East & West Molesey

A Dictionary of Local History

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1972

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In mediaeval times local administration was largely in the hands of the manorial lords. They, through their stewards, were responsible for maintaining good order among their tenants and keeping open the roads that ran across their manors. They held courts for the registration of land transactions (courts baron) and the punishment of minor offenders (courts leet). Serious breaches of the peace were referred to higher courts elsewhere. The manor court appointed an unpaid constable whose duties were not unlike those of the present rural policeman. The last court baron held in Molesey was as late as 1916.

By early Tudor times the manorial system was breaking up, and by a series of Acts of Parliament responsibility for local government was increasingly shifted onto the parish authorities, backed by justices of the peace. The parish officers had been the vicar and churchwardens whose functions were largely ecclesiastical, but in the middle of the sixteenth century an Act dealing with road maintenance added a surveyor of the highways, and by another Act in 1572 an overseer to manage the relief of the poor. Meanwhile the constable became by general consent a parochial rather than a manorial officer.

These officials were appointed annually at a parish meeting. They were unpaid and untrained ad the work was generally unpopular and perfunctorily performed. The parish meetings to which the officers were responsible, originally met in the church vestry, and were familiarly called "The Vestry". In later times the East Molesey Vestry preferred the more convivial atmosphere of the Bell Inn in which to meet, and the West Molesey Vestry the Royal Oak.

The 'Vestry' had very limited resources in the way of funds. It could levy a small rate for the maintenance of the church, and as large a one as necessary for the relief of the poor. Beyond this it had to struggle on as best it could with voluntary assistance. It could raise no money for road repairs, but by a mid-sixteenth century Act all adult males up to a certain age were required to give six days labour on the roads each year. This resulted in the rich simply paying the poor to perform their stint, and set a pattern which continued for many years. There were no funds to recompense the parish constable, though he was occasionally paid legal fees for delivering summonses, removing unsettled paupers, and appearing at the magistrates' sessions. There are records of twelve special constables being sworn in for East Molesey during the Napoleonic Wars. The overseer of the poor recovered his expenses from the poor rate, and it would appear that the poor rate was not infrequently diverted to cover costs not strictly incurred for the relief of the needy. To encourage reluctant parishioners to serve these local officers they were allowed to charge for their subsistance when on parochial business. Some did not stint themselves on this. The churchwarden of West Molesey charged 1.9.3. for his dinner when going to Kingston in 1797!

The officers entered their accounts into books, and these volumes together with the minutes of vestry meeting form the basis of parish records. Some records exist for both Moleseys from the eighteenth century.

This home-spun form of local government, controlled by numerous Acts and superintended by the local justices, continued until well into the nineteenth century. After 1830, however, reform was in the air. Various Acts set up local boards with powers to levy rates for the provision of particular public amenities. In 1834 the Kingston Board of Guardians took over the care of the Molesey poor. Under the Public Health Act of 1848, prompted by the cholera scare of the 1840s, the Kingston Rural Sanitary District was formed, and later a Highways Board took over the Molesey roads.

In 1866, after the population growth in East Molesey had created a demand for greater public services, the parish adopted the Local Government Act of 1858, which authorized the setting up of what were called "Local Boards", consisting of elected members and having full-time professional paid officers.

The East Molesey Local Board first met in the house of its clerk, John Cann, in Vine Road. Here he provided one room to act as an office for the day to day running of the board's business. With the needs of a rapidly growing village, by way of roads, drainage, street lighting, and paving, the accommodation in Vine Road became inadequate. In 1887 the board acquired premises for offices, a depot for vehicles, a store, and a fire station, at the corner of Walton and Matham Roads. The site is now occupied by the Walton Road Garage.

Meanwhile West Molesey, where the population growth was slower, continued under the administration of its vestry. Its main roads were maintained by the highways board, its schools by a school board, and its health was looked after by the rural sanitary authority.

By the 1890s, however, there had been such a proliferation of local authorities of various kinds throughout the country, that some form of rationalisation became necessary. This was accomplished by the Local Government Act of 1894. By this East Molesey was constituted an urban district, and West Molesey a parish within the Kingston Rural District. In the following year the two combined under one urban district council, the members of which were elected by the ratepayers. The offices in Walton Road became too cramped for the additional work, and in 1902 the council took possession of more commodious premises at Dundee Villa.

Under the Surrey Review Order of 1933 the Moleseys, the Dittons, Esher, and Cobham combined to form the present Esher Urban District. The Moleseys constitute two wards, each represented by five councillors.


Under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972 the urban districts of Esher and Walton and Weybridge were merged to form a new district. This combined district was named "Elmbridge", from the title of the old Saxon Hundred, in which it lay. Hundreds were the earliest known units of local government in the country. With one exception the old Elmbridge Hundred was almost coterminous with the new district. The new council took over its functions on 1st April 1974, and at once applied for, and received, the status of borough.

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