), rev. 3 Feb 16, 05:11.
 “Georgette,” “Church related professions,” Family Tree Forum (http://ftfmagazine.lewcock.net/index.php/volume-one-new/july-2008/413-church-related-professions : accessed 20 December 2018).
 B.P., The Parish Clerk’s Guide, p. 3.
 Joseph Hewlett, The Parish Clerk, Theodore Hook, editor (London: Henry Coburn, 1841), vol. 1, p. 23; online image, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000483146 : accessed 28 December 2018).
 Church of England, Orwell (Cambridgeshire) Parish, General Register, 1653–1805, burials 1755; digitized as “Parish registers for Orwell, 1560-1877,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007567608?cat=210878 : accessed 26 December 2018), image 326 of 695; citing FHL microfilm 1,040,543, item 9.
 Church of England, Meldreth (Cambridgeshire), General Register, 1682–1782, burials 1782, John Green, 29 Jan; accessed as “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007567609?cat=210742 : accessed 18 December 2018), image 66 of 699; citing FHL microfilm 1,040,542, item 2.
 “‘The Parish Clerk’ (Edward Orpin, Parish Clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon),” Tate [museum] (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gainsborough-the-parish-clerk-edward-orpin-parish-clerk-of-bradford-upon-avon-n00760 : accessed 28 December 2018).