After the Reformation and the Dissolution of the monasteries the lord of the manor had little competition from the church in the local administration of the county. Their greater wealth was shown by their magnificent new buildings and ostentatious style of living. They effectively controlled the countryside and educated their children to a standard better than their predecessors would have considered profitable.
Elizabethan villages were unquestionably insanitary, dirty and smelly places, and the mediaeval villages had been even worse. Plagues were common because water was used for washing only as a last resort. Many of the villagers’ occupations were hard and dangerous. At work and in school children were often treated with a severity which today would be considered outrageous. The death rate was appalling – barely half the children born in even the richer families survived infancy, and this state of affairs was still true in some areas until the beginning of the present century. However, even cottages began to have glass in their windows, a chimney to let out smoke, and matresses instead of bundles of straw.
Before the Reformation the monasteries had distributed alms and charity at their gates to the poor of surrounding estates. Even after the dissolution the church continued to do as much as it could, and the manors also made their contribution. In due course, however, charity ceased to be purely voluntary, for under the terms of an act of 1601 parishes were empowered to levy a small rate, based on the value of landowners’ property, to be spent on the relief of the poor. A healthy pauper could be set to work; those unable to work could claim this relief.
Justices of the Peace had already been given the power to appoint officials to see that the highways and bridges were kept in good repair. The Brent Bridge was one of the first to benefit from such legislation. All sorts of different local affairs were vigorously taken in hand by Surveyors of Highways and of Bridges, Overseers of the Poor, Constables, Churchwardens and other dignitaries.
At this time, and for some time to come, local government areas were co-extensive with ecclesiastical parishes. The Precinct of Norwood was already to all intents and purposes a separate parish though it could not claim the name. One manor’s demense was often conterminous with a parish, but by this time the authority of the lord of the manor was greatly reduced from what it had been in the Middle Ages. It was a slow but irreversible process that transferred the duties of administration and justice from the manor to the parish officers.