The church was always the centre of village life in the past and much care was lavished on the upkeep and improvement of the building itself. Every parish collected a church rate and this was spent by the churchwardens – whose records provide a full history of their work.

Westleigh is a small parish just outside of Bideford and it is fortunate in having such accounts going back to 1707. The earliest are recorded in a tall, thin volume bound in parchment and now housed in the North Devon Record Office. They follow a simple two-part format where the first section lists all the ratepayers, where they lived and what they were due to pay whilst the second details the wide variety of items and services the money was spent on.

Thus in 1707 George Sherman and John Phillips were the churchwardens and they listed the 65 or so properties they had visited to collect the rate payments. Captain Cleveland of ‘Tapleigh’ headed the list with £2.8.8 (£2.43) followed by the Earle of Bath who owned Southcott and paid £2.6.0 (£2.30) and John Challacombe at ‘Weech’ who was rated at £2.6.6 (£2.33) This rate money was supplemented by a few other miscellaneous items of income including 6/8 (34p) from ‘breaking of ye Church for ffrances Greans grave’ – a one-off payment for opening a grave vault inside the church for a rich family.

Church expenses included the upkeep of the building and so 5/- (25p) went on ‘600 of Healing Stones at 10d p.Hund’ – such ‘stones’ being used for roofing purposes. Again 2/9 (14p) was spent on ‘3 Bushells of Lime and Carriage’ this presumably being used to whitewash the interior walls.

Other payments went to the bell ringers who, on November 5th, had the large sum of 13/6 (67p) spent on ‘meat & drink’ for them. One interesting payment is 7/6 (37p) laid out ‘for Beer the first of May’ which hints at the survival of old May Day fertility celebrations.

At the end of their year Sherman and Phillips passed over the residue of cash to two new wardens William Oxenham and John Galsworthy and the cycle of collecting in and paying out repeated itself. So for example the year 1708 saw nearly £10 going on ‘4 Sheets of new Lead for the Church’ plus ’81 lb of Soder’ (solder) though £1.15.0 (£1.75) was recovered by selling ‘old lead’ to the plumber. Odder entries include 1d ‘for killing 2 jayes’ and 4d ‘for killing 2 kites’ – such birds being seen as vermin.

In 1710 ‘Morice Congdon & Eight other Seamen belonging to her Majsties Service’ were given 2/6 to help them on their way – a type of payment ordered by the Government to help its impecunious soldiers and sailors to move around. In the same year 6d went to Mary Barkley ‘& Eight more yt (that) had been taken by the ffrench’ – presumably repatriated prisoners-of-war captured from British ships and then making their way home.

One of the most intriguing entries comes in 1712 when a long note details a dispute over rate levels. Some years before Joane Rudd had queried the rate charged on ‘East Dogeburrow’ field and had it reduced by 10/- (50p) a year. Later, however, it was found she had lied about it and so the rate was put up again. Later still William Hayman senior took over the land and he also ‘thought it too hard Rated & accordingly when he was in some Parish office (without the consent of the Parish) struck off the 10/- from that living.’ Corruption and sleaze are nothing new it seems – but what an odd place to find such skulduggery recorded. Who says history is dull?